‘Ah, welcome my friend! What have you got for me?’ asked the Customs Officer hopefully when I landed in Lagos Airport for the first time. I had already had an encounter with an Immigration Officer desperate to find something wrong with my passport, visa or inoculation certificate in order to elicit some ‘dash’ (bribe) to allow me into the country. This was my first trip and I was an innocent looking 24 year old, so they both came to the conclusion that there were bigger fish to fry and eventually let me through. I later learned that a £10 note in my passport and a half bottle of Johnnie Walker placed in my suitcase, was sufficient lubricant to allow me to pass through the whole process of immigration and Customs in minutes compared to a couple of hours of wait, threats, drama and hassle.
However, I am getting ahead of myself because Lagos Airport is actually pretty unique by international airport standards. Apart from being some of the most dangerous airspace in the world due to erratic air traffic control, when the baggage finally arrived on the carousel (if you are lucky), there are multiple hands tugging at it. None of these hands were planning to take your case in a direction that involved your car or a taxi. People from the outside were allowed through to just try and steal your bag of the carousel as if they had been passengers. I presume they paid for the ‘I Haul’ franchise at the airport. Consequently, just picking up your bag was like a mob scene, a dispute in which possession was clearly 100% of the law.
Being young and liberal, I found myself tugging at my own bag, telling people to leave my case alone and resisting all ‘offers of help’ from locals who professed ‘most profoundly’ their honesty and desire to help me take my bag to a taxi, though ideally without me. This melee was just par for the course and greeted me every time I arrived subsequently.
Suddenly, I heard a booming, unmistakenly British voice., ‘You there!’ the Voice said pointing at one of the Nigerian ‘boys’ intent on liberating someone’s suitcase from its tiresome owner, ‘Pick up my bags. Now bring them over and take them to my taxi with me!’ Like an obedient puppy, the Nigerian promptly stopped trying to steal a random case and instantly transformed into a docile porter, bringing the voice’s bags to him and awaiting further command. I was impressed. The voice belonged to an English ‘chap’ dressed in white shirt and shorts, knee length socks and who sported a ginger moustache. The Voice was aged in his early 60s and clearly was no stranger to Africa.
It subsequently turned out (he was staying in the same hotel ) the Voice had been in the Colonial Police Force. In fact, the Voice was so sure Nigeria was still effectively a colony, it acted as it had always acted. In face of this unerring certainty the locals deferred to the Voice time and again. ’Maybe the Voice was right and independence had been a dream after all.’ seemed to be the effect it had on Nigerians.
This was the first of several times in my life that I saw how just acting as if your reality existed, could cow numerous others into submission. Confidence, an air of superiority and a very, very, loud polite but firm ‘reasonableness’ (with the odd gunship and Enfield rifle) was clearly how a nation of only 16 million in Victorian times, conquered 2/3rds of the world. Sadly, it was a talent I never mastered but in everyday Africa it was worth 100 gunships.