Category Archives: Travel

Itinerant Nigerians

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

It is almost always true that when abroad and you sight a black man, it is well worth taking the risk that the person is Nigerian. You’d be surer if in response to polite entreaties, the passerby is deliberately snubbish. It depends on the setting though. Wait long enough, there would soon be the occasional irritation, the response to which would almost definitely confirm his origins. One out of every five blacks on planet earth is Nigerian. And no matter how much he feigns the perfect British or American accent, his archetypal Nigerian mannerisms are hard to conceal. Some argue we travel a lot because of our chaotic situation back home. Not necessarily. Yes, a lot seek the good life. Most are just curious. But a lot really travel just to show off. Take away the pictures of them at popular foreign landmarks, showing how ‘they are enjoying life,” some Nigerians might consider the trips a waste of money. Even the uber wealthy ones want to show how much ‘jollofing’ they are doing, posting pictures of themselves in their first or business class plane cabins or seats on social media. And these are the ‘small boys’. Big boys fly their private jets, with our stolen foreign exchange neatly tucked in their luggage it turns out – pictures of their vanity never include those for sure. You’d think with that much wealth they wouldn’t need the phony gratifications that soon pour afterwards. Nigerians are very curious and vain cats. We want to know: Where is it? What is it? What do they do there? Who runs things? (That curiosity, unfortunately, has not extended to science, innovation and progress. And it is not because of a lack of capacity for hard work. We are rarely slothful. In that vanity that we all seem to share perhaps lie the answer to our continued suffering, well-hidden under forced but outwardly believable smiles.)

Act, not bicker
So, imagine the anxiety of itinerant Nigerians when the nightmarish campaign promises of now American president, Donald Trump – especially on immigration – began to become reality. In the typical Nigerian fashion, our officials – when they are not busy behaving like we don’t exist – took to bickering over jurisdiction. The presidential adviser (‘senior special assistant’) on foreign affairs and the diaspora, the ever dynamic Abike Dabiri-Erewa – whose long-earned reputation for candour and palpable compassion from her days as a government-employed journalist is well-known – in her characteristic way, took to her first constituency, the media, advising Nigerians to re-consider non-essential travel to America, after a number of Nigerians were detained upon arrival at American airports and subsequently returned; even as they had valid visas.

You would think the Nigerian foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, a meek personality, would be a little pleased. He was not amused. Ordinarily, there is usually a power-play of sorts between presidential advisers and ministers. In most cases, the advisers prevail; because they often have the mandate of the chief of staff, who functionally acts for the president in most administrations. One does not know if Mrs Dabiri-Erewa consulted Mr Onyeama before going on air about her concerns. Bear in mind, the American incidents came not too long after the most recent xenophobic attacks on Nigerians by South Africans. Considering how slow the wheel of governance turns in the public service, I would not be surprised at all if what actually transpired was that the no-nonsense Mrs Dabiri-Erewa finally lost her patience. And quite frankly, she is a more credible figure. After spending an entire career exposing untruths, advice coming from her is instantly credible. By his own admission to a local radio station, Mr Onyeama did not have a conference with her before his ministry issued a counter-advisory asking Nigerians to ignore her advice. The stakes are much too high for such pettiness. Mr Onyeama is a gentleman. But leadership requires dynamism as well.

Between getting an American visa, purchasing a ticket and so on, a Nigerian would have parted with at least a million naira (more than US$3,000), never mind the unbelievable stress in between. And upon getting to the American airport, the Nigerian typically has to endure myriad questions by security officials. With the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant stance, however, this scrutiny has taken on gargantuan proportions. So is the Nigerian better served by being told to travel only just to be served the bitterness of the many indignities Africans tend to endure at foreign airports? Or is it better to wait till one is sure all that toil ahead of the trip would not come to naught at just the time when one was beginning to sing praises? Surely it makes more sense for Mr Onyeama to focus on addressing the latter concern.

Give more than hope
There are numerous tales of woe by Nigerians, who upon reaching a foreign airport, are made to go through all sorts of screening. And this scrutiny is even more enhanced in Asian airports. Some candour here though. It is said Asians have difficulty differentiating African faces, hence why if you land in a Chinese airport, say, they single out Africans for more ‘enlightening’ pictures. At least that was my experience at the Shanghai airport some years back. Most Nigerians would ordinarily bear this (not that we are left with much of a choice) – as did I – if at the end of it all, with their documents deemed valid, they are allowed to go about their legitimate business. The uncertainty that comes with the possibility that even after all these, one may be ‘returned’ is hard to imagine.

