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  Chuma Nwokolo


Ogaga Ifowodo    

The Travel Commissar

Ogaga Ifowodo poet and author of The Oil Lamp, was detained with another Nigerian writer, Akin Adesokan, by the regime of the late Nigerian dictator, General Sani Abacha. The Travel Commissar documents part of that detention experience and is excerpted from a forthcoming work


Man Scout awakened us and announced tersely, “Oga wants to see the two of you.” At last! By now I was convinced that the delay in interrogating us was deliberate, aimed at making us forget vital details of the statements we had already written so they could be better used to incriminating effect.

Again we had woken up too late to brush our teeth outside. But we hadn’t cleaned our mouths yesterday for the same reason. We weren’t ready to add dental woes to our concerns, so this time we insisted we had to observe this basic morning rite. Man Scout took our case to a higher authority who might have the power to approve oral hygiene after resumption of office hours. He being a mere night guard, that meant just about anybody else. We prayed it would be someone who saw no grave danger to Nigeria’s continued existence if we as much as brushed our teeth. Our prayer was answered. We were taken outside and though quite dirty and unkempt and by now smelling rather ripe did not care who saw us looking like the bedraggled prisoners we were. Most of the people around were SSS officials anyway. No one who had business with the SSS would fail to tell right away from our looks that we were captives. We fetched water in our bottles and brushed on a patch of green with mournful crotons to the near side of the building. After refilling our bottles, we went back inside to keep the water and our toothbrushes.

Then Not-Your-Bed-at-Home emerged out of one of the inner rooms facing away from the corridor and asked us to follow him. We were going to see the TC, he informed us. I asked what TC stood for, and perhaps because it was a mere rank and not the officer’s name, he said, Travel Control Officer. So they have a Travel Commissar too, I thought to myself. Of course they had to have one, several, in fact, one for each state of the country. The constant seizure of passports and the efficiency with which they policed our borders only to stop human rights and democracy campaigners from travelling abroad had to be the result of a nice little bureaucracy within the larger military terror machine. We followed Not-Your-Bed-at-Home out into the courtyard. Tee Cee’s office was in the building that formed the far wall of the quadrangle. It turned out to be precisely the one I had observed Not-Your-Bed-at-Home enter and come out of a few times. The quadrangle, though once well paved, was now roughly pitted all over and so was full of gravel. We winced as pebbles cut into the soles of our bare feet. Not-Your-Bed-at-Home commiserated with us, telling us not to worry as he was sure after seeing Tee Cee we would be released “anytime soon.” He did not fail to add, “If he finds nothing to warrant your continued detention.” He was sure, however, that this would be the case. It struck me then how almost everyone we had encountered since arriving at 15A Awolowo Road seemed to be sure we would soon regain our liberty. Was this something they had to say to their captives in order to assuage conscience? Was it a reflection of the class, and, so, power, hierarchy of the secret police? For it dawned on me then that none of the superior officers, Orangutan and Madam, for instance, had expressed a similar optimism, even if false, for us. Or were the subordinate staff, who had the greater contact with captives, under strict instruction to seem friendly so detainees might be more predisposed to “co-operate” during interrogations? Whatever its source might be, and with the sole exception of Yellow, I had noticed as well something quite mechanical in this expression of empathy: a stiff awkwardness that made it clear their hearts did not endorse what their mouths said.

We got to Tee Cee’s fourth floor office. Not-Your-Bed-at-Home told us to wait in the outer office while he went inside to announce us. A young woman sat at an electric typewriter on a side table from her desk and did not seem too busy or offended by the threat we posed to the nation, and, so, to her, to ask us to sit down. Not-Your-Bed-at-Home soon came out to inform us that Tee Cee was busy on the phone but should be with us in a short while and went back inside. About five minutes later, he came out again and beckoned to me. As I followed him in, he said to me, “Do you know Odia Ofeimun? You look like his younger brother.”

I chose not to answer, not knowing what dire consequence acknowledging the connection, any connection at all with someone whose name they can drop so casually, might mean in the treacherous world of the SSS. I pretended to be too pre-occupied with my imminent meeting with Tee Cee to have heard him. I was, after all, about to meet the man whose opinion whether or not I was a national security threat would, according to Not-Your-Bed-at-Home, spell freedom or continued incarceration for me.

