- By Leo Igwe
On this day January 11, ten years ago (in 2011), the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) that combats kidnapping in Akwa Ibom state arrested and detained my driver, photographer, and me.
They keep us for days at a special cell located at the state police command in Uyo, called the ‘Republic of Suprano’. I never heard about this ‘republic’ before then. On that fateful day, I went into the UBA branch at Aka road to make some transactions.
I was arrested shortly after I left the bank. I was leading a public enlightenment program in the state. I was also rescuing child victims of witchcraft allegations and persecution. I hired a driver and a photographer to assist me.
It was a period of so much tension and mistrust between child rights NGOs and the Akwa Ibom state government. On this very day, we rescued, for the second time, a girl-child victim of witch persecution.
The day started at about 4.00 am. A man in his 50s abducted the girl from a local market where she was sleeping. The man was living with this girl and raped her several times.
The man used to go out very early to the farm. And he used to go with the girl. Our informants in the community advised us to storm the man’s house before the day broke otherwise we would not meet them.
I had little sleep that night. I negotiated an extra payment for my driver and photographer. They were at my hotel before 4.30 am. We left for this village and luckily met the man and the girl in the house.
We took them to a nearby police station. The police detained that man after he made a statement. I was instructed to hand over the child to officials at the state welfare department in Uyo.
On our way to Uyo, the girl took ill and started vomiting. I was deeply scared. She was fainting and needed some urgent medical treatment. I never budgeted for medical care of rescued victims.
I was not sure that the girl would make it alive to Uyo. So I asked the driver to take us to the nearest hospital and he did. After consulting the doctor, they gave her some injections and some infusions.
The doctor made it clear that they would observe the girl for some hours before discharging her to us. They discharged her at about 3.00 pm.
My lawyer advised us not to keep any rescued child in our custody. So we quickly went to the Ministry of Social Welfare and handed the child over to them. I had no money with me and needed to get to the bank.
I had used the cash with me for the hospital bills and other expenses associated with the treatment of the girl.
So I had to rush to the bank to make some transactions and get some money to pay my driver and photographer for the work on what had been a crazy but productive day.
I spent some time in the bank because there was a long queue. By the time I came from the bank, I did not see my driver and photographer. I was worried.
I saw the car parked at a corner but I could not find them. Have they gone to eat or drink something? We left very early and had not taken any good meal since 4.30 am? It was at about 6 pm.
I tried checking to see if I could find them at any of the nearby apartments. I moved towards the left side of the bank and saw some police officer inside a compound.
One of them pointed towards me and shouted: “Yes, that is their ring leader”. Ring leader? I was shocked. “Ring leader of what?” I asked, not loudly. My driver and photographer were sitting on the ground with their hands tied to their back.
I could not believe it. “What is going on? What did they do when I was inside the bank? For a while I blamed myself. I delayed in the bank and police officers might have seen an opportunity to prey on them”.
I thought that a little explanation would clear the matter. But I was wrong. I went to the police officer and politely addressed them: “Officers, please, release them they are my driver and photographer, I went inside the bank to make some transactions but I was delayed”.
Before I could finish explaining, one of the officers came and held me at the collar and dragged me. I looked In utter shock, dumbfounded, not sure what to say. One of the officers told me not to worry, that I would explain when we got to the station.
I said in my mind: “Which station?”. It was as if I was in a dream. But something more dreamy lay ahead. I said: “Look, Look I went into the bank, to make some transactions”.
I thought I was talking to sane human beings, to professionals who knew their job. But I was mistaken. They told me to sit on the floor. I asked them: Why? At this point, some of the officers pounced on me.
One kicked me from behind, another from the left and still another from the right. In a split of a second, I landed on the ground. Wow.
I was thinking: “Ahh is that how the police work? Is that how police combat crimes? What did I do? I asked so many questions because the police officers did not tell me my offense.
They refused to listen to me even when I tried to explain things to them. By the time I landed on the ground, some of the officers surrounded me as if I was an armed robber. One of them forcefully removed my shirt and used it to tie my arms tightly at the back.
My hands were dangling as if they were lifeless, they had no bones. The pain was increasing slowly and the police officers looked on as I writhe in pain, unimaginable pain.
I never felt so much pain than I did on that very day. It was an eye-opener to how brutal, inept the Nigerian policers are and could be.
Meanwhile, nobody told me what my driver, photographer, and I did. Shortly after they tied my arm to the back, a dark blue police pick-up car arrived. They pushed us into the car while holding their guns as if we were criminal that could escape.
I was in serious pain and at the same time thinking about how I could make these idiots understand that were torturing and might eventually kill us for nothing.