Could it be that Mr Onyeama, a blue-passported minister, has so soon forgotten the experience of what it feels like to be a Nigerian abroad? Perhaps it is true then that not until our leaders compulsorily experience our daily challenges, they might not be more sensitive to our plight: our undeservedly pampered government officials must now ply the Abuja-Kaduna expressway, after the forced closure of the Abuja international airport for repairs. Needless to say, the road has become virtually anew overnight. Regardless of what motivates Mrs Dabiri-Erewa, the passion with which she does her duty is refreshing. Undeterred, she gave South African politicians covertly encouraging xenophobic attacks against Nigerians a piece of her mind only this past weekend. Stars just shine. Those who can’t bear the glare should shut their eyes.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. https://www.businessdayonline.com/itinerant-nigerians/

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Can African leaders follow the example of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was spotted earlier this month in the economy class of a commercial flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg. In February, the country’s embattled finance minister Pravin Gordhan had won plaudits for doing the same after delivering what is widely believed to have been a fine budget speech. Mr Gordhan was also seen recently in a public train in Johannesburg without any of the ceremony of his office. At best, they were both making symbolic gestures. It is very well known Mr Ramaphosa travels around ‘very privately.’ His boss would probably not try such a stunt. Word is, the South African president would not need to worry about his aircraft breaking down on him again, like it did in Burundi last month. Plans are afoot to procure a ‘befitting’ airplane for President Jacob Zuma you see. His Nigerian counterpart has actually upped the ante a little bit. Following the example of his American counterpart, President Muhammadu Buhari now flies by helicopter from the State House to the airport when travelling abroad. It is just one helicopter you see, not the many cars in the convoy that needed to accompany him hitherto. Still, the supposedly modest leader has taken on a regal bearing. Not that I mind the pageantry. We cannot soon forget his not-so-confident but good-natured predecessor. I actually like the sound of bagpipes that now welcome the Nigerian president and visiting dignitaries. When I first saw the bagpipers, I wondered how idle they must have been hitherto. Nigerians do not have to worry about their leader flying commercial. This particular one is not going to take any chances. Incidentally, these ‘I feel your pain’ stunts by top South African officials are happening at about the same time as the first year anniversary of the death of Singapore’s revered leader, Lee Kuan Yew. The storied man – who died on 23 March 2015 – tells in his autobiography about flying on Singapore Airlines to a global event, much to the astonishment of other world leaders, especially the ones of third-world countries. Thing is, he did not do it just to prove a point. There is substantial evidence he lived a spartan life. One would certainly not begrudge African leaders if they were a little bit particular about protocol and ceremony. After all, there is a certain African saying about the modesty of deep wells.

I visited Singapore for the first time in December 2014. With the temperature at 29 degrees Celsius around that period of the year, the weather was welcome relief from a very chilly London, the city I travelled from. As I couldn’t immediately hit town upon my arrival due to an academic engagement the following day, I had to make do with sights I saw on my way to the hotel from Changi International Airport. Still, I managed to get a full day to explore the city before leaving. Double-decker sightseeing buses make it possible for you to get a sense of the city if you are time constrained like I was. In any case, most of the interesting sights are in the Marina Bay area of the city. At Nanyang Business School, the venue of the conference I was attending, I struck a conversation with a Singaporean student who was volunteering at the event. I wanted to know how wealthy he felt. Singapore after all has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world. The gentleman thought he was not as wealthy as the average Singaporean. His sentiment caught me by surprise. Surely, if he was attending a top business school like NBS, he couldn’t be poor? So I asked the same question again but now as a series of questions. Do you have cable television? Do your parents rent or own the house they live in? Is any Singaporean able to attend NBS if they are accepted? His answers to these questions were in the affirmative. The “poor” guy was probably thinking about quite a number of his contemporaries driving their Ferraris and Lamborghinis with little care on the major streets of Singapore; a sign of intergenerational wealth. For a highly priced education – attending NBS for instance, the government provides financial assistance he would tell me. But the fundamental test for me of whether a country is wealthy is the proportion of its citizens that own their own homes. 91 percent of Singaporeans own their own homes, according to official statistics. On average, these homes are 4-room flats. That should give you an indication of how “poor” my Singaporean friend really was! Inevitably, I kept comparing Singapore with Malaysia, the country that expelled it from its federation in 1965, just two years after joining. Singapore being a city-state, a fair comparison would be with Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. One of my regrets when I visited Kuala Lumpur in 2011 was not being able to visit Singapore just an hour away. Africans face many constraints when they travel abroad. To try securing a visa then to see the neighbouring city would have been a little tasking. It would take another three years before I would finally get the chance. Today, Singapore is five times richer than Malaysia, on a GDP per capita basis.

