What is it about a hairstyle, torn jeans and youth that makes a dude delinquent, a crook or a con?
I’ll tell you what it is. It is because we distrust people who are different from us. People who don’t dress as we do, talk like we do or incline their ears to our wisdom.
It is not a problem only the Nigerian Police has. It is a problem of the Nigerian society. Sometimes it is subtle. Sometimes it spits in your face and insults your father. I’ll share three personal stories.
When I was courting the missus, I had a dreadlock. I was growing an afro but decided to stop combing it. A lock started to emerge. I nurtured it. Until I and I could chant down Babylon.
The missus didn’t mind: I was still a loving and charming bloke. But to her mam, I was a moral delinquent and a snare to her ‘Christian’ daughter.
A snare to your Christian daughter! I was tempted to inform her: “Ma’am, your daughter possess knowledge uncustomary for someone who suckled at a Christian bosom!” But such repartee would do me no good. So I restrained myself.
Now, that I’m a dad, I now understand her apprehension. My first impressions did me no favours I have to say. I reeked of cigarette, had dreadlocks and looked like I didn’t give a hoot about anything. I suppose if a guy who looked like me came to my house and asked to marry my daughter, I’d throw a fit too. And then a right hook.
Of course, my mother-in-law is now one of my biggest fans. But the point was, back then, she made a presumptive moral judgment about me.
By the way, I cut my dreadlock before I got married. Of my own free will. I got tired of being asked if I had a spare reefer.
Dubai International Airport
Usually, when I strip to my boxers, it’s not in the presence of four eyes superintending the process. But here I was in a room at Dubai International Airport stripped to my boxers before two Emirati officials.
It was about 11 years ago, I was transiting through Dubai to Singapore. Then again, I was spotting a dreadlock, wearing torn jeans and bobbing to music through my earphone. At passport control, two immigration officials came over and asked if I’d be kind enough to come with them. I asked what about. They told me it was a random check.
How convenient. The random check happened to pick out the only dude on the queue who had a dreadlock and wore torn jeans.
But I was in good spirits. 43% alcohol by volume. A Jack Daniel distillery must have been on board that Boeing 777 flight and the cabin crew was obliging. My merry state was such that I’d have gone with a rattlesnake if it invited me into its hole.
I’ll never forget the look on the faces of the Nigerians on the queue when I was pulled out. It spoke a million words.
‘Them don catch am.’
‘All these Ibo boys sef.’
‘That’s how they will be disgracing Nigeria all over the place.’
Well, you lot can kiss my ugly black…face!
They drove me in an electric golf cart to a secluded section of the terminal. We went into a room that has cameras and what I suspected was a two-way mirror. I took off all my clothes except my boxers. They conducted a strip search.
I did not yield any incriminating evidence. They apologised for the inconvenience. There were quite polite all through the search. Again I asked them why they’d singled me out. I was in the mood for banter. One of them confessed and enlightened me. I looked ‘hot’: dreadlocks, torn jeans and transiting through a popular drug route (Dubai to Asia). And I had an earphone on. Drug traffickers tend to hide nervousness by listening to music through an earpiece.
Well, what do you know! Who knew a headphone can rat you out?
Again, that was another demeaning incidence of profiling.
The Nigerian Police
In Nigeriana, there’s a way hard-working and honest people look. They tend not to have dreadlocks, wear tees and jeans and look flourishing. The police have always understood this even before SARS became notorious.
About 12 years ago I was driving to work when a police patrol pulled me over. I was used to the interest a dreadlock sometimes generate. So, I put on my most charming persona for the two approaching cops. One of them gave a hard rap on my window. I wound down the window.
Policeman: Can we know you?
Me: My name is Jide.
Policeman (in irritation): I say can we know you?
Me: Yes, sergeant. My name is Jide. I am single and searching, and I am a citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Policeman (in anger): Oga, come down.
I got down.
Policeman (rudely): Your driver’s license.
I hand over my driver’s license.
Policeman: Your papers
I handed over the car papers.
Policeman: Open your boot.
I popped the trunk.
The characters searched the trunk. They were disappointed not to find anything incriminating.
Policeman: Who owns this car?
The car was brand new and sleek.
Me: I believe it is stated on the car papers. I can read it out for you if you prefer.
He looked at the car papers again and then at me.
Policeman: Where do you work?
Me: Oh, I work in advertising. I’m a Creative Director…
Policeman (with incredulity and indignation): Director? You?
That was it, folks. Why I left the agency. Clients don’t respect you. The police don’t respect you.
Yes, there are crooks and cons who spot bold hairstyles and live for the fad and fashion. By all means, they should be apprehended. But we can’t be the society that visits the sin of one on the many. We’ll throw open the gates of chaos when we do.
So, while the shout has been on the criminality of SARS and the police at large, the more dangerous mindset is the one that lurks beyond the surface. The one that distrusts youth and everyone who looks different or hold opposing views. God could have created only one bird. But he created thousands. Our forests are more resplendent for it.