In the evening of that day, FWPU Regional President Dr. Dong Ho Cho conducted a ceremony to bequeath four great holy items to national leaders.
Details of the proceedings of the conference and associated activities are presented in a different article. But it was a very worthwhile experience one would only be proud to have participated in. This report is about my journey to and from Burkina Faso and the challenges I faced as an English speaking person in a French speaking terrain and one who did not speak the native language(s) in the area.
During the proceedings of events, I was already considering my return journey. As I was chatting with the National Leader of Benin, Emmanuel, he told me he came together with the Congo-Brazzaville National Leader, Nono. They travelled with a bus company called TCV from Cotonou. It took them 18 hours. The bus is nice and fully air-conditioned, they said. I said if so I should accompany them and return through Cotonou. This would probably be less stressful than my inward journey. But they said they already had return tickets for the 12th of August. Thet advised me that if I wanted to go on the same bus I should buy a ticket ahead of time. I called the attention of the Burkina Faso National leader, Thierry, to help me arrange for someone to buy the TCV bus ticket. His question was, if that particular bus is fully booked, would I mind to travel by any other bus? I said I wouldn’t mind. “If there is another bus going to Cotonou in the evening of the 11th or morning of the 12th, I wouldn’t mind taking it,” I said.
A few hours later I got a call from Thierry saying the TCV was fully booked for the 12th and their next bus will leave on Sunday the 14th.
“Do you want to wait until Sunday?” he asked
“Absolutely not,” I said.
“Then there is another company whose bus is departing for Cotonou, 6pm on the 11th,” he pursued.
Thierry was aware that National leaders would have a meeting with the Regional President on the 11th, from morning until about 12 noon. Therefore, departing 6pm would be OK for me. It would have been nice for me to travel together with my French speaking colleagues on the TCV, but that’s OK. I can always manage. I gave Thierry the go ahead to buy the ticket. It costs 18,000CFA. The name of this bus company is TSR.
4pm on the 11th I was about to proceed to the bus station for my journey. I asked one of our church members in the quarters to guide me on how to get there.
“Bus to Cotonou at this time?” The brother expressed doubt and asked to see my ticket. I gave it to him. He looked at it shortly and drew my attention to the fact that the ticket says departure time is 6am, 11th August.
“What?” since that ticket was given to me I did not look closely to see what was written on it.
“It must be a mistake,” I countered. “I was clearly told I was being booked for 6pm, 11th August. Thierry was aware we had a meeting with the Regional President in the morning of the 11th. He couldn’t have booked me to travel and miss the meeting with the Regional President. I put a call through to Thierry to confirm.
“Hi Thierry, this is George.”
“What is my bus departure time?”
“6pm. You should be on your way to the bus station now.”
“Someone here is saying the bus already departed at 6am.”
“No, no, no! That’s a mistake. Don’t listen to that. Go to the station now.”
A lady was just driving out of the school premises and I asked if she could give me a ride to any place I could get a vehicle to the bus station. She obliged. I hopped into the front seat. A young man sitting at the back seat greeted me in English and we struck a conversation. He is the lady’s nephew. He spoke better English than her aunt and so he explained to her exactly where I was going and she volunteered to take me all the way there.
We arrived at the TSR station. The young man accompanied me to the ticketing counter to assist with translation if necessary. The lady at the counter said the bus for today had left at 6am, true to what the brother at our quarters had said. Hey, what to do now?
“Is there a bus to Cotonou tomorrow morning?” I asked.
“No, the next bus is on Sunday morning. I can book you on that one?” The lady asked.
“No I cannot wait here until Sunday. I have to leave here latest tomorrow morning. Can I get a refund of my money?”
“No, no refunds.”
Well, in Nigeria bus operators do not refund money either, in this or other circumstances. But it’s good to know that we are not the only ones that do not refund bus ticket money.
I must be on my way home this night. I felt like trying to return the same way I had come. So I decided to go to the Grande Marche where the bus that brought me had dropped me on my inward journey. The lady who brought me agreed to take me there. After maneuvering through a bit of traffic around the Grande Marche, she found a convenient place for me to come down.
“Are you sure you can find your way from here?” asked the young man.
“Yes, I’ll be fine,” I said. “Sorry to make you go out of your way.”
“Not at all Sir.”
“Thank you Madame”
They drove off. I was completely on my own. It was about 6pm.
I had hoped I would find those small buses going to the border at this place so I could take one of them and make a start on the journey back home. There was no bus. No sign of any transport operator going out of town from that place at that time. Wow, what to do now? I hailed a taxi and asked to be taken to a station where I could get a bus to Cotonou. The taxi driver took me through some side streets and brought me to Rimbo Transporte & Voyager Station of Ouagadougou. This station was not as clean and as organized as the Rimbo Station in Niamey. I inquired if they have a bus to Cotonou this night or tomorrow morning. They said no. Their next bus is on Saturday. Kai!
