“Miss, where are you going? What are you doing?” the alleged helper clamoured as I fumbled with the toilet keys at the Sémé-Kraké border crossing between Benin and Nigeria.
I resisted the urge to divulge my exact plans for my hot date with the toilet, opting instead for “I don’t need any help, thank you”, through teeth worn by hours of forced smiles at seven previous African border crossings.
‘Help’ is never far away when it comes to entering Nigeria. Within seconds of our arrival, four men, not in any kind of uniform, descended upon us like a heavy rain.
“Sir, come with us! You have carnet? We go here!”
“Madam, we are friends, I help you now”
“Don’t worry my friends, Nigeria is a free country!”
The emphatic assurance from border officials or their associates that any West African country is free should send shivers down ones spine, because it usually means the exact opposite. A Trojan horse of a phrase used to disguise systemic corruption and layers upon layers of bureaucratic bullshit. The Nigerian immigration system is a 17 tier gateau of red tape, complications, bribes and general inefficiency. Caucasian people are not really in a position to complain about any of this, as it was the European colonizers who charged into the country, ransacked it’s resources, took the people as slaves, demolished any sense of national identity and meanwhile instilled the idea that filling out stacks of paperwork was the best way to go about things. When the British disappeared in 1960 they left behind a steadfast commitment to doing things the most difficult way possible, and the idea that you can demand whatever you want as long as you genuinely believe you have the right to do so.
In short, the border process was not super awesome.
We arrived shortly after nine, fully prepared for difficulties. In the first room where we were told to wait, we came across an Australian we’d met on the road previously. Bleary-eyed and sprawled on a mattress on the floor of the office, John informed us he’d been there for two days, after paying $200USD to an agency for an approval letter which turned out to be fake.
10am: We were escorted to another office, and introduced formally to an immigration officer who we’ll call Jacob, who’d be helping with our application. We had been in contact with Jacob for no less than three weeks, but Jacob had wisely chosen our day of arrival to begin working on our application.
People came and went, fat wads of cash changed hands between fixers (independent operators who take cash payments to help foreigners with the visa process) and immigration officials. Jacob had several loud and overly performative phone conversations where he stressed to someone who may or may not have been on the other end that he was working hard on our application.
“I have slept only three hours my brother! This is now an emergency application, I am working very hard to get these people a visa!”
At around 1pm an official in the office we were in started playing an easy-listening country compilation from his computer.
In an attempt to sweet talk Jacob into productivity, we asked him what his favourite thing about Nigeria was.
“My favourite thing is the freedom”, he quickly replied.
Don Williams crooned in the background.
2pm: The Sémé border seemed like less of a workplace, and more of a lads club where men (and a few women) of different ages and rank swanned about, eating, napping, reading the newspaper, watching TV, and generally doing whatever the fuck they wanted, with the occasional interruption of stamping documents and answering calls. When serious looking men in berets popped their head in the room (usually when things were getting rowdy) the lads in question stood to attention, saluted, and wiped the grins from their faces faster than you could say ‘Nigeria is a free country’. A few minutes would pass, and the atmosphere dissolved back into one not dissimilar to a classroom of naughty school kids.
3pm: At various intervals, a grey-haired immigration officer popped in to try and recruit our 19-year-old Swiss friend Geraldine as his second wife.
Later, a local man of unknown employment came in and tried to convince Oscar to take a second wife. It was starting to seem as if no one was going to leave the building until a member of our party got married at least once.
3:30pm: While outside washing my hands for lunch, a young female officer asked if she could have my rings. I told them they had belonged to my dead mother, a convenient truth which I had hoped would guilt her into submission. “Give me this one then”, she said pointing to a copper bracelet I’d bought in Senegal, and I wondered how many more dead relatives I’d need to acquire before people would stop asking for my stuff.
3:45pm: We shared a bowl of semo, a maize-based paste, and egusi soup made with bitter leaves and chunks of goat. It was delicious, things were looking up.
