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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Flying Last Class -- My Immediate and Unceremonious Deportation from Nigeria, the Joys of Moroccan Airport Transit Area Imprisonment, and the Hassles of Doing Business in Africa

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(No technical material in this post -- this one is pure "travel nightmare non-fiction", with some related general political commentary at the end....)

I recall Warren Buffett stating at some point. that, while he ate the same hamburgers and used the same laptops as people with more ordinary net worths, he did not travel the same way.   He traveled by private plane, which he considered qualitatively different from traveling via commercial jets and public airports.   At the time he made the comment he was peddling time-share jets, arrangements in which a person can buy the right to use a private jet drawn from a particular fleet, say, 10 times per year.   This is cheaper than owning one's own jet, so it opens up private jet travel to a certain class of people who are only extremely rich rather than keeping it restricted solely to the insanely rich.

The frustrating, time-wasting aspect of the routine of being a commercial passenger was parodied beautifully by South Park in their "It Machine" episode, in which an entrepreneur created an alternative to air travel that looked like a human-sized, fast-spinning hamster ball.   The new device had the downside that, in order to operate it, you had to get reamed up the butt by an onboard dildo.  But the punchline was, "Still, it's better than dealing with the airlines."   In any case, the airlines sent thugs to shut down the operation manufacturing and distributing the new device, as it threatened their market hegemony.  (It turned out that the dildo was an unnecessary feature inserted by the machine's inventor due to his own perversions.  But that's another story.....)  

I haven't yet traveled by private jet (at time of writing, mid 2016 ... in the future who knows ... I do have a couple friend with private jets but they haven't yet invited me to fly with them -- hint hint -- ), but I've experienced the scope of commercial travel options, from first class  -- where you're treated like a prince -- to "last class," where due to paperwork irregularities you're effectively jailed in a remote corner of an unclean airport terminal and deprived of most rights for an arbitrary period of time.  

My most extreme first class experience was when I got flown to Kazakhstan, to meet with the Prime Minister to discuss AGI and longevity.   Not having a private jet, I still had to change planes 3 times en route from Hong Kong to Astana.   And one of the changes was in Urumqi, which -- as I've observed since then through repeated trials -- nearly always seems to involve missing a connection.   (Flights into Urumqi are nearly always very late -- I'm not sure why, but I have a hypothesis.   Urumqi is the capital of Xingiang, China's major Muslim province, and it seems the central government's air traffic control algorithm does not prioritize getting flights out to Urumqi on time.   The good news is, spending a night in Urumqi is usually reasonably pleasant -- the people are extremely nice and the Xingiang food is delicious.)   Still, except the missed connection in Urumqi on the way there, every connection was extremely smooth, due to never having to wait in any line -- there were VIP lines (with no waits) for first class passengers at every step of the way.  Asian airports are pretty rigorous about giving first class passengers special treatment.  The seats were invariably super-comfortable, so I could sleep as much as I wanted on the flights, without being woken by an aching neck or a stiff leg.   The food on the flights was good, and the food in some of the VIP lounges at the airports where I changed planes, was really quite delectable.   The VIP lounge in the Bangkok airport was especially memorable.  It's easy to see how one would become a fat capitalist pig, traveling from one VIP lounge to another and feasting on the "free" ritzy hors d'ouvres.  

Perhaps the oddest aspect of traveling first class I've found -- especially in Asia -- is the bizarre degree of deference shown by the flight attendants.  They seem so tentative and apologetic when asking me to put on my seatbelt. They are constantly monitoring in case it seems like you might need a little food or water, or help operating the machinery of the seat.   The vibe is very much that they are your temporary servants, the idea being that many of the folks in first class are quite accustomed to having servants.  Of course, a good percentage of them are just ordinary folks who have used frequent flyer miles to upgrade their seats to first class, or people like me traveling on business with their seats paid by some organization.  But the vibe is still one of masters and servants -- quite unlike in economy class, where the flight attendants are often overworked and expressly irritated to have to deal with so many people and their demands ... and where getting a simple request fulfilled (like, say, a cup of water) can require repeated reminders, or polling various staff until one finds one who will help.

Traveling in first class, things seem easy and leisurely, and one begins to view the hordes of economy class passengers buzzing around crowdedly in the back part of the plane as an entirely different species -- maybe some sort of bug-people.

