Monday, May 29, 2006

Nigerians in the eyes of our Southern brothers

By JOHN AWE, Lagos

Flying into the Johannesburg International Airport (JHB) at night has its rewards. You get presented with a breath-taking sight of a mega city spread out below you in millions of tiny, bright lights.

Household and street lamps of various hues combine to convey a pretty picture you wish could linger longer.

From thousands of feet above sea level, an eloquent testimony is borne to a painstaking enforcement of town planning rules and regulations.

You can figure out the long, straight stretches of major roads from the patterns of lights clearly visible below. You could hazard near accurate guesses as to where the estates are, judging from the cluster of lights.

"While the continent generally is not lacking in kleptomaniac rulers and
self-centred public officials, Nigeria was frequently used as a reference point
by many of the resource persons when the discourse was about graft and scam on
the African continent."

Of course Nigeria’s Power Holding Company is not reigning here. And so, there are no dark patches. Only an even distribution of what seems like an endless sea of Christmas lights.

But the joys of a beautiful view weigh very weakly against the reality of the risk of entering one of the most dangerous cities on earth at night, unarmed, unaccompanied, and with the wrong currency. The choice was not mine, anyway. The only flight I could find a seat on on the desired date was the Kenyan Airways flight entering Joburg well after midnight.

The Kenyan Airways’ Boeing 737 that flew us from Nairobi touched down smoothly and emptied us into the waiting hands of the Johannesburg’s vicious winter cold. The organisers of the seminar I was to attend had indeed warned that it was winter in South Africa and could be bitterly cold especially in the morning and at night.

I thought I was well taken care of in a suit, a thick shirt and tie. I was wrong. But the cold could only be a secondary worry, given that I faced the unsavoury prospect of traversing what seemed to me to be the entire length of the very violent city of Joburg to access my hotel that silent night.

From the advance map I got, the route cut right through the notorious Hillbrow, haven of hijackings and muggings; where, it was estimated, one percent of residents were murdered yearly! I was the last of 10 journalists expected at the two-week training that was meant to hone our writing skills and improve our knowledge of the continent’s biggest self-help project, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). The rest had all arrived from various parts of the continent some four hours before me.

A driver was commissioned to pick all the participants from the airport and drop them at Hotel Devonshire, overlooking the famous Mandela Bridge. It hardly mattered to me what monument the hotel overlooked at the time, though. The terrible thought harassing me was the possibility of the commissioned driver forgetting that there was one last person sneaking in like a thief in the night, in which case I might be left at the mercy of the thieves of the night.

My fears seemed confirmed when I came into the airport’s lobby where a thin crowd waited for the new arrivals and realized none of the names held aloft by the wearied hands bore any resemblance to mine. Neither, it seemed, was anyone remotely interested in me. That spelt trouble.

The Johannesburg International Airport had abundant payphones. There were card and coin phones. That would be a blessing only if I had coins or phone cards. A quick scan of the lobby for bureaux de change revealed that they had all closed for the day. The hall was devoid of its usual vitality and menace of taxi drivers hustling for passengers. A few of the taxi drivers remaining were uncharacteristically quiet and less intrusive. A few airport officials hurried across the lobby now and again.

I stopped one that looked like he had been on the job long enough to have an inkling how to solve a problem such as mine. “Are you absolutely sure the driver is not among that crowd?," the official asked pointing at a handful of men holding aloft some names. I expressed doubt about the driver being there, since my name was not on any of the placards they held.

“Trouble now is, all the banks and bureaux (de change) have closed. I’m afraid you may have to wait till day break”, he said as he made to go. Then he seemed to consider something, paused and asked, “Where are you from?” I told him and it seemed to me that my answer made him change his mind about whatever it was he had considered there for a moment.

I was almost sure that if I had answered him with Namibia or Swaziland for instance, his reaction would have been different. I sauntered to the pay phones and hoped that someone might come there to use one of them. After some five minutes, it seemed to me that that was not going to work. I remembered some souvenir coins I kept from my last trip to South Africa. I dismantled my hand luggage literarily and fished out 16 rand in the denominations of five, ten and one rand coins.

