Putain de merde! I exclaim in absolute contempt as I hand over my passport to the French police officer. That’s an unthinkable vulgarity! It is the father of vulgarities in French, guaranteed to catch the attention of the French policeman who now holds my passport, lost in a few seconds of confusion. His colleagues in the ongoing process of stripping Nigerians of their human dignity also stop sharply in their tracks, all eyes on me. I have them where I want them. I want all four French police officers to hear me use a vulgarity that no White French man or woman can get away with using in the presence of a French policeman in the best of circumstances, let alone an African with a black ass getting off the plane - and from Nigeria of all places!
In the thirty seconds of their confusion, I can visualize what is going on in their minds. Their job, to stand right at the door of the plane, look mean and unfriendly, and scrutinize the passports of all passengers arriving from Nigeria, before such passengers proceed to face further humiliation at immigration and passport control, has conditioned them psychologically to face docile, frightful, and suppliant Nigerians pouring out of Air France flights weekly from Abuja or Lagos. Only for this six-foot-two-inch-male to hand over his passport with an air of supreme confidence bordering on intolerable arrogance and to ice that cake of hubris with unbelievable pottymouthed vulgarity.
What to do with this pompous Nigerian? Well, he did say “putain de merde”, right? It’s not just that he said it. It’s the way he said it: 100% Parisian French, complete with the accent. Nobody says it like that without being in perfect command of the French language, culture, and civilization. Nobody says it like that without having lived in Paris, without having crawled the streets of Barbes and Chateau d’Eau, without having been a habitual crawler on the platforms of Les Halles. This arrogant chap is one of us. He knows us inside out. He must have once lived here with us. He is us. He is doing this deliberately to provoke a reaction.
If this is the thinking of these French police officers, they are absolutely right on the money. Unfortunately for them, the passport I present while spewing my vulgarity is Canadian, not Nigerian. It works! I can sense their disappointment, their frustration. The only one who has dared to confront them has to go and present the passport of a fellow Western power! I can visualize the one million and one things they would have done to me if I was travelling on my Nigerian passport. Of course, my intention, the moment I saw them on stepping out of the plane, is to hide behind the strong arms of Canada and fight for my Nigerian humanity and dignity. Those of us who live transnational lives often have to do that – much to our displeasure. I shouldn’t have needed the might and power of Canada to shield me from the scorn, humiliation, and racism of these French police officers. My Nigerian passport should have been enough to do the magic. And that is why I am writing this piece in anger.
The officer looks at my Canadian passport, scrutinizes the photo in it to make sure it’s me – black folk have this annoying habit of all looking alike, all looking the same – and smiles in helpless submission to the power of the Western essence of that passport. Then he asks a few friendly questions about my time in France. For a Nigerian, your French isn’t something one encounters every day, he says. How did you learn French? When did you leave France for Canada? Then he waves me on with wide smile. I leave after registering my protest over what he and his colleagues are doing. I am not fooled by the friendliness. I fear for my compatriots still waiting on the line with Nigeria’s notorious passport behind me. Once the good behaviour and amiable mien imposed on these police officers by Canada wears off, they will snarl at first sight of the next Nigerian passport and return to character. They will resume hostilities. Whoever steps up after me with a Nigerian passport will pay the price of my rudeness. Transferred aggression.
Above is a summary of what happened as I stepped off the plane from Abuja last week to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. I was on my way back from a busy week of lectures in Nigeria and was going to take a connecting flight to Ottawa. As the plane taxied to a stop at the gate, the captain announced that there would be an additional police check and passport control just outside the door of the plane. That was the beginning of my anger. I hadn’t flown Air France since the 1990s. In fact, the last time I did business with Air France was back in 1998 and that demeaning, dehumanizing, and patently racist policy of an extra passport check on passengers arriving from Nigeria had just begun. It was a fallout of the draconian racist policies of a French politician and government official called Charles Pasqua who pretty much spent the 1990s hunting and hounding African immigrants and enacting racist policy and racist policy when he served as Minister of Interior. Nicolas Sarkozy’s subsequent hounding of Africans and immigrants – who he called scum – was a Pasqua hangover. The National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his loquacious daughter are boy scouts in the province of French racism and intolerance. The real deal was Charles Pasqua and his 1990s laws.
