Let me tell you something about my maternal grandfather, Ndumma. He was a nurse in the colonial civil service and worked in Umuahia, Bida, Aba, Enugwu, Manfe and Bamenda. You won’t find the latter two towns on a current map of Nigeria. You’ll have to look across the border in Southern Cameroons, which was administered as part of Nigeria in Grandpa’s time.

Terminal Illness approached Ndumma politely, waiting at the door of the family house while he finished his dinner. As the chains fell upon him, as the pain sank into him, he saw the path of Freedom leading down to the Land of the Ancestors: it was time to die. Yet, there was no hurry: this was no heart attack. He could stay as long as he could bear the pain. Terminal Illness tarried patiently with him every painful step of the rest of the way.

He was a polygamist, my grandfather. In the early 1950s, he had fallen in love for the third and final time in Southern Cameroons. When the transfer to Enugwu came through, his third wife’s new baby, Ify, was still too young for the trip. Mother and child were left with the in-laws for a season. That season became a lifetime and Grandpa never saw his youngest daughter again. He died in October 1963, a few days before I was born.

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Blood rocks, though. Half a century after Grandpa left Bamenda, Ify, spoored her father back to her siblings, and cannons of welcome thundered in Ahaba. She is now a frequent visitor to her kin in Nigeria.

A Ghostly Gatecrasher

Recently, we retraced Grandpa’s journey from Ahaba to Bamenda in time for his granddaughter’s wedding. I have no idea how the old man came to go along. He probably overheard us planning the trip, for his grave is not a dozen feet from the Ndumma family house.

At 5 295 feet above sea level, Bamenda lies almost halfway to Heaven. By road, it is a scenic 10-hour and 600-kilometre drive, with some inspirational views as the road climbs the eastern flank of Cameroon’s Western High Plateau. In Grandpa’s time, the journey could have taken a week, but the completion of the Enugwu-Bamenda section of the Trans-African Highway has shaved the travelling time. All told, the trip should have been a breeze, but we arrived well past midnight after an early start. The journey remains my worst road trip on record.

I wish there was a more polite way to phrase this, but nothing prepares the traveller for the journey from the border post at Ekok through Mamfe and Widikum to Bamenda. Nigerian checkpoint policeman do their best, though: scanning your car and papers with a scowl, until they find a broken taillight, or bylaw, then they smile and wait for the bidding to begin. The uniformed armed robbers on the road to Bamenda have no use for subtlety. There is a flat, eye-watering bribe on every foreign passport, which the taxi driver announces as we approach their checkpoint. As the midnight hour approaches, there is also menace in the air, fuelled by their ability to escalate a stubborn traveller into a Boko Haram suspect.

The extortion started at the border post at Ekok. ‘Does President Paul Biya know what you’re doing here?’ I asked the uniformed extortionist who was fronting the racket.

‘Go and tell him, na,’ she sneered, ‘Is he not the one that sent us here?’

Some months ago I did a reading at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan, after which Jean-Marie Teno’s film Chief! was screened. I remember the shock on the faces of the students as they realised that the Cameroonian dictator of the 1990s – before they were born – was still in office, marking his 35th unbroken year as president in his ninth decade of life.

‘How is this even possible?’ they asked.

At Manfe, we changed taxis, spending an hour in the town of Aunt Marian’s birth on her first visit since. Soon we were Bamenda-bound, re-enacting Grandpa Ndumma’s 70-year-old travels in Cameroon. My aunt Marian had aged well and was constantly being mistaken for my wife, much to her irritation. (I’m practically his mum!) I couldn’t help imagining how much had changed, and how much remained the same. The road was infinitely better, the policing probably worse.

You don’t need ghosts for a war of liberation. You need balls

I imagined Grandpa Ndumma on a week’s vacation from The Land of the Ancestors to attend the wedding of his granddaughter. I imagined him astonished at the polish of the vehicle we were travelling in, and the finish of the road we were travelling on… then we rolled up to the first of the uniformed marauders and I did not have to imagine his consternation: He had died in 1963, soon after Nigerian and Cameroonian independence, when optimism was at its peak, before the body shock of Biafra, before the head shock of Boko Haram.

‘Chumamma, son of Nwaefuluno, daughter of mine, what is this I’m seeing?’

‘How do you mean, Papa Nnukwu?’

‘Are these not the soldiers of an occupation army?’

‘It is a sovereign police, Papa Nnukwu, not an occupation army. The Gendarmes …’

‘Don’t lie to me! A sovereign police does not loot her own people! It was not even like this when I came here in the 1950s, under British occupation!’

I was silent. He had not spoken to close the conversation, but there was nothing else to say. The taxi sped up to the next toll point. Once again we were extorted. The faces of the uniformed ambassadors of Cameroon were flinty with mercantilist greed. As we drove into the night, a fellow traveller recalled how, when the borders were closed on account of the Boko Haram threat, the going bribe had been the CFA equivalent of N30 000 per passenger. My head echoed with the agitations of Anglophone Cameroon for cultural self-determination and the steel-gloved responses from the central government that threw demonstrators into detention cells, exile and early graves.