I felt some relief and headed for one of the pay phones. The Telkom telephone bureau (call centre) had closed some two hours earlier. I put in the five rand first. The unusual happened. The money failed to register on the LCD display, and as such, no call could be made. A local call was less than five rand to the best of my knowledge, but all the same, I threw in the one rand coin to make up six rand just in case the tariff had gone slightly higher. It failed to register. Okay, could I use another payphone if this one refused to make itself useful? There was something apparently wrong with it. I punched the refund button hoping it would spit out my precious coins so I could try the next coin box beside it. None of the coins would come out. That was trouble. I tried all I knew, no dice. I could not risk putting in the last ten rand coin. I continued to punch the refund button, hoping no official would come and accuse me of trying to pry the box open for its coin contents, something some characters were fond of doing in SA at less conspicuous locations.

A Good Samaritan saw my frustration and walked over to offer me some assistance. The phone would not be intimidated by the two of us. It held onto the undeserved coins. The gentleman, who appeared to be an airport worker who had just changed into mufti after his shift, then offered me the use of his mobile phone. He was at that point in time my knight in shining armour. I dialled the number of the agency responsible for our airport transfer. To my relief, a sleepy voice picked the call after what seemed like hours of ringing.

The male voice insisted one of the agency drivers was there waiting for me. Just to be sure, he asked for a minute to double-check. I held on while he confirmed that the man was actually there. The trouble might be that he was not displaying my name, he said. I thanked profusely the kind black South African who lent me his phone and asked how much he would like me to pay for the service, even though I had no more than ten rand to give him. He graciously said anything I gave him was okay. I handed over the ten rand coin I had left in local currency and he seemed happy to take it. He smiled broadly and went his way. I sorely wished I had more rand to give him.

Lugging my load behind me I went in search of the remaining couple of tired looking men waiting for the last set of arrivals to come out. None of them was waiting for me. But just as I was turning back, I sighted a man by the wall near one of the glass doors coming towards me.

“You would be John?,” he asked. “Yes, of course. Where the hell have you been?” was the natural answer I would have given the driver if I had directly hired him. But I simply answered in the affirmative and asked a couple of questions to confirm that he was the person I was looking for. Sure, he was. I felt a relief akin to having a ton of cement lifted off me. If I had not seen that man, I would have had to sleep on a hard chair in the wicked winter cold with no warm clothing.

I could not have risked taking a taxi at that hour in Joburg for the life of me. I happen to harbour the impression that South African Taxi drivers are more dangerous than their counterparts in other parts of the world. I have had a number of experiences to validate and revalidate this view.

The first experience was in 2001. I had roughly 50 minutes to change some money, make a payment for a friend on the same premises and catch a flight to Namibia. I called a taxi driver at the hotel I was staying, explained the challenge to him and asked if he could handle it. He said it was okay if I could pay him a premium above what the hotel taxis charged to the airport. I agreed to give him. He took me to the bureau de change and while I was transacting business indoors, he took off with my luggage in his vehicle. I came out to find he was gone. I called his number and he mumbled something about another customer calling him for a short trip. He promised to be back in no time. I had my hand luggage which contained my tickets, passports and other valuables with me, but I could not leave without the big bag which contained all my clothes and some shopping.
The cabbie showed up some 30 minutes later, uttering excuses and not a word of apology. We made it to the airport some 15 minutes after the counter was to have closed. The chap felt no remorse and resisted my move to deduct 50 rand from his fare. He insisted and collected his full fare. I could not wait for the mediation of the police because I was still hopeful I might be able to convince the airline officials to put me on the flight. The hope was dashed. Reflecting on the incident, I felt strongly that the cabbie had actually meant to make away with my luggage if anything of serious value had been in it. I suspected he had ransacked the contents and concluded that the money he was to collect from me was of better value than the junk he made away with. To this day I believe that was why he ever came back.

Second time with another taxi driver, we agreed on a fee and when I made the payment the taxi driver deliberately zoomed off with my change. Another time, a taxi driver took me to a destination and when I made payment he refused to collect it, feigning he misunderstood my English. He insisted he heard me make him an offer that was double the amount I offered him!

By this time I had concluded that SA taxi drivers were mainly crooks who thought nothing of bare-faced robbery. Nigerian taxi drivers are still better than this. They may fleece you if you do not know the terrain, but an average Nigerian taxi driver will not change the agreement after it has been struck and he will give you your change. You could imagine how happy I was to find the official driver to take me to the hotel at last.

