Friday, March 2, 2012

Two unforgettable trips: forest routes plied by smugglers, drugs and arms dealers

Forest routes preferred by smugglers, drug and arms traffickersFrom Kilibo-Saki, Babana-Nikki

There are expeditions and there are expeditions, but my trip through Babana in north-western Nigeria to Nikki in the eastern fringes of the central parts of neighbouring Benin Republic will always rank among my most memorable.
Pic 1.

Yes, I have travelled: There are trips and there are trips but some journeys you simply can’t forget. However, before narrating this latest unforgettable journey, please join me as I recall an earlier one across similar terrain. Both expeditions were simply to explore, first-hand, the possibilities of crossing various parts of the border between Benin Republic and Nigeria.

One of the older expeditions, which took place in 2008, was to survey the route from Kilibo in Benin Republic to Saki in Nigeria. And, like the experience encountered during my latest study; from Babana to Nikki, memories of that exploration rankle fresh in my mind to this day.

In Benin Republic the tradition is for commercial vehicle drivers to collect passengers’ fares after taking them to their destination. So, when the Zemidjan (okada man) that was going to take me toward Saki through the forests neighbouring Kilibo insisted on being paid before departure, I realised this was truly something of an uncommon trip. And, so it turned out to be.

It was a trip on a bike, riding through barely visible paths in some forest, where the trees are very huge and their foliage so thick they practically occlude every ray of the sun in the sky, thus leaving the forest grounds almost as dark as night-time.
Pic 2.

Along the way, we had encountered barriers made with mere strings tied to the trunk of the gargatuan trees. At some point, one or two persons would emerge from the bush as our bike pulled up at these quasi-checkpoints. The bike man would exchange greetings with the watchman, some questions would be asked and what seemed satisfactory answers would be given. The bushman would then stretch out his hand, and the bikeman would handover some money.

I couldn’t tell exactly how much he had to pay at the first two stops. However, after crossing the third barrier I had asked him; whereupon he told me the fee varies from spot to spot, and sometimes depended on the mood of the gatekeepers.

Since there is no motorable road through this forest areas, taxis and buses do not ply this route. However, this is not to say that no car comes this way; for along the way, we saw some automobiles trudging across the bumpy terrain. These were all Tokunbo-in-flight. Tokunbo car refers to used automobile brought into Nigeria, while those flown-in denote cars shipped to seaports in neighbouring countries and subsequently smuggled into Nigeria. Interestingly, drivers of Tokunbo-in-flight are experienced crossers hired by smugglers to fly the cars into Nigeria to avoid payment of duty.

After more than three-hours’ journey, we had come to one bank of a stream, which the bike owner told me was the border between Benin and Nigeria. At this point, the man had said since he couldn’t ride me over to the other side; I needed to find my way across the stream.

O God, please do not be far from me, and continue to protect me! I had prayed. And, pulling up my trousers, I waded into the waters to explore its depth. Since it was dry season, the volume was low and the surface of the stream came to about knee-deep. Having made it across to the Nigerian shore, I found some kids bathing around the river bank. Fortunately, there was no communication problem since these were Yoruba-speaking folks.

Upon asking these youngsters, where the nearest motor-park was; I gathered it stood a walking distance, roughly 500metres, away. On getting to the motor-park, I found some antique and rickety Peugeot 504 station wagons on ground. Despite the ancient age of each automobile, the drivers packed two passengers in the front seat, four on the middle row and another three in the rear seat. To make matters worse, the interior of the so-called car was stuffy and chokingly compact because of too many goods packed into every available space.

Imagine travelling for four hours without being able to move either of your legs because of items stuffed under the seats, behind them and everywhere else in front of you. Apart from filling up every leg-room inside the vehicle, gargatuan loads were stacked on the roof of each taxi. The items being openly conveyed included brooms, mortars, plastic bowls; virtually everything. However, one could not be sure that these visible wares were not packed so overtly as to conceal some contraband. At some point, since the surface of the bush-path we were travelling through featured deep craters; the taxi tipped precariously to one side and we thought it was going to careen.