‘The Looting of Benin,’ whispered Grandpa. ‘1897. Colonialism, looting and killing go hand in hand. Tell me the truth: Was this country re-colonised?’

‘No, Papa Nnukwu!’ I insisted, feeling a strange obligation to defend the 21st century from the disappointment of an ancestor born in the 19th.

‘Was it the Germans?’ his voice was distressed, ‘I thought that after Hitler’s war…’

‘No, Papa Nnukwu, these new… colonists wear our skin. They are Africans, like you and I.’

‘How did they succeed where European armies failed? Are you all sleeping?’

I was a teen again, chastened by grandparental rebuke. A pain worse than the preemptive Hell of Terminal Illness racked my grandfather as he realised that the liberation of the 1960s was a lie, and he had left his children in a captivity worse than anything he had experienced.

‘Wait, Papa Nnukwu!’

‘For what?’ His voice was flat, joyless. ‘You don’t need ghosts for a war of liberation. You need balls.’

‘We go to wed today,’ I said, ‘not to war.’

He seemed to weigh the pleasure of meeting his descendants against the depression of a prison visit and looked at me with pity: ‘There are no parties in prison, Chumamma, dreamy son of Nwaefuluno.’

Then he expired for the second time, and we sped lonely into the night.

President-Jailors think like prison wardens and treat their citizens like prisoners

The Prison as Matrix

Several days later, on our journey back to Ahaba, we stopped our taxi at a village near Ogoja, Nigeria, to buy some sun-dried fish. It was less aromatic than its smoked equivalent, but had a crispiness that was all its own. ‘Beautiful bride, she was,’ murmured my grandpa over my shoulder.

I turned around. ‘I thought you didn’t do prison visits.’

‘We’re standing in prison, Chumamma, son of Nwaefuluno, daughter of mine. Open your eyes.’

I looked around, at the mud huts by the roadside, at the women with a dozen yams for sale and a lifestyle that hadn’t changed much in centuries. They were chained securely by poverty, but seemed content enough. Like children born in prison who had never tried to leave; who did not know they were prisoners too. ‘The Poverty Prison?’

He shook his head impatiently. ‘Who’s the longest serving president in the world?’

‘Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo,’ I said, feeling quite the bright grandchild, ‘of Equatorial Guinea.’

‘What was his job before he became President?’

I hesitated. Where was this going? ‘Chief Warden…’ I trailed off.

‘This whole continent is a prison,’ he said, ‘do you have to be an ancestor to see it?’ He was still speaking quietly, but his emotion boiled over abruptly, short-circuiting his borrowed life, and he gave up the ghost for the third and final time.

I tried to see it. Most of our borders were inked on paper in Berlin between 1884 and 1886 to facilitate an orderly colonial exploitation. Were they now merely prison walls facilitating the exploitation by chief jailors of their private prisons?

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Three things I remembered clearly from 1979: I enrolled to study law at the University of Nigeria on a four-year-course; a former headmaster, Shehu Shagari, became the president of Nigeria on a four-year-term; and a former chief prison warden, Teodoro Obiang, executed his uncle in Black Beach Prison to replace him as president.

Four years later, in 1983, I left university on schedule, Shehu Shagari was evicted from State House on schedule, and Obiang retired from office to become a respected elder statesman… OK, I tell a lie here: President Obiang remains in office, 38 years afterwards, the world’s longest-serving executive head of state, with Africa’s Presidents Paul Biya, Robert Mugabe and Yoweri Museveni as runners-up.

I considered President Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo, who seemed to have been prepared for his role as the world’s most successful life president by his last job in the 1970s as governor and torturer-in-chief of the notorious Black Beach Prison. President-Jailors think like prison wardens and treat their citizens like prisoners. They put down civil demonstrations as ruthlessly as they do prison riots. They imprison the minds of citizens as securely as their bodies, even at the cost of extensive school closures and Internet shutdowns, for darkness in the land makes a firefly in State House look like a blinding sun. They keep their prisoners on the breadline, for people worrying about their next meals have no time to agitate for good governance.

I shut my eyes.

Our Jailors had approached us politely, waiting patiently at the door of the family house for flag independence and the departure of the first colonists. As their chains fell upon us, as the pain sank into us, we were taught that Freedom lay only in The Land of the Ancestors. We were lost precisely because we believed we were lost. There was no outrage: this was no foreign slavery, this was ours, home-grown. Those of us with the potential to be freedom fighters took the cowardly career of prison wardens instead, and imbecilised our diplomas and PhDs. For salaries, longer cars, more powerful uniforms, we plucked out our own eyes, we became deaf mutes. We defended our slave masters against our flesh and blood. Like the occupation army on the road to Bamenda, our Jailors had made us all, in our little corners, wardens, supervisors of slaves, policing and extorting fellow prisoners, every painful step of our journeys home…

I opened my eyes. ‘I’m awake now, Papa Nnukwu.’