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Column No.6: An ‘escape’ from Togo in retrospect (III)

Being used to the empty streets of Lome by now – save for the odd burning tyre, or two, or three – we half-expected to…

Being used to the empty streets of Lome by now – save for the odd burning tyre, or two, or three – we half-expected to see the highway deserted. There was minimal human presence, clear enough. We reached a stretch of road which went as far as my eyes could see, but all of it occupied by debris, including felled palm trees, burnt tyres and pieces of metal which looked like they used to be automobiles. We were so visibly downcast that our Okada men assured us that all would be fine. They spoke to each other in their native tongue, and diverted off the asphalt and onto a rough foot-path. We scooted on, while gunshots went off in the background. 

My Okada man, who told me his name was Temi, shook his head and asked me not to worry. His was a tough request, because we abruptly stopped in the middle of a group at least 15 young men, all brandishing cutlasses, clubs, sticks and rusty-looking knives. Temi and his colleague did the talking, and we ended up paying some money. As we rode off away from the vicious-looking villagers, it occurred to me that one of them kept asking me, “Igbo? Igbo?” when Temi told him we were Nigerian observers. I assumed it was either because it meant something in their language or he thought I was Igbo because of my light complexion. I shrugged it off.

After passing through at least three friendly (friendly, because no one waved any weapons in our direction) hamlets, we arrived one which had some really nasty looking thug-types who wanted our money or our blood, and said so in French so bad that my ego had time to trip. While Temi negotiated, fervently, for our free and safe passage, one of the nastier young men found his way beside me and our eyes locked. “Igbo!” he growled, assertively. I almost answered in the affirmative when I saw the dagger he clutched, but quickly decided to shake my head instead. As my newfound fiend continued to give me the evil-eye, Temi had made progress and I brought out money to which Akinjide added and we paid our way out of danger. At least, temporarily.

We rode on for what seemed like an eternity, and were eventually joined by three other motorcycles bearing people eager to escape to Hillakondji. We rode through sandy, rocky, muddy and grassy terrain, each with varying results. We crashed to the floor at least twice, as did Akinjide and his Okada man, with only a few bruises. We reached a small town just before Hillakondji and immediately noticed that its streets were deserted. We tried to drive through but were accosted by a handful of gendarmes in full uniform. They pointed their guns at us, but by then Temi had executed a U-turn of miraculous proportions and we sped off, zipping into a nearby corner. In the corner, an old man peeped through a cracked window and informed Temi that there had been some violent clashes which forced the imposition of a dusk-till-dawn curfew and a shoot-at-sight order. 

At that point, we (Akinjide and I) silently agreed that the road had come to an end and we would have to turn back. Temi and the other cyclist, however, had other plans. They took us along the coastline, just off the pristine sandy beaches which seemed to overlap into the breathtakingly beautiful aquamarine waters of the Atlantic Ocean. But we soon ran out of coastline and had to go back into ‘civilization’, as we were fast-approaching Hillakondji. This town, too, was deserted. We trundled on, uneventfully, until we took a sharp turn and ran into a patrol of gendarmes armed to the teeth. The gendarmes were positioned in a formation pretty much akin to that obtained at police highway checkpoints in Nigeria , where you find the usually fat officers-in-charge squatting, off the road in a corner while their minions do their dirty jobs for them.

In this case, the soldier who did the talking towered above us all, and scowled to further complicate his bovine looks. He looked down at us, literally, through bloodshot eyes and his muscular physique was intimidating, to say the least. The gendarme, whose nametag suggested was called Challa, mumbled something in what I can only describe as pidgin French, asking us to identify ourselves. I looked around quickly, noticing how the other three who stood by pointed shiny-looking AK47 rifles at me and my fellow ‘escapee’. I fumbled round my pockets while Akinjkide did so too, and I presented my accreditation card. He snatched the card off my hand and threw it to the ground. He eyed me closer and said, in English, “Give me money.”

Concluded next week

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