Fortunately, we survived and finally alighted at another Nigerian village after roughly four hours. But, my heart sank, when I learnt that we were still hours away from Saki. Tired, hungry and growing impatient, I had hopped on an okada and asked the rider to ferry me to Saki. It would take another hour before we hit this Oyo State settlement. Shockingly, the first real posts of various organs of Nigeria’s security apparatus were found in Saki, numerous hours’ journey from the border of both countries.

Our latest sojourn in these parts actually began proper in the Nigerian frontier settlement of Babana. Also spelt Babanna, this border town stands about an hour’s drive off Lummi junction, coming from Wawa, near New Bussa; all parts of Niger State.

We had set out from Oli Camp, an outpost of Kainji Lake National Park; and, travelled to Lummi. Although the trip from Wawa to Oli and later to Babana was not altogether without frills, we must declare that this is probably the smoothest route any wayfarer is likely to ply in this part of Niger State; where, the road from Suleja to Bida and all the way to Kutigi is a nightmare.

At Babana, after having our passport stamped to show one’s exit from Nigeria; I had learnt, much to my consternation, that the only way to continue the journey into Benin Republic was by okada (called express) in this clime. Left with no option, I had accepted an offer from a Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) officer, who; apparently out of concern for my safety, called up a tested and found to be reliable okada rider to come take me over.

When the bikeman arrived and mentioned the sum of N2,500 as fare, I had thought he was trying to rob me, considering that in these parts, I was JJC (Johny Just Come) as the late Afrobeat maestro Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would say. Seeing that dusk was fast approaching and we were going to travel through some forest areas on the way, I had grudgingly agreed to pay; after haggling yielded no fruit by way of reduction in the fare. Shortly after this payment, we had set off to what I can only describe as a flying start.

When I advised my guide to take it easy, the younger man’s response was that this was the only way to travel in these parts. He went on to enumerate the reasons, and his explanations made sense to me: We had to speed along to cross the thick forest areas on the route before nightfall. This dense forest area is home to wild animals like hyenae and various snakes and, therefore, best traversed during daylight. Moreover, border-area robbers sometimes strike around these thickets, we were further told. With all these, I had no choice but to let the bike man aka Abu Port Health speed along. But, we were not riding along well defined roads: the terrain was very challenging and ranged from sandy to rocky. All along, it was a nerve-racking journey; and, one’s misery was compounded by thick vegetative roots of some huge trees over which the bike practically jumped.

On at least two occasions, travelling this bush-path; which was barely six inches at its widest parts, I found myself airborne; and, but for some uncommon sense of balance, which came to my rescue at such moments; I would have been thrown several yards into the bush from the motorcycle.

Finally, after emerging from the forest, whose snares included thorn-infested branches of various flora that dotted the route, not to talk of menacing tendrils of sundry plants, which we constantly had to bend under to avoid riding into a hangman; we sighted something of a hamlet, our first reconnection with civilization, since departure from Babana. From here, the roads were wider; enough to contain a four-wheeler, but still far from smooth because of lack of asphalt coating or proper finishing.

Between when we emerged from the forest and Nikki, roadside blurs included fleeting images of Kalale, a provincial hub; where we got an entry stamp on our passport from the local Beninoise Gendarmarie’s Post Control. Having travelled more than two hours to get to Kalale, I had thought that the remaining part of the journey would only last minutes; afterall, we were already inside Benin Republic.

But, I would soon learn that I thought wrong; when, after entry formalities at Kalale’s control post, I had asked Abu how much longer our suffering would continue. “We have barely covered half the distance”, came the bike man’s response. And, did my heart sink?

