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How I was Detained in Tripoli

By Hakeem Babalola, Budapest, Hungary – Feb. 23, 2011 – Being a journalist or writer or blogger can be described as bitter-sweet. Even dangerous because governments, powerful organisations or power hungry individuals passionately detest truth; they usually frown at exposing their secrets and hypocrisy; they abhor the art of informing the masses which is a journalist’s primary function.

Our friends in power especially would do anything to censor a writer – to the point of detaining, jailing; even killing. Most of the time they see us as the opposition; a busybody to be eliminated! In such moments, it is courage and truth that always protect us.

However, the sweet thing about being a writer is this: everything that happens to you becomes a raw material – for a story. If you enjoy writing, there’s nothing – no matter how precarious – that has power to cow you. Courage and truth are the bedrock of our survival. Do you hear me? Perhaps only writers understand the feeling I’m unable to describe here.

Now let me go straight to the point. I was detained at the Tripoli airport on January 15. It’s not that I fear being questioned or detained. As a writer/citizen journalist, I think I have passed that stage. Yes, stay away from the kitchen if you can’t withstand heat. Do you get my gist?

Of course, immigration has the right to question and detain any passenger suspected of being a “threat”. That perhaps is one of the immigration numerous jobs. I don’t have problem with this, especially in these days of our Lord when almost every passenger is a potential terrorist ready to blow up an aircraft or airport. What is our world turning to?

We were three from Hungary invited by the Libyan government to attend the Historical Conference of African Migrants in Europe. One is a human rights activist and the other an NGO volunteer. They are both naturalized Hungarian holding EU passports. 

As soon as we arrived, a man was waiting for us at the airport to ferry us to our hotel. The man collected our passports and asked us to sit. He took our passports to the immigration for clearance. After going up and down with our passports for about an hour, the man returned. “Who is Hakeem?” he asked without concealing the reason for the question.

I gestured.

“You have to wait,” he said as the two followed him passed the immigration. I again held my ritual soliloquy in such situation. “Ehenhe, what’s wrong with my green passport”, I muttered – indignantly.

Now you see, every man to his own palaver. None of the two looked back to protest on my behalf. Do you blame them? Who knows whether illicit drugs had been found in my luggage! Who knows whether my passport was forged! And who knows if I had bomb planted in my torso. I beg, never trust even your brother o.

Dear reader, I am used to my green passport being thoroughly checked at airports, especially at Ferihegy in Budapest (though such tense interrogation it seems is no more, for no one demanded for my passport at Ferihegy on my way to and from Libya). 

During the two hours I sat, I kept thinking that my green passport had disgraced me – again. Meanwhile I found consolation in the following sentiment: 

“But I love my green passport though I may dislike different Nigerian governments that had ruled the country.  My green passport is all what I have – no matter what anyone may think. I cherish it like I cherish a benevolent and visionary leader. I cherish it like I now cherish Brother Leader Gaddafi”. (This is a story on its own).

Oh, I was wrong. I was not detained because of my green passport. But on my return it was an issue – a minor-minor issue. It started when the immigration officer asked me what sounded like a rhetorical question. “Do you mind if I photocopy your passport?” He asked as if he was giving me an option. “I mind”. “Then I have to delay you”. “It’s okay with me”. He took me to his office. “Sir, Libya doesn’t have problem with Nigerian passport but Rome always demand we copy every Nigerian passport passing through Rome. We have problem with the Chinese and Turkish”. “What kind of problem?” “Forged and passports destroyed during flights….”

So after two hours, I fired up. I had wanted to know my offence, but no one spoke English or rather pretended not to. I was really getting pissed off. What could the matter be? I mean, I was invited by the Libyan government (with free air ticket, accommodation and meal) but here I was being detained without anyone able to tell me the exact reason.

“Oh, Libya”, I thought, “and the conference is about how African immigrants in Europe should be treated with dignity”. I did not dwell much on the irony of the situation. 

However it got to a point that I told myself that I should just shun the conference and return to my dearest Budapest. But oh boy that was me talking not the writer in me. The writer in me would not allow me. It said, “You must be fuc-ing stupid to get annoyed at this stage. Which yeye writer you be self! A good and experience writer usually turns an ugly situation to handsome situation…

Na the writer in me I listened to o jare 

But I had to confront the immigration. Confront? No, I just wanted someone to explain things to me. Let them read my charge to me. Let them tell me my crime. Now now.

When they could not tolerate my demand to know my offence anymore, they tried hard to find someone who could explain things to me in Queens Elizabeth language. If I had known as a young boy, I would have listened to my parents who did their best to make sure I studied Arabic. I had preferred the British colonialism to Arab one.Yeparipa

When the interpreter came and the two immigrations on duty spoke to him, he turned to me and asked in a tone that sounded friendly – very friendly. “Are you a journalist?”


“That is why. That is why”

I understood but did I really understand? I embraced the interpreter to his own shock. Hum, I was being detained because I am one of the “necessary evils” and not because of my green passport and not because someone had planted something in my luggage. Ah, ah. It was a sigh of relief, my brother. 

“But I am a guest of Gaddafi,” I said, breaking the long silence.

“Brother leader,” he corrected me after which he said, “Yes, but only the director of the immigration can allow a journalist in”. 

“And where is the director of the immigration?”

His smile answered that subtle question

Mr. Director of Immigration would not come until 08.00. Of course I was somehow enjoying myself now having ascertained it was not my green passport that had responsible for my delay/detention. 

As we sat on a bench, the interpreter who is a supervisor introduced himself as Obama and quickly added, not Osama Bin Laden. We both cracked jokes over that.

Man, it was getting to 03.30 since 23.30 I had arrived. I was already jet lagged.

Obama asked me to follow him to the VIP lounge but I refused though I took his offer of bottled water. I wanted to see more of what was going on – more raw materials. We talked and talked and Obama apologised for the inconvenience and joked that I should not write about the incident. “You know you journalists can write about anything,” he said jokingly. “We fear you people”. 

Fear? Respect should be the word. En, respect begets respect. “That I will never promise anybody,” I joked in return. We laughed and laughed.

At exactly 08.00, the big boss came to me and also offered his apology but without saying point-blank that I had been detained for nine good hours because of my profession. He took me to where a taxi was waiting to take me to the BAB AL BAHR HOTEL, one of the places that accommodated delegates.

My ride from the airport to the venue of the conference hooked me to Gaddafi’s system. The road was smooth. I marvelled at the yet to be completed buildings but already fixed with electricity and water. The houses I gathered were being built for the citizens – free of charge (Another story for another day).

I raised the issue of my detention at the conference and a man who introduced himself as the Speaker of the parliament also apologised. He asked me some questions I found interesting. 

“Do you have Israeli’s visa in your passport? No, “Have you ever being to Israel?” No. “There must be a mix up…We would investigate”. There was no need for that, for I already knew why I was detained. He gave me his name card.

During my detention, my eyes had caught a big inscription at the airport in both Arabic and English: YOU ARE NOT A WAGE WORKER; YOU ARE A PARTNER. It was this inscription and the standard of living in Libya and Brother Leader Gaddafi’s ethic to keep Libya’s money in Libya that now earn him my profound respect despite my 9 hours airport detention.

Libya is a system of its own as Pat Hill, African American Police League, a delegate who said they too were detained for six hours despite the fact that it was not their first time in Tripoli.

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