Someone had to do the hard work of attending the World Economic Forum in Abuja last week. Yours truly braved the odds and made it out alive. My summary of the event will be up at Republica shortly. Don’t hold your breath though, nothing terribly exciting to report.
1. Almost all my friends in Lagos have drivers. The reverse is the case in Abuja – with the exception of one friend of mine, everyone drove themselves. I also found the use of GPS navigation systems around Abuja quite interesting. I am one of the laziest drivers around and use my SatNav here even to places I have been to before, just to be sure I don’t get lost. I think it’s a good habit and aids discovery of new places or at least removes the fear of visiting new places.
2. Lagos is a godawful mess. I don’t know why I noticed it this time around but the city is truly filthy. I went to visit with family in Surulere and I didn’t have a car to leave there. The road has only recently been paved with interlocking stones so I decided to walk down when leaving until I could find a cab. I walked less than 200 metres and I felt like I was covered in grime.
Part of the problem is that there’s not enough regeneration going on in Lagos. Many places look exactly the same as they have done my entire life. I strongly believe this is linked to our Land Use Act which makes it difficult to have an active market in land or perhaps allows Governors to erect as many roadblocks as they like to the formation of a market. There are whole areas of the town which need to be razed down and rebuilt but when transaction costs of buying property can come to 30% when is that ever going to happen?
That any serious economic activity takes place in Lagos inspite of the chaos is indeed an awesome wonder.
3. Every man and his dog knows that the cost of doing business in Nigeria is a real problem. What is less clear is what exactly are the kind of costs one might encounter in carrying out business in Nigeria.
My friend Mr. O is an entrepreneur twice over. Hear him:
We spent almost N1.5m on our new generator. The day they were going to deliver it to the office in a truck, my partner called me to say they had been stopped by police who were demanding N30k as washing for the new generator. We knew that area boys were ahead and were going to harass us for their own money too so we quickly negotiated the police price down to N10k and insisted that they escorted us to our office and wait with us while we offloaded it into the compound.
The area boys still came after the police had left but by that time we were able to get away with only paying them N10k.
One time we went to do a photo shoot for an advert and area boys came and seized our cameras. We had to pay to bail them out.
He was able to achieve a N10k saving on his generator transportation and installation costs. In a way, by cleverly playing off the police against the area boys, he was helping Nigeria’s ranking on the World Bank Doing Business Report by reducing the cost of doing business in the country.
4. On Boko Haram – a couple of things I overheard
Some British guys who are doing some work in the North East say Boko Haram are getting arms deliveries via helicopters painted in yellow and black. Where are these helicopters from? Who knows
Some of the soldiers fighting Boko Haram have said they have seen some of their former colleagues that were trained in Gombe fighting against them as Boko Haram. Some have even reported seeing former militants from the Niger Delta fighting on the side of Boko Haram.
Perhaps Boko is not always Haram.
I also heard about a relation of General Buba Marwa who is in the army. Apparently his unit in Borno came under attack by Boko Haram and only him and another soldier managed to survive by diving into a stream while the insurgents fired shots inside the water. But in the Nigerian way, he has since been arrested and has been kept in detention to answer how it was that he did not die in the attack.
I cant seem to find anything about this story online so if anyone has any detail on this story (if true) please use the comments section. I understand General Marwa has publicly spoken about it.
5. Yours truly is a trenchant critic of President Jonathan. But to maintain credibility, one must give him credit when he gets something right.
I am not exactly sure how he did it but he was definitely the one who brought jogging to Nigeria. An early morning drive around Lagos and you will see people everywhere jogging and exercise. To the point where, in typical Nigerian fashion, joggers stand in the middle of the road and tell cars to move for them.
This can never be a bad thing so we commend the President on this transformation. Since we are on the subject of President Jonathan….
[Sidebar: On Jonathanism]
Observing President Jonathan at very close quarters for 2 days in Abuja was quite revealing. It is one thing to listen to him or read his words, it is quite another to hear him in the flesh. What is clear is that his grasp of issues is extremely and painfully limited. There is no evidence of any depth to the things he says at all.
Yet, that need not be a permanent problem – it can be overcome by better preparation as many world leaders have been known to do. This is where the problem is compounded – he clearly does not spend time preparing for his public appearances.
