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COVID-19: Unruly VIPs and airport security 

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The Federal Government the other day warned state officials and Very Important Persons (VIPs) against flagrant abuse of travel protocol, as flights resume in the COVID-19 era. The concern is apt, though an ugly reminder of the gross indiscipline that has become a way of life among notable figures in the polity. In this age of pandemic and uncertainties, it behoves President Muhammadu Buhari and his men to lead by good example and invoke the full wrath of the law against defiant – not minding whose ox is gored in the interest of public good.

After three months of harrowing restrictions, commercial flight services last week made a cautious restart amid stringent rules. Like in other parts of the globe, handlers are fast realising that the pandemic is on a long-haul. The World Health Organisation (WHO) at the weekend said our sick world might get well but not anytime soon. In the interim, we all must help the sick to live, prevent ourselves from getting sick and hope for the best. It is this guarded optimism that has ushered diverse health and safety restrictions into aviation, which often prides itself as the business of freedom.

With the mandatory use of face mask, physical distancing markings, multiple screenings, early arrival at airports, no meals onboard, regular decontamination of aircraft, High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters in the cabins, among other protocol, travellers would have seen that it is the dawn of a new normal in air travel. The Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) has the duty of implementing this protocol and ensuring that everything goes well at airports nationwide. FAAN has said the new arrangement forbids VIP aides or welcoming parties in the terminals. Also barred are loitering travel agents, taxi drivers, and roving Bureau de Change agents, among others, to avert crowding in and around the airports. And for good measures, Buhari and the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 have agreed with FAAN.

However, a major fear that accompanies the new normal is its compliance, especially among those that should know better. They are the top officials with special privileges and persons of great influence or prestige, that is, VIPs. Majority of the so-called privileged class in Nigeria have a penchant for disobeying the law. Some of them are the lawmakers and law enforcement personnel. With them all over the polity, ours is like one state, two categories of rules. The written rules are for the masses, while the VIPs are laws unto themselves. In fact, they unfurl their indiscipline better at our airports. VIPs pass the airport resisting all forms of health and security checks. They circumvent terminal rules that state: travellers only, each passenger to his or her baggage, no ammunition and other prohibited items, and so on. Meanwhile, they all freely comply with these same provisions when they travel abroad!

Several lawmakers and public officers are worse. Recall that it took the late Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari, to write to the leadership of the National Assembly in March, complaining that senators and honourable members of House of Representatives who were coming from overseas and COVID-19 endemic countries were resisting health screening at Lagos and Abuja international airports. It is such folly in the place of wisdom that has lured the country into the rampaging arm of COVID-19.

Our leaders always love to do us in. During the recent interstate lockdown, there is still no accounting for the numbers of state governors, ministers, and lawmakers who freely travelled by air and road, crisscrossing Lagos and Abuja for selfish political reasons. If those are VIPs that are ignorant of civil aviation rules, the critical sector also once had the misfortune of being managed by a minister who once tried to force his way to the airside of an international airport without any security clearance or even reflection jacket! He believed his title should open all aviation doors. No! It took some courageous aviation security agents to square him up and put him in his place. It suffices to say that many of our elite corps members are just lawless. It is a little wonder that the Afrobeat maestro, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, once rebuffed the VIPs, calling them Vagabonds in Power! (VIP). And they have lived up to that billing till present.

Let’s face the fact, the local airport rules are akin to global civil aviation guidelines. They are safety and national security-related rules designed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and domesticated by various in-country Civil Aviation Authorities. With the COVID-19 getting into the mix, the WHO and International Air Transport Organisation (IATA) have added some collectively agreed rules into civil aviation globally. For instance, ICAO, through the Council Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART), is partnering with member states, international and regional organisations, and industry to address the COVID-19 challenges, providing global multilayer guidance for a safe, secure, sustainable restart and recovery of the aviation sector. Among the measures are health checks, sanitisation and physical distancing. So, our unruly VIPs are not doing Nigerians any favours complying with the rules. It is the global standard practice that all air travellers must subscribe to, be it at London Heathrow in UK, Port Harcourt International Airport, Rivers State, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, U.S., Kastina Airport in Kastina State, Changi Airport in Singapore, Benin Airport in Edo State, or whatever destination of choice.

The President has done the right thing by urging all to fall in line. But charity should begin from home. Our leader should encourage compliance through leading by example. It makes a good awareness campaign for the president to take a tour of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, get screened like all passengers should, and even personally carry his brief case as he had seen other world leaders do at United Nations’ meetings. The president should wear face mask too. Without one, our President is not too different from leaders who are still self-deluded about the pandemic. The world cannot afford another President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who discountenanced COVID-19 pandemic and refused to use face mask in public even when coronavirus-associated death toll hits 70,000 in his country. Last week he tested positive, landed in Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and on ventilator!

The point is that real leadership is all about the right examples. No government is successful if its leader considers personal example as contradiction in term. It is safe to assume that the whole narrative about safety compliance will change faster when Buhari takes the lead than hours of PTF’s telecast will hope to achieve. Buhari should, therefore, find his hitherto courage to lead by example, not by talks. The next step is to deal decisively with defiant and those posing as enemy of national and global safety. The system should as well encourage the public to say no to unruly and undisciplined public officeholders. It is the route to collectively etch our salvation at this time of debilitating health emergency. At issue is public safety.


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