“Stop! Clear well!” The flashlight blinded me momentarily as I peered out through the window of the car in the pre-dawn darkness. The jolt as Mr. Alao stepped on the brakes had jerked me awake.
I shut my eyes and silently counted to ten, and when I opened them again they had adjusted to the darkness.
Mr. Alao pulled to the side of the road, wound down his window but left the engine running.
“Good morning officer,” he saluted the policeman who appeared at his side.
“Oga show me your particulars,” the policeman said, ignoring his greeting.
Mr. Alao rummaged in the pigeon-hole for the paperwork which he handed to the policeman who only gave it a cursory glance before shining his light into the car.
Sitting in the back of the car between Benjamin, Mr. Alao’s son, and Martin, another neighbour’s son, I looked defiantly at the policeman looking in, the light he held forward in his hand-made it hard to make out his features.
“Na who get dis pikins dem?”
“That’s my son,” Mr. Alao jerked his right thumb over his shoulder. “The other two are my friends’ children.”
“Dia papa and mama sabi dat you are wit dia pikins?”
“OC, yes their parents are aware. I normally drop them at school every morning.” Mr. Alao was surprisingly, still calm.
“Okay good oga. Oya wey kola for your officers?”
I could not wrap my thirteen year old mind around the notion of giving kolanuts, white cloth, palm oil or any offering to these police gods. Especially not after the hard time they had given him.
The Police is Your Friend.
I believe this slogan, I really do. I have had too many run-ins with men of the Nigeria Police Force not to know that they are my friend.
I have once been arrested for endangering my life and government property because I stopped on a railway track. Another time, I was delayed on charges of impersonation because my name is the same as the then Lagos state command Police PRO. Once I was detained for using fake driver’s licence, a license I obtained from the FRSC office. One which nobody had questioned me about until that day.
In October 2012, I was reminded how much of my friend the police can be, how familiar they can get.
I had gone to the international airport, Lagos to pick my brother up, he had just returned from a trip.
Not wanting to wait at the airport for too long, I had gone to a friend’s place at Maryland to play soccer and pass the time. By 9pm, my sister called to find out where I was and if he had landed. I told her Maryland, and that I did not know. That I was waiting for him to call me when he got off the plane.
“What if he doesn’t have airtime? Or networks is bad? So he will just stand there waiting for you?”
I understood her concerns, and would have explained to her how unfounded they were, but I have learnt never to argue with a woman. I drove to the airport and waited thirty minutes before he called to say they had just landed; thirty minutes I could have spent playing soccer.
I walked out to meet him at the arrivals level of the airport, and together we walked back to the car park.
As we drew close to the car, I noticed three men come out of the shadows and walk toward us. The hairs on the back of my arm and neck stiffened, but I swallowed my rising panic as I took in my surrounding.
The car park was deserted and poorly lit, three men were walking towards us from three different points and it felt like a noose tightening. I was parked in an almost isolated part of the car park, so cries for help would probably go unheeded. I looked at my brother and, if he noticed what I did, he was not showing it.
“Na people wey jus dey come back,” one of the men said when they were a few feet from us.
“Good evening sirs,” I greeted them, opening the booth to put my brother’s bag in.
“Oga na we be the policemen wey dey work for this area for your security,” the spokesman said.
“Una well done,” I replied with a smile.
“So, anything for your boys?” He asked me.
“Officer, nothing dey o. Na just toll gate money remain for my hand. Na my bros I come pick.”
“Ehn, anything at all we go manage.” He was persistent.
I slid into the driver’s seat and rested my head on the steering wheel.
“Ask my bros sha, but me I no get anything.” I said with forced weariness. “I jus tire sef.” I tried to shut the door, but he leaned his hip into it, keeping it open.
My brother was not faring any better.
“Officer, I say I no hold anything.” I heard the exasperation in his voice. His own policeman would not even let him get into the car.
“Oga check your wallet, something must dey. Any currency at all we go change.”
I raised my head in shock. These men dressed in mufti, claiming to be policemen could be anything and anyone. They were most probably armed. Luckily, all they had done so far was some forceful soliciting.
When my brother pulled out his wallet, I was certain he had killed us.
“See officer,” he said showing the man his wallet, “nothing.”
“Wetin be dat dia? Which currency be that?”
My brother chuckled.
“Na Egyptian pounds.”
“The other one nko?”
“Dat na Kenyan Shillings.”
“No, the other one.” The policeman insisted.
“Ahhh, officer no o. I no go fit give you dis one. Na the only money wey I go manage next week be that.” From his tone, I knew my brother meant that ‘I no go fit give you.’
He eventually parted with five Egyptian pounds and two hundred Kenyan shillings before the policemen let us go.
I was well on my way to the exit of the car park before I could begin to relax.
I have heard stories of people being killed for less, and allegedly, by policemen.
I should have asked for identification, I chided myself before I started laughing. Really? Would I really have asked for ID?
That night, I could not feel indignation. I just wanted to get out of that airport car park in one piece, and was too happy to do so. I already saw in my mind, the headlines the next day: Suspected Robbers Shot at MMIA Car Park During A Bust.
They say the police is there to serve and to protect, and I am sure they believe it too, but all one needs is an encounter with men of the NPF before one begins to wonder: to serve and to protect who?