NIGERIA is a country of thieves and robbers. Anybody in the country can be a thief and a robber, from your plumber, to your doctor, to the traffic-warden on the road. But the biggest thieves are government officials. Whenever you are dealing with Nigerian officialdom, be on your guard; you are going to be robbed.
If you need to get some permit or document from a ministry or government agency, it is best to go there carrying a baby or a little child. If you don’t have one, borrow a neighbour’s just for the occasion. Nigerians are suckers for babies. By the time we have finished admiring your baby, you have won us over, and whatever transaction you require will be done expeditiously without blackmail.
If you are a white man living in Nigeria, but you need to get something legal from a Nigerian agency, go in a Nigerian outfit if you want to avoid robbery. Nigerians love it when foreigners wear our clothes. It validates us. By the time we have finished admiring your buba or agbada, we would have forgotten that our primary assignment is to rob you of a few thousand naira.
Here are examples of ways whereby some people have dealt with Nigerian thieves and robbers. They are presented here as guidelines only. In all cases, wisdom is the principal requirement.
One of the places where thieves and robbers are most rampant in Nigeria is in the churches. This should not come as a surprise. Jesus says: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” Make no mistake about it: Nigerian churches are a den of thieves.
Jide Ayanfalu inherited a generator from his parents. He used it for business purposes by renting it out to people who needed it on special occasions. It so happened that the generator in his church was stolen. The pastor insisted that church-members should not be told about the theft; otherwise they might conclude that God was not in the church. He asked Jide if the church could use his generator in the meantime.
Jide was agreeable to this: some of his best customers were churches. But one week, two weeks, three weeks, one month, after the church took his generator, Jide was not paid a dime. Two months, three months, four months afterwards; still no payment for the use of the generator. Finally, Jide summoned up courage to confront the pastor. If they would not pay him for the use of his generator, at least they should give it back to him.
The pastor was very offended. He preached a fiery sermon in which he told the people in no uncertain terms that their destinies were tied to his church. “Don’t you know,” he asked menacingly, “we have the power to withhold your blessings?” The royal “we” referred to the pastor himself. Then he button-holed Jide after the service and went for the jugular: “Don’t you think you should give the church your generator?” he demanded.
Jide was troubled and could not answer. He came to me to seek counsel as to what he should do. I immediately pointed out to him that a robbery was in progress. I said to him: “Jide, forget about having any discussion with your pastor. Hire a van and go and remove your generator from the church.”
The business of the Nigerian policeman is to protect lives and property. But somewhere along the line, he lost touch with this business. Instead of catching thieves, the policeman himself became a thief. Now his primary business is the extortion of money from both the innocent and the guilty.
A technician to whom I gave my VCR for repairs was bringing it back to me. However, just a few buildings down the road from my house; he was arrested by a policeman who accused him of stealing it because he did not have the proof of purchase. The “thief” was then allowed to drop the VCR and come to get me. When I arrived on the scene, I shook hands with the policeman and thanked him profusely for his diligence. I observed that were it not for conscientious officers like him, property-owners would be in danger of losing their possessions.
The policeman was initially confused. It was clear to me and to him that he had no interest whatsoever in protecting my property. This was just an opportunity for him to extort some money by asking for the purchase receipt of an old VCR. But he quickly recovered from his confusion and said in agreement: “We cannot be too careful; there are so many thieves around these days.”
Knowing full well who exactly the “thieves” are, I thanked him again and briskly picked up my VCR. As I made a quick getaway with it, I resisted the temptation to look back to observe the confusion on his face.
On returning to Nigeria after a fourteen-year absence, I had to clear my personal effects at Apapa port. However, every morning I met the same brick-wall. A port official told me repeatedly: “Your bill-of-laden has not arrived.”
One day, while waiting in his office, some drama was enacted for my enlightenment. His assistant came in and gave him some money furtively behind his table. He counted it and quickly put it in his drawer. Then both of them turned to look at me. Their look spoke eloquently: “You get the message, you moron? You need to give us some money if you want to get your release papers.”
I refused to get the message. Thereafter, I was accosted by a gentleman who claimed he worked in the mail-room. He thrust a piece of paper into my hand which turned out to be my bill-of-laden. He told me it had arrived a long time before then but was just being kept from me. He said I must not reveal he had shown it to me, otherwise he would lose his job. He was only doing this because he and I were Yoruba.
However, when I went in to see the port official, he still insisted my bill-of-laden had not arrived. Then he asked me a loaded question. He wanted to know if the boy in the mail-room was my friend. “Why don’t you ask him if your bill-of-laden had arrived,” he said.
Instead, I contacted my shippers in London by phone and asked them to send me another copy of my bill-of-laden directly by DHL. I received this within 24 hours and took it triumphantly to the port official. He congratulated me lavishly and promised that, under the circumstances, my goods would be released without further delay. But when I came the next day, I met a new resistance; he told me he had lost my bill-of-laden.
This now called for drastic action. I went up the staircase of the building and walked into the office of “the oga at the top.” I poured out my heart to him and told him my plight. The man smiled and told me not to worry. He said he was the boss of the man who was trying to extort money from me. “Just follow me,” he said.
When we got downstairs, he asked my nemesis what the problem was with my bill-of-laden. He explained that it seemed he had misplaced it. “Let us look for it together,” said his boss, who started rifling through the papers on the man’s table. In less than one minute, the oga found it. “Ah!” he exclaimed, “we have found it! I’m sure there won’t be any other problem after this.”
Thereafter, my release-papers were promptly given to me. I went back after this to see my defeated foe. I apologised for being so difficult, claiming it was because I had been out of the country for so long. “I don’t know how things are done here,” I pleaded. The man refused to be taken in by my apology. “You know everything,” he insisted. “You are fooling no one.”
My wife’s driver made a U-turn and was immediately arrested by a LASTMA officer. Apparently, U-turns are not permitted on that particular road. Karen said to the LASTMA officer: “How do I know that you are even a bona fide police officer?” The man became very angry. “Bona fide!” he shouted. “Bona fide? Today, today, I am taking you to Obalende.”
While he was consulting angrily with another LASTMA officer, Karen decided a change of tactics might be necessary. She said to him: “Officer, anybody can see that you are really a bona fide officer.” The man refused to be persuaded by this belated flattery. “So I am now a bona fide officer eh? Today, today, we are going to Obalende!” This called for a further change of strategy, so Karen tried a different tack.
She said to him: “Oga Sir, the truth is that I am completely fed up with living in this country. I am a university lecturer. ASUU is on strike, so my salary has not been paid. We have not had electricity at home for over one week. This car has been giving so much trouble. And now you are arresting me because my driver has made this illegal U-turn. Honestly, I am really fed up with living in Nigeria.”
The policeman opened the car door on the passenger side. He got in and sat down. Then he turned round to look at Karen with intensity. He said to her: “Madam, you are not a Nigerian?” “No!” she answered. “But you are married to a Nigerian?” “Yes,” she answered again. “And you are tired of living in Nigeria?” “Yes,” she insisted, “I am fed up with living in Nigeria.” He looked directly at her again. “Madam,” he said with a big sigh, “I am a Nigerian, and I am also fed up with living in Nigeria.”
That was the end of the case.