2 examples from his speech at the opening plenary – With the Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, sitting right beside him, he said the population of China is ‘1.2 billion or 1.3 billion’. Actually, the population of China is now at 1.36bn. The difference he casually uttered is easily more than Nigeria’s population. Yet, a simple search could have prepared him for this if he needed to make reference to it at all. Is this the fault of his aides? Perhaps, but then for a PhD where is the curiosity?
He also said Nigeria is trying to copy Bolsa Familia from Brazil and then bizarrely added ‘I don’t know the correct pronunciation’. Why? This was an interesting revelation because in 2012, his Senior Special Assistant on MDGs, Dr Precious Gbeneol, said they were ‘considering‘ adopting this same Bolsa Familia programme after a tour of Brazil. 2 years later we are ‘trying’ to adopt it and the President doesn’t even know the correct pronunciation.
All the recent remarks credited to him – Nigerians are not poor because we have private jets and corruption is not corruption but mere stealing – for which he was ridiculed were repeated at WEF. He also added a new one when he said – in trying to cast doubt on the altruism of the Occupy Nigeria protests – that the protesters were being fed during the protests with food from ‘Kingsway’. One can understand that the President has never lived in Lagos, but Kingsway? Perhaps his aides have found a way to completely shield him from criticism but that then means he actually believes that mere stealing is not corruption etc and needs to be told that makes no sense.
As someone said to me – even if he bypassed all his aides and went to the cleaner in Aso Rock and said ‘You know say dem bomb Abuja yesterday, how you feel say e go be if I go dance for PDP rally today for Kano today?’, the cleaner would have easily told him ‘Oga, I no think say e go pure if you do am like that‘. In other words, anyone could have told him it was a bad idea. Does the President not know this?
There is evidence that his aides compound the problem for him – for example Abati picked a spot under a Transcorp Hilton plaque for the president to address the press from. [I overheard people asking who picked that spot and one of the pressmen saying it was Abati]. Of course the pictures then went out with the President looking like a spokesman for the Hilton Hotel. How hard would it have been to scan around to ensure there’s nothing unnecessary in the picture before picking a spot for him? This is anyhowness on steroids.
On Thursday, various leaders and businessmen were heading out of a meeting room and everyone gathered round the entrance to take photos as they came out. The President came out with around 6 security guards around him (in front and behind him as well as beside). The problem with this was that all the guards were taller than him so it was hard to see him. He walked by without waving or smiling to anyone while everyone just watched him in silence. Contrast with Kagame who came out with all his guards behind him and he leading the way – the President was constantly being directed this way or that to the point where one of his security guards put his hand on his back and gave him a gentle push to guide him into a room. This might be understandable if the events were taking place outdoors but it was all indoors and the President was supposed to be the chief host. Instead Tony Elumelu and Aliko Dangote ended up doing the work of schmoozing the guests and smiling for the cameras.
He was on a ‘Partnering for Prosperity’ panel with a number of CEOs and tried to make an argument for protectionism. One of the other panelists then countered him not so subtly as to the dangers of this type of policy (he was touting Dangote’s wealth as something that was a result of government policy and also suggested that the insecurity in the country was an opportunity for investors), the way he responded showed that he had not even considered that this policy has weaknesses. He simply conceded that argument by saying ‘you are the expert’ and smiled.
All of this was painful to watch and people sitting beside me were either laughing or sighing.
Yet it will not deter those who are supporters and admirers of the President. You might even say this is all nitpicking which it probably is.
But we really have to ask ourselves how we gave such a demanding and difficult job to a man who by all accounts will be perfectly happy doing something else.
6. On my way back from Abuja with my friend, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai was on our flight. We quickly accosted him when we landed and introduced ourselves.
Long story short, he was on his way to Ijebu-Ode for the Awujale of Ijebuland’s – Oba Sikiru Kayode Adetona, Ogbagba Agbatewole II – 80th birthday and was waiting for General Buhari to arrive. He then asked us to come along with him to Pastor Tunde Bakare’s house (C’est Magnifique) where we spent 2 hours discussing Nigeria, Boko Haram and the APC.
He was very candid and open about all the challenges in the APC. Much of this is bound by confidentiality agreements but suffice to say that before we could attack him and the APC for not living up to the hopes and aspirations of what we want in an opposition party, he himself went ahead to list all the issues and then some.
Now, Mallam is a very smart guy so I don’t know if everyone else in the party leadership has a grasp of the issues in the way he does, still it was refreshing to see that they are not deaf afterall and fully understand the scale of the challenges ahead of them.
