Gboyega Olateju could not contain his joy on the evening of July 6, 2018 when his long-awaited car finally arrived from the United States of America. A red 2012 Toyota Camry, he had bought the vehicle through the help of a cousin, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. After being cleared at the Lagos port following weeks of delay, the ‘machine’ finally got to him. By the next morning – 9:00am to be precise – friends had started to pour into the compound he lived in the Ikosi area of Lagos to behold his new ‘toy’ and celebrate with him as well. Neighbours too were not left out – they joined in congratulating Olateju for his latest achievement. Before long, the excitement took a different form with the new car owner ordering for two crates of chilled beer to go round all the men that had come around that morning. The party soon moved outside the compound, in front of a nearby pub, as the need for more beer arose.
But less than one hour into the merriment that morning, things took a completely different turn. An unmarked bus filled with policemen suddenly stopped in front of the place and ordered Olateju and the others to go into the vehicle. They were under arrest. Their only crime – drinking alcohol in the morning especially before 12:00pm. However, checks by Saturday PUNCH revealed that Nigerians were free to drink alcohol any time of the day they so desired.
“It sounded like a joke,” 32-year-old Olateju, a geologist, told our correspondent during a recent encounter. “The policemen who behaved unprofessionally told us that we had committed a big offence for drinking beer in the morning and that we were going to pay dearly for it to serve as deterrent to others.
“All our protests of innocence and right to drink alcohol any time of the day fell on deaf ears. Even a lawyer amongst us who tried to let the policemen know that we had not contravened any law by drinking beer around 10:00am was ignored. He was almost slapped in fact. They bungled all of us into their bus and took us to their station.
“Luckily for us, the lawyer contacted a high ranking officer at the Lagos State Police Command who after speaking with the person that led the team, ordered that we should all be immediately released because we had not committed any offence by drinking alcohol in the morning. If not for that senior officer, we could have been asked to bail ourselves with money once at the station. There are many people that I know that this thing has happened to in our area,” he said.
While the 32-year-old and his friends were lucky to walk away free after being initially criminalised for drinking alcohol in the morning despite no law frowning against such in Lagos and many other states across the country, some others, have not been so fortunate after coming in contact with policemen, who make every little act or thing look like a crime just to get some money out of hapless citizens.
Benjamin Adirije, a 28-year-old admin personnel working with a public relations outfit in the Jibowu area of Lagos got a bitter taste of this ‘concoction’ recently when he found himself behind the counter of a police station at about 11:20pm on June 27. Held up in traffic for almost two hours following a blockade by tanker drivers that had taken over sections of Ikorodu Road, a popular route within the metropolis, the young man did not arrive Oregun until about that time. As he walked along the bus-stop to connect the road to his house, a blue van with about five policemen inside it suddenly pulled up beside him. While still wondering what was going on, two of the officers bundled him into the vehicle, ignoring any kind of explanation from him. His excuse of being trapped in traffic for over two hours did not move the policemen to allow him go. As far as they were concerned, Adirije, despite showing them his work identity card, was a ‘criminal’ for walking along the bus-stop at 11:20pm.
“I slept at the counter of the police station I was taken to that night because I did not have money to bail myself,” the young man told Saturday PUNCHrecently. “I was arrested and humiliated for committing no offence. My only sin, according to the policemen was walking along the bus-stop at 11:20pm. Despite telling them it was traffic that kept me that long and showing them my work ID, they refused to listen to me, they said I was a criminal. Was I the one who made the road to be blocked that day? When has walking on the road at 11:20pm become a crime in this world? Those who had money to settle them that night were released but I was kept at the station till the next morning when I was left to go at about 7:00am. I called my boss and explained the situation to him and he asked that I rest for the day. Since that day, whenever I close late from work, I’ll just take a cab once I get to Ojota bus-stop to avoid a similar experience,” the visibly enraged 28-year-old added.
While there are time restrictions for commercial motorcyclists and tricyclists in Lagos due to security concerns, there is no law stopping pedestrians from walking on the road at 11:20pm or above. But in many parts of the city and indeed beyond, the police criminalise this, arresting and squeezing ‘settlements’ out of victims without blinking an eye.
In Benin, Edo State, Osariemen Ighodalo, a young admission seeker, got more than he bargained for recently after facing a similar ‘court’ that criminalised the drinking of alcohol in the morning. Eagerly preparing and looking forward to his cousin’s birthday on June 16, 2018, the 17-year-old had walked into a barber’s shop to treat himself to a great haircut that would stand him out from the rest. But Ighodalo did not know that the decision would be one of the costliest of his life. Soon stopped by a team of policemen around Ring Road, a well-known section within the city, the young man was labelled an Internet fraudster (Yahoo boy), a cult member and a thug all at a go. It was a serious matter that saw the 17-year-old learning a very tough lesson.
