I went home to Nigeria on holiday last year Christmas. It was a kind of boy done good, went-to-university-in-Britain-and-now-has-a-degree homecoming. I was looking forward to seeing family and friends that I hadn’t seen in four years. My mum had gotten emotional about the fact that I had paid for the trip myself, talking about how much her son had grown that she didn’t have to pay for his ticket. Great contrast to this year - stark broke and in London. It was also a chance for me to assess how far down the road of development Nigeria had come in her newfound democracy.
One evening, we were heading back to our house in a suburb in Lagos, my mum was driving, and we had a guest sitting at the back. Perhaps I should have been driving, but I wasn’t about to reacquaint myself with a left hand drive car on the streets of Lagos. I’d heard enough stories of newcomers driving on the wrong side of the road, and trying to change gears with their left hand, but finding the door handle instead.
Approaching a bit of a traffic snarl, locally known as “go slow”, a tall man brandishing a machete leapt in front of the car, shouting “gimme the set, gimme the set”, demanding our mobile phones. He started to walk round the car towards the driver’s side, machete in tow, menace in his eyes. So my mum started winding her window up, after which we heard a smash, and a squeal of tyres, as she found a gap in the traffic and sped off.
As we drove away in a panic, in the opposite direction to our destination, we assessed the damage. The driver side window had been smashed, with shards of glass scattered on my mum’s clothes, and me clutching my chest for fear of my heart popping out of its cavity. Yes, it was beating that fast! We drove past a military barracks and up ahead was a police checkpoint, which we knew well since it had been there for years. We got there only to find two other cars suffering from driver-side-window-smashed-in syndrome, and another two cars behind us.
The sheer brazenness of a machete wielding robber operating so close to Nigeria’s fine police force! The officer in charge of manning the checkpoint was informed of what had transpired, and was determined to do his bit to protect and serve. So he shouted, “corporal, cock your gun, let’s go!” Yippee, the guy who had just traumatised us was going to get his comeuppance. But the policemen weren’t going to head to a dangerous spot in a squad car with blaring sirens, they were going to go there in a more surreptitious manner, in our car!
So I got into the back seat, sitting beside the corporal loading bullets into his gun, while the officer in charge rode shotgun – pun intended. Being robbed is not really a big deal, I can think of places in Britain where I wouldn’t venture after a certain hour. However, one’s car being used a de facto operational centre with a view to attacking a machete wielding robber is in a different realm of reality. I couldn’t figure out which I was more scared of, the man who had just emotionally scarred me for life, or the click clacking of the law enforcement man sitting next to me loading his gun with shiny bullets.
It wasn’t exactly the time to protest that we had neither been trained in body to drive as policemen, nor in mind, to deal with deadly weapons within such proximity to our bodies. All five cars drove in a convoy against traffic, hazard lights flashing, and my mum the police squad car driver at the head of the queue. In case you’re wondering, driving against traffic with hazards flashing isn’t at all an oddity in Nigeria. We got closer to the spot where Machete Man had attacked us, and all the cars started to slow down, before our protector said to my mum, “Ah madam, this is not our jurisdiction. It is the responsibility of...”
There I was warming to the idea of a real life cops and robbers shoot out, no phoney toy guns, no slumping on the ground in false agony, no fake scorekeeping and cheating by the boys from the other street. What I get instead, is a policeman who chickens out when I have just overcome the twin traumas of being attacked by a machete, and become a conscripted member of a gun toting police checkpoint unit.
Maybe next time. Everyone we told the story had something along these lines to say, “That spot, yes. It’s notorious between 7pm and 9pm. I never go there at that time.” Well thanks for the information. I should write a petition to the city council asking them to put up a note of warning alongside the road signs – city centre, 10kilometres, armed robbers, 2kilometres.