As I approached an immigration officer at the Murtala Muhammed Airport on January 12, I had this sense that a now familiar routine – a brief detention by officials of the State Security Service (SSS) – was going to play out. It had happened during my last four passages through the Lagos airport. Yet, a part of me hoped that it would be different this time.
I had had little sleep the two nights preceding my trip. To worsen matters, flying in on Delta Airlines from Atlanta, other passengers and I had endured a rather stressful flight. Our flight was scheduled to depart Atlanta at 11:50 p.m. and arrive in Lagos about 5 p.m. the next day. However, after the plane had taxied close to the runway, ready for take-off, the pilot announced that he’d caught some cockpit light that indicated there was an issue with the plane’s engine. He was going to return the plane to the hangar to enable mechanics to figure out the problem and to fix it.
Most passengers took it well, but a few edgy ones were visibly agitated. One man sought out a flight attendant and furiously demanded to be let off the plane, even if the engine problem were identified and addressed. My take – and it seemed the consensus of most passengers – was to trust the pilot and flight crew. Once they were satisfied that the plane was flight-worthy, that would be enough for me.
At some point, we were all asked to disembark and process back to the departure hall. Earlier, I had greeted Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka who was traveling on the same flight. I went to him and we talked briefly about literary and political matters. He seemed shocked when I voiced my suspicion that the SSS would, once again, take an interest in me on my arrival in Lagos. Since I hadn’t written about the issue after my first encounter in January, 2011, he didn’t know that the harassment had continued – four times altogether.
Eight or so hours past our original departure time, we were ushered into a different plane to continue the flight to Lagos. I had spent the time between reading, writing or talking to other passengers (certainly not sleeping). I slept fitfully during the flight. By the time the plane landed in Lagos, close to midnight, I was terribly tired, and looked forward to a deserved rest.
True to my suspicion, the immigration officer took one look at my passport, asked me to hold on, and then whispered to an agent of the SSS. Soon, I was ushered to a seat just behind the immigration kiosks and asked to wait. The time was 11:52 p.m. About an hour and a half later, a rather courteous female agent told me that the agency’s airport director was on his way to the baggage claim area to see me. An hour later, I asked why the director hadn’t arrived. “He’s coming,” I was told.
At 3:30 a.m., three and a half hours after my arrival, a male SSS officer asked me to come with him. We were headed upstairs, he said. My impression was that the director was waiting in his office for me. As two SSS agents and I meandered through the airport’s ill-lit, dilapidated arteries, it suddenly hit me: the Murtala Muhammed Airport was the dirtiest, ugliest, most run-down airport I had seen anywhere! There was a little consolation: the elevators were working. It wasn’t the case the last time, in June 2011, I had passed through. Even so, the elevators were so dingy, disheveled and scratched that entering them filled me with a sense of embarking on a reckless adventure.
In short, the airport struck me as a metaphor for Nigeria, a country conceived in hope but reared into near-hopelessness. The airport was as broken, as misshapen, as scarred by neglect and as visually unattractive as much of Nigeria. My eyes wandered to the ceilings, the floors, the walls and saw everywhere evidence of shameless, criminal neglect. An international airport affords the foreign visitor a quick, snap portrait of a country, its people, and their ethos. The MM airport paints a sordid, harsh and unflattering portrait.
After taking one elevator, then another, and then logging my two suitcases up a dusty, chipped flight of stairs, we finally arrived at an office on the fourth floor. One of the agents unlocked the key and I was led into a room with a whiny, ineffectual air-conditioner and two or so couches with torn, discolored leather.
“Sit and relax,” one of the agents told me, as if he had a macabre sense of humor.
“So where’s the director?” I asked.
“He’s coming,” the agent said.
“When will he get here?”
“He can come in any time.”
“What does that mean?” I demanded.
“Just relax. He can come in any time.”
Frustrated by his hedging manner of speaking, I rang two relatives and friends and told them I was again being detained by the SSS. Then the agent glowered at me and told me I was not supposed to make phone calls. He asked to see my phone, and proceeded to switch it off. For the first time, I lost my cool. Who did he think he was, I asked, some dictator? I told him I found his action insulting and disrespectful. Then I demanded that he immediately turn on the phone and return it to me. Just that moment, another officer entered the room, took the phone from him, turned it on, and gave it back to me. Just in time – because a friend had tried to reach me, found my phone turned off, and was about to alert an international news agency. I told him to wait.
I stayed in the room for more than six hours, awake all through despite my tiredness. The director finally arrived just after 9 a.m. Thirty or so minutes later, I was ushered into his office. He was a genial man and appeared quite professional. He immediately apologized profusely for my more than ten-hour detention, and promised to see to it that my name was finally removed from the agency’s watch list.
I told him that, seeing the state of the airport/Nigeria, I had no apologies to offer about my commentary on the country. I explained that I had no plans to write a petition to be removed from the agency’s list. I had not asked to be put on the roll to start with, and – as a matter of principle – I will never plead to be removed from it. As a law-respecting person, I deserve my freedom from all forms of state harassment. And, in the spirit of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, I’m not one to beg for my rights.
In all this drama of detention and release, the immigration did not stamp me in as having arrived in the country. Two days later, I was in Calabar visiting a relative when I received a telephone call from an SSS officer. He asked that I come to the airport after my trip to Cross River and Anambra states to have the immigration anomaly rectified. When I did, the immigration department insisted on stamping me in, not on the day of my actual arrival – Saturday, January 12 – but on the day I showed up again.
Such inconveniences can be grating. Yet, my reaction to the whole experience was not complicated. On the one hand, I could put it all in perspective. Many writers, including Soyinka, had paid and continue to pay much harsher prices. But I also believe that an innocent citizen should not be put upon, not even for one second. And certainly not with so many prominent criminals allowed to strut the stage in freedom, often protected by the country’s law enforcement and security agents! Fear never entered the equation. I believe that, in the end, fear can be a choice – and I have chosen not to fear.
I permitted myself, instead, to entertain some hope, perhaps a fantasy. I told the SSS director that I hoped the day would come – soon – when the SSS and other law enforcement agencies would be re-organized along sound professional lines. Once that happens, these agencies would start going after Nigeria’s real enemies, the criminals who rig elections, plunder and embezzle public funds, and commit other acts that jeopardize Nigeria’s present and future and leave its once proud, prim airport in wretched disrepair. Unless the SSS and other security apparatuses of the Nigerian state learn to tackle the true enemies of Nigeria, whether these enemies are serving or ex-governors, ministers, legislators or presidents; whether they hold such grand-sounding but hollow honorifics as GCFRs, GCONs, MFRs, CONs, and even if they are regaled with equally empty, so-called chieftaincy titles – unless this starts happening (and urgently), Nigeria’s doom is certain to proceed.
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