Tee Cee’s office was spacious and it took about ten paces to reach his desk from the door. I got the uncanny feeling that this was also a deliberate ploy to give Tee Cee the time to observe detainees as they approached him before any interrogation would begin. And as if to confirm my hunch, he fixed on me a stern first impression look. I got then the added notion that there were hidden eyes joined to Tee Cee’s to scrutinise me as I walked up to him. Eventually, I got to the desk. And even the travel commissar himself did not feel too outraged by my presumed treasonable act or acts to ask me to sit down. I took the chair in the middle out of the three arranged in a kind of semi-circle before him. Not-Your-Bed-at-Home sat in the one to my right with legroom distance between us. Tee Cee was a rather young man for his vaunted power, couldn’t be any more than thirty-seven. The raw smoothness of his jaw suggested that he had his tri-weekly shave just this morning and I even thought I caught a faint whiff of his after-shave. He looked athletic and the sort of guy you would expect to see a girl hanging on each of his arms were he in show business or in some other trendier occupation outside the murky tunnels of a military tyranny.

“Yes, my friend, how are you today?” Tee Cee abruptly cut me off the thoughts that accompanied my observation of the man who headed the Lagos travel commissariat. I had been saying to myself, “So this is the man who impounds passports at our land and air ports?” I was wondering if he was truly the man to whom those phone calls were made from Murtala Mohammed Airport for orders to either stop or arrest a traveller. Occasionally, you got away with your passport, especially if you managed to beat the dragnet and were only returning. I had been close to losing my passport several times before I decided not to push my luck any further. The greater risk was in getting out. Once your name turned up in the security check, you were lucky if you made your journey.
The last time I used the airport before I switched to the underground routes, I had heaved a sigh of relief after passing through the needle’s eye only for the flight to be delayed. Ten minutes to the new boarding time, my fears were confirmed. The SSS agent who had almost stopped me at immigration, still wearing his decoy tag of airport security, came to demand a search of my luggage. Was I glad that I had checked it in! A ground official of the airline made it clear that it would be impossible to fish out my valise from the deep recess of the plane’s luggage hold without cancelling the flight altogether. Bless you Sir! As the agent went away, I could see him resenting his failed attempt to impound one more passport. I joined the line preparatory to boarding, not taking my eyes off him until he was out of sight. At the end of the departure gates apron, he looked one more time at the prey that had just slipped from his iron grip. I could see in his angry look the words, “Okay, but you won’t be so lucky next time; take my word for it,” burning incandescent letters of rage in his eyes. I took his word for it and stayed away from the airport. I couldn’t say now that he wasn’t right in the end.

I didn’t have to wonder for long if I was truly before the Travel Commissar. A call came in that instant seeking clearance whether to stop only or to stop and arrest. I wondered who it might be, if it was someone I knew. I couldn’t follow the code-spelling of the name of the subject, but chances were that he or she would be a member of the branded species now known as “pro-democracy and human rights activists.”

“Stop and ask to report,” Tee Cee ordered over the phone.

I think he wanted me to feel a sense of his power and not be fooled by his boy-about-town looks. He must have read my mind and decided to erase any doubts for I felt sure he could have given his order in a code that would be indecipherable to me. Men who wield irresponsible power often feel the irresistible need to impress the cold extent of their sway over those thrown into their clutches. Yes, this was Tee Cee, the travel commissar.

I had seen just how “stop and ask to report” worked. They would confiscate your passport and ask you to report to 15A the next day to straighten out the small matter of why you couldn’t travel. Though generally aware of its dubious process from the tales of their numerous victims, some of which the CLO had monitored, I had seen it at work more closely when I accompanied the poet and essayist, Odia Ofeimun, to the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos as he sought to travel to London for an event sponsored by the British Council. I had urged him to avoid the airport and take the underground route instead but Ofeimun, craving as I accused him, certification as an enemy of the regime said he would rather know on which side of the military-versus-the-people-divide the dictatorship placed him. I had done my best to convince him that he didn’t need any official recognition of him as a radical, an extremist, a disgruntled or subversive element, or whatever other element, to know where he belonged. But Ofeimun often too inclined to dance only to his own drum felt he needed the certification and would not be persuaded. And he got it without much ado.

I had waved bye-bye, joking that he might just make it past the security point. With his white aso oke and green cap attire, he was really flying the colours, perhaps in the hope of beguiling the travel commissar’s airport troops with his patriotism. He charmed no one, and soon enough he was in an argument with an immigration official, no doubt an SSS agent. By now it was an open secret that virtually all the so-called immigration officers at the airport were indeed SSS personnel. I knew the trip had been aborted when instead of crossing security check to the departure lounge a man hanging in the wings suddenly appeared. He was handed Ofeimun’s passport and he promptly led him back to the departure hall. There, Ofeimun was given a piece of paper and told to report to 15A the next day or as soon as he could. He had reported the next day and had kept reporting until, weary of the unending reasons why he was not getting his passport back after repeated assurances that he would definitely have it at his next visit, he had stopped. And for three years, he could not travel outside the country. Later, after I had regained my liberty, we would together with a few others whose passports had also been impounded issue a press release demanding them back. So where in this building was the room stacked to the roof with impounded green booklets?

