Going Gongola – Efficient In-Security

Over two weeks ago, I was in Gongola State of Nigeria! A state doesn’t exist officially by that name since 1991. What used to be Gongola State is now Adamawa State and Taraba State. I have my reasons for preferring to use Gongola, not simply because “Gongola” sounds more adventurous. My destination was Taraba State (Jalingo City) but since there is no operational airport in Taraba, and the road is long and insecure, I had to get to Adamawa (Yola) first then proceed to Taraba, which is just less than 200km from the airport in Adamawa. He who traverses the two states in a single journey has earned the right to call it Gongola; after all airports and destinations (local) should be in the same state. And it is. Gongola!

It is tempting to rant about the condition of the airport, but that would be cheap, I would rather write about something more interesting. However the condition of the Yola Airport (Captial city of Adamawa) is still worth mentioning. In summary, Yola Airport ‘s main building was missing its entire roof. The story goes that wind took off the roof… How… is a mystery. Easy to imagine but hard to believe. On stepping out of the plane we saw a group of passengers who were obviously waiting for us to empty the aircraft so they can board it. We walked passed them and their looks were reassuring because they didn’t seem one bit uneasy about the absence of roof, nor did they seem oblivious to it. They seemed to have accepted the situation with grace only a Nigerian could exhibit, difficult to differentiate from pretense. Only on my return journey would the reason be revealed. At this point I was more amused than disappointed. Our human train ended just some tens of meters from the plane. Immediately we saw our bags being unmounted from the aircraft, replaced by luggage of the new passengers, then ours loaded on large trolleys. Within a minute or less, we had the first batch of trolley with our luggage and one simply picks up theirs. In roofless airports, one discovers that aeroplanes are like large cars after all, they have boots!

Gongola State of Nigeria – before 1991

Quite striking was the time efficiency in picking luggage. It seemed retrieving luggage outside, on trolleys took less time than retrieving luggage inside from conveyor belts. What good is technology when it is not more efficient (in time and other resources) than in its absence? That is called a liability. In any computerized systems, we know that a bad setup or configuration of any is bound to be result in waste of resources, if not setback in efficiency. Look around and see how many state-of-the-art technologies have been deployed via government contracts but how useless they are when not set up properly. To be frank, I can’t say the absence of conveyor belt is faster than its presence with statistical confidence because this is the first time I was at this airport so I can’t compare it with the time it takes before the wind. However, it felt like the fastest luggage-pickup time for me across local airports.

Efficiency. This thought about efficiency conditioned my mind to watch out for other efficiencies on the long road to Jalingo (Captial city of Taraba). Typically the journey should take a little over an hour, but due to bad roads and series of security check points, it takes 3 hours (and that is the shorter route). The car for the journey was a Toyota Starlet! (didn’t know these exist today) and it was a good deal; one-third the cost of taking an airport taxi (Peugeot 406). It was 6:00pm. The sun retiring from our horizon, we zooooomed… not really, because we hit the first check point before testing how fast it takes a Starlet to go from 0 to 60km/h.

Toyota Starlet

It would be tedious to narrate the experience at all the check points passed, for both the writer and the reader. Moreover, only the most skilled writers are able to narrate waiting on a queue, on the highway, at night, in prose, and of course in a Toyota Starlet. Through out the journey, we went through eight major check points and five minor ones; the minor ones are the small ones within settlement areas of local governments. And guess what else they have in common apart from having little or no queues… They were the only check points manned by Nigeria Police! That is to say, in this Gongola region, the Police play a small role in security. The Police looked more pathetic than the typical Nigerian Police on the road, a new level of wretchedness.

So who are the bigger security players in Gongola? There was Nigerian Military, NetForce, SARS, Immigration, Civilian JTF (Joint Task Force); I may be missing out one or two more. In case the mind wondered, SARS doesn’t refer to the epidemic, I was told it stands for Special Anti Robbery Squad. It seemed all these groups are doing the same thing which is slowing down cars, then peer in with piercing eye contact to find a weak-target, if identified then exploited. Few found it worthwhile to exploit the driver. They also pick on people with beard, people like me; I am getting used to this Muslim-beard harassment. It is something to deal with another time.

With all these explosions of security groups, some of which are new and others revived, I couldn’t help but think about the situation in terms of efficiency; efficient use of opportunities. Given the security situation in the North East, a lot of economic activities have been halted. Both the legal and the illegal. Therefore there is an unemployment pool of low earning merchants, physical labourers and no-income miscreants, in addition to the graduates sitting at home. Recall, Nigeria budgets hugely for security in recent years. We also know that much of the economy depends on the government expenditure. If I were an entrepreneurial citizen paying attention, and living in these circumstances, adding two-plus-two equals get-a-job-in-the-security-industry! It seems many others in the North East have solved this equation. Perhaps Security is the fastest growing employer in this region… perhaps.

