Five years ago I spent several months in Nigeria, organizing seminars and workshops. Mostly in the capital Abuja, but requiring a couple of stays in Lagos, the commercial capital and one of Africa's most sprawling and chaotic cities.
The 2009 Christmas Day close call above Detroit, involving a Nigerian passenger whose journey started at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, reminded me of my own experiences there. Usually I wasn't worried about the people on board my plane - it was the situation on the ground that was the problem.
Years before, I had worked with an internationally experienced engineer who was sent by my employer to a project in Chad, across the Nigerian border. Except that he never made it further than Lagos airport. So harassed by customs, immigration, or security officials for "dash" or bribes, he simply gave up and took the next flight back to Europe.
So I was ready for the worst when it was finally my turn to experience Lagos. In fact, I had little to worry about; we came under the auspices of the American Consulate, with the additional security that afforded. But we wanted more, as many of our seminar participants were to transit Lagos en route to Abuja. We hired a private firm, headed by a talented Nigerian businessman who split his time between London and Lagos. His firm's goal was to "sanitize the Lagos airport experience" for international travelers.
Why? Well, as Lekan Oguntoyinbo explains in today's Washington Post
Two decades ago Murtala Muhammed International began earning a reputation as a home to criminals who sometimes attacked planes as they taxied down runways. Robbers roamed the terminals and parking lot looking for prey. To be sure, Nigeria has made improvements. In the airports, non-passengers' entry to terminals is restricted and runways are more closely monitored. But lax security still raises concerns. Airport personnel still sometimes extort passengers. And many elites and their guests are escorted to planes without being required to pass through metal detectors.
"Sanitizing" meant protecting foreign travelers from the importuning officials, but also involved hiring uniformed, armed police escorts for those transiting the international terminal to the domestic terminal, via the exposed public roads outside the airport perimeter. It's still a free-for-all out there.
In the intervening five years, it would appear that the situation inside the airport had improved, though we will undoubtedly learn more about when and where our would-be suicide bomber slipped on his incendiary underpants. In Lagos? Or was it in Amsterdam? Maybe in the Delta airplane's toilet? [UPDATE 1/1/2010: It appears that he began his flight in Accra. Ghana's capital city has one of Africa's calmest, best-organized airports, as it happens.]
Barely a month ago, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) announced that the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had confirmed Lagos airport's compliance with ICAO security standards.
But if arriving passengers can have their Lagos experience "sanitized" for the price of an airport fixer, the danger, as Lekan Oguntoyinbo writes, is that departing members of the Nigerian elite are spared the indignities of the metal detector - for a price.
Image: Independence postage stamp from the Nigerian Philatelic Service.