Nevertheless, I have never chosen to spend my own money on first class tickets.  I'd much rather save the exorbitant fees and be one of the bug-people, unless some company or conference is paying the bill....

And of course, from the perspective of the Warren Buffetts of the world, who fly only in their private jets, the self-important slightly rich or upgraded people riding in first class are not too far off from the even more peonic peons huddled back in economy class.   A king from one perspective is a bug from another; so it goes....

On the other hand, I experienced the opposite of any sort of luxurious, top-class treatment on a trip to Nigeria -- which ended up involving only a very brief stay in Nigeria itself.  I was supposed to go there to deliver a speech to a conference called "Disruptive Africa", dealing with radical tech innovation in Africa.   The folks organizing the conference seemed great -- ambitious people thoroughly devoted to bringing advanced tech to Nigeria and West Africa.  The title of the conference felt a bit ironic to me, as isn't Africa disrupted enough already?  But I had spoken at one of their previous conferences via Skype, and been reasonably impressed by the questions after my talk, so I was interested to go meet the people face to face.

The organizers warned me to apply for my Nigerian visa long in advance, but I was busy so I started the process only 3 weeks before my travel there.  This was the root of my problems.  As an American I'm not used to elaborate visa application processes -- generally for Americans, travel to foreign countries is either visa-free, or involves a rubber-stamp visa-on-arrival, or an eVisa application done online in advance and resulting in a visa a couple days afterwards.   China still requires Americans to apply for a visa via one of their embassies, but there are agencies that will get this done for you with a day or two notice if you are willing to pay a couple hundred dollars fee.

Other African countries I've traveled to, give Americans a visa on arrival without much rigmarole.  The only subtlety is that you sometimes need a "yellow card" signed by a doctor proving that you've had a yellow fever vaccine.   Nigeria is different though.  From what I could understand, the process of getting a tourist or business visa to Nigeria involves (in 2016) the embassy  holding your passport for at least 2 weeks, sometimes more.   At the time I was preparing to speak at this conference in Lagos, I was not able to give my passport to the Nigerian embassy for 2 to 3 weeks, because I was visiting the US and had a couple one-day trips to Canada scheduled in the interim, which required me to have my passport with me.  So I emailed the organizers of Disruptive Africa and told them I couldn't make it this year.

I thought that was that -- but a few days later the organizers responded, and told me there was something called a Business Visa on Arrival.  I was surprised, because I'd called a couple US visa agents dealing specifically with Nigerian visas and none of them had mentioned it to me.  (I would soon find out why....).   But indeed, as they pointed out, there was a website where one could apply for this sort of visa.   Feeling guilty about cancelling my talk, and eager to experience the rising Nigerian tech community, I decided to take that option.

Filling out the online form for the visa was easy enough.  Paying the required $180 for the visa was less easy, because none of my credit or debit cards would work on the website.  Rather, each time I tried to use one of my cards on the site, the result was that no payment went through and instead that card was disabled by my bank's automated anti-fraud system.   I called the bank and asked them specifically to add that website to the list of transaction partners I was allowed to use without being shut down by the anti-fraud software.   They said they would do that.  But it still didn't work.  I ended up needing to obtain a postal money order and mail it to the company that did the business visa on arrival processing for the Nigerian embassy (which has an exclusive contract with the Nigerian embassy, but is not the same as the Nigerian embassy -- a fact that would be hammered home to me a little later).  It was a minor pain in the ass dealing with the postal money order, since the need to send the money order popped up for me in the midst of a hectic business trip around Silicon Valley, but it wasn't really a big deal.   It turns out there's a good old fashioned US post office selling money orders in Palo Alto, just a couple blocks from University Avenue where rich geeks and Stanford students sit in quaint cafes discussing advanced electronic payment systems, and AI and nanotech and web n.0 business deals.

Once the visa process seemed to be underway, i bought a ticket to Lagos -- I was on the US West Coast at the time, so it was a flight to Lagos from San Francisco by way of New York and Casablanca.   From Lagos I would then go on to Addis Ababa for a quick visit to my AI software office there, iCog Labs, and then finally back to Hong Kong -- the last leg of a marathon 6 week journey, mostly within the US.  

