Nigeria Matters

The Thieves at Seme Border

That Nigeria is a lawless country is an under-statement. And that ‘anything-goes’ is the order of the day is also a true statement. Our potentially-great nation has major socio-political problems to contend with to wit: corruption, indiscipline, dysfunctional federalism and administrative mediocrity. Yet Nigerians are reputed globally to be a happy praying people! Despite those foreign or local sentiments, however, it is incontrovertible to avert that no nation ever gets built on such primordial instincts bordering on gender, race, religion or region. We can pray to God without ceasing but when we refuse to work or do the right thing the Supreme Being would definitely look elsewhere for the acknowledgement of supplications. After all, He is neither Nigerian nor African but the Omnipotent Master of all nations and peoples!

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Early March this year a disturbing report was published online by the ‘Punch’ newspaper in Lagos. Two American citizens, Dr Randy McKinney and wife, Lana, had accused officials of the Nigerian Immigration Services of extorting some 125,000 Naira from them at the notorious Seme Border in Lagos despite having complete travelling documents! They had arrived Calabar, the Cross River state capital city, on two motorbikes after spending over seven months on the road from Alaska (US) to Nigeria. Mr McKinney had described their experience at the Seme border as a “horrendous nightmare” indicating that the immigration officials at the Nigerian end of the border with the Republic of Benin were “thieves”.

The foreign tourists had noted with anger that several immigration officials at the border had in the course of their clearance insisted on receiving bribes before releasing their valid passports! According to the Americans: “Crossing the Nigerian border from Republic of Benin was one of the most horrendous nightmares we have ever experienced. Officials at the border are thieves. We spent N125,000 to cross into the country despite having all our complete documents. If they take a look at your passport, you must give them money to get it back. I have not seen that kind of thing in my life…I think all the thieves congregate in the Nigerian border. From the closest Togo to Benin border posts, there was no problem. The Nigerian end of the Nigeria/Benin border is full of crooks. Something needs to be done.”

While acknowledging that the immigration personnel at Seme were tarnishing the international image of Nigeria he called on the Service management to do something about the unpatriotic conduct of its officials posted there. He expressed his excitement to be in Nigeria with his wife despite the warnings not to come visiting. Explaining their mission he said they were there to carry out medical expedition to treat dysentery in some remote villages in Cross River state. Mr McKinney concluded thus: “We are excited to be in Nigeria, although we were warned not to come. I must state that the people are nice, even security officials at the checkpoints within the country”.

Some years ago I had passed through that notorious border on my way from Lome, Togo. Then it was total confusion at display; big and petty thieves (in and out of uniform) trying hard to outsmart and outdo one another in an open frontier market of corruption and indiscipline. There were dereliction of duty and duplication of efforts. Men in uniform (and many others in mufti) were manning legal and illegal check-points whose number could not be tabulated correctly. Money was changing hands in quick succession as motorists and okada riders queued up to pay toll. Yes, it was more or less a toll plaza!

You have officers of Immigration, health, customs, SSS, NDLEA, police, military, para-military and other civil defense corps all represented in an environment that could pass for midday madness. Those plying that route and conversant with the organized extortion co-operated fully with the nasty system using money to ‘buy’ their way out even if they were transporting contraband goods or foreign terrorists — nobody cared! Money ruled and no question was ever entertained; almost everyone was busy collecting money and enriching themselves.

The driver that was riding the car we were travelling in had wisely changed a bundle of 50 and 20 Naira notes even before our arrival at the hell of a border. On arrival he was generously distributing the cash at every point (stretching up to a kilometer) and having a free unimpeded passage! As we headed towards Badagry leaving behind us the chaotic scenes I had curiously asked the driver why his vehicle was not checked and the passengers controlled and he laughed saying that was the way (money ruled!). He maintained that any display of arrogance or stubbornness would have earned him instant ‘detention’ without trial. Because of just 50 Naira, he continued, any motorist could be made to spend the whole day at the border as an ‘offense’ would be ‘manufactured’ against him. That could be deemed the appropriate sanction for his stinginess or show of ‘intelligence’!

The situation is a little bit different at the international airports across the land. In December 2004 I had boarded an Ethiopian Airlines flight bound for Lagos. Troubled by an abdominal ailment (appendicitis) I was in serious pains throughout the trip. But before deciding to head home for a surgical operation to remove the appendix my passport had just expired; so I had to go over to the Nigerian Embassy in the city where I was found then to obtain a legal document that would cover the journey back home. The embassy staff issued me with a laissé passé document with which I undertook the trip.

Upon our arrival at the Murtala Mohammed international airport in Ikeja the SSS men on duty were dutifully scrutinizing the travelling documents of every passenger and letting them in. When it came to my turn I handed over the document I was having (including the expired passport) and the SSS man simply cast a brief look at the laissé passé and me and asked me to stay behind! He handed the documents over to his colleague who took them to their boss in the office near-by. Seconds gave way to minutes and minutes approaching the hour mark, no word, no question and no answer. Meanwhile my brother who came to pick me up was waiting patiently downstairs for me to appear.

When I summoned the courage to ask what the problem was the SSS man, speaking in Hausa language until now with his colleagues, asked me to exercise some more patience as they were verifying if the document emanated really from the embassy! Of course I had asked the question in Hausa: “mee y’afaru, aboki na?”. Minutes after the inquiry the ‘Maigida’ came out of the office and took a hard look at me handing the documents over and saying nothing. No money was ever demanded and none was given! I left there but encountered some more problems downstairs with the immigration staff. In the end, however, I joined my brother and we headed towards the city, dropping off my luggage at home and going straight over to the hospital where I was operated upon in the night.

When I returned back to base, weeks later, I found out that my luggage had been tampered with. A sharp object was obviously used to tear-up the bag. My personal effects were intact but ransacked. May be the airport ‘rat’ was looking for money or whatever, I don’t know; can’t tell. I was wondering why and how a baggage checked in could have been tampered with without the security doing their job of securing property. Many passengers had lost luggages and others had had their bags forgotten or abandoned in Lagos or elsewhere. In a situation like this there is always buck-passing between airlines’ management and airport staff.

The McKinney couple must have left our shores with both good and bad souvenir. Their encounter with those they described as “thieves” at Seme border reminded one of the time some investigative journalists had stormed Lagos (MMA) with hidden cameras with which they filmed corruption scenes at the airport. This happened during the late Gen. Sani Abacha’s despotism and it caused a national uproar that resulted in some heads rolling. Abacha applied punitive measures as the controversy over the visual scandal raged. Corruption was a big problem then and it is still today a problem!

We salute the courage of the American adventurous pair for the revelation. No one doubted the fact that they were unjustly treated and extorted. But much more than that we salute their determination, despite the opprobrious harassment at Seme, to reach their destination. By deciding to bring the voyage to its logical conclusion, having traversed deserts, deserted habitats, countries and continents enduring the environmental hazards on the way, they demonstrated strong faith in their mission. And the triumph of the human audacious spirit! We hope they succeeded in their noble mission.

The Seme border post is about the worst entry point to Nigeria. Thugs and vagabonds cohabitate in harmony with the different security personnel posted there. Sometimes the street urchins even worked for the security forces and are accountable to them! Prostitutes, drug addicts and common criminals that fled the city could be found at ease with themselves. The organized racketeering has since turned that border into a den of thieves where innocent people are daily victimized.

The organized lawlessness and banditry in Seme border has lasted for a very long time indeed. It is time therefore to sanitize that international terrestrial entry point and give it a human face! The organized crimes going on there and criminals perpetrating same must be made to play by the rules or be given the treatment deserving of their disservice to the general image of Nigeria.

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