Just a few weeks ago, we woke up to the viral video of two Nigerian military men, men who are charged with protecting our national interest and national borders from external coercion and intrusion, mercilessly beating a crippled man because he was putting on a Nigerian military camouflage. There have been numerous cases of the army, police and other paramilitary officers harassing, torturing, embarrassing and, to a vicious extent, killing poor and innocent civilians. Civilians they are charged with protecting, the irony of life.
I have always heard people narrate their harrowing experiences at the hands of antagonistic uniforms, who use the weight of their positions to harass them. These incidents have become a norm in our country, as part of our everyday living as fuel scarcity and increased market prices.
And one day, just a few days ago, I had my own story to tell.
I was on my way back to school from Asaba (my school is in Igbariam, Anambra State). Because of bulky luggage, I chartered a keke to drop me off at the park in Asaba, where I would board a bus going to Onitsha. I had about three bags bursting with my school things.
We were still in the vicinity of my house, just about two minutes into the journey, when an officer of the Special Armed Robbery Squad (SARS) stopped my keke at their checkpoint. The man, a red-eyed, skinny man with a gawkish face, who looked more like a newly castrated bull than anything paramilitary, told me he wanted to search my items. He started with my school bag; he opened the biggest zipper, brought out my neatly arranged shoes and scattered them on the floor of the vehicle. Then he pulled open the smallest zipper, where I had my toothbrush and other body kits, and rifled through the lot.
He was going to hold my toothbrush by the bristles when I gently admonished, “Oga, take it easy. You don’t hold someone’s toothbrush by the bristles. It’s unhygienic.”
In that instant, his countenance changed. He became hostile and ordered me to carry my entire luggage down from the keke, all the while hissing at me, “Na me you dey speak grammar for, abi?”
I paid him no mind as I alighted hefted my things down from the keke. He proceeded to pour out the content of my mini traveling bag on the dusty, tarred ground. I tried to control my rage as I watched my white shorts and T-shirts drop to the dusty road. He simply poured out everything to the ground, and when he was done, he went on to the Ghana-must-go, which contained my provisions and cooking condiments. To this, he did the same thing, spilling every single thing in the bag on the ground – these items that I would use to prepare my food.
When he was through, he stood aside and stupidly watched as I packed in everything he displaced, from my shoes to my toothbrush and bathing sponge to my clothes and provisions. I diligently packed everything back into my bags, all the while hoping the harassment would end there.
When I was through, the next thing I heard was, “Bros, oya follow me make we go our car!”
I was instantly petrified. I can’t even begin to explain the feelings that coursed through me in that moment. I thought to myself: Haven’t you done your worst already?
I followed him, crossing to the other side of the road where the SARS official vehicle was parked; behind the driver’s wheel was seated another man whose complexion could be better described as a splash of colour on a palette than an actual skin colour. My harasser moved to the back of the van and sat down on the metal convertible. He looked at me, smiled and said, “Oya, give me your phone.”
I had two phones on me, my android and my Nokia torch. I looked at him quizzically, to be sure I’d heard him correctly. He saw my expression, stood up and repeated what he said, this time with a voice that was coloured with his annoyance.
My heart was starting to beat faster as I felt my defiance take purchase of my mind. I shook my head at him and told him without any flinch – in pidgin, just so he could get the message: “Oga I no go try am. Even if craze jam me, e no jam me reach like that.”
He reared back, clearly nonplussed by my response. Then he snarled something in a dialect I didn’t know and lunged at me. He grabbed the collar of my shirt and started pulling at me, ripping my shirt in the process. He was spitting his anger at me, repeatedly demanding for my phone.
I stood my ground and told him, “Oga, you have no right to search my phone. It is ethically, morally and legally wrong. You just can’t. I won’t let you have my phone.” My face was hot and my heartbeat was thudding hard behind my chest. I could taste bile in my mouth, and my temperature was rising.
The man started laughing. He looked at me, that look that people give you when they feel you are being stupid, and then he said, “Na me you dey speak English for? For your information, I am a graduate myself. So don’t play that game with me.”
I watched him as he spoke, my disdain for him heavy on my face. Graduate indeed! I wondered what had brought about being a graduate into this matter. If his English could be personified, it would be the trinity of an illiterate Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo man. Such nuisance for a self-proclaimed graduate! I had never felt as much rancor for a human being as I felt for this man.
He started yelling that I was a kidnapper, that I have something to hide, that that was the reason I was insistent that he wouldn’t have my phone.
Me – a kidnapper! If the situation wasn’t so serious, I’d have laughed in his face. Instead, I asked, “Please oh, what are the criteria for knowing who a kidnapper is?” I was puzzled. I never knew they taught optical forensic psychology that helps the detection of kidnappers at sight in the law enforcement academy. I just stood there, looking at the man as he kept on saying I was a kidnapper. In my mind, I was like: see this mumu, you call yourself a graduate, what a pity.
I should also point out that I’d repeatedly told this man I was a student, and he never asked me to present an ID. He was just hell-bent on tagging me a kidnapper. We brawled for some minutes, before the oddly-complexioned man in the driver’s seat of the vehicle hollered for us to come around to him. We moved to obey. He seemed like the captain. He asked me what the problem was and I narrated the entire episode to him, up to the phone mishap. He listened with a patience I thought made him human. His interjections during my narration were calm and level-headed and I sensed an ally. I was actually starting to like him.
That benevolent feeling vanished when he said softly, “Oga, just submit the phone. It is part of the process.”
What process? Process my ass, I thought. You people are going to enter menopause today if you are waiting for this phone.
We started arguing and I started unleashing every verbal arsenal I could think of. At a point, I was surprised at how anglicized I was becoming. I started quoting constitutional clauses and passages; my Law 342 classes weren’t for waste. We argued for about forty minutes; this included me being pushed severally, being repeatedly hit on the back, and at one time knocked on the head.
Eventually, the captain said to the other man, “Abeg, leave this one make him go. Him don too read.”
The other man shoved me as I moved to the spot where I’d dropped my luggage. I proceeded to check and recheck my bags, to make sure nothing was missing and nothing illegal had been slipped in when I wasn’t aware (you can never be too sure with these pigs). I looked at their faces to memorize the ugly features, and searched for their name tags, but found none. They were just clad in dirty, faded T-shirts.
As I returned to the keke driver, who’d been waiting patiently for my ordeal to be over, I was really upset. Angry. Emotional. Shaken. As I clutched my phone and boarded the keke, I told the driver to take me back home. I was too upset to travel. As he wheeled around and drove off, I blinked and tears began to course down my face. I had never felt this vulnerable and helpless in my life before, in spite of the bravado I put up. I knew then that the bullying and intimidation by men of the force over innocent civilians was real. And it will remain so, a cankerworm eating steadily away at our rights as human beings and denizens of this country, unless we learn to come against them.
We should never be in a haste whenever we get to a checkpoint; show them you have as much time to stand up to them as they obviously have to waste. We should never bribe these men even when we know we are right and they are wrong. We should never be timid or flinch in the face of these harassments. And above all, we should all know our rights – where it starts and where it ends. Knowledge is power. Know what to do and more often than not, you come out on top.
Written by Hilanzok