Port Harcourt was a relief from the madness of Lagos. Although it was, and still is, the oil capital of Nigeria, it is a much smaller city with a more homogenous population of mainly Ibo and smaller local tribes. For this reason it did not offer the anonymity of Lagos and so, at that time at least, crime was much lower.
Providing credit to Nigerian companies to import goods, mainly pharmaceuticals and foodstuffs, does not sound like an ideal basis for sound business but my late father was a master at coming up with such schemes. The expression ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’ should have been inscribed on his headstone.
However, I soon discovered that if you knew which village your Nigerian customer came from, and if he knew you were willing to get in a car and travel to his village to accuse him, then in most instances he would pay. Few people cared about their reputation in Lagos. After all everyone was from somewhere else and all had been sucked in for ‘quick money’. (In reality the streets were not paved with anything except sewage.) However, back in their villages their reputation and status was important and the judgement of the village chief carried a heavy weight behind it, so they would generally do their best to pay as long as they felt you might arrive on their family’s door step, calling them a thief.
I had flown to Port Harcourt to meet with one of the main Chiefs there. I had flown from Lagos, even though Nigerian airspace is among the most dangerous in the world, it was still safer than the roads. I was in the lobby of a major hotel waiting, the national past time, when I got chatting with a quite smartly dressed lady. We were engaged in conversation about some import business that she was interested in when I noticed the Chief standing on the other side of the lobby looking at me. I signalled to him to come over but he refused. I quickly ended my informal chat with the lady and walked over to him. I asked why he hadn’t come over as she was quite an ambitious woman as I thought they might do business together, but he explained that she was from a tribe that was only allowed to be domestic servants and he could not possibly be seen talking to her. He was an educated, travelled man yet in the end, local tradition and custom mattered too much.
I spent the next couple of days in business discussions with him and with another local Chief who was a major car importer. The latter was extremely wealthy with a large house in London and a much larger one in PH. I tried very hard to concentrate on my business discussions with him in his mini-palace, but I can vouch for the fact that it is really very hard to concentrate on what someone is saying to you, when they are simultaneously cutting their toenails with a rusty razor blade. I really think this should be a task in The Apprentice, because for the life of me I just couldn’t keep focused on the words coming out of his mouth. I am not sure how many toes he had, but it seemed like 20 or 30 at least during the couple of hours we spent together.
After 3 days in Port Harcourt it was time for me to leave and catch the plane to the next stop on my route, the city of Benin. Now, regular travellers are used to the idea that airlines use the word ‘timetable’ with a certain liberality, but in internals flights in Nigeria it is closer to a work of fiction than fact. The words ‘ticket’ or ‘reservation’ were used in a similar way. They are more a placebo for a worried mind than representing a reality to do with the probability of travel.
So it was, I arrived at Port Harcourt Airport to catch the 12pm flight that was due to arrive from Lagos, and then fly on to Benin, then to Jos, Kaduna and finally Kano. I had a ticket and a reservation so ‘No problem!’ except, instead of 5 flights a day scheduled, there had not been one for 3 days. The airport looked like a refugee camp with some 500 people, all with tickets and reservations, waiting to get on the next plane that arrived in the vague hope it might take them nearer their destination.
There was no attempt to manage the situation. Apparently, Nigeria Airways had been taught customer service by Charles Darwin. The first 80 people to get on the next plane would fly, the rest would either die, wait and hope for better luck whenever the following flight turned up or maybe would find another way to travel. In any event, having issued tickets and reservations, Nigeria Airways felt their job was done. The rest is in God’s hands. God, let me tell you, is a lousy travel agent.
Around 3pm, we heard the sound of plane engines and saw a flight landing on the runway. At this point, the whole waiting room rose up and rushed past the ticket staff and started running after the airplane, which was still taxiing down the runway. The scene of the crowds trying to get on the last US helicopter from the embassy in Vietnam, seemed like an orderly queue compared with the mob chasing after this plane, taxiing down the runway of what was even then an international airport.
When you see African marathon runners in the Olympics, they are invariably tall and stringy men. However, I would compete with them any day of the week compared to the Market Mammies, who had the running and pushing technique down to a fine art. You could not tell what they were carrying along side about 24 stone of body weight but they were leading the pack without ever seeming to break into a sweat and lord help you if you got caught by one of those swinging forearms.
Luckily, I was young and fit and managed to keep near the front of the pack. By the time we got to the plane some passengers were getting off as we were forcing our way up the steps. In Nigeria, possession is 100% of the law. Get in the seat and then don’t blink despite protestations, petitions, threats or tears. I found a seat and sat in it. I hade made it…..I thought.
After about 40 minutes, the mob who had not ‘made it’ dispersed and we sitting, not comfortably but secure in the knowledge that if the plane was going anywhere, we would be on it, which is as good as it gets. Then the Captain made an announcement. ‘Will all passengers going only as far as Benin City, please get off the plane.’ Now normally, noone would have been fooled by such an announcement, but the crowd had gone so about 20 of us descended the steps and stood on the tarmac by the cockpit.
The Pilot then rolled down his window (I never knew they could do that) and announced to us, ‘I have heard from Benin that there is no fuel at the airport. If we land there, we will not be able to take off again, so we are instead just going to fly directly to the following stop, Jos.’