4pm: At the very least, we weren’t alone, over the course of the day we shared a waiting room with two Indian oil and gas workers, a man from Barbados called Andrew and his Nigerian friend Precious. Traveling with a local wasn’t helping Andrew’s case, it was day two of waiting for them, and so we waited some more.
Mercifully, the playlist changed from Don Williams to Craig David.
5pm: As Craig David’s 7 Days played for the fourth time in a row, I started to wonder if it was some kind of musical foreshadowing of what was to come and how many days we would be required to stay at the godforsaken Sémé border crossing. There would be no making love on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday nor chilling on Sunday, but there would be mild sexual harassment and the loss of feeling in our arse cheeks, which is nearly the same thing.
5:30pm: We heard word via WhatsApp that our Aussie associate John had been escorted to the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, and quickly flung into a cell because of the fake paperwork debacle.
“How long will he stay in the cell?”, we asked Jacob.
“I don’t know. Everybody has their role to play”, Jacob said, ominously.
At 5:45 a whiff of hope, a call from one big boss to another to say that our application had been approved, on the condition that we create a fake business, apply for a business visa instead of a tourist visa, and pay an application fee of $40USD. We had already paid the application fee when we applied for our tourist visas three weeks prior. We argued the second fee. It did not work.
At 8:30pm Jacob fell asleep, his energy had dissipated as quickly as our collective will to live, and he was snoring gently while I lay on the tiled floor, waiting for a cartoon anvil to fall from the sky and end my misery.
9:45pm: We enquired about cheap hotels nearby, the closest was called the Freedom Hotel. Given our newfound understanding of the concept of freedom, a word which was beginning to lose all meaning, we opted to stay at the border
The hours melted into one another. I paced the empty halls mindlessly. Geraldine valiantly fended off the advances of Jacob. Oscar called the company which operates Nigeria’s e-visa payment system from Connecticut about our problems. The people in Connecticut didn’t much care about our problems.
23:58pm: Geraldine was writing notes in her diary. Jacob asked “What are you writing about? Are you writing about the Nigerian border? Is it the best?”
In fairness to Jacob, he had been there all day with us, watching dog videos on his phone while he waited for something to happen. He assured us he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart, and that he never asked unfortunate travelers like us for a penny. We concluded that Jacob must have an astonishingly short memory, as he’d asked for a tip of $140USD the day before.
The man playing the Don Williams/Craig David mix tape had gone home. The hum of the air con provided the backing track to our existential contemplations.
1:08am: The afternoon rains had soaked the mattress in our roof tent to the core. Aussie John’s mattress, clean and dry, beckoned from behind a locked door which no one had the key to. Oscar opted to sleep outside on the concrete, where he was routinely poked by guards checking he was still alive. I folded back the car seat and waited for whatever punishment the morning had in store for us.
8:30am: Stinking and cranky, we stumbled back into into Jacob’s office to ask what was happening with our application. Jacob told us to be patient, as if the concept was entirely foreign to a group of people who’ve just spent 22 hours at a Nigerian border post.
10:30am: Defeated, we retreated to Benin, to wait for an approval of an approval. In Benin, at the very least, we could go for a wee without stragglers enquiring about our intentions in the toilet.
2:30pm: A message from Precious and Andrew who were still at the border. I was starting to feel quite deeply for Andrew, who had left a Caribbean island paradise to spend 12 hours at a time in the company of Don Williams. Meanwhile, Aussie John had messaged to inform us he’d escaped the cells of Murtala Muhammed Airport, but was now under house arrest at the home of his Couchsurfing host, who had had to drive to the airport and relinquish his own passport in order to to bail John out.
