Today I got pulled over by a dodgy traffic policeman for the first time since I came to Lagos over a year ago. I wasn’t driving (I never do: a pale face behind a wheel may just as well be replaced with a sign saying “Free Money Here” as far as the Lagos traffic police go), and was sat in the back reading.
A scrawny, unshaved, shit of a man with a uniform he’d been potholing in banged on the bonnet of my car at a place where the traffic police have been doing a lot of document checks of late. With Christmas coming up, they are looking to maximise revenue. Here’s how the conversation went.
Policeman: Give me your documents.
(My driver handed the policeman the documents. He looked at some of them, wishing he had learned to read before joining the police.)
Policeman: Hey! You have not signed this one and this one!
Policeman: Who is the owner of this vehicle?
Me (winding down rear window): Me.
Policeman: You haven’t signed these documents.
Policeman: You haven’t signed these documents!
Me: I know. You said.
Policeman: You did not go to the vehicle administration centre.
Policeman: I said you did not go to the vehicle adminstration centre.
Me: I know. You said.
Policeman: Then you should answer me.
Me: If you want me to answer you, first you must ask a question.
Policeman: I axed you a question.
Me: No, you made a statement.
Policeman: Did you go to the vehicle adminstration centre?
Policeman: Then who registered your vehicle?
Me: The garage from which I bought it.
Policeman: Do you know it is a criminal offence not to sign a paper?
Policeman: You need to drive around the corner and wait for me there.
Me: Fine, but I need my documents back.
Policeman: No, you don’t need them. Drive over there.
Me: Not without my documents.
Policeman: You need to follow me to Ikeja (some place miles and miles away).
Me: Fine. But first I’m calling my company security team.
Policeman: Okay, call who you want.
(I call my company security, who dispatch an intervention team consisting of a high-ranking policeman and a bit of muscle)
Me: Okay, I’ve called my security department. We’re gonna have to wait here until the intervention team arrives.
Policeman: No, we you need to come with us now.
Me: Sorry pal, this is the procedure I’m told to follow. Now I can move the car off the road a bit, but I cannot and will not leave the scene until the intervention team arrives.
Policeman: Are you giving me instructions?
Me: No, I’m just telling you what I am doing.
Policeman: Are you resisting arrest?
Me: Nope. Just sitting here in my car, waiting for the intervention team.
Policeman: But you cannot wait here, you will cause an accident.
Me: Okay, we’ll pull off the road just over there. But I’m not going anywhere else until the interven…
Policeman (throwing my documents through the window): Get out of here!
I was as calm as a mill pond in June. My driver (a local) was as calm as St. George’s channel in January with gale warnings in Lundy, Fastnet, and Irish Sea. He kept arguing with the policeman, demanding he be spoken to properly, asking him what our offence was, and generally acting exactly as this illiterate halfwit in a beret which had once cleaned up an oil spill wanted him to. The key to these situations is to show firstly that you couldn’t give a fuck, and secondly that you have all the time in the world.
I learned this in Russia. When I used to get hauled over for speeding, I’d apologise and get the topic onto football ASAP, trying to be as friendly as possible. I once managed to get let off a fine and a confiscated car by doing this when I’d been pulled over for speeding and they found my insurance had expired. But if I’d done nothing wrong and they were finding spelling mistakes in my documents, then they were in for a long wait.
Firstly I’d speak to them in Russian. If they didn’t let me off, I’d wait until they filled out the whole form and handed it to me to sign, at which point I’d ask for a translator. “But you speak Russian!” they’d say. “Yup, but I don’t read it. Sorry. Translator, please.” At this point they’d usually say “Okay, but our translators come from the FSB. You know FSB? Bad guys. If they come out, you are in trouble. Okay, I will call them.” So I’d pull out a book and start reading. I’m not half as thick as I look. I know full well that if an FSB translator is hauled away from his Sunday lunch to attend a call from a road policeman, there had better be a bomb, a body, or Boris Berezovsky waiting for him when he gets there. If he finds a dishevelled, vodka-soaked traffic cop needs a hand shaking down a Brit who has done nothing wrong, I know who’s going to be directing reindeer outside Yakutsk for the rest of his career. I knew this, and so did they. They never made the call for a translator, and after a few minutes of watching me read, they told me to clear off.
There’s a reason for this. Corrupt police, like school bullies and muggers, want an easy fix. The last thing they want is to put in effort, or else they’d have proper jobs doing something productive. The reaction they are hoping to induce is panic followed by a desperate attempt to get out of the situation by paying them off. I don’t know what the rate is, but I’ve heard of people paying $100 and more to escape the clutches of the Lagos traffic police. If they see somebody is not panicked, they will try to bait you into a confrontation. Once you’re in an argument, which with a Nigerian policeman would be described as heated after the first sentence, you’re playing into their hands. Having failed to find an original offence, you’re likely offering them another on a plate. It’s a lot harder to manufacture an incident with somebody who is largely ignoring you and meekly saying “okay, sure” when you accuse them of committing a criminal offence by not signing a paper. That puts the ball back in his court, because he now needs to do something about it. But what he really wants is for you to offer to do something about it by handing over a fistful of cash. By not doing so, you’re making him work for his money and that isn’t what he joined up for at all, oh no.
Also, as one of my colleagues pointed out today when I told him the story, by occupying himself with me – and getting nowhere – he is missing out on lots of other “customers” who are driving by unmolested. I’m taking up the lucrative spot in the road which he uses to shake people down. If he’s not making money out of me, he’s losing out. Not being completely dim, he realises this and lets me go. It was the exact same in Russia. So long as I was sat in the front seat of the patrol car reading a book and waiting for a translator, they couldn’t process anyone else. They have probably been at this game long enough to know how much they can expect per hour and how long they have to extort cash out of somebody before they start cutting into their revenue stream. If you can front it out this long, you’re probably home free.
Of course, this all depends on whether or not you have done something wrong. If you have, you’d better cough up – some now or more later. Hours and hours later, on the other side of town. What’s bad about Lagos, and I never saw this in Russia, is the traffic police and other authorities will simply pull you over and declare you have jumped a red light or made an illegal turn. Complete lies of course, but it’s your word against theirs and – their superiors being in on the racket – you’re never going to win.
So was I in the wrong today? Initially, I thought I was. When I got back to the office, I looked at the documents. One was a receipt from the registration centre, the other was some form I filled in at the garage. Neither am I obliged to carry in my car, much less sign them. I could have thrown them in the bin at any point and been no more an outlaw than before. I don’t know whether this policeman was genuinely ignorant – I’ve seen cleverer looking farmhands in West Wales – or if he was trying it on regardless. I suspect the latter, given he made sure he got rid of me long before the intervention team arrived. Either way, all pretty unpleasant, but compared to some of the stories I hear from my colleagues involving the traffic police (or impersonators), I got off lightly.
*Nigerian police motto. Seriously.