Sylva Nze Ifedigbo writes fiction and socio-political essays. His works have appeared in many journals and he is also widely published online. His novella Whispering Aloud was published in 2007 and his short stories collection The Funeral Did Not End is due to be released in 2011.
The Check Point
I re-entered the conversation with the utmost reluctance. I had spent the last five minutes biting hard at my lower lip and taking deep breaths just to control my rising temper. You are in Nigeria I kept reminding myself, you should expect this. Though I had found myself in similar situations, I was certain this was the frailest exchange I ever had with a uniformed officer since my return and I had met quite a few.
The lady customs officer with squint eye who was on duty the day I arrived wouldn’t pass my luggage. She suspected the many boxes of clothes, clothes I had been using in America, was my smart way of importing fairly used clothes which had just been banned by the government, for sale. Jet lagged and fighting that overwhelming feeling of nostalgia that comes with returning to one's fatherland after many years sojourn abroad, I had been at a loss as to how to confront her. When I got tired of her tirade, I decided to speak to her in my mother tongue. I had read off the name on her name tag much earlier in our conversation. Hearing me had on her the same effect cold water poured on hot coal had. She let me go with a smile.
Another was the man I met at the Vehicle Licensing Office. His face was as dark as the beret he had on his head and but for his white shirt which now begged for retirement, he looked like a police officer, shiny shoe and all. My crime was that I was speaking too much grammar. I had come to get all my car papers right but he wouldn’t attend to me, discussing instead with a lady visitor about some event in their church while I and a couple of others sat waiting on the hard bench. Because I confronted him, he decided to deal with me reminding me that my big grammar would not save me. I didn’t get those papers that day. I had to return the next day for them.
Unfortunate experiences they all were but in Corporal Benson I saw a descent to a whole new low. Speaking with him was punishment and indeed, the grounds for rational exchange had long been polluted by his plain attempt at bullying. I felt very disappointed even at his effort at being difficult and consciously unreasonable. The disappointment made me feel angry, not at him, but at whoever recruited him in to the Police force in the first place.
My disappointment started from the way he stood at the middle of the road to flag me down. I was just a few meters away from him and for some reasons, the police chose to site a check point at a road corner, hidden somewhat from unsuspecting approaching traffic. I reached for my brakes like a race driver, litres of adrenalin pumping into my head. The car halted, making the screeching sound against the freshly tarred road. Showing no alarm or remorse, he motioned me to the side of the road with the wave of his hand. When it became obvious that I didn’t understand his sign language, or that I simply wasn’t prepared to obey, he walked to my side and knocked harshly on the glass.
“Clear well” he barked out when I reluctantly wound down.
The way he said it left no doubts that it was an order not a suggestion. I felt my initial shock at the manner of my stop transform into anger immediately. Engaging the gear, I did as he said, cursing silently under my breath. Not even my pitch black skin would have given a Police officer in the States the effrontery to bark at me the way he just did. I could feel some droplets of his spittle on my face.
He walked over to the point where I pulled up, his index finger dangerously caressing the trigger of the dusty pistol in his right hand. He said no word of greeting; honestly I didn’t expect him to, given his initial conduct. His face also didn’t indicate someone in the mood for pleasantries. I was eager to rebuke him for almost committing suicide some minutes ago but I was dissuaded by the look on his face. This is Nigeria I quickly reminded myself.
“Oga” he began, applying needless stress on each word “I said clear well. Don’t you understand that? When another car hits you from behind now, they will say police has done this, police has done that.” The irritation in his voice could cut through glass.
“Is this place not good enough?” I asked, certain I was sufficiently off the road but sticking my head out of the window still, to confirm.
“Oga, I said clear well, shift inside more.” He waved the pistol to the left side of the road indicating in what direction he wanted me to move. The stench of alcohol and hemp which came with each statement of his was steering up a riot in my stomach. Quickly, I engaged my clutch and pulled further off the road actually entering the bush beyond.
“Is it alright now?" I asked, trying to be sarcastic.
“Can I see your particulars?” was his reply.
