I look forward to the day that taxi drivers, okada riders, keke riders, old civil service pensioners, can take a trip to a country of their choosing around the world, from Nigeria every other year, to gain perspective and pride. It is no big deal. It is how it operates elsewhere. It is what we should work towards. It is what I see every time I travel abroad.
Thomas Cook Plc collapsed in September. 21,000 people lost their direct jobs with the company. Many others who depended on the behemoth also woke up to idleness. A colossus had sunk. For me, I believe too little has been written about this company and its demise, and I see links that need to be properly explored for our knowledge. I came across the name much earlier in my career, around 1996/7 or earlier, as a bank worker, in the days we used to issue ALL travellers allowances – called BTA (Business Travel Allowance) and PTA (Personal Travel Allowance) in Travelers’ Cheques issued by the company.
There was a time in the military days, when some businessmen could obtain up to $500,000 at a go, for a basic one-week travel. Of course, Nigerians used this for all sorts of crazy reasons. BTA/PTA was used to pay for heavy imports, because the rates were discounted. In many other instances, it was used for money-laundering purposes. I was a young guy then in the bank and all I did was to obey instructions. I still recall some of the big businessmen of that time showing up in the evenings, when much of the bank may have closed, to load up on their ‘travel allowances’. The idea behind Thomas Cook Travelers Cheques was to ensure that cash was not dispensed to beneficiaries of government-enabled travel allowances, which could then make it to the streets immediately. But that probably didn’t work.
There was value in the Thomas Cook Travelers’s Cheques idea. In many instances, it protected beneficiaries. Once you had signed the cheques beforehand, it was tough for them to be hijacked by anyone else and negotiated behind your back. When in 2016, Nigeria had a currency crisis, I suggested that we go back to that Thomas Cook era, especially if government was jittery about giving people so much as BTA/PTA. Of course, the new problem at the time was that we had over five thousand Bureaux de Change shops, all claiming to be servicing the requests of travelers. At some point, these BDCs were issued raw dollars by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), to the tune of $800 million per month, which had jarring effects on our foreign reserve balance. We understand that some of them just provided any type of justification for their disbursement of what was then $100,000 weekly disbursements per BDC. The large number of BDCs meant they could all not be supervised by the CBN. Thomas Cook to the rescue, I thought. But that didn’t happen. By then, the company had divested. On November 8, 2000, Thomas Cook Plc sold the travelers’ cheques end of the business to Travelex, a financial services company, for £440 million sterling. Today, Travelex continues to exist, while Thomas Cook, the parent company, has kicked the bucket.
Thomas Cook, the company, was formed as a travel agency around 1841, by a man so named. He was a cabinet-maker and an ardent Christian (who belonged to the Temperance sect of the time), who believed that it was a good thing for the British people to travel to other countries at least once a year. He believed this would help relieve them of stress. The first tour that the company organised was between Leicester’s Campbell Street railway station and Loughborough, for a teetotal rally, for 500 people. On August 4, 1845, he also arranged a tour from Leicester to Liverpool; and in 1846, he arranged for 350 people to tour from Leicester to Scotland. From that modest beginning, the company basically took over the world. It was a pioneer, and the world’s first travel agency. Today, there are thousands of travel agencies around the world.
One thing I see about companies like Thomas Cook, especially in my visits to the U.K., is that they are very instrumental to the low cost of international travel between the U.K. and the rest of the world. Maybe it is the kind of deals to get. When I see it advertised in the London Underground, of a round trip from London to, say, Dubai, with three days ‘free’ stay at the 5-star Atlantis Hotel, for just £700 sterling (less than N350,000), I rue my fate as a Nigerian. When we see these Brits strutting about all over the world – or their equivalents from the United States and elsewhere – we cannot imagine the kind of discounts and privileges they take for granted. For in a poor country like Nigeria, we pay through our noses for everything. Nigeria is a particularly bad case and we’ve been unable to do anything about it. I recall Senator Stella Oduah making some issues about how expensive international travel is from here, in comparison to even some other African countries. Not much came out of that.
There is a business angle to the Thomas Cook idea of traveling. Beyond the intentions of the British government over the decades and centuries, it enabled civilians who were not on the government mission or payroll, to also see themselves as explorers and to get a perspective on the world.
Now, let us go back to the reason behind setting up the world’s first travel agency. Mr. Thomas Cook believed that the average Brit should be able to travel to de-stress and get a perspective on the rest of the world, at least once a year. This is therapeutic. He had that belief, even at a time when the intrepid, explorative British were everywhere in the world – as pax Brittania ruled more than half the world. From a psychological perspective, this kind of idea solidified the dominant mentality among the average Brit, and led to why they see themselves as superior to the rest of humanity, even till date. Whatever we may think about racism, colonialism and all that, it is important for a people to improve their perception of themselves. Nigerians do have that sense of self-importance among other Africans, given, but our recent failures and the fact that many African countries are trying to eject our refugees, sort of reduces that importance in my view.
