Having arrived Port Harcourt the previous night and earlier in the day Sunday, May 6, 2017, had the privileged responsibility to shepherd by cousin Ijeoma, in the place of her father, my uncle, who passed on some three years ago, to the altar where she was handed in marriage to her husband, I had made up my mind to leave Port Harcourt early enough to be able to get to Uyo through the East West road. My worry was as a result of the sordid stories I heard on our way from Uyo, through the Azumini road to Port Harcourt the previous night, of terrible criminal activities along the East West road at night.
I left the wedding reception midway into the programme and arrived the motor park at the Waterline area at about 5 pm. The bus eventually left the park at about 5.30 pm. The driver insisted that we could make it past the dreaded Ogoni area along the East West road before dark.
But that was not to be, as we soon ran into a long traffic gridlock at Eleme that took us a whole two hours to get out. This time it was close to 8 pm.
In the bus, I sat firmly sandwiched between two women; one of them had three children who were all travelling courtesy of her one seat ticket. It was such a racket. But she was not the attraction on this journey. The attraction was a middle aged woman, who sat a seat in front of mine, who talked and talked until one of my women row mates, nicknamed her Pelican Beak. I didn’t ask her how she came about the name, but when I took another look at the talking woman’s mouth, I stifled a laugh because it reminded one of a whistling bird.
At some point during the long wait on the traffic jam, some hoodlums started manhandling a road user and the Pelican Beak did not find it funny. She screamed obscenities at the rampaging hoodlums. Some in the bus warned her not to attract the attention of the hoodlums to our bus, but she wouldn’t hear. She accused the rest of us in the bus of cowardice. She taunted us with her exploits at such occasions where abuses are perpetrated against another human. As if to buttress her rugged abilities, she switched code into Yoruba from Ibibio, to show her rugged Ajegunle or even Ajamgbadi toughness. She wondered why people around here do not dare.
I watched in amusement as she prattled away at anything that passes. At about 8.30 pm, we got to a police checkpoint. Our bus driver raced past the police even as he was being beckoned to stop. I shouted at the bus driver to stop and hear what the policemen had to tell him, but Pelican Beak would not hear anything of sort. She turned to me and challenged me to show what my interest was with policemen collecting money from road users. He warned the driver not to listen to police agents like me who would want the force to make illicit money. But my security experience told me that something was definitely wrong. I had noticed that we had travelled for more than 25 minutes without any vehicle coming from the opposite side. I voiced my thought but Pelican Beak came after me like a ferocious lion.
To her I was a non believer, a man without faith and probably a Jonah who ought to be thrown out of the bus for peace to rein. Ten minutes after the police checkpoint, a racing truck driver on the other side was frantically flashing us and applying his horn to attract our attention. It was at that point that the driver realised that robbers were operating some few poles from where we were.
A sharp turn and the race for life began. Madam Pelican Beak suddenly became quite. The entire bus burst into a frenzy of prayers. The bus became a church and the only word one could easily decider was “Jesus”. They chanted the name as if it were a talisman. Pelican started praying in Yoruba, but as if she sensed that her Ajegunle toughness was not going to be an acceptable code to God at such time she switched to Ibibio and prayed.
The woman beside me with three kids rummaged through her hand bag and brought out a bible and handed to her son. Her other kids, including the little one sleeping on her arm, were females. I looked with glee as the little boy looked at the bible with such wondering gaze and unspoken questions.
The other lady tapped me, “Oga, abi you carry money? Why not remove that suit? Na just advise o. These boys can do anything if they notice you look like someone that has money and you refuse to give them generously”. I had only a thousand naira and some pieces of smaller denominations, so I obeyed. I bundled the suit into the bag and pushed the bag further under the seat.
I watched as she removed the sim of her phone and inserted in into her holy of holies. She threw the phone under the seat and resumed her prayers.
Suddenly and without notice a vehicle was coming very close to us on the same wrong side of the road we were driving. Silence descended. Prayers became muffled. Then it happened. The sound was hardly audible. It was the hissing sound of a stifled “pollute”. The fart meant nothing to anybody. But the whiff of it silently travelled into nostrils. I looked around and met squeezed faces and twitching noses. Yet not a word was uttered.
Our bus raced on. As we approached the police checkpoint we had earlier disobeyed, the prayers resumed a decibel higher than when it all started. But we made it to the checkpoint and relief came when we noticed that the vehicle behind us was that of a police vehicle. By now the line of vehicles had stretched for more than one kilometre.
It snaked nearer in its slow majesty. The shout of joy rent the tasty silent night as a police armoured personnel carrier made its way to where the vehicles and their frightened passengers waited for salvation. Then the heroes arrived to the warm embrace of the almost victims of criminal gangs. The police officers became instant celebrities. Women hugged them, the men pumped hands in warm handshake.
Then the APC of the police took the lead and the other vehicles joined in a long convoy. It was like an army charge against enemy lines. As we moved closer to the checkpoint mounted by the robbers, fear descended again. Some were afraid because they had heard stories of policemen running away when confronted by superior firepower of criminals.
Some meters to the criminals, the unmistakeable rat-tata-tratata dry sound of AK 47 riffles rend the air. Panic took over the bus again. Madam Pelican, who was telling us of a story of how a vehicle crossed a robbery operation without being spotted by the robbers, ducked under the seats, and dropped a bag on top of herself, the bag she later explained, was supposed to save her from stray bullets.
The battle to clear the crime scene lasted for about 8 tense minutes and then, a sudden quite. The officers came down took away the materials used for the road block and released those being held down, many of them in various stages of undress.
It was a pathetic tales of inhumanity visited on innocent travelling public. But that night, the police took a new meaning and a new image among the troubled travellers. The police became instant friends and heroes.
When we crossed over to the Akwa Ibom side of the road, tension eased. Each police checkpoint we passed, grateful passengers in our bus had only but kind words for the officers. They now began to challenge a system that did not take care of policemen; a system that has left policemen living in the poorest barracks environment anywhere in the world.
Then the driver remembered and asked, “By the way, na who bin wan kill us with that kin pollute inside the bus?” It was at that point that they started to spit out of the bus windows and the laughter echoed after us as we made our way to Uyo.