I stood in the dark, dingy cell – a tiny space that was drenched with the smell of urine, foul air and sweaty bodies – and I was clad in my native trousers, which was turned inside out with my singlet. I could hear one of the suspects preaching the word of God in a thin soft voice. I looked out through the single window that faced the outside, while rubbing my left cheek. It still stung from the hot slap I got earlier from the aboki Mopol. I squinted at the stars dotting the night sky, tried counting them, anything to take my mind off my predicament. I had being brought in and detained along with nineteen others, all of us so-called suspects. The arrest had been swift, and I felt my mind beset with bewilderment over how I landed myself in this mess.
EARLIER ON . . .
A purported robbery had taken place forty five minutes earlier in my neighbourhood. The word on the street was that a top government official of Lagos State had being robbed and shot at gunpoint. The man had been a regular nocturnal visitor of a brown duplex down the road occupied by a mulatto chick, obviously his mistress. As a result of the violent act, the OP MESA and NPF security operatives were out in full force, sweeping down on my area and picking questionable characters from the streets. There was no room for explanations or ‘Abeg officer…’ or any cause to identify oneself as the arrests were made.
That Friday had been its usual casual, dress-down day at work. However, by noon, I started feeling feverish. I declined oga’s directive to go home and rest. I had my reasons; because it was Friday, the local mosque in my area would be having the Jumat service, and the noise from their speakers was capable of worsening my precarious health condition. I decided that on my way home, I would get malaria drugs from the nearby pharmacy.
Curled up in my seat, I glanced through certain files and law reports to take my mind off the thoughts about my health. Suddenly feeling pressed, I got up and made to go to the gents from my cubicle. I was suddenly struck by a wave of dizziness and I tripped and tottered to the ground. My mortification was complete as colleagues rushed to my side.
“Berthram, what’s wrong with you . . .?”
“Your temperature is high o. . .”
“You might be having fever. . .”
“Eiyaa, your glasses even broke o, Berty,” someone said, handing me the damaged spectacles, as I was helped to my feet.
I stifled the agitation that mounted on top my mortification. With my glasses broken, my poor eyesight was going to be a bit of a problem for me. I could barely make out what was in front of me without my glasses. And I couldn’t do anything about it until the following Monday, when I would be able to get it fixed at the optician’s.
The hours sped by after that incident, and soon closing time came upon us. I left the office amidst the hustle and chatter of my colleagues who were all making plans for the weekend. I was feeling too ill to focus on what the weekend had in store for me. By the time I got to the bus stop close to my area, the evening had stretched its gloomy blanket across the sky, and lights winked at me through windows and doors and verandahs. I stopped by the pharmacy and purchased my drugs.
As I walked home, I couldn’t help noticing how unusually quiet and calm my neighbourhood was. That was strange for a Friday night in an area that had joints and kiosks littered here and there. I couldn’t be bothered though to enquire from any familiar face I passed on the road as to the reason why this was so. My head was pounding and my body aching too much for me to concern myself with anything other than getting home and getting some rest. I pushed on toward home, squinting hard with eyes rendered useless without my glasses.
And just then, a harsh, bright halogen light from a torch was turned on in my face, sufficiently blinding me. Provoked by the thoughtless action and spurred by the irritation I’d been feeling all day, I snapped, “Who is this idiot that’s shining that torch in my face?! Are you mad? Comot that light from my face, my friend –!”
Before I was done fuming – SAWAAAAM! – I received an anointing in the form of a ringing slap on my left cheek.
It was followed by a gruffly-uttered “Na your fada you dey curse, idiot!”
I heard the sound of a gun getting cocked. And the same voice growled, “Wallai! Just try run, I go blow-scatter your head for here sharp-sharp! Sarge, we don cash one of dem for hia o!”
My head was reeling, and confusion swamped inside me. What was going on? Who were these people? Armed robbers, robbing this early in the evening? Nawa o, nothing wey person no go see for this Lagos.
Before I could give voice to my bewilderment, I was violently shoved to the ground.
“If I hear one word from you bah, I wii kiiii you yan’zunan!” This came from a snarling voice that had a strong Hausa intonation speak.