A couple days before the flight, I was still a bit confused by the visa process, so I called the company ("Innovate1" or some such) that handled the visas for the embassy, and they assured me that if I downloaded the application form and the payment receipt, and brought printed versions with me, everything would be all right.   I tried to call the Nigerian embassy in New York to double-confirm, but they never answered their phone; I just got put through to a voicemail that was never answered.  (This sort of thing is fairly common for African embassies, it seems.  My daughter tried to find the Ethiopian embassy in Hong Kong at its listed address, and never found it.   Someone else told us that the HK Ethiopian embassy is actually a jewelry store that specializes in selling pirated ivory and so forth.   She also found that the Ethiopian embassy in DC never answers their English-language phone line, but does answer their Amharic-language phone line -- and that the people who answer the Amharic-language phone line actually speak English.)

I wasn't too worried, because I figured once I actually got to Lagos, if there were any problems, the immigration staff could call the conference organizers and they could come to the airport and explain.  This is how things worked in other countries I was familiar with.    In the US, if there's an issue with your immigration, you can get held up a little while, while they get more information.  For instance, my son Zebulon got held up coming into the US recently even though he's a US citizen, because he's Muslim and was flying in from the Arab world.   And when I flew into Ethiopia for the first time, Getnet (my Ethiopian business partner) came into the airport, using his military ID to get into the restricted customs area, to help smooth things over.  So I figured once I actually got to Nigeria, things would be all right one way or another.

Before leaving, at some point I also looked up online to double-check if I needed a yellow fever vaccination certificate -- I had one, but had left it at home in Hong Kong -- but the Nigerian embassy website stated that it was necessary only if traveling to Nigeria from a yellow fever zone.   The US was not listed as a yellow fever zone, so I figured that was OK.  This agreed with what the Innovate1 people had said on the topic, also.

After an 8.5 hour flight to Casablanca, a 5 hour layover (where I enjoyed some decent Moroccan fast food, and admired the elegant-looking Moroccan staff in the airport), and a 3.5 hour flight to Lagos -- there I was in Nigeria, finally.  

The first thing I encountered was a woman telling me that I did indeed need a yellow fever card, or else I'd be immediately deported.   Being immediately deported sounded bad.  I told her what the "Innovate1" people had told me on the phone, and what the website had said; and she said I should have contacted the embassy directly.  I pointed out that the embassy never answered their phone.   She asked if I could give her a little help.   I also pointed out that I had in fact been vaccinated for yellow fever, though I'd left my card at home in Hong Kong.  I also offered to get vaccinated again at the airport if needed.   She repeated that she needed some help.  I offered her $20, but she didn't consider that helpful enough.  Unfortunately I didn't have any other US money in my wallet but $100 bills, so I had to offer her $100.  OK, that hurdle was passed. 

Next step was to pass immigration.   The immigration officers at the regular booths were baffled by the "visa on arrival" concept, but after a while they dug up an official who knew about them, and he looked at my papers and rushed me across the airport to a small "visa on arrival" office.   The officials there did not speak to me at all -- I talked only to the junior immigration guy who dragged me to the visa on arrival office in the first place.  My attempts to speak to them were met with blunt rebuffals.   They looked at my papers and noted that I was missing a piece of paper stating the visa application was approved.  I said that, based on my phone call with the Innovate1 people, I thought all I needed to bring was a print-out of the application and the receipt for payment.   I suggest that perhaps he could wait until the immigration office opened in Lagos (it was 5:45AM or so), and call them and then they could confirm that in fact the visa had been approved even though the Innovate1 website had not correctly produced the piece of paper he was after.

He asked who had invited me there, and I produced the invitation letter from the local organizer of the conference.  He tried to call the organizer, but didn't get an answer.  I pointed out that it was 6AM and perhaps we should wait a little while, and then we'd reach him on the phone and tell him to come to the airport and explain.  I also explained that there would be a crowd of people at the Sheraton there in Lagos waiting for me to speak later that afternoon, so it really would not be a good idea to kick me out or hold me there too long.

However, this officer appeared not to hear anything I said (I'm not sure how good his English comprehension was), and he appeared to draw the conclusion that, because the conference organizer had not answered his phone at 6AM, the invitation letter I had produced was some sort of fraud.   He said something in a non-English language to the junior officer who had brought me to his office, and then I was rushed off somewhere else.  I didn't like the looks of this, but followed along tentatively.

