MY ROLE AS ENEMY OF THE STATE
I arrived at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos on January 8 for what I imagined – or hoped – would be a routine two-week visit to Nigeria. Within moments of arrival, I came to realize that my trip would be anything but normal.
The plain-clothed immigration officer, a lanky fortyish man with a paunchy belly, seemed to linger on my passport. He took one look at the passport and then, face screwed up, inspected my face. Then he did a double take. He looked to his left and raised his left hand, apparently to attract somebody’s attention. The man he wanted to draw to him appeared preoccupied. He then peered once again at the passport and then scoped out my face. He sighed.
“Are you Okey Ndibe?” he asked, as if the matter might be in serious doubt.
“I am Okey Ndibe,” I replied in a tone calculated to dispel any doubt.
“Hold on.” He stood up and shambled a few feet to another man. Bending, he whispered to the other man who then leaned back to catch a glance of me. They exchanged a few more words. The man with my passport returned to me.
“I’ll hold your passport,” he announced. “Go and get your luggage and come back.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Just get your luggage and come back,” he restated with an air of finality.
I retrieved my luggage and an official of the State Security Service (SSS) led me to the agency’s first floor office. For a moment there was nobody in the room. Then a gangly officer emerged from an inner room and said, “Brother, welcome.” He motioned to a leather couch and I settled in it. He sat at his desk, picked up my passport, and began to make entries on a computer and scribble on a white sheet of paper. Pausing, he asked whether I had another passport. When I said that I carried an American passport as well, he asked for it. He made more entries on the computer as well as a piece of paper.
The phone calls began. The officer exchanged numerous phone calls with a woman – he called her “Ma” – and a man he addressed as “sir.” He’d speak for a moment and then hasten outside the room to finish the conversation. Then, during a lull in the frenetic relay of phone calls, he asked, “Are you a journalist?” I told him I was a professor who wrote a weekly column. He made a call to relay the information, then hurried out.
After some two hours of this puzzling demonstration of state power, I told the officer that he’d not even introduced himself. “Don’t worry, I’ll do it soon,” he answered. He cut a sheet of paper in half and wrote on both of them. Each paper was a receipt of sorts, an acknowledgment that he’d taken away my passports. Handing the papers to me, he instructed that I report on Monday morning at the agency’s office on Kingsway Road, Ikoyi to see the director. The director would decide about the release of my passports.
It was 11:45 p.m. when I walked out of the SSS’s airport office. It was then that the full import of the experience hit me: I’d been cast in the role of enemy of the state. And the incongruity of it all struck me with particular power. No, I couldn’t recall breaking any laws in Nigeria or elsewhere. I had never stolen a kobo of public funds; I had instead called those who did by their proper names – criminals, “thieftains,” nation wreckers. I’d never been an instrument of electoral fraud; rather, I had insisted that Nigerians have a right to credible elections in which their votes count.
It didn’t escape me that scores of innocent Nigerians had perished in recent months, victims of bomb blasts set off by religious and other terror groups. As far as I know, the government, despite its extensive apparati of law enforcement and intelligence – including the SSS – has not succeeded in infiltrating and neutralizing the murderous gangs. And for all the assurance by the Goodluck Jonathan administration, one is not aware that a single perpetrator of these explosive crimes is awaiting prosecution.
The point is, Nigeria is in the throes of a grave and quickly worsening violence. The resources of the state ought to be husbanded to confront this burgeoning virulent threat. But instead of going after those who ambush innocents with bombs, guns and machetes, the SSS diverts itself with intimidating principled commentators on national affairs.
It didn’t matter, in the end, that I considered being put in the role of enemy of the state preposterous; the Nigerian state had decided to designate me an enemy, and that was it. My emotion bypassed disbelief and went from shock to indignation.
When I arrived at the agency’s office on Monday morning, a lawyer friend in tow, I was curious – since nobody had told me at the airport – to learn the particulars of my offence. After signing in at the gate and surrendering our cell phones, we were shown to a waiting room. An hour and a half later, we were ushered to the director’s office. Two men shook hands with us, and then the director told my lawyer that the meeting was “a simple matter.” After the lawyer left the room, the director said, “Professor Ndibe, please regard what happened as one of those things that happen in life.” I thought the explanation inadequate.
“A lot of people are convinced that I committed a crime,” I said. “What’s the nature of my crime?”
The director said there was no crime, that the unpleasant encounter at the airport arose from something in the past that the agency should have taken care of.
In December, 2008, I had received three tips – by e-mail and telephone – that the Umaru Yar’Adua regime had ordered that my name be included on an enemy list of critics and activists. We were to be arrested if seen at any Nigerian point of entry. But soon after Mr. Jonathan moved into Aso Rock, a website reported his spokesman as stating that the enemy list had been discarded.
That misleading statement lulled me into letting my guards down. I arrived in Lagos without the precaution of alerting family and friends that I faced the risk of detention.
For me, there are a few points that bear amplification. On a personal note, I was deeply moved by the deluge of messages of solidarity – through statements, e-mails, facebook messages, and phone calls – that came from many groups and individuals, from within and without Nigeria. A refrain of these expressions was an insistence that the maintenance of an enemy list was antithetical to the spirit democracy that Nigeria claims – in the eyes of many, falsely – to practice. Instructive in a perverse way were the intermittent voices that speculated that I must have committed some serious crime, or professed absolute confidence that the SSS must have had solid grounds for briefly detaining me and confiscating my passports.
The director was at pains to assure me that I would never be stopped on future trips. But that assurance, I told him, was not enough – if others were left on the list. At any rate, an editor called me one evening to share startling news. He’d spoken with the director-general of the SSS who insisted that my name was still on the list – and would remain there unless I addressed a petition to the agency’s boss asking that my name be deleted. I immediately rejected the idea. I didn’t write to ask that my name be put on the list; I wasn’t going to beg anybody to remove it.
For me – and this was a point I stressed in interviews with local and foreign reporters – the airport encounter was far from personal. The quality of my citizenship is degraded when any citizen is, without cause, treated wretchedly. If Nigeria is to mean anything, then its enlightened citizens ought to work – must fight – to achieve a country where an SSS official would rebuff an illegal order, where a police officer would not lend himself to the machinations of nation-destroyers, and where an electoral officer would resist instructions to falsify records and announce an impostor as winner.
Without deigning to speak officially, officials of the Jonathan administration privately blamed my brush with the SSS on Yar’Adua’s paranoia. It may or may not be so. But the onus is on Jonathan to state clearly, the sooner the better, that he has renounced the list of “enemies” at the nation’s airports. Let’s send the SSS on a mission that counts: to catch those who work tirelessly, sleeplessly, to make Nigeria a hell of a space. And many of those, as every Okeke, Haruna and Idowu knows, are in the very corridors of power.
Okey Ndibe is at [email protected]