I chanced a look upward, and squinted hard to make out my environment. I saw a Toyota Hilux van drive by, with people huddled together in it. The van bore the inscription, ‘OP MESA’. I looked to my other side to see another similar vehicle parked nearby. A bright light from another torch hit my face. I flinched away from it, lifting a hand to cover my face.
“Kai nyamiri! You no dey pear worh bah?” The Hausa guy thundered. “I will blow your bloody brains out! Comon hands up! Shehgeh!” He was stomping toward me.
“No vex! No vex, officer!” I hollered. “I am sorry, sir!”
He stopped, hissed and gave orders that ‘we’ be loaded into the van and taken to the station. “You! Oya, hold your fellow criminal by the belt! Hold!
I jejely got to my feet. Someone held me by the belt, while the light of the torch directed me to the next person. We were quickly bundled into a waiting KAI truck and driven to the Police Command. Minutes later, I was thrown inside the cell.
I could not believe what was happening to me. I had suddenly been reduced to nothing. I couldn’t exercise my legal higgi-hagga or legalous swagger that had, in former times, played a role in securing freedom for detainees/criminals. I had been ‘Tafar’ed’ and humbled. Miraculously, my temperature hadn’t worsened, but I couldn’t feel my face, and my eyes were swollen from the aftermath of the anointing slap.
And somehow, I managed to pass the night in the stink hole without losing my mind.
The next morning, the sound of loud footsteps approaching the cell was what woke me. A policeman soon came into view. Banging his baton against the cell bars, he roared, “Oya, oya! Make una comot in threes; make una hold the person for your front!”
We were led out into the large parade ground of the State Police Command. Four Hilux vans drove into the compound in a haze of dust. The next few minutes were spent with an exchange of salutes and shouts. Doors banged. Boots stamped on the ground. And orders and cross-orders were fired this way and that.
There was a certain tension in the air, as though they were reacting to some pressure to produce culprits for the crime of the shooting. “No member of the media should be let into the premises until I am done here!” a senior officer barked as he strolled into our full view.
He came to a stop before us and rested a hard stare on us.
He had just opened his mouth to start speaking when I immediately raised my hand and hollered, “Sir – excuse me, sir! Good morning, sir…”
Someone from behind me slapped my hands down and hissed, “You dey craze?” It was a police officer. The voice sounded like it belonged to the one who harassed me yesterday night. “Area Commander wan talk you dey talk? You don dey mad, abi? If I slap you, eh? Comon shuttup dia!”
But like Zechariah in the bible, I refused to be cowed. I ignored him and shouted louder, “Espirite d’corp, sir! I demand to speak and be heard in the spirit of fair hearing as ascribed in the constitution!”
The silence that greeted my words was complete. I could feel the burning stares of both police and my fellow cellmates. Even the senior officer’s expression had turned from impatience to a wary puzzlement. I could almost hear him thinking what sort of person I was and if I would be any trouble to him and his investigation. He gave a quick wave of his hand, gesturing me to speak.
And speak I did. I spoke of my travails from yesterday, starting from my ill health to my forceful arrest. I let my indignation seep into my words. I fumed a little, not too much, but I let my assertion show. My legalous swagger was finally on display, and there was no quenching the flow of my legal higgi-hagga. I was a Nigerian who knew his rights, and – By God! – I wanted them respected.
By the time I was done, the officer had on a great look of discomfiture, and the glare he stabbed his men with seemed to say: You had to arrest a lawyer, una dey craze?! The man gave my shoulder a condolent pat, all the while offering me his ‘sincerest apologies, on behalf of his men and the NPF.’ He was an ACP in charge of Operations. He asked me to step aside and be taken to his office. My self-satisfaction was complete when he berated the DPO who led the sting operation.
I was checked up at the police clinic and thereafter, had to turn down the ACP’s offer to have me dropped off at home. I just wanted to have this entire episode put behind me. I cared less for the other detainees in the parade ground, and tried not to look in their direction, not to notice their long faces as I made my way out of the compound. Once beyond the gates, I took in a deep breath, letting my relief fill me with the inhalation. And with it came the awareness that in spite of my career as a legal officer, I had finally stepped on the other side of the coin.
Written by B.O. Okoji