By Saheed Ibrahim
I f you are familiar with Ilorin, Iwo Road in Ibadan, Matador area at Old Garage in Akure, and some parts of Osun, Ogun and Lagos States, your ‘everywhere you go’ sights will be that of beggars. Destitute and people who live on alms will greet you every angle you turn.
While you may be emotionally moved to ‘bless’ some with your hard-earned money, others may irritate you as they are without any physical or mental challenge but just stick to begging because it brings a lot of ‘stress-free’ cash. All they need are an appealing voice, prayers, a blue bowl and a strategic spot to stay.
If you are a regular international traveller and you fly through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, you can testify that the airport is like a replica of these areas mentioned above, only with some refined touches.
My first experience at the airport was not a palatable one. Weeks before then, I was at the Abuja airport. I never felt I was travelling under any pressure whatsoever. It was a matter of coming in, doing the right thing and going your way. Although some ‘hungry’ staff may be there too, I had a smooth experience.
While discussing with my contemporaries about travelling through the Murtala Muhammed Airport, those with previous experiences at the airport were doing ‘tufiakwa’, which, as we usually hear in Ibo movies, means “God forbid!” especially when something abominable happens. They said they preferred Abuja airport. What could I have done? MIA is the closest to me, so I looked forward to the experience.
They were right. Right from the moment my friend who accompanied me to the airport and I stepped down, the ‘billing’ started. Billing in the Nigerian context is the urgent financial responsibility placed on you by people, either close or acquaintance. There were two police officers when my Uber driver pulled up. As we stepped down, the two officers began hailing. ‘Bros, we are greeting you o’. I wasn’t surprised about police officers begging for money; it seems it is part of their ‘upbringing’ at the college.
As soon as I wanted to step into the terminal, there stood our Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) official with a mobile police officer beside him. He asked for my passport, which I showed him, but he told my friend not to go in as the terminal is only meant for passengers.
Being a ‘first-timer’ at the international terminal, I never knew this. I went in to drop my bags with those I was travelling with and then came out to stay with my friend. In my mind, I said, “I think a lot would be discovered here today.”
As soon as I entered and checked my bags in through the electronic scanner, the women, (there was a ‘mummy’ among them), asked what was in my bag. I only told them I had just clothes and shoes. They did not even bother to check; they only asked, ‘What did you bring for us?’ I asked her to repeat what she said because I could not understand. She asked clearly in Yoruba, what do you have for us? I told them I would be back to ‘settle’ them. “Don’t forget your promise,” the mummy among them stated.
I went out to meet my friend, a refined journalist and social commentator. The FAAN official at the entrance of the terminal beckoned to me. I moved closer, and he whispered, ‘Just find something and give it to my guy (pointing to the mobile police with him) so that your friend can go in’. ‘Wow! Naso dem dey do for here?’ I retorted in my mind.
We gave the mobile police officer N500, which was my friend’s gate pass. Several other people came in with their family members or friends and paid the gate fee.
I thought that was all, only for airline officials to take the baton of begging from FAAN officials for a moment. I was booked to fly with Delta Airlines. After several waiting hours (another topic for another day), I was told I would fly with Air France.
Aside from the Air France staff that was unruly and rude in his address to passengers, one insisted I ‘drop something’ because he is from Ondo State. He was staring at the visa on my passport and was smiling. His colleague was charging me to give them money for food. I guess the American visa on my passport made them smile and smile. I had to release the remaining N300 on me to them. Reluctantly, they collected it. Perhaps, when travelling to America, you must visit the airport with about N10,000 to pave way for yourself.
After three hours of ‘hanging around,’ because there were no chairs for passengers to sit, I went for Customs check. There was a FAAN official at the west side before we were checked on standby. This one is a silent beggar. He whispered, “So, what do you have for me?” I looked at his face and smiled. “I have given all I have to your boys,” I replied. He did not want to keep me in the line for long because passengers were many on the queue. He let go.
The Customs check was smooth. Those guys just did their job without any alms begging, perhaps, because they could easily be seen. However, I commend them.
Moving behind them, there you would encounter at least three beggars. A man in his 30s that checked my hand luggage desperately begged me to give him money. In my mind, I asked, “Is it my sweater or the head-warmer that made me look so approachable to these beggars?” I ignored him and went away.
Right after leaving him, about five men were sitting behind a long table. The oldest, with Osun or Oyo accent, beckoned to me. I thought he wanted to search my bag but only collected my passport. Seeing my name, he switched to Yoruba, asking several questions that had nothing to do with travelling. Afterwards, he said, “Wa kan fun Baba,” meaning give some money to Baba (him). I had to explain how I was ripped off every kobo on me by others. “Will I give the dollar currency on me to him? Never!” I was having some self-talk. I managed to collect my passport and went to the boarding area.
Beggars infest this place. To avoid them, do not use the toilets. The staff in yellow t-shirts will make you feel you are inhuman. I used two toilets because we waited until almost midnight before boarding the plane. You need to see how these people ran after me as if I stole their phones. “Bros! Bros! Give us something naa,” one of them stated frowning. Right before boarding, those checking bags and tickets also asked for cash. Gbrrrrr! It is disqusting, I must say.
Unfortunately, the airport is the first contact for anyone coming into Nigeria or the last place for anyone travelling out. Experiences at this critical place contribute to whatever image the country currently has. The management of FAAN has a lot of work to do on their staff. We all shout Nigerian police officers and bribe are five and six; you need to visit the Lagos International Airport of beggars to see FAAN officials and other staff there.