When it became apparent that I was being dragged to the "Departures" part of the airport, I stopped walking and said I didn't want to go to Departures.  I said we should wait until we contacted the conference organizer on the phone, and then he could come and help clarify things, since I didn't understand the situation but he would, being a local.   Since I wouldn't walk, the junior officer finally agreed to call the conference organizer (I couldn't call myself, lacking a local sim card or a Net connection).   We got through now, at 6:20AM.  A brief call ensued, but it didn't seem to affect anything.   I kept complaining that the whole process made no sense.  But the junior officer just kept saying "He didn't answer the phone."   I pointed out that one wouldn't necessarily expect someone to answer their phone at 6AM, it was kind of early.  He just said "6AM is not early for an important business call."

Finally, he said he would have me arrested and put in jail if I wouldn't walk.   I just stood there arguing more, starting to become angry a bit -- and he grabbed my arm to pull me.   It wasn't really a violent scuffle yet, but I could see that potential and I figured I was very likely to be outmuscled by the Nigerian immigration police force, so I bit back my fiery temper and just went along with the guy, arguing all the way. 

I was rushed out through a service door onto the runway, bypassing the normal gates and walkways and so forth, and was dragged-while-walking-very-fast across the runway, past the luggage trucks and so forth, to an airplane that was boarding.

Being a stubborn fuck, again I stopped moving, and told the junior officer this made no sense.  I asked him to please bring me back to the visa on arrival office, so that the senior immigration officer could talk to the conference organizer directly.  He just said, "He didn't answer the phone at first; now it's too late."  

I said "Look, there must be a way" -- figuring this was the time he would ask for a bribe.  I started to realize there must have been some bribery opportunity earlier, that I had missed, in my naivete' and unfamiliarity with the Nigerian "system."

"There's no way now," he said.  "If I bring you back there, it won't be good for you."

"What do you mean?!" I protested.   "Look, there will be a room full of people at the Sheraton waiting to hear me speak about the future of technology.   All around your airport there are signs about how great Nigeria is for international business!   If you want your country to be good for international business, maybe you shouldn't kick out people who have flown here at their own expense to speak at business conferences and start business collaborations with your people!!"

"You came without the right visa paperwork."

"I came with what I was told to bring."

Meanwhile he was trying to physically yank me toward the plane, and I was standing there stubbornly.  

"You were told that by a private company," he repeated.  "You should have called the embassy."

"The embassy doesn't answer their phone," I pointed out again..

"Look, it's hopeless now," he said.  "If I bring you back there now, you will be put in jail, or you will have to pay a lump sum."

Aha, I thought.  Here we are getting to the meat of it.  "How big of a lump sum?"  I asked.  "What's the price to let me stay in the airport long enough for the conference organizer to come here and help?"

Obviously this wasn't quite the right approach.  I started to think perhaps the culturally appropriate move would have been to offer money to the senior immigration officer when I'd been in his office.  But he hadn't really spoken to me directly, nor been willing to listen to anything I said.  Maybe he would have listened to the appearance of green-colored money emerging from my wallet, though.

"You have to come back with the right paperwork," he said.  "You can fly away now and come back tonight with the right paperwork."

"That's a huge waste of time and money," I argued.  "Plus I'm supposed to give a talk THIS AFTERNOON at the Sheraton.   How much of a lump sum do you guys need?"

Another immigration officer came up and grabbed my bags and began carrying them to the plane.   I gave up and followed along.   And before I knew it, there I was on a 6:30AM  plane back to Casablanca, having been in Nigeria about one hour.

My plan had been to proceed from Lagos to Addis Ababa, after the conference, and then from Addis back to my home in Hong Kong.   Having been booted from Nigeria, my new plan was to hang out in Morocco for a couple days, then fly from there to Addis.   Or else, if somehow the immigration mess got solved by the conference organizer while I was on the plane, maybe I really would fly back to Lagos that night.

When I got to Casablanca airport, however, I realized things were going to be much more annoying than that.   Although Americans don't need a visa to enter Morocco, nevertheless they refused to release me into Morocco.   The airline officials put my passport in a locked safe in the airport transit office, and said they were bound by international law to return me to my country of origin.  I pointed out that I lived in Hong Kong and had a ticket back to Hong Kong from Addis Ababa -- I did not have a ticket back to the US and did not live there, even though I was traveling on a US passport.   But they said that they were required to send me, as a deportee, back to my country of citizenship.

