Of Respect and Foreigners


Tosin Awotesu





Let me start by stating what I’m not. I’m not a racist. I do not view the world through the complexions or colours of the human skin. However, I do love my heritage as a Black person and as a Nigerian. It has nothing to do with whether or not I support the country’s political and economic status quo. I just love being Nigerian, because it’s all I know and since I’ve known this I’ve enjoyed it warts and all.


As a member of Respect Nigerians Coalition (RNC), the group championing the ongoing boycott of British Airways’ goods and services by Nigerians and friends of Nigeria, I’ve had to go to the British Airways offices at No 5 Oyinkan Abayomi Close, Ikoyi, Lagos on Thursday, May 15, 2008 as part of the peaceful protest kicking off the boycott campaign in Nigeria. All we had were little pamphlets saying “Boycott British Airways”. But what did we get when we got there? Scores of stern-looking, armed-to-the-bloody-teeth, mobile anti-riot policemen! They had their tanks, their trucks and had cordoned off the area! Obviously, they were ready for us – the supposed trouble-making hoi-polloi looking to ruffle the pristine feathers of their beloved British Airways! So, what was meant to be a low-level affair became a Lagos show!


Now, I do not intend this piece to be a blow-by-blow account of what went on inside the British Airways offices on the day. I’m writing this as a witness to a condition. This condition is what the one and only Abami Eda, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would have called “colo-mentality”. Mr Adrian Mcloy, the white BA country representative was fully adorned in his colonial garb. Like his Indirect Rule practicing predecessors he sent forth his Nigerian minions to do the dirty job of confronting their protesting countrymen. Ademola Adedoyin, the BA Public Relations Consultant was at his voluble best, yakking on about their insulting press release that was nothing more than a skyscraping tissue of lies. I then threw him a question: “If all of us are talking like you are doing now, shouting, gesticulating and generally getting exercised in an attempt to make our point, will it be enough for you to call in the police and order everybody out of here”? He was taken unawares. He muttered and stuttered something that effectively amounted to silence.


The point I was making was clear to him. They claim that British Airways has been doing business with Nigerians for 71 years, yet they do not understand the social and communicating attitudes of Nigerians. Everyone knows that most Nigerians appear to speak forcefully or loudly without intending to come to blows. Yet, British Airways, after 71 years, felt the mere fact of a number of them complaining about the unjust arrest of Mr Ayodeji Omotade on the day was enough to “offload” the whole Economy Class!   


Indeed, Mr Mcloy at a point in the discussion felt he had to bring in his sorely missed wisdom. When asked why it was only the First and Business Class passengers that were flown later that day, he responded to the effect that it is unimaginable, almost immoral, that these high-paying customers should be made to suffer for an incident happening far away from First and Business Class areas. When I asked why the non-disruptive passengers in the Economy class weren’t given the same treatment as their First and Business Class counterparts, Mr Mcloy suddenly turned deaf and dumb! Mr Mcloy could also not explain why a plane that left roughly about six hours after the incident couldn’t fly these allegedly disruptive passengers, who, one must suppose, have had sufficient time to cool off, if indeed they were as angry as the BA people are making out.


Of course, it really wasn’t about the conduct of the passengers, but the disrespectful intentions of the British Airways staff led by the pilot. In that same office, during our discussion, was Cyril Udoh, a non-disruptive passenger on the plane who gave a detailed account of events on the day, categorically stating that no British Airways member of staff was assaulted as claimed by their lying press release! Mr Udoh challenged them to prove that any member of staff was physically assaulted and again, Mr Mcloy had no answer, except to resort to the refrain that he’d be contacting the London office with our complaints. It did not matter to Mr Mcloy that Mr Willie Walsh, the BA Chief Executive Officer and their London office have been deluged with complaints from Nigerians on this issue. He was intent on reinventing the wheel while craving our indulgence to watch him do so!


For me, after addressing the press and heading home, what I ruminated over was the penchant of some Nigerians to worship the white man. The whole exchange with the BA executives was an exercise in age-calcified disrespect. Mr Mcloy cared very little about his Nigerian staff or the issue. He was patently uninformed, yet doggedly invested in the idea of propping up the lies in their press release. I’m also concerned that the Nigerian executives, being Nigerians and knowing how this case has affected Nigerians worldwide, were not well informed about the case. So, who fights our corner within the BA establishment?


The issue is simple. BA has treated Nigerian passengers on the day with contempt. All we are asking is an apology. BA has never hesitated to apologize to white folks when they complained; so, why is it difficult to do the same to Nigerians when they’ve evidently hurt us? The answer is simple. They know we hardly respect ourselves. They know with a few bob they can get our own police to stop a peaceful protest. They know they can get Nigerians beating the path to their shops by initiating one price-reducing promotion or the other. They know only very few of us shouting and protesting can actually afford the exorbitant prices of their tickets.


While one is a little grateful that some government officials, including the President have said one or two things on the issue, the Attorney General, Mr Michael Aondokaa and other government officials need to note that British Airways till date are yet to apologize to Nigerians. Instead, what we see, in typical British style, is a play on words. “We regret” doesn’t mean “We are sorry”, especially when in the next paragraph they accuse Nigerians of violence without providing proof of such violence. You can’t pee on me and tell me it’s raining! With the consistent disrespect Nigerians suffer abroad, not a few countrymen and women now think our government can only bark and not bite. Indeed, this is an opportunity for government officials at all levels to show initiative by joining Nigerians, in their official and personal capacities, to boycott British Airways.


Equally important is the role of the elite. Quite often, organizations like British Airways act the way they do because they take our elite for granted. They know it is not the ordinary man in the streets that make up the bulk of their customers, but the elite. Yet, they treat these Nigerian customers with disrespect because they assume we have no sense of self-worth and would always pick up the ticket as a status symbol, no matter how disrespectfully we are treated. They are sitting comfortably now, refusing to apologize for their appalling conduct and turning up their noses at Nigerians, because they think the elite would never join a British Airways boycott protest because of their supposed dependency. I suggest it’s time we prove them wrong. It’s time the movers and shakers of our society join ordinary Nigerians to give British Airways a lesson in good corporate citizenship by speaking with the power of their purses as well. Right now, British Airways think they’ve got our number and are looking to simply ride out what they consider to be this storm in a teacup. It’s incumbent upon our fare-paying elite, the Gold Card and Executive Card holders, to tell them they’re wrong.


We are the new Nigerians - the ones taking over from our fathers who for decades patiently fought the British for national freedom. We have traveled round the world and we know where the shoe pinches. This campaign is about individual dignity and national respect. Let’s all boycott British Airways goods and services till they find it within themselves to do the decent thing.


Let’s teach British Airways to respect Nigeria and Nigerians.


Tosin Olu- Awotesu