“You don’t want to tell me how you feel today?” Tee Cee seemed eager to prove that he was as slick in mind as in looks.

“I should be fine if you would just let me go home.”

“But I’m not the one holding you! Where did they bring you from just now? That is a separate department. And they are the ones who arrested and are keeping you. I have only been asked to look at the regularity or otherwise of your travel out of this country. Left to me, you would not be here.”

“How smooth,” I almost said aloud. At this rate, it would soon become clear that I had arrested myself and promptly gone in search of the nearest SSS cell for a holiday.

“I don’t think there was anything unusual with my travelling and returning to the country.”

“I think there was. Why did you travel through the border?”

I knew where he was headed but tried to see what precisely the commissar considered unusual.
“How is that unusual? I am not aware there is a law prohibiting exiting Nigeria by land.”

“Oh, yes, I mustn’t forget you’re a lawyer. But are you going to tell me what your real name is? I can see you do not intend to answer any of my questions but will you answer this one? Which is your real name, Ezekiel Emerotowho I., or Ogagaoghene Ifowodo?”

I always knew that the sturdiest obstacle to a straightforward tale of how I left the country lay in that damning evidence of the ECOWAS Pass. “The two names are mine.”

“So why did you choose to have different identities in your two passports?”

No need to tread the path of legalities, no need for fine lines. This was a political issue and could only be met as such. “Because you and your men would not let me enjoy my right to freedom of movement.”

“How is that? Looking at your passports, one could say you have enjoyed that right without much hindrance.”

“Not so, I am afraid.”

And I proceeded to recount all the close shaves I had had at the airport. Beginning with my first travel outside Nigeria in March 1993. I was travelling with Olisa Agbakoba, co-founder and president of the CLO at the time. We were going to the thirteenth session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Banjul, Gambia. His agent at the time, I told the travel commissar, was an expectant mother. “Are you travelling together,” she had asked, pointing from Agbakoba to me. To which we answered yes.

Then she had examined our passports and declared, “You” – referring to Agbakoba – “can go, but your friend cannot come with you.”

I was new to this special protocol at our airport, so Agbakoba did the talking.

“Why?” he asked.

“I can’t explain to you. I have said you can go.”

“But we’re travelling together and for the same business. I think if you’re going to violate our right to freedom of movement, then you owe us an explanation,” Agbakoba pressed on.

“Oh, it seems you’d rather not travel. I have said you are free to go.”

And that’s when Agbakoba made the charge that saved the day and the trip for me.

“Y-you” – said Agbakoba, pointing at her and effecting that slight stammer of his to good effect – w-why are you always sstopping people from travelling, w-why?”

The woman seemed genuinely perplexed. Perhaps she was new on the job, or at least on the travel police post. Perhaps she was simply yet to reconcile thoughts of gratuitous cruelty with her very obvious condition of soon giving birth to an infant, an embodiment of innocence.

“Me, always stopping people from travelling?”

“Y-yes! You stopped me from travelling last month and you were going to … going to stop me now but ddecided to achieve the same aim by pretending you’re only stopping my friend.”

Did the baby in her belly give a powerful kick in corroboration of Agbakoba’s accusation? I do not know, but the woman winced, looked even more puzzled and handing back my passport, waved us on.

“Go, go, you can go,” she said, this time to me as well. As soon as we were safely boarded, I asked Olisa if he had ever seen the lady before.

“Not for a second!” he said. “It was a gambit to put her on the defensive. I had a hunch that she may have been carrying out general and not specific orders. And I was banking on the fact that it would be impossible for her to remember every person she may have prevented from travelling”

Then I recounted to Tee Cee the experience I had in December 1995. I was travelling then with Ayo Obe, new president of the CLO, to Kampala for the second extra-ordinary session of the African Commission. Non-governmental organisations working with the Commission had lobbied for the session to treat the urgent and serious issue of systemic and massive violation of human rights in Nigeria, especially in the wake of the judicial lynching of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8. “Your man,” I said to Tee Cee, “posing as an immigration officer, had waved Obe on and sought to bar me. He went as far as producing a form on which to endorse acknowledgment of my passport and an appointment for me here. It took another strenuous intervention, this time by Obe, for him to grudgingly let me through the needle’s eye.”

