As we made our weary way off the plane and through the suffocating heat that always threatened to overwhelm you as you stepped into ‘Dante’s inferno’ (this was the nickname I had given to the oven that masqueraded as Nigeria’s foremost airport at the time), I noticed them again. This time, they were not all lovey-dovey and touchy-touchy like they had been at the private lounge in the Kotoka Airport in Accra where we had passed a couple of hours while waiting for our flight that had somehow been delayed coming from Nigeria. I had recognised him immediately I saw them. His full head of hair, hued generously with grey tones, was cut in the distinctive style that made him easily recognisable. That, aside from the fact that he was one of the most visible Legislators during that particular Assembly by virtue of the position he held. He was a regular on the TV stations and he was often quoted. I nodded to him, and he returned the favour. His paramour didn’t look up as she gently stroked the back of his neck with the dexterity of someone who knew where all the mumu buttons of a man were hidden. I smiled. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.
As we joined the long queue of long-suffering citizens on arrival in Lagos, I saw ‘Delilah’ was just a couple of people ahead of me while ‘Honourable’ had naturally gone to the line reserved for VIPs. No problem. At least there would have been none if he hadn’t signalled to her to leave the common man’s queue and come pass through the VIP section. I wasn’t having it. I overtook her in about 5 strides and was standing in front of Honourable before she made it out of the line. ‘Good evening, Honourable So and So. I am a Journalist, and I would just like to find out from you why your lady friend is being passed through the line that is reserved for VIPs. You might not remember me, but we were together in the Ankromah lounge in Accra and from my observation, she is not a member of your staff. He was immediately flustered. He mumbled an apology and asked her to go back to the popular queue. I replied that apology accepted and before he could say another word, I turned around and returned to my place on the queue, carefully avoiding the daggers Delilah was sending my way with her eyes. I have a feeling ‘Honourable’ didn’t even wait for her once he cleared immigration.
This was in the dying days of the Jonathan administration and just after Buhari had been voted into office. I was a firm believer in the possibility that one man could make a difference in society, even Nigeria. I had seen the rot that was the Nigerian political space and the mindless rapaciousness of our political class. I was idealistic enough to believe that one man could, by the sheer weight of his personal virtues, force a change in the way government was run and in the way Nigerians embraced corruption and indiscipline. Afterall, Lee Kwan Yew had done it in Singapore and Kagame had done something quite similar in Rwanda. Sadly, I forgot that Buhari was not Lee Kwan yew and Nigeria was not Singapore. I also failed to take on board the fact that Rwanda is not a democracy and Nigerians are not Rwandans. Long story short, my expectations were not met, and majority of Nigerians had the optimism that attended that change in government replaced by despondency. The extent to which that was consequent upon the capacity-deficit of the man we thought would be the messiah will be examined at some other time. It suffices to say at this point, I almost gave up any belief that one man could make a difference in anything to do with the entrenched systemic debasement and inefficiencies that characterised Nigerian public life. I say ‘almost’ because I still had Professor Ishaq Oloyede and what he had done in JAMB to hold up as a totem.
Now I again have reason to believe. My new-found optimism is down to no other but the Minister of the Interior, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo. One of the fabled traits of the current Nigerian President has been his ability to find talents that are not regular politicians and situate the right pegs in fitting holes. His appointment of the relatively unknown young (by Nigerian political standards, a 41-year-old man is an infant) gentleman into one of the most important posts in his cabinet must have come as a bit of a surprise to most people. I had never heard of him before the appointment though I learnt he used to be in the House of Representatives. I didn’t expect too much, and I was convinced that anyone would be an improvement on the former occupant of that office who had seemed to believe that all he had to do was show up looking like an advertisement for an 18th-century Yoruba palm wine tapper and his job for the day was done. In 4 years at the helm of affairs of that Ministry, he managed to stockpile a backlog of over 30,000 passports, superintend numerous jailbreaks from our jails, and left with nothing to be remembered for except his gravity-defying trousers and unkempt goatee. And then in came Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo and he has shown in just six months what one man can do if he knows what to do.
He dislodged the principalities and powers ‘sitting on the destinies’ of the passports of so many Nigerians and in four months, he dismantled the stockpile that Aregbe managed to accumulate in four years. He has digitalised the passport application process and removed almost all the bottlenecks that created an avenue for corruption and graft by the staff of the Nigeria Immigration Services. When the stories started filtering in, I was quite slow to rejoice. My passport had expired while I was abroad, and someone actually suggested I could get it renewed in a week in one of the High Commissions, but I refused to take the chance as I had to get back to Nigeria. I preferred to rely on the directive that Nigerians with expired passports could come into Nigeria as I had seen that work with a couple of friends. I went online to file my application and the process was probably the most seamless of any government application I had ever done. From filling in the forms, making payment and getting an appointment to come for ‘capture’, all was all done in a matter of minutes. Non-Nigerian readers or anyone who has not had to apply for a passport in the last 10 years might not know why getting a date to be ‘captured’ is such a big deal. It was the greatest enabler of corruption in the process. If you did not bribe someone about 150% of the official cost of processing your application, you would never get a date for your photograph to be taken, thus, no passport. Now you don’t have to give anyone a penny and you don’t have to wait for ever too.
Today, the Minister announced that Nigerian passport holders would begin to use e-Gates when returning to Nigeria from February of 2024. It sounds surreal. The greatest nightmare of returning Nigerians to the country is the process of clearing immigration. It is like it was specially crafted by a sadist who had never stepped out of the country and in revenge, decided to inflict maximum punishment on anyone who dared come back here after leaving. I was in Canada a couple of months ago and it took me less than 5 minutes to clear immigration and head towards the carousel to pick up my luggage. And three of the five minutes were spent reading the instructions and trying to understand the process. I wondered if my country would ever get to this stage and here we are, two months later, and the Minister has announced we will be joining the league of civilised nations when it comes to travelling back home in just four months’ time.
Meanwhile, the impact of this ‘one-man Mopol’ has been felt in practically every single service under his supervision. From immigration to the correctional centers, to the security outfits and even by staff of the Ministry. Its been plaudits galore for the Minister. This is in stark contrast to the tenure of his immediate predecessor who seemed to be overwhelmed and completely bereft of ideas to stem the rot, never mind turning things around. One of the greatest indictments of the leadership style of the immediate past President was that people like the former Minister and others who exhibited such a marked lack of capacity were allowed to remain in office for the entire duration of his term. He looked helpless throughout but in six months Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo has shown that one man can indeed make a difference.