Short Story by Ifedigbo Nze Sylva
I re-entered the conversation with the utmost reluctance after minutes of silence during which I fought hard to control the rising rage in me. The grounds for rational exchange had long been polluted by the frailest, almost banal and unintelligent discussion I have had since my return to the country just over a month ago. When I touched down at the airport in Lagos after twelve years in the United States, I was aware that I had just re-entered-like the western media would say-, one of the most disorganized societies under the sun which unfortunately happened to be my father land and I had consciously prepared my senses for whatever will come up, but I was in no way prepared for the rather discourteous level of conduct to such extents I never thought possible, at least not in an acclaimed democracy as ours, by persons who according to the constitution are saddled with the responsibility of protecting my rights as a citizen.
It might fall within the duty schedule of a police officer-a Corporal- to stop cars for checking on the highway for whatever security reasons the Police hierarchy can think up, but it was another matter entirely to attempt to intimidate or drag me into such below ground zero exchange all with the aim of squeezing out some naira from me. In Corporal Benson, it for the first time actually became abundantly clear to me that we have -as a nation- finally plumbed the abyss of permissiveness and that the popular cliché: police is your friend which the police chief’s keep talking about even so boldly on their website was nothing but mere wishful thinking. My encounter with the corporal that sunny Saturday afternoon no doubt did an irreparable damage to whatever regards I hitherto had for our police and in all sincerity deserved nothing but outright contemptuous condemnation.
My disappointment started from the way he stood at the middle of the road to flag me down when I was just few meters away from him. I reached for my brakes like a formular-one race driver and no sooner had the car halted that he with the wave of his hands motioned me to the side of the road seeming so unconcerned about the fact that I could have just hit him. When it became obvious that I didn’t understand his sign language, or that I simply wasn’t just prepared to obey, he barked out that I should clear well. The way he said it showed clearly that it was an order, not a suggestion. I did as he said, cursing silently under my breath. The Police in the States would not shout like that even to a criminal whose skin color was black.
He walked over to my side his index finger dangerously caressing the trigger of the dusty pistol he had in his right hand. He said no word of greeting; honestly I didn’t expect him to, giving what I had heard of the Nigerian police. Greeting was not one of their strong ethics. I was eager to rebuke him for almost committing suicide some minutes ago.
“Oga” he began, “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”.
“Is this place not alright?” I asked, certain I was sufficiently off the road.
“Oga, I said clear well, shift inside more”.
The stench of alcohol and hemp which came with each statement of his was most irritating. Having had enough of it, I decided against further argument. Quickly, I engaged my clutch and pulled deeper off the road actually entering the bush beyond.
“Is it alright now? “ I asked, trying to be sarcastic.
“Can I see your particulars?” was what I got as reply.
I knew where this was leading. I could imagine. The normal drama with the police was my least interest at that time as I was actually running late for an important meeting. I had 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 American accent would do the magic, but it didn’t.
“Oga, you are speaking big grammar. I said I want your particulars”
I actually had all that he wanted, my younger brother who bought me the car had made sure all the papers were intact as though he foresaw situations like this, so 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. I could swear those blood shot eyes, were merely running through the papers. The expression on his face made it adequately clear that he wasn’t reading any thing. 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 was beginning to wonder if the corporals reading ability was worse than I thought.
For a brief moment, he seemed at a loss of what more to ask for then suddenly he demanded for my I.D card. I told him I had none since I just returned to the country. I wondered if my driver’s license was not enough identity.
“You think I don’t have eyes? 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?”
“Well I have an international passport if that would be of use to you”
He barely opened the green passport before returning it. My time was running out and I was getting impatient.
“Open your bonnet” he demanded.
For what again? I wondered in my mind, 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. All this while, I remained inside the car. He busied himself around the open bonnet for some time, I couldn’t quit 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 black face which had two guiles of tribal marks running across it that made him look more like some kind of ape just out of the zoo. 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 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 was staring back as though expecting me to say or do some thing. It was time for “any thing for the boys?”, but some how he didn’t ask, couldn’t get himself to and I kept staring back.
“What is in your boot?” he inquired.
“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”
“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 was now visibly irritated.
“Oga , are you now questioning me?, I said come out and open the boot before I change my mind.”
That was not polite at all.
“For Christ sake, this is not how the police should treat innocent citizens in a civilized society”
“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 you are now teaching me my job?”
Obviously you don’t know your job?”
“oh!, you are insulting me?”
“ I have not insulted any body, 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, you look like one of these small 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. In the US, I enjoyed quite a great deal of respect as a senior Professor my colour not withstanding. In my fatherland, a common police corporal has 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, “I don’t have time to be arguing with a scumbag like you. I wonder how nit wits and simpletons like you find yourself into the Police Force. I don’t even think its worth imagining. If you feel like arresting me for…. for whatever, then go ahead”.
“Oga, I have been trying to treat you like a gentleman but I can see you are very stubborn. You think this is America where you can say any nonsense you like and go free. This place na Nigeria. If you insult me again, I will just waste you here and no body will ask any question”. He moved the pistol in my direction.
I had heard and read so many sad stories about accidental discharges. I took that threat very seriously but did not betray my fears. America taught one to refuse to be intimidated. I remained firm.
“Of course you are joking. You can’t try such a thing even in your widest dreams”
“Come out of the car now”
“You are under arrest”
“What have I done?
“When we get to the station, you will understand”
“I am going no where”
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 reply 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 parked in the corner approached to find out what was wrong. Corporal Benson was quick to report to his superior officer what a stubborn criminal I was, and in a twinkle had raised all sorts of allegation against me from criminal assault to possession of a suspected stolen vehicle. He even said I was reluctant to stop when he flagged me down which was what fueled his suspicion. The sergeant looked in my direction, his expression seeking my own side of the story which I reluctantly told. I also added that I was going to take 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, my threat obviously getting the better of him. “We don’t have to take it that far. This is a very simple matter that we can settle here. You see my officer must have made a mistake, you know this job can be very stressful a times that some times we tend to do what might not be so right, but then, we always settle it….
My anger was melting. It felt good to know some sense was still left in the police.
…. Corporal! Apologize immediately and get the spare tyre to change this one” turning back to me he continued, “Oga please I am very sorry. We would see how to fix your deflated tyre.”
The visibly perplexed corporal stiffened up at attention and gave his superior officer a salute. What a difficult customer I was, he must have thought. I wished I could read his mind, to see how disappointed he was but I couldn’t tell between the two of us who was more disappointed.
Ifedigbo Nze Sylva