On Tuesday night, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) assisted the arrival of a charter flight carrying 160 stranded Nigerian migrants returning from Libya to Lagos. It was the 64th of such charter flights since the beginning of the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration programme that has seen to the return of 12,652 Nigerians since April 2017. Speaking at the occasion, the Head of the EU Delegation to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Ambassador Ketil Karlsen said "migration should happen out of aspiration, not desperation."
The precisely is the point being made here in Enugu where I arrived on Tuesday to attend and share perspectives on my book, 'From Frying Pan to Fire: How African migrants risk everything in their futile search for a better life in Europe' at the workshop organized by IOM Italy and IOM Nigeria in partnership with the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). Nigeria, according to EU statement yesterday, "is a source, transit and destination country for women and children victims of sex trafficking and forced labour in the forms of prostitution, domestic servitude, begging and sometimes trafficking in human organs."
While we reflect on how we came to acquire such notorious reputation and the desperation that now pushes many of our young people (both the skilled and unskilled) to believe they have no future in their own country, I depart Enugu this afternoon for Umukor, Nkwere, Imo State to attend the burial of Lady Bernadette Ucheju Azodoh, the late mother of my pastor, Dr Evaristus Azodoh. And from there tomorrow, I move to Amii-Akabo, also in Imo State, for that of the former president of the Pan-African Parliament, Hon. Bethel Amadi. Incidentally, it was at Amadi's service of songs in Abuja on Monday that I got a news alert on the passage last Saturday of Pastor Tokunbo Olorunnibe, our beloved National Head Usher at the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG).
Given the doom and gloom I see all around, including how some 'special units' of the police are now populated by killer gangs who terminate the lives of innocent citizens without any provocation and the gruesome murder of five of our soldiers by a Boko Haram faction, my heart is too heavy to write this week. But going through my old columns, I stumbled on a piece I wrote in November 2014 with the title, 'Lessons Beyond the Tears'. On a day such as this, I commend it to my readers again.
Something interesting happened on my way to Oshodi this morning. At the motor park, this rough mean-looking conductor was screaming for passengers, his vernacular oscillating between Yoruba and Pidgin English. 'Oshodi! Oshodi!' he shouted angrily as I, along with some other passengers, struggled for seats. There was this beautiful young lady who waited patiently until the bus was almost filled. Then she pleaded to sit by the conductor until somebody came down, when she would have a proper seat.
The bus conductor didn't even look at her pretty face; he hissed and shouted at the driver to move, while asking the girl why she didn't rush like the other passengers. The girl started pleading in Yoruba interspersed with English before saying, 'I know you are a good man, never mind the fact that you have been shouting', (that elicited laughter). 'Let me sit by your side, please', she added.
Finally, with much frowning of face the conductor relented and she sat beside him. It was a tight squeeze but she didn't complain. Instead, she started praising the conductor who in turn started teasing her, speaking (and sometimes spitting by mistake) into her face but the girl never looked away as she kept smiling. He asked her where she worked and she replied that she was a student at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) studying accounting. The conductor teased her in Yoruba about why her boyfriend didn't drop her at her destination but the young lady laughed it off and continued to gist with him in Yoruba.
When she reached her destination, the conductor alighted from the bus for her to come down. She did and paid her transport fare. Then the conductor told her to give him a peck on the cheek for being so 'gentlemanly', although he was really not serious about it. Then it happened! The lady jumped forward and gave him a peck on the cheek! She then waved bye and ran down to her street.
The driver and other people began to hail the conductor who started joking, saying he knew he was irresistible etc. and others were taunting him. But not long after, the conductor put his head down and became uncharacteristically quiet. The driver soon asked the guy why he wasn't calling out bus-stops anymore, wondering whether the pretty girl had cast a spell on him. At that point, the conductor said something in Yoruba that I didn't quite understand and then his voice became emotional and believe it or not, he started to cry. Others were now consoling him in Yoruba.