Over the next 16 hours, while I was stuck (actually, "imprisoned" would be perfectly accurate) in the transit area of the Casablanca airport, I attempted to argue that I should be allowed to fly to Addis or Hong Kong rather than back to the US.   I offered to buy my own ticket to Addis or HK, if they'd give me my passport and let me on the plane.   The staff in the transit office at the airport seemed to rotate every 2 or 3 hours, so I kept making the argument over and over again to each new batch of staff.   They kept telling me that they had to send me back to the US; but they weren't telling me when their plan of shipping me back to the US would be effectuated. 

The Internet connectivity in the transit area was spotty and restricted -- each device could only get 2-3 hours of Internet and then it would be cut off.  And out of that 2-3 hours, most was lost due to bad connectivity.  I was glad I had a phone and two laptops with me.   But I used up some my precious connectivity time, via letting other people also imprisoned there use my devices to communicate and look up information regarding their own plans.  My power adapter, with its two extra USB ports, was also a valuable commodity there -- most of the people stranded there had no way to charge their phones, which was a major problem.  So during my tenure in the Casablanca transit prison, my laptop and power adapter were continually occupied charging other peoples' phones.

At first I thought there was no food and water in the transit area, but then at some point someone came by and gave me a chicken nugget sandwich and a bottle of Sprite.  I abhor soda but I couldn't be fussy -- it seemed better than the Moroccan sink or toilet water.  The chicken nuggets were actually real chicken, not texturized soy protein -- better than McDonald's at any rate.

(When I started writing this essay, I had some second thoughts about calling the transit area of the Casablanca airport a "jail" in which I was temporarily "imprisoned" -- I mean, I'm sure actual Moroccan prisons are massively less desirable places.  On the other hand, the essential principle of a jail is that you are physically confined and are at the mercy of your jailers.  This principle was fulfilled.  And if you compare to, say, a Norwegian rather than a Moroccan prison, then things look a bit different -- in Norwegian prison you get better food, water undiluted with sugar and toxins, a bed to sleep in instead of a ratty floor, and more and better Internet access.   You even get private conjugal visits.  But the Norwegian prison is still a jail, because you're forced to stay there.   All in all I think the use of the term is fair. The current system incarcerates people in airport transit areas, often quite unsanitary and disgusting by developed-world standards, often for days at a time, in response to minor paperwork errors, or failures in bribery etiquette.)

After about 10 hours of imprisonment there, things seemed to start going better -- the transit-staff-of-the-hour agreed that I could fly to Addis if I bought my own ticket online.   I pointed out there were no direct flights, but he said it was OK if there was a flight change.  With great effort, due to the spotty Net connection, I used about 40 minutes of my precious online time buying a ticket to Addis.  But by the time this was done, that staff member had rotated off.  He had promised me he would tell his replacement about the plan we'd agreed on; but nevertheless, the new staff member would hear nothing of it.   It was back to "No, you have to fly back to the US, because that's the country on your passport."

I argued and wheedled and begged.  I considered attempting bribery, but there were lots of other staff around and I realized it wasn't Nigeria -- I wasn't quite sure what was the risk of being arrested for attempted bribery in Morocco.   Avoiding jail seemed more valuable than avoiding being flown back to the US.    Finally I realized it was hopeless, and I went online to cancel the ticket -- but due to the bad Internet connection I couldn't carry out the operation.  And the flight was leaving quite shortly -- it seemed I was about to lose the $500 I'd spent on that ticket to Addis.  In desperation I emailed a few family members telling them, if they were online, to help out poor imprisoned Ben and cancel the plane ticket for him. Fortunately my daughter was paying attention to her phone and got my message and called the online travel agency to cancel the ticket, which was done without penalty!   Three cheers for the always-online, unimprisoned younger generation!

I was far from the only person in a confusing, indeterminate quasi-imprisoned state in the Casablanca airport.   Although, I was the only white-skinned person among the set of individuals thus afflicted, during the time I was there.  

