Deji writes with a swiftness I love. His story telling is what it is, telling it without impediments, and this piece on the outrageous excesses of Law enforcement agents evokes both sobriety and hilarity at the state of things in our dear continent.
The road to intra-African travel is paved with suspicious border control personnel: Immigration, the police, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency officers, Customs, soldiers.
They stood in twos and threes on the sides of the road that had run out of asphalt, in pressed stiff uniforms. Sweat shone on their foreheads, teased with the sun’s light. Nearly all their faces were the colour of coal, their necks a shade lighter. When they saw us, an entourage of two buses, they stepped onto the road and held their hands, straight in front of them, fingers pointing to the sky. The more enthusiastic of them waved their guns, swinging it pointedly to the right, or the left, to join them on the dirt.
We were going to Cotonou from Lagos.
We were a group of writers, bloggers, photographers, TV host, event planners, communication managers headed this way at the behest of Google West Africa who wanted us to experience how it’s apps can work as a travel assistant when abroad, especially in a country where one doesn’t speak the language. We were in a mobile cabin which had convertible chair beds, an actual bed, tables / study area, a microwave, a fridge, water and Ribena, a tour guide and most mercifully, a toilet.
We were persons of interest.
“Una dey enjoy o,” the border authorities said, to no one in particular more than once, after they had gained entry into the bus, mandating it had to be searched. They found a couple of straw hats, hand luggage, cracker biscuits, juice, books held in hand, earphones and confused journalists. We were stopped about twenty-five times by different groups of the same border authority body, on the journey to and from Cotonou. After a while, we stopped counting.
Each time lasted from fifteen to forty minutes. Our passports and intentions were scrutinized. A letter from the Benin Republic High Commission in Lagos stating clearly it was aware and had approved of our entry into its country was disregarded. Driver licences for the men behind the wheel of both buses were in order.
Unasked requests for ‘something for the weekend’ shadowed our interrogation.
On reaching Seme, the border point between Nigeria and Benin Republic, we were held up once again. What separated the territories of both countries was a ringed wall of tyres, mounted on themselves on either side of a dusty, parched patch of road supported by a formidable black plank and a thin, sickly-looking rope. The immigration post where passports were to be checked and the state of our health certified was a makeshift box of metal, with an open front knocked together by a local welder, it seemed. It was clothed in layers of dust and had a lot of people, too close together, congregated at its open window.
To cross over to either country, it seemed the rope simply had to be lifted and scrunched up naira notes urgently pressed into the palm of the immigration officer who granted you entry. A photographer on the bus decided to take shots of our surroundings and allegedly pointed his camera in the direction of the immigration officer when he was carrying out his entry responsibilities. The officer rushed to the bus asking that the camera be handed over to him at once. He called his colleagues. He slapped the side of the car when the driver and the photographer asked him why he wanted the camera, what was wrong? Veins snaked across the side of his neck as he spoke, his voice rising every time. His colleagues soon gathered by the driver’s side of the bus, ordering that the bus door be opened. The immigration officer then threatened to slash the bus’s tyres. He swiftly produced from his breast pocket what looked like a pocket knife, safely tucked in for this sort of inconvenience. The driver, defeated, opened the bus. The immigration personnel ran in, first knocking me out of the way with his shoulder and further into the bus, he snatched the camera from the photographer and slapped him with the certainty that can only come from not expecting retaliation.
“You dey craze, I be your mate? You no hear say make you open door? You dey mad?”
He gathered the photographer’s shirt in his fist and led him out of the bus with the rest of us apologizing, assuring him that the photographer was doing his job, that he meant no harm. The photographer, in about ten seconds was no longer with us. We would then wait for about two hours thirty minutes at the border. When our passports and the photographer were returned, the photos had been deleted from the camera.
Ayodeji Rotinwa is a writer and communications executive who comments on the arts, (pop) culture, technology and business within the continent for a number of international publications. He is currently a lead features writer at THISDAY Newspaper, contributor to Forbes Africa magazine and brand & communications manager for leading contemporary West African art space, Rele Gallery.