Many an African leader uses Lee Kuan Yew’s example to justify holding on to power. Mr Lee was prime minister of Singapore for three decades. The typical argument goes thus: the leader needs time for his or her policies to yield results. Look at Singapore they say. The parallels to be drawn with Singapore for many an African nation that gained independence in the 1960s are not flattering. And just because a model worked for Singapore does not mean it would lend itself well to the African condition. In fact, one could say many a longstanding African leader had similar opportunities as Mr Lee. Africa’s current mixed fortunes point to the different directions taken by those opportune to lead its affairs at the time. My view is that it is too late for a Singapore model to be adapted for Africa’s peculiarities. A major constraint is the continent’s heterogeneity. More than 70 percent of Singaporeans are Chinese. Times have also changed. Growing up in Nigeria in the 1980s, everyone watched the same government-owned television channels, land telephone lines were the preserve of civil servants and the wealthy, most aspired to enrolling at government secondary schools, and there were no private universities. Today, things are very different. Social media has democratized speech. Most Africans have mobile phones. And parents are spoilt for choice on schools for their wards. So, some of the stringent government controls implemented by LKY’s Singapore in the 1960s to 1980s – that in part contributed to the country’s success – are no longer suitable. That said, there is clearly a need to rethink Africa’s “democratic” structures. Our current systems are just too expensive to maintain. Quite frankly, African countries – Nigeria for instance – have no need for bicameral legislatures. And the costs of entry for aspiring politicians – well intentioned or otherwise – are all the more prohibitive on both pecuniary and moral fronts. Additionally, the emoluments and privileges accorded elected officials in a lot of African countries make the trappings of power all too attractive for rent-seeking leadership. Mr Lee made sure to dispense with such distractions. Is such a man or woman to be found in African countries currently in need of that type of leadership? Yes. Do conditions in these countries facilitate the emergence of such rare men and women into elective positions and allow them effectively govern without relying on patronage to buy influence? Not really. Homogeneity and a power-distant culture provided the foundation for the type of political stability that Lee Kuan Yew’s visionary leadership needed to triumph in Singapore. Most African cultures are power-distant as well. But the heterogeneity of cultures, beliefs, religions, and many injustices have made it difficult for such type of leaders to emerge on the continent. And the few that manage to get ahead soon learn weary indeed is the head that wears the crown.

Also published in my back-page column on BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper. See link viz. http://businessdayonline.com/2016/03/can-african-leaders-follow-the-example-of-singapores-lee-kuan-yew/

#Singapore is hot! #Travel

By Rafiq Raji

Singapore 2014

Literally. With a temperature of 29 degrees Celsius around this period of the year, the weather is a welcome relief if you were arriving Singapore from a very chilly London like I was in the second week of December this year. I would be reminded of recent warmth a few days later of course, with temperatures in the low teens in the capital city of that great island English nation. As I couldn’t immediately hit town upon my arrival due to an academic engagement the following day, I had to make do with sights I saw on my way to the hotel from Changi International Airport. Fortunately, I was scheduled to present my paper and discuss another one both on the first day of the 2-day conference. So I had a full day to explore the city before returning to London the following day. Although 24 hours may not seem like enough time to explore a city, City Sightseeing Singapore makes it possible for you to get a sense of the city if you are time constrained like I was. And it is relatively cheap. Fortunately it was a bright and sunny Saturday. Well, at least until 3pm thereabout when the heavens poured rain. The remainder of the day thereafter was wet. But no matter, that period of the day was spent window-shopping from one mall to another connected by underpasses on Orchard Road. If you have money in your pocket, you are likely to spend it once you get into any of those underpasses. And you must pass through them. The Singaporeans make sure of that.