I knew where this was leading but I earnestly didn’t want this delay. I was actually running late for an important session. The club of young achievers I mentored in the University had invited me to give a talk at their annual exhibition and I didn’t want to be late. There were two options, to play along acting my own part in the ensuing drama or to wiggle my way through, some how. I chose the latter.
“Look officer” I began a smile playing on my lips. “Without sounding out right disrespectful and without prejudice to the fact that you are supposedly doing your job, I am compelled to ask that you please let me go as I am trying to meet up with an emergency situation here.” I really hoped my well groomed American accent would do the magic. It didn’t.
“Oga, you are speaking big grammar. I said I want your particulars”
I actually had all that he wanted; those were the documents I had ensured I obtained from the Vehicle licensing office the moment the E-Class Mercedes cleared at the Apapa port. It was as if I foresaw situations like this. Why give this jerk something to lot about? I thought. Reaching out to my pigeon hole, I produced all the papers I knew he would ask for. Dropping the bunch of papers on my bonnet he began to flip through them, making as though he was searching for something in particular. His blood shot eyes were moving up and down the paper like a freight officer inspecting a bill of lading. The expression on his face however made it adequately clear that he wasn’t reading anything. Better put, he couldn’t read any thing.
“Vehicle Insurance?” he asked not lifting his eyes from the bunch of papers.
“It is there” I replied
“It is also there”
“Certificate of road worthiness?”
“They are all there” I took off my hands from the steering wheel and folded them across my chest. It was becoming obvious that the Corporal's reading ability was worse than I thought.
For a brief moment, he seemed at a loss as to what more to ask for and then suddenly he demanded my I.D card. I asked him if my driver’s license was not enough identity.
“You think I don’t have eyes?” he asked in his now choking tone. “I have seen your license but I want to also see an I.D card. I know what I am doing. You don’t have an I.D card, how do I know that you are who you say you are and not an impersonator”
“Well, I have my international passport if that would be of use to you.”
He barely opened the green passport before returning it, eyeing the data page briefly. My time was running out and I was getting impatient.
“Open your bonnet” he demanded just as I collected the passport from him.
For what again? I wondered, why on earth was this jerk just wasting my time?
“Officer” I tried sounding polite but the anger was welling up in me, “is there any problem?”
“I want to see your engine number”
I pulled the bonnet open before unhooking my seat belt and letting out a sigh. All this while, I had resisted the urge to step out of the car. He busied himself around the open bonnet for some time, I couldn’t quite see what he was doing. At the end, he returned to my side and handed back the bunch of papers to me. That afforded me the opportunity of taking a good look at his ugly face. It had two guiles of tribal marks running across it that made him look more like some character in the movie The gods must be crazy. His green beret was faded, now almost white in colour while his khaki uniform on which his name tag hung precariously was in dare need of a change having seen better days or perhaps, just a good wash. He would have passed more for a rebel soldier deep in the Sudan deserts than a law enforcement officer in the most populous black nation in the world. As I looked at him I couldn’t help but feel less of contempt and more of pity for him.
He stared back at me as though expecting me to say or do something. It was time foranything for the boys? I guessedbut somehow, he didn’t ask, couldn’t get himself to I presumed. Even he had some pride. I kept staring back.
“What is in your boot?” he inquired. He meant the trunk.
“Nothing serious” I replied shocked he wasn’t yet through with me.
“What do you mean by nothing serious?”
“I mean that the boot is empty, the only things there are my jack and a spare wheel”.
“I said open your boot Oga”
“Look officer I told you nothing is there. Why do you just insist on wasting my time? You’ve already kept me here for almost twenty minutes.” I too, was now visibly irritated.
“Oga, do you want to teach me my job? I said come out and open the boot before I change my mind.”
That was not polite at all.
“You have no right to talk to me like that.”
“You think this is America?”
“Must it be America before you do what you are supposed to do the way you are supposed to do it?”
“So in America, they teach you to disrespect law enforcement agent’s right? You are now teaching me my job?”
“Obviously you don’t know your job?”
“Oh! you are insulting me? You are insulting an officer in uniform?”
“I have not insulted anybody, I am just trying to put things right here.”
“The only thing to put right here, is for you to come out and open your boot now.”