There was one Canadian girl, apparently of African descent, who had been rejected admission from the Congo due to some visa irregularity.  She assured me this kind of thing happened constantly in Africa, and you just had to grin and bear it.  It always ended after a few days.  She was going to get flown back to Canada, giving up on getting into the Congo for now.  When she heard I was flying to Addis, she asked me to buy her a ticket too -- she said we could be traveling companions.  It seemed fairly clear in context that what was intended was a "traveling companion with benefits".  She was nice-looking and energetic, but that wasn't what I was looking for ... and in the end I wasn't allowed to fly to Addis anyway....  

Another Canadian woman of African descent had been on the same plane as me to and from Lagos -- and had been rejected for the same exact reason as me.   She also hadn't understood how or if or when to make a bribe in that context.   The fact that she had been through basically the same process as me -- except that she had argued and struggled less -- was an indicator to me that I had not been rejected because I looked like a bit of a hippie freak.   This woman looked perfectly normal; she was a well-dressed, well-spoken young black woman, international-looking and -acting so that one couldn't tell by interacting with her if she was a middle-class American or a middle-class African.  Like me, she was just baffled by the Nigerian way of doing things, and had come with what she had rationally believed -- based on the information she'd been given -- to be an adequate set of documents to get a business visa on arrival.

Most of the people detained in that transit area with me were Africans from various nations -- a few were refugees, but most were just ordinary citizens who had fallen afoul of some country's bureaucratic immigration peculiarities.   They all seemed to take their predicament with much less annoyance than yours truly.    To them, this was just part of the process of traveling -- something that could be expected to occur from time to time.   At 1AM and 2AM, a number of them were singing and dancing together in the transit area, to a loud MP3 player with speakers that one of them had brought.   As they jumped around going "Waka Waka Waka" and so forth, shaking their booties and genuinely making the best of the situation, I did reflect on the benefits of their easygoing attitude -- but nevertheless, being an impatient American, I still wanted pretty badly to get the fuck out of there as quickly as I could.

Anyway, after 15 hours in the Casablanca transit area, I was put on a plane back to New York, my homeland....   From which I immediately booked a flight back to Addis, but at a higher cost than if I'd been able to fly there directly from Casablanca.   By the time I got back to New York my ass was seriously sore from sitting on airplane seats and transit lounge seats for so many hours.  

On the other hand, at least I had had my trusty little Macbook Air with me through it all; and there had been reliable electrical power even if not much Internet.  During all that hassle, I had made huge progress on editing a novel-in-progress that had been sitting on my laptop ("A Secret Love of Chaos"), and I'd finished a long-delayed research proposal.

A nice capstone to the ordeal was that, when I arrived back in New York, it turned out that my suitcase had gotten sent from Casablanca to Lagos, rather than to New York.  Furthermore, the airline had not put the proper tags on it -- so after I waited in line an hour to file a complaint about the missing bag with Royal Air Maroc at JFK airport in New York, they told me the bag did not exist and there would be no way to get it back.  

BUT -- while I was getting this bad news from the airline officer in New York, I got a phone call from someone in Lagos -- an individual named Jacob Ogbonna who worked at the airport there.  He had noticed my suitcase randomly astray there, and had noticed that, while it lacked a proper airline tag, it did have a tag with  my name, phone number and email address on it.  So he called my phone number and he emailed me some pictures of my bag, snapped with his smartphone.   After some back and forth, he arranged for Ethiopian Airlines to send my bag back to Hong Kong for me.   This was a big relief to me, as the bag contained some obscure music equipment and poetry books I had bought in the US -- stuff that was valuable to me because it was not findable in Hong Kong, even though its economic value was not extremely high.

Jacob Ogbonna did not need to help me, he just chose to, because -- apparently -- he is a good human being.   If the immigration officers had been as good-hearted and helpful as Jacob Ogbonna, I would have saved a lot of money and hassle and given my talk at the Disruptive Africa conference as planned.

Anyway, that's done for now -- but I will make it back to Nigeria to give a talk and establish research and business contacts sometime -- maybe next year, we'll see.     I'm not easily defeated, and I realize that getting stuff done in Africa involves a lot of unexpected complexities and requires a lot of persistence.   Next time I will definitely not do the "visa on arrival" for Nigeria though...

Beyond my own personal hassles, I think this little tale of inconvenience and wasted money and opportunity is reasonably indicative of the kind of thing that makes it harder than it should be for Africa to rise in business, science and technology.   Of course, global wealth inequality and various forms of imperialism are major factors stifling Africa's rise.  But internal organizational factors also appear to play a substantial role.