When I asked what the problem was, the lady beside me explained that the conductor said he just realised he would never be able to get a girl like that in his life. He was weeping because he knew no girl of her class might ever do to him what that girl just did, to touch a dirty person like himself; that the girl is nice and well brought-up and that if he had money he would have chased after her. So the passengers were consoling him in Yoruba that he would go higher in life and be able to marry a girl like that and that he should not cry because it was not the end of the road for him. That really touched me. For a moment in that conductor's life, his facade of a street thug fell away and he was a vulnerable emotional aspiring young man, just like everybody else.
I have taken the liberty to edit the foregoing story, but I have not added anything to the content nor have I distorted the message. While it was published on 19th November on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) News website without attribution, a Google search reveals that it was actually written and published on another website a day earlier by a Mr Roy Ofili. What I find rather interesting is that all the people who have commented on the story cannot see beyond the proverbial beauty and the beast and the fact that even roughnecks have their moments of introspection and sanity. I can see more in the story but there are certain assumptions we must first consider.
The first assumption is that the society failed the boy. In this context, we can look at the role of government. On Tuesday, the 2014 World Population report was launched in Lagos. It is an annual publication of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) which focuses on emerging demographic changes in population and how they impact on development. Titled "The Power of 1.8 billion: Adolescents, Youth and the Transformation of the future," the report draws attention to the fact that nine out of ten young people (between the ages of 10 and 24) live in less developed countries (including Nigeria) despite limited access to education and growing poverty. The question therefore is: How many of such young people that populate our society today would end up at the motor parks or similar stations in life due to no fault of theirs?
The second assumption is that the conductor was probably brought up by parents who did not consider the education of their child important enough to make the necessary sacrifices as some of our equally deprived parents did. Unfortunately, our society is today replete with irresponsible parents, especially among the menfolk. Many of them are no better than sperm donors who father children they don't care for, leaving the women to bear the burden. It is therefore little surprise that many of such children end up as motor-park touts or Almajiri.
Finally, we can also assume that the conductor probably had the opportunity to go to school but wasted it. So, we can argue that the fault was not with his parents, in which case he was just another wayward child and we have many of them in our society. That then explains why the conductor was shedding what must have been tears of regret. He knew that having a decent and pretty girl like the one he encountered in the bus as a wife required some years of preparations and enormous sacrifices. But there was no way to rewrite the past.
Yes, those who were consoling the conductor that all was not lost also knew what they were saying; after all, the boy could join politics, beginning as a thug and graduating into perhaps becoming a godfather of sorts with support from the motor park - a financially rewarding endeavour given the career trajectory of those politicians whose memories we should preserve. The conductor could even end up in the National Assembly where his dexterity at throwing punches or jumping fences could come handy! But if we are honest, those passengers must know, like the conductor himself knew, that it would take the special grace of God for him to disembark from what was easily a bus-ride to a purposeless life.
Today, there are also many of our yesterday's men who are living in regret of what might have been because of the opportunities they squandered when they held positions of authority. The roads they didn't build, the hospitals they neglected, the schools that collapsed on their heads and the many compromises they made in the course of seeking or retaining power. Unfortunately, it is not them alone who are bearing the consequences of those choices; it is millions of our people that have witnessed a nation with so much promise unravelling before their very eyes.
It is within that context that I would want us to look at why it is always better to do the right thing at the right time so that we would not end up, like the conductor, with tears of regret that could easily have been tears of joy, given a different scenario. However, for those who believe in the power of redemption, we can also assume that the story of that hapless conductor did not end at the motor park. Having realised his mistakes, he probably decided to take responsibility for the past and make efforts for a better future that was still within his reach. After all, it is never too late to embrace a more productive approach to life. As it is with individuals, so it is with nations. There is no doubt that Nigeria has squandered its riches and mismanaged countless opportunities and potentials. But as late in the day as it may seem, our country is not a lost cause.
Finally, let us come back to that beautiful girl who did not see a conductor but rather another human being. The girl in the story represents the ideal leader: the one who does not relate with citizens on the basis of status, ethnicity or religion; one who gives everyone their due; one who believes that even a conductor deserves to be treated with respect and dignity and one who would fire the imagination of the seemingly hopeless (in this instance, with a simple peck), that could mark a turn-around in their fortunes.
Whichever way we look at it, in both the public and private sectors, our society is in dire need of leaders with the character of that 'Danfo girl'. Will they please stand up and be counted?