The driver introduced himself as Doug. He was an Australian married to a South African. He claimed to have been at the Airport 10 minutes before our flight touched down, but just could not be bothered to display my name. He said he just felt he would know me. That sounded silly to me because we had never met before and he did not have my picture. I did not tell him how it sounded to me, but I prodded how he thought he could manage to do that.

“I know you are a Nigerian” he told me. But was there a unique way Nigerian looked in the eyes of people living in South Africa, I asked him. He replied that he had a lot of dealings with Nigerians, and he had even lived in Lagos for a couple of months. And as such he just figured he would be able to know me. I let it lie.

The trip to Hotel Devonshire, like I expected took us through large portions of Johannesburg. Doug, though aware it was not my first trip to SA felt very free to run commentaries on the scenes we encountered as we drove through the city that quiet night. It was a little to 1am and the streets were bare of human traffic. Vehicular traffic was very light.

At the notorious Hillbrow, the situation was a little different. We came across a little more vehicles, presumably conveying fun seekers retiring home from clubbing and having a nice time. There were women of different ages and sizes draped in heavy winter coats and caps lining most of the streets. Most of them were in high boots, mini skirts or hot pants. They looked longingly at every passing vehicle, apparently wishing it would pull up and its occupant would beckon them. There was one I thought could not be more than 12 years old.

“Very bad place!," Doug commented. “This is the haven of drugs and prostitution”, he told me. He went on about how Hillbrow was an embarrassment to South Africans, and how they would rather not have their foreign guests see it.

“Sadly, your kinsmen are the lords of Hillbrow. And no matter what the government does, they are simply waxing stronger”, Doug said with his eyes firmly on the road, apparently to avoid my gaze. There was an awkward silence. Then, he added that he happened to think that the entire nationals of a country could not be dismissed as bad on account of the activities of a few criminals from there. “I am not one of those who think all Nigerians are bad. No. I have been to Nigeria. My Pastor is a Nigerian. He is such a wonderful person. I have known some very good people from Nigeria since I became a serious Christian. But, not all South Africans have opportunities to see these good ones. All they see are the Nigerian drug barons who live big, drive flashy cars and perpetuate fraud and prostitution”, he explained. From further probing I realized he was a follower of Pastor Temitope Joshua of the Synagogue Church of all Nations, whom he idolized. He credited his salvation to Pastor Joshua. He was not a devout Christian until the Nigerian miracle worker went to Johannesburg for a crusade. There he gave his life to Christ. Now he was already training to be a pastor in the South African branch of the church.

“Pastor Joshua is a wonderful person. Just look at me telling you! You should tell me, right?” he asked, suddenly excited. I was not a fan of Pastor Joshua, but I was glad that in spite of the evil reputation Nigerians had assumed in this rainbow country, there was a Nigerian that this man thought was next to an angel. I nodded vigorously.

“He is a wonderful person”, I said, praying silently that he would never have cause to change his mind about this lone star in the otherwise dark firmament of Nigeria’s image. The remainder of my stay in Joburg was to show me just how terribly Nigeria’s image had slumped in SA since my last visit.

The following 12 days of conference and interactions at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) were full of incidents that would make a Nigerian wish his home government would appreciate just how significantly Nigeria’s image had deteriorated even among fellow Africans and do something urgent about it.

While the continent generally is not lacking in kleptomaniac rulers and
self-centred public officials, Nigeria was frequently used as a reference point
by many of the resource persons when the discourse was about graft and scam on
the African continent.

Even fellow participants whose country fared no better would gleefully draw instances from Nigeria when talking about humanity’s continuous slide into finance-related depravity.

For instance, midway into the conference, the organisers broke up the 10 participants into groups to simulate life experiences of practising journalists on the continent. One of the scenarios we were to act out in my group of three participants, a Ugandan, a Cameroonian and a Nigerian was how a journalist could tackle a corrupt government official in an interview. When the call was made for nominations as to who would play what role, the Ugandan blurted out: “John would be natural as the corrupt official. He can play Abacha!” I took exception to that and suggested he could play Idi Amin. An unpleasant situation looked set to unfold, but the more tactful Cameroonian opted to play the role while the Ugandan and I played journalists.