Recently, Amnesty International reported crimes committed by the Civilian JTF, which is no different than those by the Army; I even wrote about my disappointment and a proposal. Witnessing the Civilian JTF in action made me question an inconsequential mis-assumption I had that the Civilian JTF embarked on the task to protect their community, in spite of being civilians, due to a sense of duty. However pondering on the amount of jobs created by the security industry, I am more inclined to think it is a job opportunity; Efficient use of opportunity. Moreover I asked the driver if the security personell on ground are from all over the country. He replied that with the exception of Military, Police and Immigration, majority are local to the North East. Efficient use of local manpower in the booming industry.

The darkness remained as the night got colder, in a car made for the 1970s, on a road evidently made earlier than the 1980s, ever more surrounded by ancient mountains visible as giant shadows casting safety while stimulating imagination… it felt like time travelling. Indeed, this is a journey to Gongola. The surreal atmosphere of the journey even inspired a Spoken Word Poem. The journey brought to mind the saying “it is not about the destination, it is about the journey”. Even this writing is about the journey.

Security check points have also be optimized to be quite efficient, not unlike an industrial production line. The vehicle queues are deliberately made long it seems, in order to create opportunities. To go faster, you pay; that is the service. This business model is similar to many online file sharing services where free users are given a slow speed, not because there isn’t resource available, but so as to create a service a customer would buy into when frustrated enough by the slowness. The security check points would offer valuable case studies for students interested in manufacturing demands; by selling efficiency. This is how it is done.

For trucks which transport certain goods, there is a corporate security efficiency plan. It is assumed that trucks carrying the same goods on the same route, belong to the same industry and those truck drivers must have a corporate body or union. Let us take example of the one I witnessed; the cattle market. Trucks carrying cattle barely slow down for check point queues, simply flash headlamps, indicating it is them and every car is halted until they pass… without checking! The driver explained to me that the union of cattle trucks for that route has a commercial agreement with the Military (which were the majority checkpoints) “securing” that route; they pay a flat sum of N500 per truck per check point and they would be allowed to pass efficiently. Imagine if I was an arms dealer trying to traverse that route? Get a truck with cattle. Easy. The service is so sophisticated that the truck drivers don’t pay the check points directly, the military infantry simply count the trucks that pass, then claim their tab at the end of the week or the day. So if I was a arms dealer, I would probably traverse for free!

For small cars, purchasing efficiency service is optional, unless in the few cases (on my return) when it is demanded. If one decides to pay, the service is called No Delay (Seriously! I heard them call it that) and it costs N50 per car per checkpoint. On one occasion during my return journey, the driver gave them N200, and they asked him to go forward to collect change of N150. No kidding. The service is that no questions are asked, one simply carries on. No Delay is not as well packaged as the service for cattle trucks because one has to queue anyway, No Delay only avoids further delay when your turn to be checked finally comes.

If a small car decides not to go for No Delay, they have to be efficient as well to avoid longer delays. This is how. Put a humble face (the driver), smile if possible, say hi to all the security personnel, then roll down your windows for the security personnel to have an easy view of the insides. At night, in addition, one dims their headlamps while queuing for a check point (to avoid straining the eyes of the grumpy security personnel) and turns on their inner lights for better visibility. In other words, if you don’t want to pay N50 naira at a checkpoint, you have to be overly nice and considerate. But if one is paying, you are entitled to keep a frown, simply dim the head lamps (that may not even be necessary).

That was my efficient-ful road trip. The experience at my destination was interesting in its own right but not much on efficiency so it wont be featured here.

<Few days pass experiencing Jalingo… Back at Yola Airport>

I mentioned earlier that I didn’t understand why the passengers we met on arrival seemed unfazed by the devastated airport. I found out it is because they went to through the same process one goes through in properly functioning airports. The only difference here is that everything is done manually, even the ticket is written on with a pen! This is not a bad thing, in fact I think it is praiseworthy. For every task accomplished by a (computerized) technology, it is important to be able to understand the component processes well so that it could be manually carried out in case of disasters; for instance, a Yola Wind (we know how terrible those are). Even the temporary building, where the manual process takes place, seems to have been put up in a hurry because it is made of ply wood. It is environmentally friendly too because there are minimal electrical appliances powered, not for lighting or cooling, and half the waiting chairs/benches are outside, under a tree with large shade. How African. How environmentally efficient!

As we waited for the new arrivals to empty the aircraft we were to board, I noticed the amazement in a few eyes, and I hope I gave them a similar reassuring look I received on arrival days earlier. They should know that the manual process of check-in is well done at Yola Airport, quite efficient, and the temporary airport is environmentally efficient!

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1 Comment

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One response to “Going Gongola – Efficient In-Security

  1. Bright Longe

    Thank you for a very entertaining article. Another special “Thank You” for the delight the article brought to my family and I. I will explain.
    My family and I have a special connection to Yola (especially the Airport). My mother and sister were born in Yola. My father once worked as an administrator of the Airport. That was a very long time ago.
    After reading your article, I sent a copy to my father. He called me from Kano and we talk for a very long time about Yola. The article brought some very vivid memories to my very old man. Same with my mother. I was a child then and did not remember much about Yola.
    No one in my family have been to Yola since the late 1978.
    I believe the airport was in a better shape then. Thank you for sharing.

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