I kept asking myself: Is that how the police do their work? Some minutes into the ride to the police station. One of the officers told us that they had announced our arrest over the radio.
I said to myself: Arrest of who and for what? So, that is how police arrest criminals? I was still trying to make sense of the situation and the fact that I might not sleep in my hotel room that night after a tough day.
The pain was becoming unbearable. My photographer and driver pleaded with the police officers to untie their arms. After pleading for some time, the officers yielded. They chained their hands.
I asked them to extend the same gesture to me but they vehemently refused.
One of the officers retorted: “Don’t you know that the chains are for sale?”
I behaved as if I did not hear that. Even with all the pain and torture that I was going through, the officers had the mind to ask for some monetary favor. The Nigerian police!
We eventually arrived at the station after a 30-minute drive. I cannot say exactly the duration of that ride, if it was more or less than 30 minutes because I was in serious pain throughout the ride.
At the station, they took us to different rooms for interrogation. I was still urging them to untie my hand and put the chains on my hand as they did to my driver and photographer but they ignored me.
During the interrogation, they asked me to explain my mission at the bank and my connection with my driver and photographer. I repeated what I told them when I came out of the bank.
But it was clear that what I was saying was not what they wanted to hear. And I did not know what else to tell them but what took me to the bank. After they asked me the same question and I repeated the same answer, they started hitting me with batons.
The officers hit me several times. My head started to swell. My arms were still tied to my back. I could not stop them from hitting me and I could not massage my head. I have a slightly unconventional head.
As a child, I was constantly taunted for my ‘big head’- even up to the present. Now imagine having the different parts of this big head swollen as a result of those hits.
At a point, one of the officers asked them to untie my hand but they refused. But at a stage, it became obvious to the interrogating officers that my answers were not going to change no matter the number of times they hit me with the baton.
The officer in charge asked them to untie me and they did. They left me in a room and apparently went to compare notes with officers who questioned my driver and photographer. They were not getting what they wanted- incriminating statements.
After a while, the officer in charge came into the room and starting asking me questions about my career in what sounded like a more friendly tone.
I replied him. It was getting late and I was getting more and more anxious. That was about 9 pm It was dawning on me that we might sleep at the station for no just reason.
Police officers were going back and forth conferring with each other. At some point, I wondered if they had beaten or tortured my driver and/or photographer to make an incriminating statement.
I maintained my cool. I asked the officer in charge to tell me what I did, why they arrested, and had to put us through this torture even after explaining to them my mission at the bank.
I spoke a little bit louder at some point. He asked me why I was talking to him like that. The he did as if he called somebody on phone and then said: “Investigations continue tomorrow”.
He ordered his boys to send us to the cell. I went closer to inquired why he asked them to detain us. He said: “Look do not come closer I am with a gun”.
Other police officers dragged me to another room. They asked us to deposit our items-phone, wallet, belt, etc. I felt it when they asked me to remove my belt because my jeans trouser was a bit an oversize.
I needed a belt to hold it otherwise it would pull down. Eventually, I gave them my belt and used my hand to take care of the situation.
At about 10 pm, they pushed three of us into the cell, the Republic of Suprano. There was no light inside the cell.
As soon as we came in, they locked the iron bar which served as the door to the cell from outside. Some inmates were at the door post. Many were lying on the floor or sitting at different corners.
The room was like a big warehouse with four windows on one side of the room. It was so dark inside. Some inmates asked us to go and sit beside a bucket in a corner of the room.
I later learned that was how they welcome new inmates. They asked them to go and sit beside the bucket which I later discovered was where the inmates defecated and urinated.
There were over forty detained persons in the room. I could not look around that night I was traumatized and continuously struggled to make sense of my/our arrest and detention.
I continuously asked myself if there was something that I could have said and done differently. “Maybe I would have postponed going to the bank”.
“I would have had a police officer accompany us”. I wondered. I had not eaten since the morning. I only took some snacks while the girl was at the hospital. I was hungry, tired, and traumatized.
The police had not told us our offense. They refused to allow us to make calls. So we could not inform our family members about our arrest that night.
Meanwhile, as I was thinking of what to do and how to get out of the dungeon, two of the inmates came and introduced themselves as the president and vice president of the Republic of Suprano. We listened carefully.
They told us about the rules and regulations of the republic. They told us that we needed to pay some levies(taxes) to the republic and asked us to instruct our relatives to come along with some money whenever they visited.
When it was time to sleep, they came and packed us on one side of the room like sardines. They made us lie in such a way that each person faced the back/bottom of the next.
