It is the seventh day of my visit home and as the date of my departure draws closer, I am struck by all the things that I have still not done: messages from friends in the UK that I am yet to deliver, some money that I have promised to a relative, my medical registration to renew, friends and relatives that I still have not seen, visits to media houses to try and stir up more submissions for The Weaverbird and Children of Nsukka anthologies that I am involved in. I moan to my brother and his wife about all the things I have to do, the places I have to go to and the unbearable humid heat. As we prepare to leave the house, I grab an old envelope off the table and scribble on its back my tasks for the day. Go to Citizens Bank, pay in money to Uncle’s account, get a draft for the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria; go to Surulere, go to The Guardian to see Jahman and Uduma. It is a fairly innocuous list and as I make it, I stave off my niece’s attempts to seize the pen from my hand. My brother offers me the use of his driver and car for the day. He will be in the office all day, he says, he has no need for the car or driver. My sister-in-law adds her voice to his, but I am unconvinced. I want to be able to move rapidly, to hop on an okada if I get caught in a traffic jam, I don’t want to have to play the role of Oga to my brother’s driver, who in any case is not the easiest of people to manage. Only days before, on our way home to Abiriba for my grandmother’s funeral, he had turned up without his driving licence to drive my brother on the 600-kilometre journey. Even I, returnee that I am, know that the roads and highways are infested with police checkpoints where even the innocent are victims of extortion. Travelling without a driving licence is just an invitation to line the pockets of unscrupulous policemen. And so I politely decline my brother’s offer. Okay, he shrugs, have it your way.
I am dressed in a short-sleeved t-shirt and jeans and also carrying a leather backpack, in which I usually throw the little bits and pieces that carrying around in sweltering Lagos makes difficult – a book or magazine for reading in the traffic jams or waiting to see some big Oga or Madam, my sunglasses, spare handkerchiefs for mopping up the sweat, my ever-expanding address book, and today, it also contains a paper copy of my e ticket and the envelope on which I have scribbled my itinerary for the day. Also a copy of Uncle Bola’s Promise, the anthology of the Abuja Literary Society which I hope to give to the journalists at The Guardian for review.
As I step out of Western House on to Broad Street, I feel at home. This is familiar ground to me having spent six years at King’s College, a stone throw away. Indeed it seems as if the woman selling groundnuts outside the back stairs of Western House is the same one we bought from so many years ago. I hail a taxi. It is a yellow taxi, a 504, in fairly good condition and the driver; a middle-aged man looks suitably safe and friendly. As I board, telling him to take me to Mabo in Surulere, I vaguely recall my brother advising me against taking yellow cabs in Lagos. Instead, he suggests, I should take the unmarked, illegal cabs, which we call kabu-kabu. They are less likely to attract police attention he says. It is my seventh day and I have crisscrossed Lagos, journeying from Ikeja to Victoria Island to Surulere, the majority of my trips in yellow taxis. I ignore my brother’s warning and settle into the taxi. As I retrieve my magazine and settle down to begin reading, the cab suddenly comes to a halt. I look up from my magazine, its cover an expose of how Nigeria’s recently sacked top cop was allegedly corrupt.
There is a face in the car window, it is a policeman. “Good morning sir”, he says, “we are on “Stop and search”, May we know you?” I am calm; having long learned that playing it cool is the only way to deal with the Nigerian police. I tell him my name. Do you have any ID or business card to confirm? I rack my brains and suddenly remember that I am carrying my old work ID card in my bag, I have no business card. I show him the ID card and he looks at it and asks to search my pockets. I am carrying some Naira and some foreign currency, not very much by most standards but certainly enough to tempt the rapacious. My cop is untempted. He asks me to get back into the car and continue my journey. I thank him. Later I will wish that I had done more.
We are back on to the road now and as we approach Apongbon, the street hawkers selling everything from fake Rolexes to household goods to yoghurt drinks assail the vehicle. “Oga, buy this one, na original, no be Taiwan….” I bury myself again in my magazine. It is alleged that the former chief policeman has stashed billions of naira in his numerous bank accounts. I am incredulous.
We soon pass Apongbon, past the National Theatre in Iganmu, across the sweltering swamp layered with green algae and begin to enter Surulere via Costain. The scene brings back memories of when I lived in Surulere, near Kilo after my housemanship, while waiting for my national service to begin. Then I would take a bus from Kilo Hotel, which would stop at Costain on its way to Lagos Island where I worked in a small private clinic. I remember those mornings, jammed in a bus meant for twenty, but carrying closer to thirty or forty, heading for work Lagos style. By the time I got to work, I would be so exhausted and sweaty by the sheer effort of getting there that I would need time to catch my breath before seeing patients. It all seems a lifetime ago, and yet I am sure that there are many for whom this story still rings true.
We are just outside the National Stadium when we are pulled up again. Another set of policemen, another check point. This time we are asked to leave the road completely and park on the kerbside under the bridge. I open my door gingerly and step out. Good morning sir, the first policeman greets. I know the routine by now – they are on stop and search and they would like to know me. For half a second, I wonder what would happen if I said, I’m afraid I have no desire for you to know me, but I quickly crush the thought. This is the Nigeria Police, there is no time for irony. I tell him my name and show him my identity card. “You live in London?”