There is a business angle to the Thomas Cook idea of traveling. Beyond the intentions of the British government over the decades and centuries, it enabled civilians who were not on the government mission or payroll, to also see themselves as explorers and to get a perspective on the world. Left to the British government, only their agents and workers would have gone around the world – and of course the pirates who started the idea of privateering other people’s properties of course. But with Thomas Cook’s idea – and those who joined in the business – every Black cab driver, plumber, electrician, mason, factory worker, housewife, and office clerk, joined in global travel. And not only in Britain, but in other parts of what is now called ‘the developed’ world. These economies are now driven to a large extent by tourism. These are the numbers I saw when I googled which country had the most tourists as at 2017;
1. France – 89 million
2. Spain – 83 million
3. United States – 80 million
4. China – 63 million
5. Italy – 62 million
6. Turkey – 46 million
7. Mexico – 41 million
8. Germany – 39 million
9. Thailand – 38 million
10. United Kingdom – 36 million
The interesting thing is that most of these countries also have the most people who travel to the rest of the world on a yearly basis. At home, the rest of us struggle to go and spend money in their countries, even after being passed through much trauma – high fees, harrowing interviews and documentation processes, rejection, expensive tickets, hotels and commutes, etc. But on the flip side, their people import en masse, a great perspective about the world, pride, business ideas, contacts and so on. I must chip in here that this is perhaps the reason we respect them so much in our country. We offer them deals on a platter, even when we give our own people the hard times. Once a white face shows up, we believe they are competent and we offer them premium for their work. We have seen the example with the P&ID case. Anyhow, with 40 million people traveling into say the U.K., while they have about 30 million of their own people traveling abroad yearly, there is a net inflow of billions of pounds sterling, and we can only imagine the velocity of the capital that courses through their system each year. Same goes for the U.S.A, Germany, France, and to a lesser extent, countries like Spain, Mexico, Turkey, Mexico and the rest. I should repeat, as I have stated elsewhere in my writings, that until we get substantial non-debt capital into Nigeria, we are merely courting disaster. My visits to countries in East Africa (Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, etc.) shows that they are doing infinitely better than we are in this regard. Here, we go cap-in-hand begging these global capitalists for what are ultimately very expensive loans.
Still on the issue of the exposure of a country’s citizens to the rest of the world. The widely-held opinion here is that Nigerians are the most-traveled in Africa. But a recent report on the most lucrative routes in Africa by Getaway.com, shows that Nigeria does not feature in the equation. It is almost unbelievable. It could either be that most of our travelers are economic refugees, who go and refuse to return, or maybe our figures are so large, they were sterilised from the analysis. The South Africans actually dominated the list, while the Angolans and Ivoriens aren’t doing badly.
Our real issue is that we still think in terms of masters and servants/slaves. Instead of democratising travel, and seeking how it can be much cheaper for the majority of us…what we have here is that a very few of us – usually those in government – easily dip hands in taxpayers’ money and embark of very expensive trips at everyone’s expense.
This brings me to then issue of how the U.K. – and indeed others – tightened their borders against countries like Nigeria – about two decades after independence. We were sealed out, reduced to illegal immigrants in the main. We lost our respect as a people. But more importantly, a large section of our population was deprived of getting the perspective on the world that the earlier generations – especially those who studied abroad and returned – got. We were turned into desperate citizens of the world, the third class type who seek refuge anywhere and everywhere. We could have remained largely like this, but for the upsurge of nations like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which now offers some of our poorer people some opportunity to see how proper countries are arranged. I am usually filled with hope when I see some of these not-so-rich families from everywhere in Africa staring at the skyscrapers of Dubai. I look into the eyes of the children among them and hope they grow up to understand just the enormity of the challenge that Africa faces. I also pray that their parents do not infect them with the type of arrogance that disconnects them from Africa entirely. My chief concern is Nigeria. I hope those children struggle to build the fantastic architectural edifices we see there, and the sustainable, well maintained roads and general environments, here in Africa. It is noteworthy that for all the deployment of aggressive capital in Africa, China remains closed to us, except those seeking to do business. Even then, it is hard to get a Chinese visa; and that is a shame.
Back to Nigeria. Our real issue is that we still think in terms of masters and servants/slaves. Instead of democratising travel, and seeking how it can be much cheaper for the majority of us (my friend Kelechi Deca who is the most traveled person I know, alongside Ade Adefeko of Olam recently wrote about a certain Yamoussoukro Accord on Aviation, which could have made travel much cheaper for us within and outside Africa but which none of our big men are trying to bring to fruition because they don’t see why traveling should be for more Nigerians), what we have here is that a very few of us – usually those in government – easily dip hands in taxpayers’ money and embark of very expensive trips at everyone’s expense. Even when government commandeers that they travel in cheaper classes, no one listens. There are people who work with government who travel more than 30 times a year. Many don’t actually live in Nigeria. Our public service is also not working because most of the big people who should drive reforms in them are simply never in the country. This is why the government brought out a recent order limiting executive travel to no more than eight times a year. Come to think of it, eight times top-level travel on the tab of Nigeria is quite frequent, but unregulated, it could be 50! The president knows that he is the chief culprit though, so there is little he can do to limit his other guys. What we need is a lot more drastic if you ask me.
Kemi Adeosun as minister of Finance once brought out a list of all sorts of foreign meetings and groups that Nigeria had joined, which compels our government people to continue junketing around the world in a breathless, non-stop marathon. I think since she left, we may have jettisoned her idea. Most people in office in Nigeria today cannot see the privilege of travel disappearing because ‘it is their turn to eat’. I maintain however, that 99 per cent of the work of turning Nigeria around lies within the country. I have seen President Xi of China visiting many of his villages and interacting with his poor people, giving them hope, succour and real development on the ground. Here, governors sit in state capitals (when they aren’t in Abuja or abroad), and occasionally announce ‘official visits’ to local government – in good time to ensure local government chairmen plan which neat routes to take them through and which project to whitewash. The racket started from the level of the presidency.
I look forward to the day that taxi drivers, okada riders, keke riders, old civil service pensioners, can take a trip to a country of their choosing around the world, from Nigeria every other year, to gain perspective and pride. It is no big deal. It is how it operates elsewhere. It is what we should work towards. It is what I see every time I travel abroad. We must get to a time when we return to the full meaning of our humanity. God help us. Or what can I say?