Ugo Goes To Cotonu
“Ce n”est pas bon.”
That was the first bit of French I would hear from the driver we had commissioned to help us navigate Cotonu and Porto-novo. In the first five minutes I sat inside the early 2000 BMW, I had heard the driver speak fluent French, English, Hausa, Yoruba and later on I would hear another language I suspect was his native Benin Republic dialect.
The driver had picked us up on the Nigerian part of the Seme border and was supposed to take us to Houdegbe North American University in Porto-Novo.
I had never seen immigration officers so casually dressed before, from shorts, to half buttoned shirt and those where the better dressed ones. Some others looked like they had never heard of combs or clippers to say the least.
Every 10 walking steps it seemed there was a new checkpoint or in other words another avenue to loose N100. Alarmed at the way money was disappearing my mum asked the driver what was going on, he told us “its always Nigerians that cause trouble here, no trouble on Benin side but here…” N1,500 later I finally saw a Nigerian immigration officer that looked like one.
I thought he was exaggerating but as we got to the Benin side of the border, the immigration officers were in uniforms, no one was soliciting for money and the road blocks were none existence. To make matters even worse Nigeria’s side of the border looked like a ghetto and Benins didn’t. It wasnt exactly heaven but at least there werent touts everywhere.
The streets in Benin were to my surprise rather neat compared to what people’s gist had made me to expect. I also noticed that commercial motorcyclists weren’t banned from ridding as we try to do here but they were given their own lanes on the road and from what I could tell a lot of them stuck to it. I think it was a wonderful idea to give them their own lanes. They also appeared to have more of a helmet culture than Nigerian motorcyclists did, although there were those who felt their head needed the breeze and took it off.
We were trying to beat time because it was around 5pm and we still intended to head back to Lagos that night. We got to a toll gate in Benin and the driver gave the woman in the booth 5,000CFA for what was 120CFA toll. I was worried this woman would harass him for the herculean task of finding change. Imagine my surprise when she looked at him handed him a coin, counted the change and gave it back to the driver. The driver said “its not Nigeria.” Yes it wasn’t Nigeria where you and the market woman could begin to fight because she didn’t have N500 change for your N1,000.
By 7pm we were done with our assignment in Benin; a trip to Hodegbe North American University (I will talk more on this in another post) and were heading back towards the border. Let me just add that when we did get to the university, the family friend we came to visit said he didn’t have sachet water because they were bought in coins and he wasn’t used to keeping coins. I just reminded myself that a bag of ‘pure water’ in Nigeria was nothing less than a N100 note, and a single sachet water is now a N10 note, leaving all of our coins and N5 hanging in space.
My mum stopped to buy fish and asked our driver turned translator to negotiate and translate because although my French is good enough to buy fish, I’m terrible at ‘pricing.’ Imagine my mums surprise when she discovered that the Nigerian currency that has been dancing shoki for months now had even affected the price of the fish in Benin republic. Now my mum had to buy the equivalent of N1,200 when she had previously bought it multiple times for N1,000.
As we reentered Nigeria, with nothing but darkness left behind by the set sun and the absence of street lights, we had nothing to guide us through the seemingly endless “security check points” manned by nearly a 100 people by my estimation and not one of them was an actual Nigerian immigration officer or even a single policeman either all that was left were people trying to make a living from collecting the N100’s of commuters although we did see one or two military personnel as we drove further into Nigeria. I was told by the driver that the immigration officers had closed and gone home.
As the vigilantes or whatever they are called shone their high powered torch-lights into the car demanding we put on the cars inner light, I became increasingly irritated albeit ashamed as to how we didn’t even encounter this level of harassment with the Benin officials.
I would have loved to end by saying it felt good to be back but it didnt at least not till i got home. rather I felt like using a cane and flogging all those Nigerians giving us a bad image with their hustle.