Friday, August 10, 2007

The pocket men

We were eating our breakfast when the law walked in. One man in a blue kaftan and hat shook my friend's hand. He ignored me. The other, a short muscular bald man in a dirty white t-shirt stared at me intently chewing his lip, but said nothing. Trouble.
The man in the hat said, in English: "We are immigration officers. We want to know who your friend is and what he is doing here, and to see his papers. We will leave you to your breakfast but we will wait outside."
He turned his lean face to me. It looked like a dark manila envelope that had been folded up and kept in a pocket, perhaps for many years. His thin body was lost in his voluminous kaftan, but bones stuck out here and there. It was a new and bright blue, the cloth was still shiny. "Do you have your papers?" he asked.
I was slightly stunned. I didn't know I needed to show my passport to immigration in order to leave Abuja. I'd left in something of a hurry and forgot my passport, along with my cerpac green card and journalist accreditation. In the year that I have been in Nigeria, I have never once been asked to show these documents, even when stopped by police looking for a bribe.
"No I don't" I said.
"Ah there will be a problem." He said, relieved. "We will wait outside." They turned and left.
We ate in silence for a moment, considering the situation. "Is it a problem?" I asked
“Don’t worry. Let’s just eat our breakfast,” my friend said scooping a forkful of liver and chips into his mouth. He was clearly fuming.
I looked at the broad shoulders of the man sitting at the table across form us. He’d sat down moments before the officers walked in –a security man listening in? The restaurant was dark, even though it was midday outside. The curtains were drawn and the weird blue light made everything look a bit queasy.
“How can they just come in and demand to see my papers, with no identification, or uniforms?” I asked. But we tried to talk about other things instead. I ate slowly, because through that door was all kinds of wahallah.
The twisting “logic” of the rent-seeking official has been one of the most confounding aspects to life here. A friend of mine told me when she was reporting the loss of her green card the policeman who took her statement told her: “But how do we know it existed in the first place? That’s what I’m thinking. How do we know this isn’t a way of trying to get one through the back door?” On the face of it, not an unreasonable question for a policeman to ask you might say, but how would they check? I’m sure if she looked around she would not have seen a file box with her immigration files in it. There was no way there was any communication between immigration and the police, and even if it was true, how would she get a replacement from the immigration, if she hadn’t been given one already?
“Anyway this form is going to cost you two thousand, instead of one,” the policeman told her with a shrug and a grin.
Back in the restaurant, another friend walked in: our Gombe correspondent. We told him what happened. “I will talk to them. I’ll take them to the governor’s adviser,” he said, and he disappeared. We finished our meal and followed them.
When we got to the media man’s house the officer was there. He’d clearly been given a severe talking to, because he came out swinging.
“If it were not for who you were I would have every right to harass you, take you to the office and hold you,” he said. My friend could hold his tongue no longer. A torrent of Hausa came out, stinging the man. “How can you say you have the right to harass anyone? Kai! By what you are saying you are insulting your superiors. If you have superiors is it not true to say they are in Abuja? Did they not check his papers when he came into the country? Are you saying they cannot do their job?” It seems twisty argument can work both ways.
He pleaded with us. “I do have superiors, and they saw him and sent me to find him. They ordered me to.”He also said things that made me realise he had no idea what "my papers" looked like, or what the rules about them were. "Whenever you leave Abuja you have to get a stamp on your green card giving you permission." he said.
So that was it. If I hadn’t been a reporter, with friends, I would have been held in some skanky cell for god knows how long, like a dog!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lawd have mercy! You owe your friend big time. That must have been scary, but then, you must be getting very used to Nija drama by now.
Good luck.

6:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is Nigerian police 4 you, hopefully your friend was there to help you out, am sure you know the ploice better now, becareful of their tricks.

10:06 am  
Blogger Afolabi said...

liver and chips...what kind of delicacy is that?it doesn't sound good've gotten a taste of the nigerian police

2:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

abeg dont stray too far from your friends wherever you go, the security agencies are just as bad as, if not worse than armed robbers.

11:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude, in your part of the world, anyone with an accentis routinely asked for his papers while catching a greyhound bus or boarding amtrack, besides here there are no 'friends' to speak for you. Be thankful that the natives are friendly. Rock on!

3:15 am  

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