It was early one spring afternoon when I landed at an airport in a central African state which I shall not name here. My first sights of the country were welcoming. It had a temperate climate, which reminded me of Perth in Western Australia, and it was a nation with wide open spaces. But, I wasn’t even out of the airport when my thoughts that first sights can be deceiving was further strengthened.
“You are only allowed here for 24 hours sir,” the tall and burly immigration officer told me after he spent a good 10 minutes going through my passport. That threw me completely off guard, what more after the energy-sapping flight that first took me to Singapore, a long transit in Johannesburg, South Africa, before reaching my final destination.
While I tried my best to maintain a calm disposition, knowing too well that the last person one should argue with are the immigration officials in some foreign land, my explanation that the state’s diplomatic mission in Kuala Lumpur had granted me a 14-day visa was simply brushed aside. Soon, the clincher came when the officer signalled me to follow him aside and, almost whispering, asked whether I had any American dollars with me.
“Give me US$20 (RM84) and I will grant you 14 days,” he said.
Tired and increasingly agitated because by then, my passport was being passed from one officer to another, I relented and, in a breeze, was already at the baggage carousel. By then all I wanted was a bed and a shower and seeing the hotel I was booked in was a joy. But, little did I realise that my experience at the airport was the beginning of my discovery of deep-rooted flaws that has kept the country in a sorry state.
The hotel looked empty when I got down from the taxi and, after checking in, I was whisked to a room with a window opening up to a back alley. I asked the bell boy whether it was possible to change to another facing the main street in front. His answer almost made me burst into laughter.
“To change your room you will have to write to the Tourism Ministry sir, and that will take about a week,” said the frail gentleman.
“Ok, what will it take for my room to be changed without writing to this Tourism Ministry of yours?” I asked almost to the point of exasperation.
“You give me US$20 and I change you now sir,” he exclaimed, while his hands were already reaching for my luggage. And, more was to come.
Feeling fresh after a shower, I was about to take a nap when a knock on the door startled me as not only was I not expecting anyone, I didn’t even know anyone there.
I almost fainted when I opened the door, for in front of me, stood a tall and stocky soldier, in full combat gear, with a rusty Russian-made AK47 slung across his chest.
“I have been assigned by the Ministry of Defence to be your guard, sir,” he said nonchalantly.
“I didn’t ask for a guard. I am not an important person, just a journalist here to cover an event,” I replied.
“But you must be guarded when you move about. This place can be dangerous,” he said.
“Fine. Why don’t you stand outside while I take a nap. I have had a long flight,” I told him as I closed the door.
So, throughout the evening, he stood there and later escorted me downstairs for dinner. That night, he kept knocking on my door every 15 minutes or so and each time I opened, would ask, “Are you ok, sir?”
I eventually got irritated and asked him to call his superiors to tell them that they probably got the wrong person to guard and that I was doing just fine on my own.
“You will have to pay US$20 if you don’t need a guard, sir,” he replied.
And so, that was that and I never saw him again.
As I started to learn more about the nation, nothing that I discovered about its state of affairs were surprising after my earlier experiences at the airport and the hotel. What was left of its economy was heading towards oblivion.
In my years of reporting, I had never come across a state experiencing hyperinflation. This country had an inflation rate in the tens of thousands per cent. Its currency was just worthless pieces of paper as it became impossible to ascertain what its true value was against other currencies on the foreign exchange market.
Salaries of its workers were in the billions of the local currency unit a month, although on the exchange market, such astronomical numbers translated into just around US$1.
Many shops and retail outlets continued to quote prices in the local currency although prices kept changing daily. The price of a loaf of bread quoted in the morning may not be the same as what it would be in the afternoon. In short, the nation’s economy was almost wiped out.
It was otherwise a beautiful country, with weather that was perfect for all year farming and one that was endowed with natural resources, such as precious stones. It started declining just a few years before I got there, largely on account of it being poorly governed. Corruption was rampant and, according to reports by authoritative international finance bodies, was prevalent and accepted across all strata of its society, including the people at the immigration counter, the hotel bellboy and that lone soldier I met. It would not be wrong to say that in that otherwise beautiful place, corruption was institutionalised.
The gap between the rich and poor had widened within a span of a few years as jobs became scarce and the cost of living skyrocketed.
One afternoon when I was there, curiosity led me to a queue that stretched almost a kilometre long through a few blocks of building.
I was shocked upon turning a corner, where the long line of people started, to find out that they were actually queuing for the bus after working in the city. When I asked one of them about the long queue, he just shrugged and said that there were just not enough buses as most were in a state of disrepair as the state-owned transport company was starved of funds.
Corruption is indeed cancerous. If left unchecked, it will first wipe out entire systems of doing things, before eventually wiping out the economy, society and ultimately entire nations. It is an age-old worldwide problem that must be eradicated. For a nation, once corruption is accepted as a norm, its days are numbered.
Mustapha Kamil is the newspaper‘s group editor. The profession has taken him to all corners of the globe