The fare from Babana to Nikki was a whooping N2,500 riding on a bike, and I had reflexively let out an alarm, when the okada rider asked me to pay N2,500 as fare. Interestingly, after going through the journey; and, now armed with first-hand experience; I had voluntarily handed an extra N700 to Abu in appreciation for taking me through quasi hell and possibly the most nerve-racking trip of my life and yet, finally landing me in Nikki in one piece.

I had planned to travel to Cotonou that same night, but by the time we got to Nikki, the time was well past 11pm; and, there was no Cotonou-bound taxi on ground. Although many cars were parked at Nikki Gare (Nikki motor-park), their drivers were scheduled to depart around 5.30am the following day.

Sensing my desparation, Abu went to negotiate with some chauffeur; the driver would not take the risk but refferred my guide to another person. The man was game, but instead of collecting 3,000cfa  (some N1,080) he demanded 5,000cfa (about N1,800) to take me to Parakou. Although I had the money, Abu practically spoke my mind; when he asked me, if it was wise to embark on this leg of the journey at that time. If we set out immediately, we would get to Parakou about 3am at the earliest, he warned.

With Vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God) rankling in my mind, I decided to pass what was left of the night in Nikki. Fortunately, as Abu was about leaving me to embark on his return to Babana (he would be getting there around 4am, and I prayed God to take him home safely), he found an acquintance with the nickname of Bature. Bature or Oyibo, Onye-ocha, Mbakara, Obroni or Yovo stands for a white person in Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Efik, Twi or Goun respectively.

But, this Bature was as black as I. In any case, he turned out to be a fantastic host. Since there was no place to convert my naira to the local currency, cfa, at Babana Border in Nigeria, I had entered Nikki with only Nigerian currency in my wallet. And, around 11pm, when we entered Nikki, there was no money exchanger to be found. It was Bature who took me to the home of a bureau de change operator, where I got some cfa. Although Bature offered to take me to his place to pass the night, I had to politely turn down this offer.

I needed to stay in a hotel, where I planned to wash my cloths before beginning the next day’s journey. When I told Bature this, he reckoned it won’t make any difference: I would still arrive at Parakou covered in dust because the roads all the way to N’dali from Nikki was undergoing redesign and reconstruction. Although his explanation made sense, I made him locate a nearby pension (guest-house) for me. Interestingly, we found one within the motor-park complex at the cost of 5,000cfa (N1,800).

As soon as I was given the key, I bought a bottle of Coke with which I downed a few slices of the breadloaf I had brought along from Kainji in Nigeria. After this lean supper, which partly explains my fluctuating state of fitness; I had to struggle against sleep. Fortunately, there were three large tablets of soap in the room I was given; so, I set about washing my cloths, despite my drowsiness.

Indeed, when the water turned sepia as I dipped my shirt in and began to lather; I came to realise how much dust had settled on one. After my clothing items, I had turned on myself; for, the same thickness of the coat of dust as I had just washed from my dress must have settled on my skin and into my hair. It was after this cleansing exercise I finally lay me down to sleep. Cheeringly, none of the countless mosquitoes that kept harassing me while I washed could reach me to disturb my sleep; for, I lay safe on a bed covered with insecticide-treated net!

At some point, I was tossing and turning: the local muezzin’s call to prayer had woken me. Time check revealed it was 5am, I tried to get out of bed; but couldn’t. Truly, the soul was willing but the body was weak. Weak from little food with my body still aching, I nonetheless had to struggle out of bed as the daylight seeping through lines in the window’s wooden louvre grew brighter.

After a quick wash, I put on my dresses. The underwear were all dry, the shirt almost so; but, the denim pair of trousers, though not dripping wet, was not yet dry. Who cares? I got into it, handed over the key of the room I slept in and set out for where the taxis were parked.

At the motor-park, I put a call to Bature; thanking him for his hospitality, while he prayed for safe journey for me. Although I tried to speak with Abu Port Health, his number couldn’t be reached; so, I called Bature again to explain this frustration and asked him to find out, if my guide from Babana got home safely, and that he should also convey my greetings to Abu.