“There is no tag that those policemen didn’t place on me just to criminalise me to the point of settling them with money,” Ighodalo told our correspondent during a telephone conversation from his base in Benin. “They said my haircut suggested that I must be a criminal. They accused me of being a Yahoo boy despite telling them that I was only 17 and seeking admission into the university.
“They said the star sign which the barber carved at the back of my head was a sign that I was a cult member and also into other criminal activities and that they would make sure I go to jail if I didn’t cooperate with them.
“All the while I was scared and pleading with them to release me or allow me contact my mother. When they eventually got across to her, they told her that I was a criminal they had been looking for. They threatened that if she didn’t want me to be taken to court and jail, she should pay N100, 000. After serious pleading from my mother, they eventually collected N10, 000 before releasing me for committing no offence.
“Since that day, I have been scared to move about freely the way I would have loved to as a young boy. That incident really sent fear into me to the extent that the sight of a policeman makes me want to run,” he said.
Budding football player, Temile Badejo, 24, got his own taste of this new ‘dish’ by men of the Nigeria police when he was accosted along Fajuyi Road in Ado-Ekiti, Ekiti State, in April this year for wearing earrings and also sagging his jean trousers. According to the officers, the young man had not only broken the ’10 commandments’ but also ‘committed sacrilege’. As far as they were concerned, appearing in such a manner not only qualifies you as a criminal but also a ‘very dangerous’ one that should be locked away in confinement. Though Badejo was released about one hour after he was arrested that evening following the intervention of an uncle, who is a lawyer, dozens others have spent at least a night in different police stations and forced to part with some money to secure their releases by morning.
“If not for my uncle who is a lawyer, the policemen could have kept me at their station at least for that night since I had no money on me at the time to settle them.
“Since I don’t know much about law, I really thought I had broken some rules and was seriously pleading with them to have mercy on me when they arrested me. All my pleading did not move them one bit, they insisted that I must call somebody to come and bail me if I didn’t want them to take me to court the next day. But I never knew I didn’t commit any offence, otherwise I wouldn’t have begged them that much. Immediately my uncle came and they saw that he was a lawyer, they quickly released me and told him that they arrested me because I was found in the midst of bad boys. I am yet to recover from the shock of their actions and lies,” the 24-year-old whose dream is to play for Manchester United, said.
Interestingly when Saturday PUNCH checked, apart from a few higher institutions where certain dress styles are discouraged, there is nowhere in the Nigerian constitution a person – either male or female – is forbidden from putting on earrings or wearing trousers in ways that pleases them.
This type of random criminalisation by the police in Nigeria is not limited to the men alone; women – young and old – have also had their own bitter share of the ‘menu’ as well.
For example, Nnneka Ejindu, a young business woman based in Ijebu Ode, Ogun State was labelled a prostitute for wearing dreadlocks and having tattoo on her arm and ankle. The mother of one told Saturday PUNCH that an early morning trip to her shop to fetch some items with which to prepare food for her family became an embarrassment that left her in a police van for more than 30 minutes.
“My house is about 20 minutes to my shop, so I had left home at about 6:00am on a bike to get some food items to cook for our breakfast. I forgot to take it along the previous night when I closed. I was about five minutes away from my shop when some policemen on patrol stopped the bike and ordered me to come down. They asked me where I was coming from and I told them my mission. I thought I was talking to reasonable people, I never knew that they were monsters.
“Before I knew what was happening, they had dragged me into their van. They said I was a prostitute who was returning from the night’s job and that they would make sure I rot in jail. They said my tattoo and dreadlocks already confirmed that I was a prostitute.
“When I realised that they were not going to listen to me, I had to send my husband a text message, notifying him of my predicament and the junction I and others were being held. Luckily for me, my husband showed up with a neighbour who is a policeman. That was how I regained my freedom that morning. Since that day, I have been careful what time of the day I move for fear of a similar experience,” Ejindu said.
Disturbing as it sounds, the list of acts and things the police criminalise in Nigeria is indeed endless. For instance, it is not uncommon these days for policemen to stop and sometimes harass young men and women in good clothes and cars. Apart from asking such persons how they got the money to afford the good clothes on them and cars they are riding in, many are blackmailed into parting with some cash eventually for committing no offence whatsoever.
A handful with this type of experience, who spoke with Saturday PUNCH, called on relevant authorities to do something urgent about this.