“What do you hope to find there? Do I look like a criminal?”
“Yes. How am I sure you are not one of those boys that carry cocaine in America that come here to speak big grammar for us. I know your type and I know how to handle your type. If you don’t want to reach our station, come out now and open the boot.”
I felt insulted. I am a double board certified Professor of cardiology in the US. I had just heeded the call by the new President to return home and help in development efforts and a police corporal had the effrontery to call me a criminal. I had no problems opening the boot as I had nothing to hide but at that point, I felt it was best to let him do his worst. My tongue went to work.
“Am amazed at your very shabby level of intelligence” I began, “ordinarily, I shouldn’t be seen speaking with a scumbag like you. It’s amazing how nit wits and simpletons in your mould find their way into the Police Force. I don’t even think its worth imagining. If you feel like arresting me for…. for whatever, then go ahead.”
He didn’t respond to me which made me feel even more irritated. Instead, he walked to the back of the car as if expecting me to join him whenever I was done with all my talk. Observing him from my rear view mirror, I noticed him bend down suddenly taking interest in something below my line of sight. After a few seconds, he walked briskly to the front of the car and began observing again. When he walked back to me, I could sense he had something new up his sleeves.
“Come out of the car now” he said pointing his pistol at me.
“Are you the owner of his vehicle? He asked”
“What sort of question is that officer?”
“Answer me, Does this car belong to you?”
“Didn’t you just look at my papers?”
“Has this car been involved in an accident?”
“None that I know of. I have been using this car for six months now and I don’t know of any accident. What is this all about officer?”
“Come down now” he barked out, waving his pistol across my face
“What have I done?
“We need to get to the station. I suspect this car.”
Before I could say any other thing, he deflated one of my tyres by loosening the air nozzle. I sat there almost petrified. I simply couldn’t comprehend such level of recklessness. It was at that point that I decided to stop talking, I was too angry to respond to all the unprintable words that were gushing out from his gut as he swung from side to side like a mating gorilla. I only re-entered the exchange when another officer, a sergeant who had all along been sitting in the weather-beaten pickup van with the inscription” Operation Fire for Fire” parked in the corner, approached to find out what was wrong. The corporal made a quick report to his superior officer first stating what a stubborn driver I was, before stating that he suspected the car to be a stolen vehicle. That the plate number behind was newer than that in front.
His last allegation shocked me. I had not noticed any difference in the plate numbers. It was no longer enough to sit at the steering wheel and talk. I stepped out and walked past the two officers to the rear and then to the front, the two officers following me.
“No wonder he refused to stop when I asked him to” the corporal said, sounding so victorious when we got back to the driver’s side of the car.
The sergeant looked in my direction, his expression seeking my own side of the story which I reluctantly told. I spent the better part of the talk introducing myself and concluded with the subtle threat of taking the matter up to the highest quarters and to sue if need be as I considered the incidence a flagrant abuse of my rights.
“Em sir, take it easy” the sergeant pleaded employing both hands to demonstrate his plea. My threat obviously had struck a nerve. “We don’t have to take it that far. This is a very simple matter that we can settle here. You know, we are just doing our job. These criminals are everywhere. Looking at you sir, I know you are a gentleman so I wouldn’t want to waste your time any further. Lets us settle this matter here. You see, my officer must have made a mistake, you know this job can be very stressful at times. Let us settle this issue now".
I noticed the continued occurrence of the word ‘settle’ in his statement.
“Corporal!” He barked out at his junior colleague jolting him out of the shock that had gripped him since realizing his superior was changing course. “Apologize immediately and change oga’s tyre so that he can be on his way.” Turning back to me he asked that I open the trunk so that the corporal could get my jack and spare tyre.
As the corporal finished his assignment and I was set to leave, the sergeant confident that he had won my heart approached me, a smile playing at his lips. I half expected another round of apologies but I was wrong.
“Em em, oga” he began as though stammering, his left hand scratching the hair at the back of his head which were not covered by the beret. “You see, this sun is hot o. Very hot.” He paused then added in pidgin “Any small thing for the boys to arrange pure water?”
I was right about what this was about all along, I thought to myself.