On the way home from the airport, at the roundabout of Ikeja bus stop, where the late afternoon rush makes the traffic snarl, we come to a complete standstill. Not more than twenty yards away from us, under the overpass, two policemen bicker. “Go away,” one yells at his partner. “Why you always dey stand here? Why you no go stand that side?” He points to the far side of the roundabout. For a moment, it seems as if the other offi cer sees the sense in the suggestion, but he is slow about carrying it out because the disagreement has by now attracted stares from pedestrians. He is reluctant to lose face. Both men are slim and dark, in gray- black uniforms, with machine guns slung over their shoulders. They stand confused and silent like a pair of ac- tors who have forgotten their lines. A crowd of commuters gawks at them from a safe distance.
Aunty Folake explains what is going on. Policemen routinely stop drivers of commercial vehicles at this spot to demand a bribe. The officer being told off has drifted too close to his colleague’s domain. Such clustering is bad for business: drivers get angry if they are charged twice. All this takes place under a billboard that reads “Corruption Is Illegal: Do Not Give or Accept Bribes.”
And how much of the government’s money, I wonder, was siphoned off by the contractor who landed the contract for those billboards?
It is one thing to be told of the “informal economy” of Lagos, and quite another to see it in action. It puts pressure on everybody. Some fifteen minutes before we reached Ikeja bus stop, we had passed a toll gate on Airport Road. It, too, was in the shadow of a large billboard condemning corrupt practices and urging citizens to improve the country. The toll at the booth was set at two hundred naira: this was advertised and understood. However, enterprising drivers, such as ours, know that they can get through the toll gate if they pay just half of that. The catch is that the hundred naira they pay goes straight into the collector’s purse. “Two hundred you get ticket stub,” our driver says, “one hundred you get no ticket. What do I need ticket for? I don’t need ticket!” And in this way, thousands of cars over the course of a day would pay the toll at the informal rate, lining the pockets of the collectors and their superiors. The demand from the immigration officer, the Ikeja police, the toll booth story: I encounter three clear instances of official corruption within forty- five minutes of leaving the airport.
Even before I get home that night, though, I see other ways of thinking about these exchanges of money. We stop at Ogba to buy bread. Ogba is some way past Ikeja, at the end of Agidingbi Road. On the way into the shop a doorman salutes us and holds the door open. When we leave the building a few minutes later, he follows us for twenty yards as we move toward the car, and asks for a tip. It is not a demand: it is soft. He does it with the gentleness of someone explaining something to a child.
— Do you have anything for me, sir?
He wears an off- white security guard’s uniform and carries no weapon. When my aunt shakes her head, he shakes his head apologetically, smiles, and melts away. When we get to the car, a thin woman in tattered buba and iro approaches us and says she wants some money for transportation to get home. I don’t see her approach, actually; she is just suddenly there, in front of me. She is small and looks ill. A small woman without a name: she is a part of what lies behind the gleaming merchant banks, the posh eateries, the luxury cars. The people who are suddenly there, the many who live off these small gifts.
Night descends with no warning. I am breathing the air of the city for the fi rst time in a decade and a half, its white smoke and ocher dust which are as familiar as my own breath. But other things, less visible, have changed. I have taken into myself some of the assumptions of life in a Western democracy— certain ideas about legality, for instance, certain expectations of due process— and in that sense I have returned a stranger. What the trip back from the airport makes me think, and what is confirmed over the course of the following days, is the extent to which Lagos has become a patronage society.
Money, dished out in quantities fitting the context, is a social lubricant here. It eases passage even as it maintains hierarchies. Fifty naira for the man who helps you back out from a parking spot, two hundred naira for the police officer who stops you for no good reason in the dead of night, ten thousand for the clearing agent who helps bring your imported crate through customs. For each transaction, there is a suitable amount that helps things on their way. No one else seems to worry, as I do, that the money demanded by someone whose finger hovers over the trigger of an AK- 47 is less a tip than a ransom. I feel that my worrying about it is a luxury that few can afford. For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms— the categories are fluid— is not thought of in moral terms. It is seen either as a mild irritant or as an opportunity. It is a way of getting things done, neither more nor less than what money is there for.
Cash has to change hands, that’s the way of the world.
Excerpted from EVERY DAY IS FOR THE THIEF by Teju Cole Copyright © 2014 by Teju Cole. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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