An Academic in Africa: Red Lights and Runarounds

Last week I almost got arrested.  Actually, that’s not quite true.  It would be more accurate to say that I drove a policeman around for about half an hour asking him to arrest me – but without any success.

It began predictably enough.  I’d been off sick, but I needed to check my email, and not having an internet connection at home drove to the Salamander Cafe, which is the most reliable source of free wifi I’m aware of.  Halfway up Ahmadu Bello Way I drove through a green light 3 seconds before it turned amber.  I know it was three seconds because traffic lights here (when they work) have little countdown clocks above them so you know how long you have to wait. 

Not always reliably, because sometimes they’ll change at random moments whilst the clock is still running (I’ve seen one go green when it said there was 114 seconds to go), or they’ll get to 0 and then just flash “—“ for an indeterminate amount of time.  It’s like your own little gameshow.  But I watched the light until I passed it, and it was definitely still green.

There is also the fact that the only thing, practically, that convinces the average Abujan to stop their car is the absolute certainty that they’ll drive into someone else, or that someone might hit their car with a big stick.  So seeing people running red lights is fairly common.  In fact it’s quite funny if you drive around late at night to be the only car that stops at a red traffic light on an empty road.  Some people stop around you, others go straight through, but all of them seem to go through a period of uncertain hesitation as if they’re thinking – why’s this guy stopped?  Does he know something we don’t?  He’s not just going to sit here at the red light is he?

seeing people running red lights is fairly common.

So, I drove through a green light, 7 or 8 cars followed me, and then I was pulled over.  The cars behind me were all allowed to pass.  I knew what was coming, and I was, frankly, bloody annoyed.

“Why you drive like dis?” The orange-safety-vest-wearing git was now in my passenger seat, because that’s what they do when they stop you – get in and harass you.

“Like what?” I replied, and when he said that I’d driven through a red light (what they call “beat the traffic”), I explained, perhaps a little too forcefully, that this was not the case.  The light was green officer, and why didn’t you stop the cars that came through behind me?

There were two problems with this approach.  Firstly, he didn’t understand, or make any effort to understand, my response.  It took me three attempts to make him comprehend that I was denying the charge and about 25 minutes to understand the idea that I claimed that other cars had gone through after me.

Secondly, I’d pissed him off.  I wasn’t rolling over, or acting scared, or, in his eyes, respecting his authority.  So he said he was going to take me to the office.  Fine, I said, restarting the engine, I’d like to talk to them.  Where are we going?

“Sir, they will take this car and they will charge you.”
“I know, that’s fine, where are we going?”

Slightly bewildered by my willingness to be arrested, he changed tack.  This involved a long explanation of how the traffic light timing system worked on this junction and how he knew that I’d run the light. I continued to deny it, and he continued to talk to me like he was explaining a complex problem of quantum mechanics to a particularly stupid and obstroperous child.

In the end, I said – look, I understand what you’re saying.  But I didn’t run a red light, and I won’t say I did.  So do whatever needs to happen next.  You say you want to take me to your office – so let’s go.

they would take my car, my money and possibly my innocence if I did not swiftly recant

He waved his hand wearily, as if to say, what can I do with this oyibo? and pointed up the road.  He continued to rant at me about various things and I kept on having to ask him where we were going.  We went round in one big loop around around a fenced off block that looked like a car park.  This was the mobile court, he said (I’m pretty sure it was just a car park), this was where they would take my car, my money and possibly my innocence if I did not swiftly recant, accept my guilt and plead with this beneficent servant of the law for mercy.

I just nodded and asked where the entrance was.  By the time we’d gone round the whole block it was clear that he had no intention of taking me in there – in fact, he said, he was going to take me to the very traffic light were the offence had occurred so that I could see what I had done.

At this point, he said “I do not know what is wrong with you.  I know many of your people and they are my…”

Too good to miss.

“My people? My people?!  What do you mean by that?  Are you saying that this has something to do with me being white?  What has me being oyibo got to do with anything?”

That seriously shook him up (although it did make me feel a bit like Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder).  After a bit of blustering he backtracked, saying that he meant English people, to which I replied, “I am not fucking English”.

By this point, we’d been sitting in the middle of a six lane dual carriageway (in rush hour), stationary, for about 3 minutes.  Taking advantage of the pause in the conversation whilst he tried to work out what to do next, I asked him where we should go.  He just pointed at the traffic lights down the way and started going through the explanation again.

At this point, I changed tack.  I think I might even have laid my forehead against the steering wheel in genuine despair, but I definitely explained in a suddenly low voice that I understood his explanation fully, but that nonetheless I had not run a red light, and that if he was going to arrest me he should do so.  I kept saying “whatever needs to happen next” so that if a dash was going to come up, he had to be the one to suggest it.  Put up or shut up, motherfucker.

“Are you disrespecting my work?”  No, sir, but the light was green.  “Do you think the work I do is not important?” No, sir, I wish that all the traffic laws in Nigeria were enforced properly, it would be a much safer and more pleasant country as a result.  “So why you drive like dis?”

I attempted to proffer a machete to his intellectual thicket.  “Look, please, please, please – whatever needs to happen next let’s do it.  Tell me where to go, we’re in the middle of the road.”

He waved his hand magisterially and we continued on our way.  500 yards later I asked again where I should be driving and he told me to pull over – because he clearly had no destination in mind.  His mate who had been back at the original traffic light eventually pulled up on his motorbike, and we had to go through it all again.  This guy was a bit smarter though (and a bit more pragmatic) and when I remade the point about cars coming through after me he nodded, and practically told my chum that I was right and that they’d stopped the wrong car.

state-sponsored shakedown artists

Ah.  I kept on with my “whatever needs to happen….” line, and the motorbike man said, “Just recognise our work and that’s it”.  Part of me felt like saying that I would recognise their work with what it deserved, which wouldn’t be much, as they were basically state-sponsored shakedown artists with as much interest in road safety as a colour blind hedgehog has in Salvador Dali.

I didn’t though.  I gave them N1,000 and drove off.  Actually, my anger had pretty much evaporated by this point and I was able to just laugh about it.  If nothing else that makes the whole experience worthwhile, because if I’d just accepted non-existent guilt and tried to dash him up front I would have been seething with righteous anger for hours.  Or possibly weeks.

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