I’m not impartial in all of this of course – it is my prayer that President Jonathan gets defeated in next year’s elections. But the chances of that happening is something I am realistic about. If this is a view you share, then help the APC in any way you can. It is not just to get a particular person elected or even to get rid of one person. It is to help our democracy work better for all of us.
7. How bad has the electricity situation deteriorated recently? This is a hard question to answer but here’s what a friend in Abuja, who lives in a serviced estate, said:
Our service charge year runs from November to October and last year we budgeted N18m for diesel for the current year. As at last week they had already spent over N15m and we are just halfway through the year. So now they have stopped 24/7 electricity during the weekend…we are now on 6pm to 10am while they try to work out how much extra we need to pay.
Something like this is actually a good proxy for the electricity situation in the country.
8. Message for those who want to go into government to change things – it is more than likely you will spend a huge chunk of your time on extra-curricular activities. For example, you might be chased about by Niger Delta militants seeking contracts or favours or a legislator changing laws just to show you who’s boss.
As a senior government official said to me:
99% of your time in this government work is spent fighting demons and all sorts of distractions. The time you have for the actual work is just 1%
Be guided as you go in.
The hotel wey I stay last for Umuahia beta pass this hotel
That was in reference to the Barcelona Hotel. It was one of the 3 official hotels for WEF and every single person who used it complained about it. Mind you, it’s a new hotel so the complaints were about the poor finishing and garish colours used to paint the rooms [which was still smelling].
So why was such a hotel used to host international visitors when Abuja has seemingly better hotels? Well, my usually reliable ‘sauces’ tell me that the hotel is owned by a very senior government official who has a habit of sleeping during official functions. Hence.
Generally, I was quite taken aback at how dated and, in the case of Sheraton, run down, the big Abuja hotels were. They looked like things from the 70s with the carpets and paint. I wonder if there is some kind of protectionist policy in Abuja preventing big challengers to Transcorp in particular. Abuja needs new big brand name hotels sharpish.
Nevertheless, the chicken suya at Capital Bar in Transcorp is one of the best I have ever tasted. Take that to the bank.
10. I am tired of complaining about the Murtala Mohammed International Airport. We have turned the problem into something beyond us to solve. My favoured solution remains for it to be burnt to the ground and a new airport built.
I was in Nigeria last November and neither the ‘new’ arrival hall or departure halls had been opened. The conveyor belts in the new arrival are much bigger so there’s less crowding around when you want your bags. But move close to them and you start to see they are already falling apart with the inner parts all visible and flaps hanging loose. There is no way those machines were bought brand new and in 6 months are the worse for wear in that way.
The departure area is a lot bigger and airier so the lack of air conditioning is not a problem in the way it was in the previous place. Yet, you can see the shoddiness of the work done everywhere. Is this thing so hard? Because undoubtedly, we will have to ‘remodel’ or refurbish these ‘new’ ones in a couple of years.
After passing security, I got to the area that passes for Duty Free shopping and amazingly, it was like being outside with the way the rain was pouring down through the leaking roof. It was so bad the staff weren’t even bothering to arrange buckets to collect the water. They simply mopped around the edges, presumably waiting for the rain to stop.
Why are we like this? How did we allow ourselves to become used to this kind of debilitating anyhowness? You can read this article to get an understanding of how important airport shopping has become. Yet we allow it to lie there wasting like this?
The Chinese are building us a new terminal in Abuja. I used Shanghai Airport last year and so I am hoping there is a plan to retain them to manage the new terminal for us to ensure there’s water in the toilets etc.
11. I recall something I read recently in Teju Cole’s Everyday Is For The Thief:
You have to have ‘a guy’ everywhere especially if your time is important to you. My guy who I travelled to and from Abuja with does that trip very regularly. He has a guy in Lagos and one in Abuja at the airports. I discovered the value of having such people when we were leaving Abuja. We got to airport around 6.30am for a 7am flight and found a queue long enough to ensure we missed the flight.
So he called his guy who came, took our bags and went to check them in. He returned with our boarding passes in less than 5 minutes, walked to a hidden corner and handed them to us. My guy then gave his guy what looked like a couple of thousand Naira and we were on our way to board the flight.
Over here in the UK, last year, the government put forward proposals to charge passengers who want to skip airport queues. The government currently spends around £1.8bn on immigration services annually and manages to recover less than £1bn of that through various visa fees.