We lay in a way that if a person farted, the emission went directly into the mouth of another person. I never slept that way with that number of people since I was born.
I could not sleep throughout the night. I was pacing up and down trying to make sense of what had transpired and how I could secure our release. One of the inmates noticed that I was restless and walked towards me.
He said he would like to pray for me. For me? I stared at him for a while and declined. He was visibly surprised. I guess he never expected that I would say no. I motioned with my hand that he should not worry.
I mean, what did I need his prayer for? I met him inside the cell. He was there before me (I left him there). If prayer worked, he was the one who needed it more than I did. The day broke and some police officers came and did a roll call of the inmates.
Family members started visiting and the vice president of the republic told us to get ready some phone numbers of friends and family members. These numbers would be given to visitors who would help us inform our family members.
I was mentally stressed and had a challenge recalling the telephone numbers of my family members and friends especially the last four digits. So I sent out as many phone numbers as I could hoping that one would go through.
At about 10 am, the following day the police called out my name at the gate, they wanted to see me. Since many of the people in the cell were arrested in connection with some kidnapping, whenever police officers called names of inmates, others would repeat the first name adding “kidnapper” to it.
For instance when the police officer called Peter Edet, the inmates would say Kidnapper Peter. When they called my name, Leo Igwe, they said: “Kidnapper Leo”.
Nhh, kidnapper Leo indeed. When did I become a kidnapper? I kept wondering: “Whom did I/we kidnap?
When the police brought me out from the overcrowded hot cell I was relieved a bit. They asked me to explain my mission in Akwa Ibom. My mind was wobbling.
First I asked the officers if they could allow me to contact my family by phone but they refused and threatened to send me back to the cell. I noticed that the only thing that I could do was to while away time writing about my mission in Akwa Ibom.
I spend some time writing and rewriting, defining and redefining terms and concepts such as humanism and human rights. After about an hour or so, they took me back to the cell.
In the evening of the second day, the relatives of my driver and photographer visited. They lived in Uyo so the news got to them early. The police officers asked them to return the next day.
They brought some food for my driver and photographer but I could not eat. The room smelled terribly. All the inmates ate, urinated, and bathed in the same room.
Some of them had open smelling sores, untreated injuries from matchet cuts, or gunshots. Some of them told me that they were not in contact with any relatives.
To eat, they relied on other inmates whose relatives visited and brought some food items. When my driver and photographer were eating I saw some of the detainees eyeing and hoping that they would give them some food.
I managed to take some water. And again the second night was long. I was wondering if the information had gotten to any family member and if there was an ongoing effort to get us released.
Early the third day, the news came that the relatives of my driver and photographer had started negotiating their release. My driver told me that as soon as they were released they would try and ensure that I was out.
I felt bad about this because it was certain that the police would extort money from their families. I dod not want hat to happen. Both of them were working for me.
I should be the one working to secure their release. But I remembered that I was in the Republic of Suprano and calmed down. The anticipated release of my driver and photographer did not happen.
Now early in the morning the fourth day, I heard someone call: “Comrade” from the gate of the cell. It was my friend and lawyer, James Ibor. He came from Calabar.
In his company was the police officer who was in the car holding a gun the day that we were arrested.
He told me to wait that they were going to see the Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP). Shortly after they left, some police officers asked me to come out.
This time they told me to put on my shirt and belt my trousers. The attitude of the police officers suddenly changed. They were behaving in a friendly manner. I knew that they had gotten some signals.
When I arrived at the office of the assistant police commissioner, he asked me a few questions about my job and where I resided, and I replied. We conversed briefly and he asked the officer in charge to release us.
I showed the ACP my swollen head and he told the officer in charge to apologize to me. But he was just staring at me. He knew that he treated me badly.
I was already boiling and fuming and my friend James Ibor tried to calm me down as we left the office of the ACP. Shortly after the meeting, the police officers gave me back all my personal effects that they took. They also released my driver and photographer. And we left the state police command.
My arrest in Akwa Ibom in 2011 was a lesson in police torture and brutality. It was a shocking and traumatic experience that I would not easily forget. I could not believe what I saw in terms of how the police arrested and treated real and imagined suspects.
I was told that some of the people who were with me at the Republic of Suprano were later summarily executed. As the End SARS protests have revealed, police brutality is pervasive and systemic in Nigeria. And it must stop.
The special police unit that combats kidnapping and armed robbery must not only change its coat (its name) but also its character. I support efforts to reform the police and enthrone good governance.
I want to see in place effective mechanisms to end impunity and hold erring police officers, soldiers, and other security operatives accountable.
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