Tolu Ogunlesi: A country of helpless people

Weeks ago, I arrived from a trip to Abuja to find my car, parked at the Lagos Airport General Aviation Terminal, clamped. I’d parked – in the official car-park, by the way – the day before, on what was supposed to be a day trip to Abuja, and paid for same-day parking. Then, plans changed and I had to spend the night there. I therefore came back on the first flight out the next morning. My expectation was that I’d go to the ticket office and pay for overnight parking (which, by the way, has recently been doubled to N2,000 per night).

But no, I was told, I had to pay a fine. A fine for leaving my car overnight without paying for overnight parking in advance? A fine of N5,000. All efforts to query the logic of that penalty failed. I planned for a day’s trip, but had no idea I was going to sleep in Abuja. In any case, I was in a designated car park, not an illegal space, and there was no way my car could leave the park without me paying what was due to the authorities. But, as always happens, when you’re dealing with half-literate civil servants (in this case a woman who issued tickets at the car-park entrance, ably assisted and defended by a male security guard) puffed up by officialdom, all arguments are logic-proof.

I made my way into the terminal building, to see if there was a superior personnel I could speak with. I looked out for a complaints’ desk. The closest thing to that was staffed by some women who, if I remember correctly, were officials of the Civil Aviation Authority, not the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, which runs the airports. All the same, I explained the issue to them. Needless to say there was no understanding coming from them. One of them even helpfully informed me that not even she, as a member of staff, was immune to paying fines for flouting parking rules – she had recently been fined for that. Tail between my legs, I returned to the car park, to pay the fine, making sure I got a receipt.

It didn’t make sense to me; it still doesn’t. How does it make sense to fine me for parking in a designated car park? Am I expected to pay for overnight parking even when I go on a day’s trip, just in case I can’t make it back that day? If I then manage to make it back same day, will I get a refund?

Surely a ‘customer-focused’ government agency (that phrase is surely an oxymoron by Nigerian standards) should have anticipated scenarios like this and devised helpful ways of dealing with it?

It’s hard to forget the feeling of helplessness that assails at those moments when you come up against Nigeria in all its senselessness. When the Power Holding Company of Nigeria officials come to disconnect power – on the basis of the so-called unpaid bills, which in reality are unexplained charges arrived at by the crudest, most exploitative forms of ‘estimation’ – in the middle of a three-day blackout. When you’re travelling out of Lagos and find yourself detained somewhere around Ijebu Ode in Ogun State, by local government touts – people for whom force is a vernacular and logic a foreign language – demanding evidence of payment for a television licence, amongst other things. (A panic-stricken victim tweeted such an incident sometime last year).

I could go on and on, stories from ordinary citizens like you and me who daily have to live with this lingering sense of helplessness. We could probably put it down to the fact that we’re not ‘big men’ and ‘big women’, who can purchase the kind of deference required to survive in this country.

Sensible argument, it’d seem, until you consider the case of a man called Adams Oshiomhole. For those who know him, Oshiomhole is no ordinary Nigerian. He is the Governor of Edo State, as well as a former two-term President of the Nigeria Labour Congress.

But something’s been happening in recent months, that’s made Oshiomhole feel rather helpless, as helpless as you and I, ordinary citizens, would feel.

You see, Oshiomhole’s personal secretary was murdered in Benin City on May 4, 2012. Happenings following that incident have been like scenes out of a comedy of errors. The Police arrested a set of suspects. The Department of State Security also arrested a set of suspects – different from the police set – for the same crime. One crime, two different sets of criminals. Ten months after the murder, no one has been charged to court.

Welcome to Nigeria. A frustrated Mr. Governor – apparently there are mysteries mysterious beyond even the immense powers conferred by the prefix “His Excellency” – has been crying to all who can hear about the matter. At a recent National Council of State meeting at the Presidential Villa (on March 12, 2013), the Governor confronted Mohammed Adoke, Federal Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, who he thinks is responsible for the tardiness with which law enforcement agents are handling the investigations. What followed was a shouting match that apparently almost led to physical combat. Later that day, the Governor told journalists: “Here I am, my Private Secretary was killed and nobody seems to bother. I am doing my best to raise the issue because that is the least I owe to someone who lost his life while serving me, and someone else does not think life is important.”

It’s as fascinating as it’s tragic, that even a state governor – as I pointed out last week Nigeria’s governors are the most powerful group of individuals in the country – does not feel he can get justice.

Welcome to our Nigeria. It is one of the arguments that Father Hassan Matthew Kukah makes in his most recent book, “Witness to Justice: An Insider’s Account of Nigeria’s Truth Commission”. He has a fascinating theory about ‘victimhood’ in Nigeria; in some way or another all of us are helpless victims of a dysfunctional country. The Oputa Panel brought that to the fore – Big Men jostling with unknown citizens to cry the loudest.

Even the late President Umaru Yar’Adua was a victim of Nigeria – he presided over a country that couldn’t handle his medical affliction. And the current First Lady had to go on a (medical) “vacation” to Germany, when she could have ‘died and resurrected’ less expensively at home.

At the end of the day, none of us is spared; whether it’s an ordinary citizen being unjustly taxed by a non-functioning local government, or a state governor who cannot even get a failed justice system to work in his favour.

We’re all in it together – and the only way out is to begin to create a Nigeria that first of all works, at the most basic level. If it works, it’ll work for everyone, regardless of class or position. And we won’t have governors publicly fighting Attorneys-General over murder cases.

Perhaps, we won’t even have as many murder cases on our hands in the first place…

 

Tolu Ogunlesi is an award winning journalist. Follow him on twitter @toluogunlesi. This article was first published in the Punch.

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