The borders that divide us
Five months ago, I found myself hauled into the back of a police truck and driven off to a police station in Seme, Benin Republic. Thinking back and trying to make sense of the entire debacle, it still seems like an out-of-body experience and something that happened on a soap opera show. Compared to many that travel into Nigeria through the border on Benin Republic’s end, my experience pales in comparison to what happens on an average day.
In my case, I refused to pay an unwarranted fee to cross the border from Benin Republic to Nigeria and the local police got involved. In the space of five minutes, what seemed like a healthy disagreement in stating that as a Nigerian with all travel documents intact, I should not incur any cost to pass into my country, turned into a major kerfuffle. Three hours later of trying to make sense of why I was in a holding area with the police and why the police felt the need to break my DSLR, with the help of a translator, all parties realised it was a case of major misunderstanding. The reasoning for their misplaced hostility became clear when they started sharing the stories of their first-hand or witnessed experiences at the hands of Nigeria’s own custom officials.
I heard many stories of great injustice done to them and the more stories I heard from them, the more many of my experiences whilst crossing the borders in Ghana and Togo made more sense. At each border crossing, the minute my Nigerian passport was presented to any of the officers on duty, their demeanour towards me changed. It was odd, and I simply dismissed it as nothing of consequence.
A stand-out case was when I was crossing from Ghana into Lome, Togo with a couple of ladies from other West African countries. When they presented their passports, it was stamped with no issue, but the minute I presented mine, the officer demanded I pay 200 Ghanaian cedis before he would attend to me. I laughed out loud thinking it to be a joke. He was not joking and I was not about to cough up even 1 cedi. After 30 minutes of waiting him out, he stamped my passport and mumbled something in French and I was only able to catch two words, Nigeria and customs. It did not make sense to me and I was too relieved and exhausted from the long road trip to dwell on why he singled me out of the group.
It took getting assaulted by Benin Republic police to understand why many of the customs officials kept picking on me; my Nigerian passport represented a lot of negatives to them. Many of them had personally experienced grave injustice done to them by Nigeria’s border patrol team. From paying through their nose to gain entry into a country that should be open to them, to seizure of personal belongings based on trumped up charges. One of the officers that detained me had just been released from jail after crossing into Nigeria to make some personal expensive purchases. All of his purchases were confiscated and his family and friends had to pool a large sum of their resources to bail him out.
While I was angry at them for detaining me, I began to understand the hostility I experienced from the officers at each border crossing and the entire experience saddened me. What many of the officers failed to realise is that they are not the only ones getting fleeced by Nigeria’s border control. Since my encounter, I have heard a great number of accounts from Nigerians that regularly travel across the border and they have similar stories to tell.
In recent years, tourism gets brought up a lot as a way to strengthen Nigeria’s economic growth, but how do we move forward if the most basic core is its biggest hindrance?