I had asked the taxi driver that brought me to wait in case I would need to be taken elsewhere. I went back to him and asked if there is another bus station he could take me to. He said yes. He drove me to TCV; the very company that I was supposed to go with together with my Beninese and Congolese national leaders colleagues and which was said to be fully booked. All the same I presented myself at the ticketing counter and asked to buy a ticket to Cotonou for tomorrow morning. The lady at the counter said the bus was fully booked, but that she could book me for Sunday. She spoke good English. I explained to her that I could not stay here until Sunday. I am a pastor from Nigeria and I came here for a conference which we have just concluded and I must return to Nigeria right away.
“Oh, you are a pastor?”
“Yes I am, by the grace of God.”
“OK, wait let me see what I can do.”
She picked up her phone, dialed a number and began talking to someone in French. When she was done she said, “OK pastor, I can give you a seat because you are a pastor.”
“God bless you my dear. How much is the ticket?”
I gave her 20,000CFA and asked her to keep the change.
“The bus will leave at 6am. You need to be here by 5am,” she said.
“Thank you. God bless you!”
My taxi driver was still waiting. I asked him to take me back to the school quarters where we were staying. The brother who drew my attention to the problem with my TSR booking was not surprised to see be back. I gave him the TSR ticket, which is now useless to me, to see what he could do with it.
As early as 4am, I was up. Together with Emmanuel (Benin national leader) and Nono (Congo-Brazzaville national leader) we went to the TCV station to join the bus. We departed the station at 6.45am.
The journey to Cotonou in the TCV luxurious, fully air-conditioned bus was much less eventful than my incoming journey. It was a long drive from Ouagadougou to Pako, border town with Benin. There were a number stops for identity checks by the gendarmes.
Of the more than 60 passengers, I could identify four Nigerians; three of whom seemed to be travelling together. They spoke Igbo among themselves and they were always together. The fourth person was sitting close to me in the bus. It was hard to make him out for he had a raster dreadlocked hair style. He was always speaking to himself in a raster-style English. When he wasn’t speaking to himself he was singing along with the earpiece he was wearing. From his monologue I could pick-up that he had been travelling from Spain by road and was returning to Nigeria. In this bus there were also quite a number of Yoruba speaking women of various ages. But they could be Beninese, I’m not sure.
We arrived at the Burkina Faso border control post at about 3pm. Those of us with passports were asked to go to the office for stamping. Again the officials demanded 2,000CFA. This seems to be the standard price here. Emmanuel explained something in French to them. They stamped his passport and handed it back to him. He did not pay the 2,000CFA. They withheld my own passport and insisted I pay 2,000CFA. I explained that I am a pastor; travelling together with the gentleman they had just stamped his passport. After a brief hesitation they stamped my passport. We boarded the bus and proceeded to the Benin border post at Porga which was more than 20 kilometers away.
At the Benin border post we were made to line up and bring out our passports or any other form of identification. An officer came by and collected our passports one by one. He took them inside the building. Another officer came and took those without passports with him into the building. After a while someone came out from the building and began calling those of us with passports one by one to come into the building.
When it was my turn the officer calling the names handed my passport to another officer and asked me to go in with him. We went into an open office. The officer said:
“Your money, 2,000CFA”
“For what?” I asked.
“I’m sorry I don’t have money for that.” That’s been my song.
Just then a fracas occurred. The raster Nigerian guy was protesting loudly for being asked to pay 2,000CFA. As soon he raised his voice, four officers rushed on him. One gave him a swipe kick at his ankles and he fell on the floor. Two of them grabbed him from the floor – one on his belt, the other on his collar. They both jerked him up and dragged him out of the office.
My officer switched back his attention to me after that unsightly distraction.
“Yes, your money.”
I was not intimidated at all. If I felt anything it was indignation. How mean for officers in uniform to treat a citizen of a country that way over 2,000CFA.
“I told you I don’t have money for this. I am a pastor. I am returning home from a conference. I am not a business man,” I said.
“Everyone who passes through here must pay,” he pursued.
I am already hearing the honking of our bus. I was the only passenger remaining in the room.
“My friend, you need to give me my passport because the bus is leaving.”
He simply handed the passport back to me.
“You are not stamping it?” I asked.
“You don’t pay, no stamp.”
I took my passport and went back to the bus. In the bus I asked Nono how much he paid for stamping. He said he didn’t pay anything.
“They didn’t ask you for money?”
“No. But I have my visas.”
His country, Republic of Congo, is a non ECOWAS Member State. He comes in with a visa and he passes through the borders freely. But those of us from ECOWAS Member States are harassed. More so when we present our passports at border controls. This is ridiculous. So much for ECOWAS guarantee of free movement.