How the French moved from their usual suspects, their usual victims – Malian, Burkinabe, and Senegalese immigrants – to focus on Nigeria as an even greater object of their scorn, contempt, and racism beats me. But the profiling and extra checks began in the 1990s. Since I stopped flying Air France in 1998, all my trips to France, all my holidays, all my summer writing retreats in Paris had been from Canada or the United States, so I had no way of knowing that the practice of profiling Nigerians arriving on Air France from Abuja or Lagos had continued all these years. It was in Abuja that I first got an inkling of what lay ahead. Boarding Air France from Nigeria is like attempting to clear security and see President Obama in the White House. In fact, it is easier to see Obama as you can always scale the fence of the White House these days. Air France officials check and recheck your passport. Layers and layers of checks. Just before you board, they queue you up again and bring electronic passport scanners in big boxes looking like INEC machines. Checks, checks, and checks. They already got on my temper in Abuja. Only to arrive in France and have stern police officers waiting right outside of the door of the plane for – alas – another layer of dehumanizing passport control. Mind you, the passengers whose final destination is France are still going ahead to immigration and passport control!
Just a week earlier, I had used this same airport on my way from Canada to Nigeria. When my plane landed from Montreal, nobody did any additional passport check. Nobody was waiting at the door of the plane. I just entered and went on to the gate of my connecting flight to Abuja – unharrassed, unmolested. Seven days later, I am coming from Abuja – same me, same passports – and everything changes. Checks, checks, checks. What has changed?
That extra passport check of passengers arriving from Nigeria – after all the pre-boarding checks and verification in Nigeria and the regular customs and immigration check they will still face in France - by French police is a flagrant act of racist humiliation and discrimination that should be resisted by the Nigerian Government. That nonsense started in the 1990s and I am surprised that the Nigerian Government has allowed it to last this long. Part of my frustration with the Nigerian authorities is that they don’t always know when and how to wield Nigeria’s immense economic weight against misbehaving European powers. France is of zero economic benefit to Nigeria. How many Nigerian businesses are in France? How many Nigerian conglomerates and multinational corporations are in France? Whatever we make from trade with France is guguru and epa money. On the contrary, Nigeria is of massive economic benefit to France. Total is in Nigeria. Peugeot is in Nigeria. Schlumberger is in Nigeria. So many French corporations are in Nigeria making a killing. Air France operates weekly flights to Lagos, Abuja, and Port Harcourt.
There is nothing France can do to Nigeria because she is of little or no economic value to Nigeria. The sky will not fall if Nigerians don’t consume brie, camembert and other French cheese (we have wara). The sky will not fall if Nigerians don’t consume French wine (which they know zero about anyway. A Nigerian pretending to know French wine is usually just forming). The sky will not fall if we don’t drive Peugeot (Japanese cars are there to ensure that we don’t miss Peugeot). On the contrary, if Nigeria sneezes, France will catch an economic cold. We are that important to the economy of France. In essence, France is in no position to humiliate and discriminate against Nigerians with that nonsensical extra passport check by police waiting outside the door of a plane in Paris – creating the impression that they are about to sort through a bunch of potential and actual criminals. What sort of profiling is this in the 21st century?
I wrote an article praising Viola Onwuliri a few months ago. Minister Onwuliri was handling career profilers of Nigeria at the international level in a way that made one proud to be a Nigerian. I even temporarily suspended my remembrance of her ignominious role in Occupy Nigeria because of the way she was doing the business of Nigeria at Foreign Affairs. The Ambassadors of India and Egypt will not forget her quickly. I think it is time for the Ambassador of France in Nigeria to be summoned to Foreign Affairs for an encounter with whoever has succeeded Viola Onwuliri. A clear, muscular, and unambiguous message needs to be sent to the Elysee in Paris. The message should be backed with threats. If the French do not stop their misbehaviour, we must threaten to ban Air France and even ban Total and Peugeot from operating in Nigeria. Nothing is more important than the human dignity of the Nigerian citizen. If the French state cannot respect that, they have no business doing business in Nigeria and raking in billions.
A note to the Nigerians who have been patronizing Air France since the 1990s. So, this practice has continued since the 1990s when I last flew Air France and una jus keep quiet dey tolerate am? This is why Nigerians dey taya me. This followership thing. This is why your rulers get away with everything they do to you. You just keep taking it. You take it from your rulers. You take it from Air France. You take it from South African Airways. You take it from Egypt Air. That is why Egypt Air felt emboldened to maltreat that Nigerian boy until Viola Onwuliri stepped in to deal with them. If, tomorrow, Air Rwanda starts to profile and maltreat you, you will take it from them.
Yeah, I know. I’ve heard it. If our rulers weren’t as useless and irresponsible as to kill Nigerian Airways, if we had our own national carrier, bla bla, and bla. That, my friend, is a yeye argument. That your system killed Nigerian Airways is no excuse for you to be treated anyhow by other airlines taking your hard-earned money. If they treat your money with dignity, they and the governments which own them must treat your body and person with dignity. End of story!