“Many people here see Nigeria as a country of fraudsters, and every Nigerian as smart and unscrupulous. They think every Nigerian is desperate to make money and will resort to anything to make it”, said a Southern Africa correspondent of a Nigerian media institution. “It was so terrible once that the Nigerian High Commission had to take out TV and Radio airtime and press spaces to debunk many bad impressions about Nigeria. Before then, when there was a robbery and a foreigner was involved, the authorities would go ahead and announce that a Nigerian was caught robbing people even before they found out where the person was truly from”, he said.

The writers of 419 letters from Nigeria have apparently not helped matters. At the rate people in SA receive these scam emails, they think it is all Nigerians do. And apart from the letters, a number of Nigerians were reported to have played fast tricks on some prominent South Africans, leaving them feeling like fools.

A local tale I picked up while there even has it that some smart Nigerians took advantage of a high-ranking SA government official in 2002 or so. Someone reportedly called the SA government, claiming to be Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. The caller said his son would be coming to South Africa soon and asked SA government to extend its hospitality to his boy. Not wanting to offend an African head of state - and not bothering to check the call - the officials reportedly went out of their way to look after "Obasanjo's son" and his entourage when they arrived. Having lived the life of royalty for a couple of days, the Nigerians vanished. The officials panicked and phoned Lagos - only to be told that the real president's sons had been in Nigeria the whole week. Stories like this abound in SA.

Consequently when anyone shows up at the JHB wielding a green passport, SA operatives would almost openly ask him what the game is all about this time. It is difficult for many of them to believe there is a dignified Nigerian. This probably explains the predicament of Professor Wole Soyinka who was detained at the airport for about five hours last year. He was invited to deliver a lecture, but the officials insisted his papers were irregular. Barely after surviving that humiliation, a South African calling into a live radio programme called the Nobel Laureate a moron on air simply because he expressed his views about the treatment Robert Mugabe was meting out to his own kinsmen in Zimbabwe.

In 2003, another distinguished Nigerian; Chief Emeka Anyaoku delivered a brilliant lecture in the memory of the Pan Africanist and ANC chieftain, Oliver Thambo at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in Pretoria and received a standing ovation. At question time, a dreadlocked South African student stood to ask a question not remotely connected to the subject of discourse. He cleared his throat and asked: “How do you plan to restore the integrity of Nigerians”.

The guest speaker, monetarily thrown off balance recovered quickly to state that he was not aware the integrity of Nigerians had been stolen, and as such there could not be a talk of restoring what was not lost.

In both instances, it was not about the distinguished individuals insulted. It was about the country they came from and their fellow country men. A report by Mark Shaw, Research Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs, entitled “Towards an understanding of West African criminal networks in Southern Africa” as far back as 2001 acknowledged “apparent strongly held xenophobic views among ordinary South Africans for people from West Africa”. And as the researcher pointed out elsewhere in the report, ‘people from West Africa’ is a diplomatic way of referring to Nigerians by SA crime researchers.

“What exactly is it with Nigerians that they generate so much animosity?” Bridget, a bespectacled, elegant white South African at the front desk of a travel agency in Pretoria asked me as we struck a conversation after purchasing a ticket. “It beats me. They have to struggle for everything. They have to struggle for visas even to African countries”.

She said her company stopped processing visas for Nigerians many years back because when they took 100 applications of different nationalities to the embassies, 99 would go in smoothly, while the only Nigerian passport would be refused visa. “Why do Nigerians have to struggle for everything?”, she asked, not really expecting any answer.

Even if she was, I had none. Her question came to me as the Kenyan Airways flight that brought me back approached the Murtala Mohammed International Airport a few days later. Perhaps the answer lay in the chaotic distribution of built structures visible from a few kilometres above sea level; the rusty roofing sheets of the houses and the hideous yellow painted buses, cockroaching through gullied roads; the conveyor belt that would not work 30 minutes after passport control rituals; the trolley attendant that insisted you pay N100 to use a squeaky trolley when elegant ones you used in Joburg were free. The answer lay everywhere.

1 comment:

Titus said...

Very insighful. Very interesting. But how sad!