Most of the time for the rest of the journey to Cotonou I was asleep. It was 3am when our bus arrived at the TCV station in Cotonou. Emmanuel’s wife, Genevieve, was waiting for us with a church van. They gave me a ride to the Cotonou Grande Marche called Datokpa from which I would take a taxi to Seme, the Benin border with Nigeria together with four other passengers. Even at that hour, Datokpa was very much alive and bustling with activities. So was Seme when we arrived at about 4am.
At the Benin side of Seme, after dropping from the taxi, I changed all my CFA back into naira with one of the local money changers. I then took a motorbike to cross the border. I presented my passport at the Benin immigration point for stamping. The officer, as usual, demanded N1,000. Without any word I gave him the money. Next, at the Benin Port Health desk, the officer demanded for my yellow card. This is the first time on this journey that someone would ask for my yellow card. Fortunately I had it and I handed it to him. He requested for N1,000. I asked why. He said he would have to put a stamp in my yellow card so that any other time I pass through the border I would not have to pay anything. He showed me the stamp on someone else’s yellow card which mine did not have. I’m not sure it made any sense but I simply pulled out N1,000 and gave to him. He put the so-called stamp on my yellow card.
I crossed over to the Nigerian side and presented myself at the Nigerian immigration point. It was a make-shift kiosk. In fact, the whole of the Seme border, both the Beninese side and the Nigerian side consist of make-shift temporary structures. The place is so disorganized and rowdy. I won’t say more.
When I presented my passport to the immigration officer in the kiosk, he demanded for N1,000.
“I’m sorry sir, I have no money for that,” I replied.
“Oga, save my time,” he protested with an air like I knew the right thing to do and I’m just wasting his time.
“Please stamp my passport and let me go.” I stood my ground. “I’m not a businessman. I am a pastor, coming from a very long journey and I really need to be able to get home as soon as possible.”
“Where do you live?”
“All these pastors, you say you have no money but you are the ones buying private jets and building universities. Poor church members will contribute money to build universities but cannot afford to send their children there.”
“Hmm! How did we get to this kind of topic now? Are you bothered about something?” I ask him.
“I’m just saying that churches are very unfair to their members, especially the poor.”
“Why are you being so negative towards churches? You don’t go to church, do you?”
“Yes I do. I am a staunch member of the Catholic Church, but not everything the Catholic Church does that I agree with.”
“My friend, please don’t say what you don’t know,” I counselled. “Any church worth its salt, that has a university, must also have a scholarship program to cater for indigent members, such that no child who is really qualified is denied educational opportunity. I know for sure that the Catholic Church gives out a lot of scholarships, even to non-members. So do other churches. Tell me what this country would have been educationally without the contribution of the church. Please do not insult the intelligence and piety of church members, no matter how poor they are.”
“OK pastor, I give up.” He stamped my passport and handed it to me.
“Thank you and have a nice day.”
I passed through a series of other government agencies’ desks or stands in the open – port health, customs, NDLEA, quarantine, SSS, police, mobile police etc. They were generally courteous to me. My motorcyclist brought me over to the motor park on the Nigerian side of Seme. It was already 5am. A car was loading by the side of the main road going to Mile 2 in Lagos. I sat at the back seat. Three men were already seated – one in front, two at the back. The two men at the back were Beninese. They must be in their thirties. We took off toward Lagos.
When we got to Agbara, a small town just before the suburbs of Greater Lagos, the driver stopped and asked the two Beninese to come down and walk across an immigration check point before the Agbara bridge.
“Why do they have to walk across,” I asked the driver.
“Oga, if they see this people inside this car, we no go commot here today,” he said. “The kind money wey dem go ask them, maybe dem no fit get that kind money and dem go delay us.” Meaning that the immigration officers will give the Beninese a hard time by asking for bribes that might be too exorbitant for them to afford and that would cause us a considerable delay.
Now I know that the aggressive treatment we get from Beninese officials is retaliation for what their citizens’ experience from our own officials. Or is it the other way round? Whatever; the fact is that there is mutual aggression by both countries’ officials in the border crossing process towards the citizens. I think it is totally abnormal that border crossing between two countries that should enjoy regional integration privileges should be so painful. Are the ECOWAS authorities and the Integration Ministries of member states aware of the pain involved for the ordinary person to cross borders; and that even when you carry a valid passport your ordeal is worse? Border crossing process in the West African sub-region must be looked into because what is obtaining now is abnormal. There is a semblance of sanity at the airports when one goes out and comes into the country by air. But it is a totally different experience when one travels across borders by road. The difference is like that between heaven and hell. Is it because those who travel by road across the borders are mostly the poor and the less educated and so they can be mistreated and exploited? I think that our leaders and policy makers should adopt a habit of travelling incognito once in a while, by road and by public transportation, around the country and within the region to see the actual state of things by themselves. This way we can be better informed about the condition of the ordinary citizen and to know how to improve the quality of life of citizens.
