Tunji Lardner,

Tunji Lardner,

A weeklong electronic journal.
June 30 1998 12:30 AM

Tunji Lardner,

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       Peering through the window on the final approach to Lagos, Nigeria, I couldn't help thinking how quickly things have changed since my last visit, two months ago. In that fateful month of April, I was privy, as were 120 million other Nigerians, to what was clearly a prelude to another civil war. Gen. Sani Abacha was set to execute the latest batch of political opponents, this time a clutch of generals, including his erstwhile second-in-command. He had just been declared the consensus candidate by his five political parties--five fingers of the same leprous hands, as they have been called--and was about to promulgate a decree that would have removed all the legal and constitutional irritants hindering his coronation in October as the truly maximum ruler of Nigeria. The country was gagging on the institutional choke hold of 30 years of military dictatorships. What Abacha was up to was expressing a perverse Darwinian imperative--the next step in the evolution of bad men who wear fatigues, do bad things, and run bad governments. But suddenly, on June 8, in one momentous breath, he died. So much for survival of the species. Nigerians let out a collective gasp of relief. Dictator gone, civil war averted, and hope rising--this was the new collective logic.
       Through the early evening haze was the familiar urban sprawl of Lagos, its mottled patterns taking a clearer shape with every drop of the plane's descent. I could see the long serpentine chain of traffic, the world famous Lagos "go slow," hemmed in on both sides by frenetic little dots of scurrying humanity. Coming into Lagos always fills me with a low-grade dread. Never mind the U.S. State Department's travel advisory, warning all but intrepid travelers to steer clear of Nigeria--much of that is tied to issues of diplomacy, or the lack thereof.
       My worry is much more primal. Am I going to make it out of the airport today? Are the boys of the State Security Services going to invite me in for a chat? If so, how can I get the word out, before I disappear into the maw, that I actually made it to Lagos?
       Usually at passport control, the questions are asked by the man in mufti, while the uniformed immigration officer sits mute, waiting for a signal to rubber-stamp your passport. The uneasy banter with the SSS officer, as he keys your name into his computer, centers around what you last wrote on Nigeria. Then there is that form you fill out, stating your mission in the country, what you will be writing about, and who your associates are. Typically, I fill out the form perfunctorily while assuring the agent that I am visiting for personal reasons, hoping to assure him that I am no threat to the state.
       This time only the immigration officer was there, grumbling aloud about the absence of the security operative at the duty post. After a minor delay in which he made no attempt to interrogate me, he nonchalantly stamped my passport, and off I went to claim my baggage and freedom. Bemused by the ease of passage, I thought to myself, "Boy, what a difference a day and a death makes."

Tunji Lardner is a Nigerian journalist who lives in New York and writes for West Africa magazine. He is a consultant for the United Nations on the Internet and the media, and an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism's Center for New Media.