Days passed. In hindsight they kind of melt into each other but I can tell you two things that definitely happened. We definitely went back to Porto-Novo, Benin. We definitely spent an estimated 27 collective hours on the phone to Connecticut-based customer service representatives called Garry and Harry who took turns blocking and unblocking our card so we could attempt to pay for our illegitimate business visa. Our payment eventually succeeded 6 days after our initial debacle at the border.
We returned to the Sémé border at 11am, and to be honest it was nice to be greeted by the staff in the office as if we were old friends, because by that point, we kind of were. At the very least, we were deeply familiar with each others napping schedules.
11:30am: Geraldine’s elderly suitor returned and said she wouldn’t have had to wait eight days to travel to Nigeria had she stayed with him as he would have used his wings of passion to fly her over the border.
12pm: Jacob finished a tense call with someone. “Nigerian visa is not child’s play my friends!” he said with an unsettling amount of glee. “Nigeria is the USA of Africa!”
12:30pm: Jangly guitar gospel music had replaced Don Williams and Craig David on the computer speakers. I wondered if Jesus’s glory would shine down on us today, or ever.
1pm: Movement. Sweet, sweet movement. We were informed our elusive approval letter had been sent and our government-issued chaperone Victor was ready to go to the airport, the only place where we could actually get our visas stamped. This meant we would metaphorically still be at the Nigerian border until the airport immigration officials decided our fate. It would be a 4-5 hour drive depending on the traffic but we didn’t care. We had tasted the air outside the Sémé border office, and it was fresh.
By 1:30 Victor was guiding us out of the border gates. Geraldine and I took turns sitting on each others laps in the back, which proved a pleasantly squishy alternative to the metal bench seats to which we had become so accustomed.
There were 24 police, military and federal road safety checkpoints on the 87km drive. It took 4 hours. There were the all too familiar requests for food, money and gifts but the highlight was a 15 minute standoff between an impassioned Victor and a pair of federal road safety officers who claimed right hand drive vehicles had been banned in Nigeria since 1972, and that one of our tyres was expired. As we argued our case, an overloaded taxi van with no license plate, a missing headlight, and a gaping hole where the sliding door used to be chugged past, a cloud of black smoke spewing from the exhaust.
5:45pm: The Murtala Muhammed airport, ringed by a halo of pre-storm glow, loomed in the distance.
6:15pm: We sat down in an office with a man who, after a few minutes of paper shuffling and quiet contemplation, decided he couldn’t help us.
6:45pm: We were escorted to a crowded room, told to sit and not to use our phones lest we expose state secrets, or something.
7:30pm: With little ceremony and a decidedly underwhelming ink stamp, we were officially welcomed into Nigeria. Vignettes from our month-long Nigerian immigration experience swirled in my mind like a kaleidoscope of horror. We had made it. Outside, it promptly started to pour. My jandal broke and so I hobbled, barefoot, through the mud as waiting taxi drivers pointed and laughed. It was the perfect end to the perfect nightmare.
Our 33 hours at the border wasn’t a complete loss. I read most of a very good book on the Libyan revolution, I wrote this blog, I’m now deeply familiar with the musical stylings of Don Williams, and I can now claim to have heard just about every possible reason to hand over money to any given authority. Geraldine can go back to Switzerland knowing she has plenty of romantic options should she decide to settle in Nigeria, and Oscar can continue his life knowing that things can’t possibly get any worse than that time he spent 5 hours trying to sleep on urine-soaked concrete while being routinely nudged with boots and sticks.
Who’s to blame for the state of the Nigerian immigration system? Is it the colonizers of old? The wealthy tourists who prop up corruption by paying hundreds of dollars under the table to ensure an easy crossing? Is it in fact the fault of negligent Connecticut based customer service representatives Garry and Harry, who I’m pretty sure was actually the same guy changing his voice slightly so he could blame the last lot of issues on Garry and/or Harry. After four long weeks I still wasn’t sure of anything except the fact that I could really do with a strong drink, and the assurance that I would never have to endure the freedoms of the Sémé-Kraké border ever again.