With all the morning traffic on the Badagry Road, we arrived at Mile 2 at exactly 8.30am. I then found my way to Maza-maza to take a bus to Abuja.
The Maza-maza bus station is just an open place on the Badagry Road with several buses belonging to different operators and loading in no particular order. Agents of the bus operators could be heard yelling: “Aba-Owerri-Onitsha….” “Abuja-Abuja-Abuja…” “Suleja-Kaduna…” As I approached, strong looking youths rushed at me.
“Where? Owerri? Onitsha?
“Abuja” I said.
One of them quickly grabbed my bag and rushed toward a mini bus with “Abuja” sign on top. He guided me to a kiosk behind the bus where the tickets were being sold. I asked the lady selling the ticket how many passengers they have already. The men standing around there all said in unison, “only two chances remain.”
“If you enter now it will remain one chance,” one of them pursued.
I said I wanted to see. I went over to the mini bus – a 14 seater Toyota Hiace. No one sat on the front seats but two small bags were there, indicating that they had been taken. There were two women. One of whom had two children with her. The rest of the people were men. How am I sure they are not Agberos (touts) pretending to be travelers? But they looked better dressed than the youths that had accosted me upon my approach to the station. Anyway, I went back to the kiosk and bought the ticket, N6,500.
I came back to the bus and took one of two empty seats behind. Shortly afterwards I came down to look for a place to make water. There were no toilets in the vicinity and since I would not do what I see other people doing in the open, I walked quite a bit of a distance to find a compound to ask the people there if I could use their toilet. They obliged. Afterwards, I found a store selling drinks and I bought myself a yogurt, just to put something in the stomach that morning.
When I got back to the bus I discovered that most of the men who were there before I went out were no more there. There were only three men. One of them had his ten years old son with him. One of the three men might have come while I was gone. The two women, including the one traveling with children were still there.
“Where are the others?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” responded the man with a ten year old boy.
“Wow, so all those people were Agberos? I should have known that.”
“Na so..! Anyway, we gogo sha!” the man retorted.
By the time it was 10.30am we were still there and nothing was happening. I was beginning to be restless. From Maza-maza to Abuja is a good 13 hours journey, with bad roads and all kinds of bottlenecks. I went over to the lady at the kiosk.
“What time will this bus leave for Abuja?” I asked.
“Oga, try to be patient. When the bus gets full we will go.”
“But look at the time now, to eleven and you are not moving yet. What time shall we get to Abuja? And where are the people in the bus when I got here?”
“Oga, they are coming.”
By the time it was 11am, I had made up my mind I will not go with this bus. I began to demand a refund of my money on the ground that I had been deceived.
“You told me there was only one passenger remaining after me and since then more than one person have come and yet the bus is not full and we are to wait here indefinitely. I cannot do that. You either move now with the available passengers or you refund my money and I will make a different arrangement for my journey.”
“Sir, we do not refund money. It is written on the ticket,” the lady said.
“Well, I know that. But you’d have to make an exception this time. I cannot just stay here indefinitely.”
“Oga, passengers will come. Have patience,” she pleaded.
“Even if passengers come now at after eleven and we depart now we will get to Abuja way beyond midnight. For me, that’s too late. I am a pastor and I must be in church tomorrow to preach.”
Then a man standing nearby interposed: “If you reach after midnight you will still preach in the morning.”
“Very good! Have you ever preached to a congregation in a church?” I asked him.
He did not answer. I turned to the lady again and said, “Okay, let me make it easier for you. Give me part-refund and keep something, maybe 10% as admin charges. Mind you, I must leave now, and you don’t want me to leave here feeling bitter for being deceived and cheated, do you?”
At this point, she picked up her phone and called someone. After a long conversation in Igbo she turned to me and said her director said to give me N5,000. However, she will make it N6,000. She will make up the difference of N1,000 with her own money.
Great! At least someone here has a conscience. And I said, “Thank you for your good heart, but just give me the N5,000 that your director said to give to me.”
She gave me the money and muttered something about not letting other passengers know she had given me a refund. I then quietly picked up my bag from the bus and went to the main road. I had had enough lessons for one trip. I therefore decided there and then to take a taxi straight to the airport. I arrived at Murtala Muhammed II (Domestic) Airport at about 1pm, bought a ticket for an Aero-Contractor flight scheduled for 3pm. The flight was on time and we arrived at Abuja by 4pm. My headquarter staff was waiting for me at the airport and by 5pm I was home.