Extortion of motorists at Lagos airport worrisome – Victim

A Nollywood film producer, Theophilus Akatugba, tells CHUKWUDI AKASIKE about his ordeal at the hands of some officials of the Murtala Muhammed Airport 2 and why the government should protect airport users from extortion and harassment

You recently complained on social media, alleging that some officials were involved in extortion at the Muritala Muhammed Airport II. Can you recall your experience and what happened when you went to pick up your guest?

I was at the Murtala Muhammed Local Airport 2 on a Saturday (June 1, 2023) evening. About two months earlier, I had picked up the same guest at the canopy point. It was normal. When I came, I drove up and parked at the top level. When the guest arrived, he called me that I should come and pick him up where he was standing; they were picking up other people right there. When I got there, I picked him up and after he entered the car, we moved.

 Immediately, I saw a man running towards the front of the car with a spike in his hands. I stopped and was wondering if he wanted to stop the car behind me because they were always fighting with those who render ride-hailing services. While I was making enquiries from him, my car tyres were locked. I came out and asked what the matter was. Then I was told that I had picked up someone at a no-pick-up zone. I was surprised; I told him that I had parked before, showing him my ticket and that I didn’t know that it was a no-pick-up zone. I also told him that I had picked someone there recently.

He (airport official) said that I had infringed the law and I asked what I was supposed to do. I was told that they had to tow the car to their office. I followed them to their office, introduced myself as a journalist and he insisted that I had infringed the law and that I must pay a fine of N50,000. I was surprised; I was having another conversation with him and he wasn’t interested. He was only interested in collecting N50,000 from me as a fine.

What happened afterwards?

I tried to speak with a superior person but he refused. All this while, the car was left in the middle of the road at the airport area where I picked up my guest. After his insistence on paying, I gave him my ATM card to go ahead and he said that the payment procedure required taking my picture. I asked him why taking my picture was necessary. He said in addition to that, I must bring my ID card. I told him that I was paying him money and I said, ‘Why do you have to do all this?’ He said that was the rule. After his insistence, I told him to get their payment and allow me to go. It was the picture-taking that I refused.

Did you eventually allow them to take your photograph?

He (airport official) said if I refused, my car would be impounded. I was now left with no choice because of my VIP guest who I left in the car. I was also worried about his safety. I surrendered due to these circumstances. The man took my picture and then took my ID card. I gave him the ATM and he inserted it in the POS to withdraw the sum of N32,800. That was the final figure he said he was going to allow me to pay. When I inserted my pin, I was debited instantly and I showed him the transaction receipt that the money had left my account. He held the POS machine and was moving around for a while, then came back to tell me that the transaction was declined.

I told him that I just showed him the debit transaction on my account and he said it was declined and that I should contact my bank. I asked him what we should do and he said I must pay again or else, they would get the car and impound it. I told him that I had paid, showed him the transaction receipt, and told him that he had taken N32,800 away from the account and there was barely N8,000 left.

He insisted that I must pay a fresh amount of money while he picked up his radio and called some people who went ahead to clamp down the tyres of the car. My guest became very worried and started to call me. In the midst of that, I was sweating and the guy was adamant and insisting that I must pay the money for a second time. I told him that I didn’t have any money in my account to pay again.

Did you pay another N32,800 to them?

Yes, he was so adamant; he would listen as if he had an understanding but remained adamant. I had to now call my wife who sent in another money and I transferred the money to him a second time. Again, he said that they had not seen it and that I should wait for him to confirm it. I told him that we practically made the transaction together and he saw when it went through but he insisted that I should wait. At this time, the boys were trying to tow the vehicle. When I was trying to stop them from forcefully taking the vehicle to their garage, he now approached me that they had received the money.

Was there any signage or anything written on a board to notify people that the place where you picked up your guest was not a pick-up point?

I didn’t see it because they wrote it in a way that you wouldn’t even notice it. They showed it to me and I can say that they are not as prominent as they should be because it’s not a regular law that we know about. At the MM2, the canopy has always been the pick-up point that everyone uses. If there was a change in the law, it should have been bolder but it was not. I conceded to that but the processes and humiliation they took me through are not worth it for the image of our country. That is not the way to treat someone in an airport because the services are paid for before use. I took exception to that and felt very humiliated at their processes and the fact that the process was at my risk. There was a problem with their machine and they still blamed it on me. As I speak with you, N32,800 has not been refunded to my account and I don’t even know where it is.

Have you made a formal complaint to the aviation authorities about your experience at the airport?

Yes, I have sent a formal complaint. Even the MM2 had sent a reply to me. Now, they were justifying that by saying that they were doing it for the peace of the airport. They are saying that I didn’t obey them. They queried the boys and when they responded, they lied that they warned me, which is not true. They only showed up after the alleged offence as typical with them. They now said on the part of the POS, they would investigate whose fault it was. On that investigation, they’ve not come back to me. I’ve sent a formal complaint and my lawyers have done a formal report to them and given them some days to remedy this. The process is on.