In other words, paying to jump a queue isn’t really a strange thing. Prices clear markets, as they say. But in typical Nigerian fashion, given that the state is weak and unable to collect even what is its due, this creates myriad opportunities for passage lubrication. I am sure my guy’s guy shares some of his fees with the guys behind the counter which then creates an incentive to slow things down to smoke out the people who will pay to beat the queue.
But maybe this is starting to change. I was waiting to meet someone at a restaurant in Lagos when 2 women and a man – all stern looking – walked in and sat around me. One of the women was wearing sunglasses indoors and I have to say I was scared. Next thing the Manager of the restaurant comes round with another staff member carrying a bunch of files and almost prostrates as he greets the visitors who then demanded cold drinks to cool down.
As they began talking I made out that they were from the Onigbongbo Local Government and they came to collect some taxes or fees relating to permits or clearance for hepatitis B and tuberculosis.
12. Of course security was bound to be ‘enhanced’ in Abuja in light of recent events so I was looking forward to seeing what it was all about.
The good news is that the security arrangements weren’t all that painful to experience as is the case with Nigerians. To my pleasant surprise, I did not see anyone being slapped or beaten for ‘breaching’ security [I tried to take a photo of the President’s car and a gun toting soldier quickly walked to me and asked me to delete it which he supervised]. On our way from the airport to Sheraton in Abuja where we got accredited, I noticed armed policemen all over the place – hiding behind drums, sitting under bridges etc. Before being allowed into Transcorp our name tags were scrutinised and I had to get down from my taxi and enter the official vehicles. All very comforting somewhat.
But by evening, the enhanced security had been visibly ‘de-enhanced’. Anyhowness had crept in and people were relaxed. Maybe the tempo of the thing was too high for the policemen and soldiers. The security passes that were supposed to restrict people to certain areas (depending on their accreditation) seemed to work everywhere. The security men at the front door manning the metal detectors and scanners were simply collecting your bags and handing them to you on the other side. Make e no be like say dem no check. [I heard of one ‘breach’ where someone sauntered up to the restricted floor where one of the world leaders was staying at the Hilton].
At the hotel where I stayed, everytime I got back, the security guy would jump up from where he was gisting with someone, pick up his metal detector and tap my bag twice then say ‘You’re welcome Sah!’ and wave me in. Even when the detector went off and flashed red.
At Abuja airport, I noticed that the lady checking and stamping boarding passes was stamping each one twice in the same spot i.e. one stamp on top of the other. This made no sense and the only explanation I could think of was that her job had recently changed from stamping 2 different documents to stamping just one.
At the Lagos airport, as usual, the people checking your bags are focused on you the whole time asking you to find them ‘something’. The search can be stopped at anytime with the flashing of a N1000 note.
Everywhere you go, people are doing things simply because someone told them to do it or they don’t want to be seen not doing it. This does not make anyone safe. And we are entering into an era where we really need to make better security a way of life but everyone is going about like this is 1997.
Perhaps we will soon start importing security. Afterall some of the President’s security detail were Lebanese or Israeli from what I could see.
The security guys at the Abuja airport did do their job when we were leaving though. Someone gave me 2 packs of Ceres juice which he said were really nice. I then made the stupid mistake of leaving them in my hand luggage. As I was putting my shoes back on after passing through the metal detector, one of the customs officers tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Which juice is inside your bag?’. I brought them out and showed them to her. ‘Oya drink the one you can drink and leave the rest, you cant take it on board‘. I had completely forgotten about the no liquids business applying to domestic flights. Faced with the unedifying prospect of having to hurriedly down a pack of juice, I started to tell her ‘Don’t worry you can….’. Before I could complete the sentence, she cleared them from the table so with a movement so swift, it was nothing short of magic.
When they are interested, they can be deadly efficient.
13. If you live in Abuja and you are flying back on Emirates from Dubai, you’d find yourself having a 40kg luggage allowance to Lagos and then 20kg from Lagos to Abuja not to talk of the stress of changing terminals and then paying for the extra luggage.
This problem has now been solved as Emirates starts direct flights to Abuja from 1st August, bringing us up to the level of Iraq, where it currently flies to 3 cities – Baghdad, Basra and Erbil. [Kano also starts on 1st August]
But is it true that the previous minister needed to be removed from office for this to happen? I prefer to ask rather than engage in speculation and rumour mongering.