Opinion: How I survived police brutality

 

by Okwy Anazodo

Have you ever been faced by a mob of gun-toting strangers and you felt that in a few minutes you would be dead? Have you ever had reason to sleep in a police cell in Nigeria? Have you ever turned to God in your time of darkest sorrow and he showed up in an hour or two? Then let me tell you a story.

I was in my third year at the university and we were writing the second semester exams. It had rained that Friday and when I came up from the campus to my off-campus accommodation in the evening it was cold. There was no light and I couldn’t entertain myself with anything in my room. I could have stayed anyway and gisted with my lodge mates, but I had not spoken with my girlfriend for three days, and I felt an unusual urge to speak to her that evening. Now you must not misunderstand me. Ours was not the usual campus love affair. I loved her and she loved me, but she was this committed Christian type who would rather die than commit fornication. I remember holding her close to me some evenings and trying unsuccessfully to kiss her. She would always raise her hand at the last minute and place a finger on my lips to stop me. Well, this is a story for another day.

So I wanted to call her and there was no money in my phone. So I begged a friend with whom I lived in the lodge to come with me to a barbing salon, where I could buy a voucher. It was around seven, and the neighbourhood being ours since our first year, we had no reason to worry. At the barbing salon, you could get your hair shaved, buy phone vouchers, rent CDs. That evening it was a beehive, as no fewer than thirteen young people were in the shop waiting to have their hair cut, watching the Nollywood movie playing on the TV, chatting, laughing. I bought my card in less than a minute and stood aside in a corner to punch in the numbers into my phone. In another minute I would be gone with my friend, who had already stepped out and was waiting outside the salon.

I was still over the numbers, my eyes riveted on the screen of my mobile, when the noise of a sudden prolonged shooting mangled the calm cold air and I felt my heart jump through my mouth. When I looked up the shop was surrounded by men in black, red handkerchiefs tied round their heads, their cheerless guns long and heavy-looking and aimed levelly at us.

“Everybody lie down!” they were shouting. I had never had an encounter with the men of Special Anti-robbery Squad (SAS) before, and thought these were cultists. Cultists would open fire and shoot, so long as they had an enemy in the shop. Stories of their evil dealings were ever there for everyone to access. So I felt like hell, remembering all the sins I had committed since I was eleven in my village, when a housemaid took me to a bush, lay down on the grass and asked me to lie on top of her so she could teach me how to fight.

It’s true that I hadn’t been sinning as some of you university boys do, but I knew that if I died that evening St. Michael would not meet me at heaven’s gate with a smile, and no amount of tears would induce St. Peter to open the gate for me. We fell on our faces in panicked obedience, everyone in the salon, including the barber, who could not have been guilty of any crime. Then my heart which had almost died in my chest and felt lumpy in its comatose state began to stir again with hope and a vestige of life, when I realised that these were not actually cultists but police. In a single file they marshaled us out of the barbing shop to a waiting bus, and with the animosity with which the police deal with criminals carted us to Enugu from Nsukka. We were fifteen of us, one girl included, and I was especially consoled when I realised that my escort to the shop had not escaped the raid.

In the interval between having us registered in their books and pushing us, one person after another, off to their cells, I managed to send a message to one of our lodge mates, disclosing to him the news of our sudden plight and where we could be found. I realised right after I sent that message that it was important for one to always have money in one’s phone.

I was one of the last three persons sent off to the cell, and I am glad to testify that God began at once to show his favour to me. The cell I was taken to was already filled to a bursting point. A small ten by eight room, it held not less than twenty-five inmates. People sat with their legs drawn up so that their chins rested on their knees. This was the only way to stay peacefully there and not incur the wrath of the closest inmates by thrusting any part of yourself in their faces. But at the entrance where the chief of the inmates stayed, there was enough space for up to four people to lie with enough comfort. I met the chief here, a man others called IBB, and after he questioned me and took away the two hundred naira I had on me he asked me to sit next to him on the floor. To make this possible he moved one of the four people inhabiting this space deeper into the room, and waxed violent and disgruntled when the second-in-command tried to raise objection.

I was here from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. In that time I ate nothing and the inmates grew to like me because I ate nothing and therefore did not cause a reduction to their ration. They also liked me because unlike them I was going to school and had a future. I do not mean to relate that they had regular meal hours, or that their meals were paid for by the government. Every one of them was there on his own, but when a new inmate arrived with any money and the IBB took it away from him, they bought bread or rice or anything else with it and shared this meagerly among themselves until the purchase ran out. People who visited them sometimes gave them money too. The IBB took some of the money for himself and the inmates who had been visited would keep the rest and buy food with it. Every morning, a woman came carrying basins of food, which she was not ashamed to sell to them. This was her business.

That lodge mate of mine to whom I sent the message of our plight showed up the next morning, Saturday, at the police station. One day I will write about this young man. In the meantime, it is enough to say that he is an accomplished gentleman. A man loyal to his friends, dedicated to his duties, and can never be found idle or slothful, even to this day. His visit brought me out from the cell, and I would learn that the police had raided our off-campus neighbourhood because of the report made by the chiefs that the community was being oppressed by cultists. The police were aware by now that we were not the cultists they had come for. All the same, you did not get to be in a police cell and then get out again just like that, with no one showing up on your behalf with their hands full of money to bail you.

My lodge mate had asked how much. How much would it cost to bail someone? And the policeman handling the case said forty-five thousand. Forty-five what, he had shouted in his surprise. What for? And yet by this time the police, frightened by the calibre of people who had begun to show interest in the case, could not hold fast to their initial accusation that we were cultists. You could not raid a barbing salon and successfully brand people you found there as criminals. Their position was shaky and as they realised this by the hour, they were increasingly willing to negotiate. But Nigerian police being Nigerian police, their eyes were on a kill. This was their chance to make money, and they intended to do so remarkably.

My lodge mate had rallied round and raised fifteen thousand in a few hours. This he came to the station with, hoping it would help me and the other guy, but the policeman on the case would not even accept it for only me. He related all this to me and we sat there for a moment in quiet contemplation. It was Saturday morning. What would happen if this matter was not resolved by Sunday evening? I had an exam on Monday, but even that could not persuade me to part with forty-five thousand, which, sincerely speaking, I did not even have. My lodge mate left and I returned to my cell, tired, hopeless, afraid of what was ahead. He would come again the next day with the same fifteen thousand to resume his begging for me with the policeman.

By Sunday morning I was optimistic that the matter would be resolved before evening. Somehow news had reached us that our university authorities had got wind of our situation and were contacting the police local authority to vent their anger and demand our release. But by noon nothing had changed, and since no one had come to call me out from my cell, I was worried that even my lodge mate had abandoned me. This was the time when, on impulse, I turned to face the wall of my cellroom and sorrowfully unburdened my fears, my hunger and my helplessness onto God. I had never done anything like it before. Moved as I was by a desire for freedom, I cried quietly but persistently to God, begging him, and I said moving things to him which today I no longer remember.

In less than two hours a policeman came to my cell to announce my freedom. I came out behind him to meet my lodge mate at the reception area. The man had agreed to take the money, and freedom was mine again to have. He had arrived today at the station with more money, but when he sensed that the policeman had become suddenly willing to listen to him, he kept back the additional amount.

I went back to Nsukka with him, and the next day I was available for my exam, of which I made the highest grade when results came out. Of course an A. The rest of the people who went to the police station with me gained freedom the next day after the dean of students’ affairs went to the station himself. I was told that no money was paid to bail them, but this did not make me think less of what God had done for me.


Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

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