Funny how these things start: you leave home on a perfectly normal day and, before you're aware of it, trouble is sitting there right on your laps. No, you're not attacked by highway hoodlums, neither are you witnessing a religious riot or ethnic uprising; nor are you being mugged by the ubiquitous Area Boys. These are daily occurences in this country, but right now, you're facing a different situation: you're a victim of the highest organised criminal machinery in the country. And it carries official sanction. The Nigerian Police Force is indeed in a sorry state, with little hope of redemption.
My wife had her day off last Saturday, and we decided to try and catch up on some visits which we had put off because of her busy schedule. No sooner had we left the house than we ran smack into a police check point. One raised a baton to indicate we should stop. We did. He looked in the car and waved for us to park.
'Clear well', he said. We parked.
'Oga', he declared, leaning into the vehicle, 'we're "Stop & Search", you have to come down (from the vehicle) so we can search you.'
Now, I've been through this routine more than a few times since returning home from the UK. May be there's something about me that attracts the interest of the police (especially the checkpoint police) all the time. Must take another look at myself in the mirror!
I've no qualms about being stopped and searched by these boys, if it helped solve anything. I've nothing to hide. Or so I thought.
'Oga, wetin dey ya pockets?'
'Just my mobile phones, and my wallet', I said, bringing out my handsets.
'Let me see your wallet.'
I thought: here we go again. Why do these guys always want to see my wallet? I took out my wallet and opened it. There were the usual: ID card, library card, driving license, bank cards, shopping cards, a few naira bills, etc. Synthetic world, plastic life. Maybe I enjoy the look on their faces when they see these plastics, but after this experience I'm giving it a second thought. In these parts you got to be careful what you carry around with you.
Suddenly the fella's face lit up with interest. Must've felt he was onto something here.
'Wetin be those? Make I see.'
He took my wallet and proceeded to examine each card, pulling them out in turn, and asking for explanation each time. Again I obliged him, watching closely all the time.
Then he pulled out a small piece of paper, unfolded it, and:
'Oga, what is this paper?'
I saw the document and remembered the last time I'd sent money home to my wife from London. This was about five months ago; now what was this piece of paper still doing in my wallet?
'Er, I used that paper to send money to my wife from London last year', I tried to explain.
'But Oga, how manage? This is not Western Union?'
'Listen, Western Union is not the only people who do money transfer, ok. There're others in the same business. You just use whoever is cheaper and more convenient for you.' Not so fast, dude.
'But how do we know that these people are not operating illegal business? You're one of those people who cheat government out of revenue. This is money laundering. You will follow us to the station to make a statement. You must explain this document to the EFCC. In fact, we must search your wife too.' He grabbed my wife's handbag.
'This is silly, Officer. Let me talk to your superior?' I countered, beginning to get angry. This guy was definitely wasting my time.
His superior, who had been watching from the corner of his eyes, slid over to us. Wearing an automatic weapon across his chest, the magazine in his right hand, he demanded to know what it was all about. My explanations cut no ice with him either.
'Oga, this na serious matter o! We go reach station make you write statement.'
I wasn't at all sure where this argument was going, or how and when it would end. You didn't want go to a Nigerian police station, whether as an accused or an accuser, even to report a case. I wasn't ready for that experience right now. Then again, you didn't argue with a man with a gun, especially not the Nigerian police.
Their attitude had already changed. It had become aggressive, intimidating and menacing. A third cop had joined us, urging me into the vehicle. Frustrated, I asked them:
'Which police station are we going to?'
'Aguda police station.'
The first policeman and his superior joined us in the car and we headed to their den. I saw my appointment slipping away. I needed to do something fast. Thank God for mobile phones. Eventually it was technology that saved the day. Quickly I reached for my handset.
Nothing less than a top-notch police officer friend in Abuja would do. When in Nigeria, please try to keep one handy. How sweet it would be to use one of their own against these brutes. Expectedly, Abuja was disgusted at what he described as "predatory antics" of their officers and men; advised me to follow them to the station, and promised to get back to me.
For the sake of assurance, I alerted an army major in Ikeja, another friend, handy too in matters like this. Told him the police had accused me of money laundering, and are taking me to their station in Aguda. The major just laughed and said not to worry, he would be on his way instantly.
When we got to the station, they set me down by a desk, brought a form and practically ordered me to fill it out. About half a dozen other victims were also there, all struggling with their own cases. Surveying the situation, I decided the turnover here must be quite high.
My tormentor continued, 'It is for everybody. Balogun wrote it; Alameisiagha wrote one too; even Obasanjo himself has done it! You must write a statement beginning with your biography!'
I began to laugh at the mention of Alam. Incidentally, my wife had also been busy on the phone all this while, and when calls began to come back asking to speak to me, the guys threatened to take away my mobile phone.
'You dey call soldier; you de call police, dem no go come save you o!'
I asked my wife to call a lawyer. I wasn't taking chances with these guys.
But what followed next made everything else unnecessary. Abuja's reaction was swift and total. One phone call from my friend, to another top-notch officer in Lagos (now I've got two, see), and it was all over. The tune changed immediately. The guys actually began to apologise for wasting everybody's time. A new "song" rent the airspace:
'Oga, wetin you get for us now?'
Pathetic isn't it? At the end of the day, it was all about money. Extortion. So sad.
We drove off from the station to try and keep our appointment. But we had to call the army major back to tell him I was free. He cried:
'Chei! Na God save those idiots! Dem for hear am today!'
He was actually on his way to Aguda with a small troop. Just like that? Hey, we didn't plan to start a little war here, did we?! But this is Nigeria. This scenario plays itself out in this country all the time. Army versus police; at each other's throat. Police versus the rest of us.
I realise that not all Nigerians get away from police check points in one piece. Many have lost their lives at these "toll gates" for as little as N20. Others have been shot and killed at the slightest provocation, for nothing. The roll call is heavy, and the case of the Apo six is yet to be decided till date.
Today the Nigerian police touts the motto: To serve and to protect with integrity. However, the service is lacking; police protection does not exist; and there's no integrity whatsoever in this outfit. Nigerians generally believe the NPF is a major source of irritation, and a special breed of public nuisance. Do not ask me how the Nigerian police can be reformed to improve the service. It is impossible. It is not designed to serve the citizens. You got to reform the Nigerian state itself first.
Not surprising, when we got to our appointment, our host had a story of his own when we told him why we were so late. He capped his story with that of a man who had gone to the market to buy an Easter goat for his family.
He tied the goat to an okada motorcycle and raced home to deliver it to his wife. Suddenly he was stopped at a police checkpoint, and the following dialogue ensued:
'You no know say your goat suppose wear crash helmet too?'
'But oga police...', the man began, fishing for the right excuse.
'Wetin you get for the boys?'
'I no carry N20 for here o. Na only hundred hundred naira notes wey I carry. Next time now.'
'Make you bring ya hundred naira. I get change!'