Do you intend to press charges over the incident?

Yes, I will. I will not take the extortion, the humiliation, the illegal taking of my photograph; I didn’t authorise them. They forcefully took my photograph; you can’t treat me like that, I’m not a criminal.

What should the Ministry of Aviation do to put an end to what you describe as extortion at the MM2?

The Ministry must know and realise that they are our gateway, the entry point of our country and states. If the treatment meted out to people at the airport is the general perception that they have about Nigeria, it’s bad. All countries in the world are improving their treatment of visitors because tourism plays a major and important role in improving foreign exchange earnings. Nigeria doesn’t have that yet in terms of the promising nature of Nigeria. We don’t receive enough foreign guests that bring in dollars to our country daily. Foreigners fear Nigeria as a destination.

The aviation ministry must urgently rejig the systems at our airports, they must urgently remove the lowest forms of persons at our airports and bring our best so that anytime a visitor comes, we have them taste a feeling of the goodness of our country immediately they get in. Someone that I know abroad called me over this matter. If the government plans to bring investors and foreign experts to help us improve the country and we do not improve our frontlines, then we are playing with ourselves.

Do you think those who accosted you did so to extort money from you?

I have every confidence! Can you imagine N32,800 multiplied by 10 people every day? This is money that they didn’t work for; money that they may not account for. It goes into different pockets daily; it is money that is unaccounted for, collected for infringements. What manner of infringement is so serious that you could take such from an individual unplanned? Can you imagine that? It is an absolute dispossession of my money by force. You don’t even have a right as an institution to impose fines. The court has said LASTMA can arrest and prosecute but they can’t impose fines. LASTMA has been charged over such and they were penalised by the court. While the police can arrest you, the police can’t impose fines on you. It is only a court of law that can do so. So, the operations of these guys at the airport, as a matter of fact, are illegal.

You described the airport officers that fined you as downtrodden miscreants, how did the workers approach you?

They approached me with every form of aggression, every form of lack of thought towards the effect of their actions on the society and even the quality and corporate outlook of the airport. They are there working into the wee hours of the night with red eyes. I happened to travel back the next morning and I was on my way to Kaduna when I saw them. The same ‘boys’ have worked overnight with red eyes. With such fatigue, you can imagine how they will pounce on anybody. They will pounce on you because they are personally not happy.

They are forced to do a tough job. They don’t look good at all. We have travelled far and wide and the general feeling, even when we commit an offence in an international space. For example, when I was in Dubai and took photographs where I shouldn’t take photographs, the gentility with which the Dubai Police will tell me not to take photographs was penetrating. That is not the case here; they would have started shouting without courtesy, with aggression. This does not tell well about the quality of humans here.

You used the word ‘downtrodden miscreants’. Don’t you think you were unfair to these guys and their employers as well?

You can imagine my feelings. The word ‘downtrodden’ means that these men are poorly treated, which is true anyway. It means that they are not men of means which is true because if they were, they wouldn’t be like that. When a man is callous, sometimes, it has to do with his will. That’s been downtrodden. Then the word ‘miscreants’ came from the fact that they did not honourably treat me as someone who was to warn me of an infringement. When you want to warn someone, there’s decency. When you go all over the world, see how the police and agents approach you, they tell you, ‘Excuse me, please, don’t do that again’, very close to us here in South Africa, they will keep reminding you about certain rules that aren’t meant to be broken.

If that was the same case for them and there’s an automated warning where you get the same reminder, telling us that the canopy walk is for drop-off and not for pick-up, one would have told the guest to meet up at the car park. You can see that there is civility and they are ready to inform guests who have come there because the airport is not a place that you go every day to become used to the system. Many of us who go there have not been there in a year. For some, it is months and if a friend asks you to pick him up at the airport, will that be the time to read signs?

You also called the employer of these guys a ‘very criminal enterprise’. Do you think that is right?

Yes, the organisation is a criminal enterprise because it has no basis for what it did and has committed a crime against me. Criminality is the fact that you hid around at the scene of the crime and came out to arrest someone when the crime, which is not intentional, has been committed. That is criminal conduct; they took my money criminally, took my pictures under duress and clamped my tyres. They are neither police officers nor law enforcers. They are qualified to be called ‘criminals’ because even if they had the authority to do that, their actions are criminal to the people they are doing it to. Forcefully taking money from people is a crime.

In your complaint online, you said Nigeria is not a preferred tourist destination because of the way guests are treated. How can this be changed?

Beautiful, this is what I said and this is what I have now decided to enlist myself to do because I have always been wondering why Nigeria is lacking dollars, even with many hotels in the country. So, I have taken a look at the hotels in Nigeria and I have always looked at the proportion of guests and I see that about 80-90 per cent are Nigerians who are patronising their own hotels. That shows that the foreign components in our hotels are low, which means that it’s only the naira that is flowing. I have also seen that at the airports whenever we are travelling, you see very few foreigners coming into Nigeria.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *