August 31, 2010

That Time I Got Interrogated by the Nigerian Police

As if the stampede wasn’t exciting enough, last night I got dragged to a Nigerian police station. I’m so very glad I get to have all these new experiences before I leave.

I’m still scratching my head about how it all happened. Basically, through a carefully coordinated mix of miscommunications and coincidences, my friend Uche and I were accused of real estate fraud and hauled in for questioning. It played out like this: I had arranged to meet with Uche, a film editor, for dinner, and since I had lost my phone he gave me the address of a large, easy-to-spot house he lived near to meet in front of. When I got there, I didn’t spot Uche so I asked a chap on the sidewalk if he knew him, mentioning we were supposed to meet at this address. As misfortune would have it, the man happened to be the owner of the house, and being a crotchety and generally awful person (and a bit drunk) he leapt to some faulty conclusions.

A widespread phenomenon in Nigeria is “419 fraud,” when a fraudster sells a piece of real estate to someone when it’s not actually for sale. The foolish buyer purchases a house without seeing the inside, and then when he tries moving in he discovers someone else living there who has no intention of leaving. So common is this trick that owners often put signs in front of their homes saying “This house is NOT for sale.”

Well, this paranoid (and a bit drunk) bloke immediately decided I was trying to buy his house. When Uche eventually showed up, he was accosted by the guy and called a criminal. The uproar aroused the curiosity of the entire neighborhood, and soon we were surrounded by a mob of people who thought they could help by all yelling to each other their personal take on the situation. When we tried quietly slipping away, the homeowner cornered us and demanded we go and explain ourselves to the cops. He had a pack of cronies on his side that made it difficult to decline, so off we went. Along the way a woman kept sneaking up behind me and pinching me, and I can’t shake the notion that the homeowner told her to steal one of my hairs and put a hex on me or something.

Unexpectedly, the Nigerian police are the real heroes of the story. As soon as Uche and I calmly explained that we were just trying to get some soup when a crazy man accused us of trying to sell off his house, they rolled their eyes, took all our information, and told everyone to please leave and get on with their lives. Hear, hear.

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