In practically every other country, getting to – and getting out of –the major international airport is a breeze; in Nigeria, it is a fraught obstacle race.
And so, from my waking up until the plane takes off, any day I am flying out of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos is one of foreboding and high anxiety.
As a rule, I do not venture far beyond my lodgings in Anthony Village or Maryland, Ikeja, as the case may be, for fear that I might find it impossible to return in time to head to the airport. But there are many other factors over which I have no control.
What if the skies opened and the roads were flooded and it was impossible to get to the airport before scheduled departure? I know many domestic and international passengers who were caught in precisely that situation.
What if an unlatched container fell off the truck and effectively blocked entry into or egress from the airport? Such accidents are not uncommon in Lagos. Who says, then, that a mishap like that cannot occur that very day, at a strategic point on the road to the airport?
Another argument between stalwarts of rival factions of the road and transport workers union could turn Oshodi, by no means the most tranquil neighbourhood in town, into a riot scene, with motorists abandoning their vehicles and scampering for safety and the usual miscreants taking advantage to do brisk business as is their custom.
The possibilities are legion, the uncertainty almost numbing. As four o’clock approaches, I can almost feel my blood pressure rising. That is the hour I have chosen from long habit to leave for the airport to catch a flight scheduled to depart some six hours later.
Barring any of the exigencies I mentioned above, I am reasonably sure that I would get to the airport, complete departure formalities and still have an hour or so to catch my breath and make some farewell calls before boarding. And if it turned out that I had a much longer waiting time, there was plenty of reading material to keep me engaged.
My ample head start, pardon a digression, once turned out to be providential. Traffic had flowed so smoothly that day that the check-in counter was just opening when I took my place on a short queue at the departure lounge. Confidently, I reached for my travel documents in my handbag.
My passport was not there. It was nowhere to be found. My options were clear but daunting. I could give up on the flight and cough up $400 as penalty for a new reservation that might open up, or I could dash home to retrieve passport and with some luck return to the airport in time for boarding.
Entrusting my luggage to the young man who had conveyed me to the airport, I dashed out of the terminal building and breathlessly told the first taxi operator I saw my problem. He obviously didn’t have an operating licence but that was not the time for nice discriminations.
“Where is home?” he asked.
“When is your flight?”
I told him.
He looked at his watch and smiled. There was more than enough time. He signaled to one of his boys and asked him to speed me off.
“That would be N8,000,” the driver said, as I fastened the seat belt. That was nothing, I reckoned, compared to the $400 I would have to plonk down for a new reservation if I missed the flight?
We made it back to the airport in less than two hours. After completing departure formalities, I still had some two hours to unwind before boarding.
I had never experienced such frantic, aggressive and dizzying driving, such calculated disregard for the Highway Code. My heart was literally in my mouth most of the time I was in that battered Renault, a grateful but traumatized passenger. It was an experience I hope I’ll never have to go through again. For the driver it was just another assignment in the line of duty. It was as if he fully expected the N4,000 that I gave him by way of gratuity.
To return to my travel blues: There was a time when I harboured apprehensions that an official taking an unusual interest in my passport or my person might ask me to step aside while other passengers were being processed and finally, long after the plane had departed, inform me with touching solicitude that he had received “orders from above” to hold on to my passport, and to ask me to report at my earliest convenience to that sprawling complex on Awolowo Road, in southwest Ikoyi, Lagos, to retrieve it.
The apprehension was no fantasy. It would finally materialize, but on my arrival from a foreign trip rather than at departure.
There was also this apprehension that, as the plane prepared to taxi to the runway, representatives of law and order would suddenly show up and invite me to disembark, again invoking those dreadful “orders from above.” But it never came to pass.
Stanley Macebuh’s famous liberal temperament, excuse a final digression, almost snapped whenever anyone voiced the phrase “orders from above” to his hearing. To him it was a tautology, and an ugly one at that. “Where else do orders come from?” he would ask rhetorically. “Do they ever come from below?”
My flight-day apprehensions almost never materialized, I am glad to report. Still, they assail me on each and every such occasion. And that is because of the road to Lagos Airport. It is an unending nightmare.
I often wonder: What if a passenger plane crashed into some building on landing and disintegrated in an inferno, as in those frightful clips of doomed flights shown ever so often on television?
With the road to the airport through Oshodi clogged even on the best days and the road from the domestic terminal only slightly less congested, how quickly would first responders get to the scene, when minutes could make the difference between dying and surviving? How quickly would the injured be evacuated to hospitals and trauma centres?
An air ambulance would be the fastest mode of transportation at such moments, but how quickly can one be deployed? How many of such vehicles are available in Nigeria anyway?
It is scandalous beyond belief that the main road to and from Lagos Airport has been allowed to stand for so long in such riotous disrepair.
Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode has asked the Federal Government, the derelict owner of the road, to cede it to Lagos for fixing. In its place, he plans to construct a 10-lane dual carriage way that will meet the highest international standard. The drawings and building specifications have been completed, he said.
There should be no quibbling over the matter. If the Federal Government cannot and will not fix the road, it should gratefully cede it to the Lagos State Government.