If you were walking on Orchard Road towards the Ion Orchard mall for instance, you have to cross over Paterson Road, which intersects Orchard Road from the side I was walking from. As the road is fenced on both sides at the intersection, you couldn’t just cross. Instead, you either went down the underpass or crossed towards the other side of Orchard road and then over another intersecting road (Scotts Road) before continuing onwards. But you’d still have to walk further down and even then, the only way into the malls on the other side is down an underpass. Thus, if you were just planning to cross the road through the underpass, think again. The shops are situated just along where you must pass through. And because there are so many people trying to get through, you end up thinking may be you should take a break in one of the shops. So, if you have one of those plastic cards, hmmn. You will spend. I can guarantee that. The other major shopping district, which starts at the end of Orchard Road, is also where the iconic landmarks of Singapore are situated. At least the ones, I was keen on seeing. Encircling the Marina Bay are shopping malls, the Art Science Museum, the Singapore Flyer (largest observation Ferris wheel in the world), Gardens by the Bay et cetera. Developments around the Marina Bay are such that, you could live and work in the area without having to go anywhere else within the City. And trust the Banks to congregate their offices in the area. The skyline of Marina Bay is filled with the branded buildings of major international financial institutions.

While still at Nanyang Business School, the venue of the conference I was attending, I struck a conversation with a Singaporean student who was volunteering at the event. I wanted to know how wealthy he felt. Singapore after all has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world. The gentleman thought he was not as wealthy as the average Singaporean. His sentiment caught me by surprise. Surely, if he was attending a top business school like NBS, he couldn’t be poor? So I asked the same question again but now as a series of questions. Do you have cable TV? Do your parents rent or own the house they live in? Is any Singaporean able to attend NBS if they are accepted? His answers to these questions were in the affirmative. The “poor” guy was probably thinking about quite a number of his contemporaries driving their Ferraris and Lamborghinis with little care on the major streets of Singapore; a sign of intergenerational wealth. For a highly priced education (attending NBS for instance), the government provides financial assistance he would tell me. But the fundamental test for me of whether a country is wealthy is the proportion of its citizens that own their own homes. 90% of Singaporeans own their own homes, according to figures from the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) in September this year. On average, these homes are 4-room flats. That should give you an indication of how “poor” my Singaporean friend really was!

Inevitably, I kept comparing Singapore with Malaysia, the country that it gained independence from in 1965. Singapore being a city-state, a fair comparison would be with Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. One of my regrets when I visited Kuala Lumpur in 2011 was not being able to visit Singapore just an hour away. Africans face many constraints when they travel round the world. To have tried securing a visa then to see the neighbouring city would have been a little distracting. It would take another 3 years before I’d finally get the chance. But of course, being a Muslim, you know if you were destined for something, all of the World would not suffice to stop you. So, a lesson there. Kuala Lumpur is smaller and slower-paced (according to my ‘friend’ who has a relative in Malaysia). Maybe I liked Kuala Lumpur better in spite of all these because it is predominantly Muslim. But there are lots of Malaysians and Muslims in Singapore. In fact, I got to meet my Singaporean friend because I was looking for where to say my prayers at the Business School. And he is not a Muslim. The mosque it turns out is situated on top of the Dean’s office. Ha! But then I stayed in Kuala Lumpur longer, some 4-5 weeks if my recollection is correct. It is likely I would like Singapore more had I stayed as long as well. Based on the facts, however, they are not comparable. On my 13-hour flight back to London, I did ponder how one spurned could still come out on top – Malaysia expelled Singapore from its Federation in 1965, just two years after joining. And today, Singapore is five times (5x) richer on a GDP per capita basis. A timely and valuable lesson for a young man still trying to find his way in the World.

Opinions expressed are mine and not that of any institution(s) I may be affiliated with

My Coffee, My Addis. #Travel #Ethiopia

By Rafiq Raji

The Africa you should seePicture I took from my hotel room of a building I dubbed “the falling tower of pisa”

Ethiopians love their coffee. Well, I love coffee as well. I’ve recently had to cut back on my intake – apparently drinking too much coffee could be problematic for the digestive system. Too late. However, I’m skeptical that caution would apply to Ethiopian coffee. At least, not the coffee I drank during my first visit to the country in late 2013. That caffeine kick you get when you drink instant coffee is an intrusion, I think. You drink Ethiopian coffee (got another chance in London at the Africa Utopia food market in September 2014); you don’t feel any of that. Instead, your senses are enlivened by the aroma, taste and smoothness of the coffee. At least mine were. And since one drank a lot of awful instant coffee most of the time, believe me it was not too difficult to tell the difference. You drink it and you want to know how much it had journeyed to finally make it to your cup. You want another cup, and then another cup; until afterwards you say maybe I should stop now. But it certainly wouldn’t be because you fear the coffee would burn a hole in your stomach. Ethiopians take their coffee seriously. And whether you are rich or poor, it is the same coffee.