And, oh, there was also the four-hour ordeal I had in November 1996 while returning from a writing fellowship in Germany! I narrated to Tee Cee how I sweated and roasted in a hot unventilated room while his men took my passport down and forth, questioning me on my mission for six months abroad, wanting to know whom I met and spoke with, the agenda of the meetings or events I attended, what foreign organisations I belonged to, and so on and so forth, ad nauseam. I informed him of that last minute escape that made it plain to me my next attempt to travel through the airport would only be to surrender my passport. That was when, I continued, I resorted to the ECOWAS strategy of “protecting” my right. “And it seemed to be working fine until one of your men got me jittery. He had looked at the name on the Pass, laughed and asked me – thankfully in an aside – ‘Ogaga, when did you become Ezekiel?’ I knew then that I needed to keep a little distance between me and the airport for a good while.”

“But that didn’t help you very much, did it?” Tee Cee said, clearly savouring that feeling of We-always-get-you-in-the-end-don’t-we? that people used to the thrills of power never tire of betraying. “At any rate, I will need a statement from you.” Then he gave me a form and five sheets of paper. “After completing the form and writing your statement, you can go.”

“I have written two statements since I was arrested, which is precisely one week now. But if you say after writing this I will be free to go home, then I will only be too willing to write one more,” choosing the unintended happier meaning of his words.

Tee Cee leaned back in his swivel chair and with an edge now to his voice said, “I have told you that I have nothing to do with your arrest and detention. However, you have to write another statement for me whether or not that will lead to your release.”

If the ploy was to get me entangled in a web of statements, then I was going to give them a surprise. I wrote another statement, rehashing all I had said in the previous ones. I made sure not to sound apologetic for having two passports under different names and to maintain the political pitch of the explanation I had just given him. I finished writing, and then looked at the form. There were two pages of it. It was designed to elicit personal information from detainees. It asked for my names and aliases; my home and office addresses and telephone numbers; the names, addresses and occupations of my parents; the schools I attended and the years; the names, addresses and occupations (if any) of my siblings; the names, addresses and telephone numbers of my closest friends and confidants (two each were expected); the name and addresses of my boss and his or her telephone numbers; my favourite bar and restaurant, etc.

I looked at Tee Cee; he was busy studying some documents and seemed to have left me to the care of Not-Your-Bed-at-Home. I decided not to give away any hint that I had a problem with the form. They clearly had to be out of their minds to expect me to give them all this information. Unless they meant to compel me to do so, which as far as I was concerned would have to be at pain of death, I wasn’t ever going to produce with my own hand the seal of my own doom and that of my relatives, friends, and colleagues. Far worse than endangering myself, I would also be jeopardising the liberty, and, perhaps, the lives, of others. I filled in my names, which they already had. I gave Abdul Oroh and Ayo Obe, executive director and president, respectively, of the CLO as my closest friends and confidants. I supplied our office address and telephone numbers. Then I gave false names, addresses and occupations in answer to the rest. I prayed that they would not take me for a search of my apartment; I didn’t know if the street and number I gave existed, and if by chance they did, in what part of Lagos that was! For a moment, I was tempted to write “hell or heaven” as the address of my father dead since I was one-year-old. Let them go and look for him in either place, but they will have to be dead first! I resisted the impish impulse and indicated to Tee Cee that I was done. He nodded to Not-Your-Bed-at-Home, signalling that he was himself done with me and to bring in Akin. Not-Your-Bed-at-Home saw me out to the outer office and called Akin in.

I sat in the waiting room. The young lady at the typewriter had gone out, probably on her lunch break. Three posters on the walls urged secrecy almost to the point of dementia. The one above the typewriter on the right side of the room had snarling tongues of fire curling with smoke out of a mini-incinerator with the legend, “DON’T SHRED IT, BURN IT.” The one facing the entrance door posted at eye-level with anybody coming into the office had the drawing of padlocked lips with the words, “KEEP OUR SECRETS SECRET!” The one on the wall to the left merely carried a platitude whose erudition was attributed to General Sani Abacha, “THE SECURITY OF THE NATION IS UNCOMPROMISABLE.” Abacha’s picture in military uniform, complete with the ubiquitous sunglasses, occupied the top half of the poster.

Apart from these posters, the outer office was quite bare. I had supposed the young woman to be the travel commissar’s secretary. But her desk was remarkable for being shorn of the usual paraphernalia of that office. No “In” or “Out” trays, no paper, no file, no memo pads or pen or pencil; nothing except the typewriter. I was impressed. Either all the paper had been burned or this was precisely the best way to “keep our secrets secret” – by leaving no trace of the secrets! I burned to snoop in the drawers though there was clearly no chance of that happening. But even if any trace of mighty secrets lay there, that would have taken nothing from this compelling proof of strict adherence to a paranoid credo of secrecy in defence of what was indeed a beleaguered state, but certainly not an imperilled nation.

Akin was not in with Tee Cee for very long, and soon Not-Your-Bed-at-Home was escorting us back to our cells where cold over-boiled rice awaited us as the first of our two meals.

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