“The average policeman on the road would explore every means to make you look like a criminal at every point in time just to extort money from you,” Bisola Adejumo, an employee with a telecommunications company in Lagos, said. “I don’t know if this is as a result of the training they got or just an individual trait, they just want to put fear in you and take advantage of you. After working for more than nine years, is it too much if I drive a car of N2m? So, why should any policeman stop me on the road and ask me where I got the money to buy a car of that range?
“I have grown tired of this type of unwarranted harassment on weekly basis. The police authorities or government must do something about this because it has become irritating in fact,” she added.
Umor Agbeni, a 29-year-old fashion designer, is yet to get over the shock of a recent harassment he faced at the hands of a team of policemen in Umuahia, Abia State. While walking home after the close of work one evening, he ran into the officers conducting a stop and search operation in the area where his shop is located. According to him, one of the officers stopped him after seeing the calibre of mobile phone he held in his hand. When he explained that he was a successful entrepreneur and had the finance to purchase such item, one of the men called him a “liar” and ordered him to submit the item for inspection.
“The moment one of the policemen noticed that I was holding an iPhone 6, I became a target for them,” the young man said during a telephone conversation with our correspondent. “They stopped and shouted on me to explain how I got the money to buy such an expensive phone. Despite telling them that I make good money from my business and could afford to buy such item, they didn’t listen to me. They said I was pretending and that I could be engaged in some form of criminal activity.
“While I was there, I saw them stop two other guys carrying backpack with laptops inside. They accused them of being Internet fraudsters who were only disguising as computer engineers to engage in criminality. I was shocked.
“We had to part with some money before they allowed us to leave that night. Whenever I think about that incident, I wish I had the power to deal with those policemen. They just took advantage of us because they had guns on them,” Agbeni stated, anger still loud in his voice.
While wearing beards and dreadlocks by young men is considered a great enhancer of looks by many, Femi Latinwo, a 32-year-old model based in Ibadan, Oyo State, had it to blame for his recent ordeal at the hands of four policemen on patrol. Leaving his home in the challenge area of the city to Felele, another neighbourhood, to see a friend, he was stopped and labelled a cult member due to his looks. Several attempts to have the officers believe that he was indeed a fashion model fell on deaf ears. He was taken to the police station where a colleague in the profession came to secure his release.
“I was arrested in the afternoon for wearing dreadlocks and beards,” he began. “Since that day I have been searching every law book I know to find where that is stated as a crime. I am not going to let the matter die, I am already discussing with a lawyer who is going to get justice for me. This is the height of highhandedness by the police. Though people have been advising me to cut my dreadlocks and beards, I have not and won’t because that does not make me a criminal,” Latinwo said.
Angered by the situation, human rights lawyer, Mr. Jiti Ogunye, told Saturday PUNCH that these types of harassment of innocent citizens by the police is not only unconstitutional but a way to squeeze money out of members of the public.
“There are no laws backing such harassment by the police. These acts of criminality perpetrated against innocent Nigerians are not supported by the law.
“The constitution guarantees right to the dignity of the human person. Even section 4 of the Police Act which governs the powers of the police, does not support these as long as offences are not being committed. The section does not give the police the power to harass innocent Nigerians when no offences are being committed.
“Profiling people by looking at the nature of their hairstyles, type of cars they ride, nature of phone they carry e.t.c, is wrong. What they do is not to combat crime and criminality, the objective for harassing people like these is to extort money. There is no law backing these claims they make to arrest people, it is just sheer brigandage.
“My advice is that victims of these types of harassment should engage a lawyer or report at the Office of the Public Defender to get justice. They should not keep quiet when these things happen to them so that there can be a stop to it,” he said.
Adding his voice to the argument, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Femi Falana, in a letter to the Inspector General of Police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris, called on the law enforcement agency to desist from arresting and prosecuting citizens for loitering and wandering, adding that it was a violation of the rights of individuals within the society.
According to him, the vagrancy law, which was introduced in the country during the British colonial rule, had been repealed in 1989 after a sustained campaign by human rights activists.
“Whenever rich people are found on the street taking a walk, it is said that they are exercising their fundamental right to freedom of movement.
“But whenever the poor exercise such fundamental right to freedom of movement, they are usually arrested by the police who accuse them of wandering or loitering.
“We hereby request you to use your good offices to direct all police commands in the country to desist from further arresting and prosecuting poor citizens for loitering or wandering,” he said.
Calls put across to the Police Force Public Relations Officer, Moshood Jimoh, to react to the matter were not answered. (Punch )