Thursday, 16 December 2010

Welcome to Lagos

I noticed that there is a TV programme with the above title and that reminded me of a fine welcome I got in the murky past

Someone up there definitely did not like me. He probably sat in the heavens and decided “let us smote him around a bit and bring him down a peg or two”. After all he had been pretty good to me until that moment what with sending me around the world with a bevy of beauties and an expense account without the slightest payback of gratitude. “I know” he said, “why not give him a taste of life in Nigeria”

The first I knew about my impending comeuppance was when I was called into my then leader’s office and smugly informed that I was being transferred to the West Africa Routes office and my new job would involve lots of visits to Nigeria. To start with I would be escorting a group of UK dignitaries on an inaugural flight to it’s southern capital Lagos. My blood froze. Everyone I knew working in that area had either gone weird or eccentric or, in extreme cases, both. For example one chap started keeping chickens in the company house and insisted he was a reincarnation of Tolstoy.

I had passed through Nigeria on a number of occasions in the past and witnessed mundane day to day activities such as robbery, death, squalor and loss of essential services like water, sanitation and all types of power The thought of taking a bunch of top corporate executives on a luxurious fact finding visit to such a place was truly chilling. I think my worst fears were justified.

The first task was to select and invite guests and it was my job to organise liaison and correspondence as well as to finalise their itinerary with our office in Lagos. I was helped in this task by a young lady called Sandra, a beautiful girl that the male population of the office unanimously agreed was ‘sex on legs’ and very reminiscent of Loraine Chase in those old Campari TV advertisements. Unfortunately what she had in beauty was not matched by any ability to converse with industry leaders which is illustrated by when she told a company chairman that “Nah” I could not come to the phone as I had gone to the toilet. She did reassure him that I would not be long as I had not taken my newspaper with me “as per usual”.

Eventually it was all arranged. We had a seriously high profile guest list, most of whom seemed to appreciate talking to Sandra more than me. She even got past their protective P.As which I rarely managed One very well known chap even started sending her bouquets and propositions in the post. In the hearing of one of my colleagues she ultimately told this Chief Executive to “push off” or she would set her boyfriend on him. The big day came and off we went on a brand new DC10 aircraft heading south towards our destiny. The plane was so new that it was still being flown by the McDonnell Douglas delivery pilot who wandered out to see the guests, chewing gum and wearing a cowboy outfit including a Stetson which went down a bomb with our group of traditional British gentlemen.

We arrive and were engulfed by everything that Lagos Murtalla Mohammed had to offer. It was hot. It was humid. The air conditioning was not working and the express customs clearance that we had painstakingly bribed officials for never materialised. It took over 90 minutes to get our soggy guests out of that hell hole however, finally we decanted them all into a surprisingly ancient coach which "belonged to a brother" of our airport manager who was charging a fortune for it. In that part of the world the airport manager is the most powerful company man in the country as he controlled everything from upgrades to off-loading.

Our guests usually get whisked through VIP arrival centres and into limousines so they found the whole experience quite educational. At lest it stopped all the talking about profit margins and PE ratios and moved them on to wagering if the coach would hold out and what the ‘strange noise’ was coming from the back axle. I was more concerned about the recent hold ups on this road as there had been a spate of them recently where large planks full of nailed spikes were thrown in front of vehicles. Thankfully the Badagri Expressway allowed us to pass unhindered and the coach groaned into the EKO Hotel front entrance. It remained there for three days as it never started again.

Check-in was fine. We had been given rooms on the 17th floor which was their most recently decorated floor and all was well until we got to the lifts. They did not seem to be working and nobody knew when they would be fixed. I gestured to my motley sweaty group of dignitaries and we started the slow plod up the stairs. I felt like Hannibal leading his elephants across the Alps. On and on we staggered with people falling by the wayside as they stopped for breaks and I ended up like a shepherd dog with sheep coaxing and bullying them forward.

It took nearly half an hour to reach the 17th floor. It was an interesting human drama and a demonstrated of team spirit as they all joined together to help the stragglers make it at the same time. I felt quite proud and told them so however I was interrupted by the ‘ding’ of the lift bell as a porter emerged out of it with the last of our suitcases. I subsequently found out that it was the porters who had diverted the lifts so that they could transfer the bags up from the basement. It was not something I shared with my wheezing guests.

I barely closed my door before the phone started ringing. Apparently nobody had any running water. I started muttering to myself, a malaise that started then and continues to this day. A feeling of pure helplessness flooded over me and I rang the hotel General Manager for some word of explanation. "Welcome to Lagos" came the helpful reply. Welcome to a bunch of smelly, angry and very important customers I sneered back which at least resulted in a crate of Evian water being deposited outside each of our rooms.

The water debacle continued until early evening when miraculously it started running fitfully and brackish through our taps. I could hear the ironic cheers echoing down the 17th corridor as I settled myself down into the tepid brown puddle in my bath. No sooner had my bottom touched plastic when the phone rang. It was a call from the secretary of one of my group calling from London to advise me that Mr B could not turn his tap off. He had apparently rung her who rang me. I rang the hotel GM who rang maintenance who rang him back. He then rang me and I rang the secretary who rang Mr B to tell him that the taps operate in a different way to England. He was then able to stop the water so he rang her who rang me. I rang the hotel GM who rang maintenance to say the drama was over. I discovered later that Mr B had the room next to mine. Oh the joys of modern cutting-edge communication…and plumbing.

Somehow we all made it through the next three days. Fortunately most of the guests were blessed with a fine sense of humour and also spent most of their days visiting local offices thus passing responsibility onto their own folk. The end of the tour had come and all that remained was to run the gauntlet of the Badagri Expressway and head for dear old Blighty. I have to say I was already relaxing as what more could possibly go wrong once we reached the airport Such folly.

To be fair to the Nigerians they had a conscience about the way we were treated when we arrived so they decided to give us a special send off and boy did they achieve that. It turned out there was a special VIP lounge for royalty and heads of state and they invited us to use it while we waited to board. I wandered off to say thanks to our even richer airport manager and left them all with their glasses of champagne. On my return I was startled to see them all tucking in to some local nibbles and snacks provided by our hosts including some very dodgy looking prawns with a curry coating. One thing I have learned is never eat anything so risky and strange smelling before boarding a busy overnight flight.

It started about 3 a.m. London time somewhere over the Sahara when I was awoken by heated and desperate voices. I observed two of my charges having a pushing match alongside a toilet door and it was turning ugly. Then I saw other shapes in the gloom rising all round me and heading for the lavatories. Out of our dozen or so guests at least nine were suffering from acute food poisoning resulting in terrible stomach gripes and the need to go to the toilet instantly if not sooner. Nine people and two toilets? You can do the maths. It was mayhem. These were people in the public eye, household names and there they were literally fighting each other for the next free cubicle. Not nice and I decided to sink deeper in my seat and let them get on with it.

We arrived back at Gatwick in the early hours looking like a group of third world displaced refugees. Never again I thought. And then I remembered that this was the first of four such trips!

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