There are so many smart, hard-working and good-hearted people throughout every African country -- but the practical institutional systems there very often act against the goals of the people.   Denying the keynote speaker of a tech-business conference entry the country because of a minor paperwork irregularity (caused by bad advice from a contractor of the Nigerian government, and the inability of the Nigerian embassy to answer their phone), while posting signs all around the airport about the international business friendly environment -- this is utterly symbolic of the current situation. 

I thought a bit, while stewing in the Casablanca transit area, about how truly rich or famous visitors to Nigeria would avoid the kind of hassle I'd experienced.  My conclusion was that they would simply contract with some local Nigerian agency to make all their arrangement for them -- and this local agency would make whatever arrangements were necessary with the immigration authorities (possibly -- no, probably -- no, well, almost surely! -- including payment of appropriate bribes to appropriate people).   The business environment is perfectly friendly for big companies that can afford to appropriately compensate the appropriate array of government officials, and that can hire people who understand the system fully.  But it's not at all friendly to small-time foreign entrepreneurs. 

I have seen similar, though not identical, phenomena in Ethiopia.  Getting into Ethiopia is easy enough ... they offer a "visa on arrival" that is basically automatically granted to everyone from a developed country.    But shipping goods into Ethiopia involves incredible paperwork complexity, and requires more funds than one would think (i.e. much more than the cost of the goods being bought, to deal with various banking requirements).   For a big company with large cash reserves and lots of lawyers and bureaucrats on staff, such things are all easily handle-able.  But for small-time entrepreneurs, the process is extremely arduous and off-putting -- as we discovered while trying to import the materials for our iCog Makers soccer-playing robots into Ethiopia from China.

We got the robots imported into Ethiopia finally... and I'll go back to Nigeria and give a talk eventually.  But I'm pigheadedly persistent, as are my Ethiopian colleagues at iCog.   It's easy to see why a lot of entrepreneurs from the developed world would decide the hassles of doing business with African countries are just too much to deal with, especially given the relative difficulty making profit there compared to other wealthier regions.   If African governments want to help their countries transition into advanced technological economies, they should stop holding things back with byzantine and punitive regulations that make entrepreneurial activity more difficult than in the rest of the world.  

Bear in mind I am not an advocate of unfettered capitalism -- I'm a technoprogressive who advocates a fairly strong role for governments in driving innovation, such as we've seen in South Korea and Singapore.   But it's obvious that at the current stage in human development, entrepreneurial small-business activity is one of the biggest drivers of positive technological and social innovation ... and governments need to foster this rather than place roadblocks in its way.








4 comments:

mlorrey said...

The "strong role for government" has bitten you in the behind and you are mistaking it for a minor groping. As HL Mencken said, "People get the government they deserve, good and hard."

Atilio said...

Spectacular story, funny and cruel.
I hope good Jacob got a tip since you were ready to depart from some of your money in favour of less deserving people.
I agree with your final political and economical views and disagree with the previous commentator since you are not talking of the same thing when mentioning Singapore and South Korea and Nigeria on the other hand.
It is too simplistic to blame the government for cultural problems and put everything in the same bucket as techno-progressive/voluntarism aimed at betterment of society.
Things do not become identical only because there is one agent called government in the picture. That is too silly.

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Unknown said...

Ben, sorry for hearing of this troubles. Perhaps, you need to send this story to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as to the Min of education, if your contacts have government connections, they could send it as well. At least, the officials would get the feedback. Nigeria has been through many coups, which left it with fewer opportunities for proper administrative development. It is different from many less wealthy African countries in this respect. Plus, it is a huge country. In any case, officials in the central government need at least a chance to hear of the problems. Nigeria still has many many problem unresolved, but it will hopefully get through eventually.

Nearly all Nigerians are kind and intelligent people. However, there is probably some honor culture in some guys, which is often inappropriate in modern societies, like nobody would welcome cowboy-style behavior for real life these days. That's ok, it will be harmonized later on.

We had a lovely story of army fighting with police over us (sitting in taxi) in Lagos. We just need to be understanding and try to help. Actually, some automatization and digitalization of administrative processes might help to remove a lot of mess like this.