We had departed Nikki town at 6.45am, and; much to my irritation, this bush taxi I had been waiting to board to Parakou; arrived just when I was about settling down to eat my first real meal in two days. Unsure, when the next Parakou-bound vehicle would turn up; I had to ruefully abandon my riz-sauce (rice and stew), aloco (dodo), areco (bean), poisson (fish) and all; which I had paid only 600cfa (roughly a paltry N220) for. I had just swallowed the first spoonful of this mix: and, it tasted good enough to eat; salt, pepper and other spices all moderate. Despite the intimidating volume of the serving, I had planned to record zero plate-waste, but for the taxi that came to take me away.

On the way to Nikki; Serekali, N’dali, Kakara, Mareborou and Boko were among villages and towns we glimpsed riding towards Parakou. Truly, it was a bumpy, teeth-jarring, ride for the better part of the journey; and, to think we paid 2,500cfa (about N900) to suffer so much pain. At some point, I wondered, if the government shouldn’t actually pay compensations to commuters that travelled certain sub-Sahara African routes.

Coming from Babana in Nigeria through Nikki, we had first arrived in Dali on the way to Parakou like a masquerade. Whatever your skin complexion, whatever the colour of the clothings you wore; irrespective of your class, creed or religion; everyone becomes something of Ojuju Calabar after travelling from Babana to Dali.

After a brief moment of meditation and thanking God for bringing me safely all the way here, I sat down to have a bite. Café-au-lait, omelette avec le paine (coffee, omelette and some sort of bread). It was a splendid breakfast, even though everything added up to a relatively paltry 550cfa (roughly N200). Done with eating, I armed myself with a bottle of FIFA, a popular brand of table water in these parts and then boarded a Cotonou-bound taxi.

The fare was 7,000cfa (roughly N2,520) per passenger. Again, to avoid being squeezed among over-packed passengers, I coughed out the equivalent of N5,040 so I could occupy the seat next to the driver. Yes, Travels enriches you: it opens your eyes to the world around you, it imbues you with better understanding of peoples and places, you’re more knowledgeable; but, it all comes at a steep cost!

At 10.50am, our collective taxi set out of Gare Routier Parakou, which stands opposite Hotel de Ville, Municipalite de Parakou (City Hotel in Parakou Municipality). We rode in a Peugeot 505 saloon, which as has become the norm in some West African countries, including Nigeria; the park operators, apparently with the collusion of security agencies; cramp six passengers into space for four. To spare myself pain, I had; as I would normally do in those parts of Nigeria, where this unwholsesome practice persists; paid the fare for two passengers, so that I can occupy the seat next to the drive, alone.

Shortly after departing from Parakou motor-park, we were traversing a neighbourhood called Sinagourou; where a pharmacy stands with Alafia Hotel near Marche Internationale Arzeke (Arzeke International Market). We were still on our way to Cotonou, when at 11.56am, roughly an hour after we left Parakou; Kilibo came into view. This is the same Kilibo, from where we trudged through dangerous forest areas to emerge some 90km from Saki in 2008. By 2pm, we were turning left at a roundabout in a town called Come on the way to Bohicon.

Well: is it not said that everything that has a beginning must have an end? And, so it was that at 4.30pm; our taxi finally pulled into Dan Tokpa motor-park in Cotonou. In other words, travelling from Parakou to Cotonou took all of four hours and 30 minutes. Alighting from the vehicle, I rent Allelujah to my God; for, through His blessing of everlasting journey mercy for me; I had done it again!

1. One of the many heavily laden bush taxis that ply Nigeria’s porous borders.

2. Those that travel this road, in spite of its terrible state, must have reasons for doing so.

1 comment:

  1. Whao!what a wonderful experience.i will like to know the route from ibadan to shaki leading to benin republic.