“Yes”, the impulse to lie lasts another half-second. Lying, I reason will only create more problems.
Mr Constable asks to inspect my bag, I grant him permission. I have little choice anyway. Not with the rifle slung across his shoulder carelessly, in a manner that reminds me of Dipo Soetan’s poem “Amala and Heckler and Koch” in which he describes a mobile policeman stopping at a roadside “bukateria” for a meal of amala, his weapon swung carelessly behind him. Mr Constable riffles through my bag, producing each new item like a gem for my inspection
“What is this?”
“It’s my ticket”
“Yes, it’s an electronic ticket” I begin to explain, but think better of it.
He lays it gently to one side as if slightly afraid of it and picks on something else. It is the stub, which I have used to pay money into my relative’s account.
“What is this?”
“I used it to pay money into a relative’s account”
“Which relative? Why are you paying money into his account? This is very suspicious o!” I refrain from rolling my eyes.
In vain I try to explain – my grandmother has recently died, I am home for her funeral, this relative has been helping with the arrangements, I’ve promised…-he cuts me off abruptly as he paws through my address book
“What is this account number here?”
“It’s not an account number. It’s the telephone number for my friend in the US”
“And this one?”
“Another friend in the US”
Next he pounces on a scrap of paper with an e-mail address on it. “Whose e-mail address is this?”
Again vainly I try to explain…how the previous day, the poet Chiedu Ezeanah had invited me to his house, how at his house I had met another writer who had expressed interest in the anthologies, how he had then given me his e mail address….
Again I am cut off mid-stream.
“Why are you meeting with writer? What is your business with them?”
“I’m a writer too”, I try to explain, scrambling for my copy of Uncle Bola’s Promise, which thankfully has my picture in it.
“Look, see, this is a book I helped produce, I’m a writer, see my picture and my poems”
He smiles, shaking his head from side to side. I have just given myself a killer punch but do not know it yet. As he shakes his head from side to side he says, very slowly, carefully
“First you say you are doctor, now you say you are writer, my friend, which one are you? This is very suspicious o. In fact you have to come and see our Oga”
At the mention of an Oga I am pleased, thinking that surely someone more senior must be more rational.
We walk a few metres away to where a corpulent man is sucking on the stub of a cigarette as if his life depends on it. His epaulettes show one silver square, his name Dauda Ahmed is embroidered above his chest.
“Yes, gentleman, what is the problem?” he offers in a calm and friendly voice. I nearly fall for his good-cop routine but soon realize he is in on the whole scheme.
I explain what has happened. Halfway through I am stunned as he asks me
“What have you come to do in Nigeria? Why have you come here?”
I bite back the wisecrack – last time I checked, I still had a Nigerian passport- and instead explain that I have come for my grandmother’s funeral.
His demeanour changes, the Nigerian reverence for death and age and family all combined to soften his heart. Or so I think.
The act continues
“You boys should sympathize with him now, he just came to bury the grandmother and then he paid some money into a relative’s account for the burial expenses”
The boys, there are two of them now are vociferous in their rejection.
“Ah Oga nooo…He must come to station and write statement o! With im e-mail address and account number and paper ticket. Na so we catch the other man the other day, e come be say na 419 man. Oga e better make we go station”.
Oga is silent and shrugs.
Oga, having failed to intervene, I am happy to go to the station with them. As I make for the front seat, they order me to sit in the back. They then proceed to sandwich me, a rifle poking in my face.
At this point, I whip out my mobile phone and ring my brother. This is Nigeria; stories of how visitors from abroad have been killed over small amounts of money have hovered around the grapevine for ages. I am silently grateful for the mobile phone revolution.
My brother asks to speak to the policemen and I hand them the phone. All I can hear is
“Yes, sir, we go release am sir”
“We don release am sir”
They hand the phone back to me and ask me to confirm that I have been released. I refuse, insisting that while I am still sandwiched between two policemen, one rifle-toting, I will do no such thing. They begin to get angry, accusing me of trying to get them into trouble; I stand my ground. They speak into the phone again and hand it back to me. My brother asks me to ring back as soon as I am released. I promise to do so.
My assailants are now angry, though chastened.
“Why you dey behave like this now? I think say you be mature person. At least if you dey pass dis kin’ place you suppose ask say “My boys how are you doing, una don drink water today…dat kin’ ting…”
The rest is left unspoken. They still hang out of the door of the taxi. Finally, angered and exhausted by the whole exchange and just eager to leave the scene I rummage in my pocket and hand them two folded notes. Only then do they let go and wave us off.
The price of my freedom?
Four hundred naira, slightly more than the price of three bottles of Star beer.
I am dumbfounded.
It is only later that my brother explains that when I called, he was at the Force Headquarters in Alagbon meeting with a senior officer on an official matter. Apparently it was this senior officer who had spoken to the boys and not my brother.
This information further astounds me. I am amazed that in spite of such intervention, the boys still insisted on collecting “cold water money” from me.
As I make my way home that evening, I recall the platitudes from the President urging Nigerians abroad to return home, and the pledges from the new Inspector-General of Police to reform the police. With experiences like mine, they both certainly have their work cut out.
Ike Anya, incredible as this may sound IS a Nigerian doctor AND writer currently living in the UK.