On holiday and being in Ethiopia for the first time in late 2013, I was curious. First of all, I wanted to know how they’d manage to do so well with their national airline unlike a lot of other African countries. Well, how do you get a feel for that? Well, you fly the airline. So I did. Once in Addis Ababa, I took my time to survey the airport. The Bole International Airport is functional. The first thought that came to my mind was: Chinese. The Shanghai and Beijing international airports are not extravagant. They are simply functional and efficient. Bole was built by the Chinese. You could tell instantly. One thing I did observe was the caution around foreign exchange. One was able to procure goods and services in the convertible foreign currencies quite easily. To acquire foreign currency (to convert your Birrs to US dollars, say), however, you had to go to a bank. You could also change currencies both ways at any of the international hotel chains. Since I was also attending The African High-Growth Markets Summit organized by The Economist at one of them, I made enquiries. Yes, you could. But at the smaller and less pricey ones, you get your change in Birrs. At least, that was my experience at the hotel I stayed at. As you can imagine, I was on a budget. When paying my hotel (not an international chain) bills, the receptionist gave me change in Birrs for my US dollars.

On the road to the hotel, I kept trying to benchmark the size of the city with other African cities I had been in. Nigeria’s northwestern city of Kaduna was the closest city I could think of that compared with Addis. But Addis is a much more international city than Kaduna. The African Union, United Nations and a myriad of other multilateral agencies and NGOs have made Addis their home. It is somewhat of a paradox that a supposedly “closed” country would be host to so many international agencies (and many international conferences) on the African continent. First thing I did when I got to the hotel was to pick up the local newspapers at the lobby. There is just no way you can get a feel for a country without actually going there, meet its people and get a feel for what makes the country tick.

The other thing I try do when I visit a city – not that I’ve visited many – for the first time (and even subsequently) is go for a walk/jog around the city centre. There is a lot that you miss if you try to get a feel for a city from behind the windows of a car. You have to breathe the air. You have to lock gazes with the locals. You have to get into conversations with them. Even make a few mistakes. For instance, I thought the ornate surroundings of this particular compound was worthy of a photo. Well, in no time, the guards came out from their watching posts and wondered why I was taking a photo. Unbeknownst to me, it was an official residence. I did think though the surroundings were eerily calm. It was so for a reason. I was not too eager to take out my camera afterwards though. My caution was unnecessary. Soon enough, I’d see other tourists clicking away. Unlike most of them, however, I didn’t get a chance to see the hinterland. Not that I’d planned to do much spending on this trip. I was on a budget, remember. I did acquire some books on Ethiopia that I doubt you’d find readily elsewhere. But there was a lot of sightseeing I didn’t get to do.

For instance, Abyssinia (in today’s Ethiopia) is of great importance to Muslims. The first set of Muslims to flee persecution in Makkah (in then pagan Arabia) found refuge in Abyssinia and were settled in Negash (northern part of today’s Ethiopia) by King Armah (“Ashama ibn Abjar” in the Arabic tradition) of Axum. As a Muslim, I would have loved to visit (still do) where they were buried. Time and money were constraints. I also didn’t get to visit any of the nine World Heritage Sites in the country. The stone castles of Gondar, rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, and Lake Tana monasteries are marvels I’m told. The country’s high mountains – some over 4,500 metres high – are also breathtaking, I gather. These are sites I’d certainly like to visit on my next trip, which I hope would be some time soon. I’d definitely like to travel the so-called Historic Circuit, which includes some of the above-mentioned sites and more.

I did enjoy my walk through the city though; often a round trip that started on Tito street where my hotel was located, through Menelik II Avenue, Taitu street and Yohanis Street and then back on Tito street. It was also surprisingly (for me) cold at night. I visited during the dry season, usually between October and May. Although it was chilly in London at that time of the year, I was a little surprised I had to hang on to my jacket at night the entire time. As you can imagine, I didn’t get to see a lot of the many sites I would have loved to see. Having happened on quite some time lately, you wish you could move time and money to coincide with a travel opportunity. And even when that happens, you want to go somewhere different. The lesson I’ve learnt, however, is to make sure to be more exploring of the cities I travel to. So the next Ethiopian trip – though likely more adventurous – would have to wait. But then coffee is best-enjoyed one slow sip at a time!

Opinions expressed are mine and not that of any institution(s) I may be affiliated with.