To get a better understanding of Nigerian life, we started a series called ‘Compatriots’, detailing the everyday life of the average Nigerian. As a weekly column, a new installment will drop every Tuesday, exploring some other aspect of the Nigerian landscape.
This week, we translated (from Igbo) and helped narrate, the experiences of a Nigerian wrongfully imprisoned in the early months of 2019. His time in prison and his first taste of freedom on making bail.
In early 2019, a few weeks to my 27th birthday, I marked what will always be a milestone in my life. I didn’t buy my first car, that is still many dreams away nor my first home, I still share a flat with my mother. It was none of the above.
Weeks to my 27th birthday, I was taking my first steps of freedom from Ikoyi prisons, after 36 days behind bars.
My offence? Breaking a padlock that belonged to the police.
If you’ve ever met anyone that’s been to prison, especially a Nigerian prison, it’s a given they know the exact amount of time they spent locked up, almost down to the minute. For me, I will never forget the number 36. Not because I spent that time making a tally of days on top of my bunk like in the movies — where would I have found the personal space? No, the number stuck because I had spent every day during my time there trying to understand the hand life dealt me.
I don’t think anyone who knows me would describe me as a negative person. Even after my arrest, and having to share an open, cramped space with 300 other men, I always made sure to start each day thanking God for the gift of life. But when it comes to Nigeria? Nothing can shake my feelings. I accepted that I live in a country whose sole mission is to ‘mean’ its citizens, a long time ago. The level of ‘meaning’ gets higher, the smaller the zeros at the end of your account balance.
It is why people struggling — my people — attend neglected public schools, and ‘graduate’ without being able to read and write properly in English, just like I did. They’ll take jobs straight out of secondary school, not once stopping to consider the luxury of university, again — like I was forced to do: serving as everything from shop assistant, to errand boy at a printing press, before getting a security job at an Ikoyi office complex in 2017.
I was following the poor man’s script, and was fine doing so, never really allowing myself consider the possibilities of a career or ambition, because what really were the opportunities this country could throw my way, without the usual leg-up? Yet somehow, despite this contentment, nothing could stop Nigerian misfortune from setting its sights on me.
As a security guard, I had a daily routine. In the morning, before daylight, I shared a cigarette with some construction workers not too far from my office, before returning to my post to welcome the first arrivers to the office. I usually did this with extra enthusiasm so they’d remember at lunch-time and when it was time to ‘dash’ something at the close of day. Afternoons were spent parking and re-parking cars, while night time — when I resumed my shift, was used to reflect on the day. I share a phone with my mother, so I had only myself for company. I did everything to stay awake because the complex had experienced break-ins in the past; sleep was not an option.
On the morning of my arrest, I started my routine as usual: smoking with the construction workers. What was different this time, however, was returning to the office to find the gates had been chained and padlocked by somebody. And it wasn’t me.
So imagine this, it’s around 6:30 am, and while the offices open at 8 am, some workers from the mainland, fortunate to have beaten the mainland-island traffic would begin arriving around 7:15 am. In the past, the complex had experienced break-ins where offices were vandalised and I was blamed for it. I could not afford a repeat. So I did what I had to. Using a stone, I dismantled the padlock, placing it and the chains in my security post.
This was exactly what I told the policemen when they made their way to the complex 20 minutes later, asking what had happened with the lock. According to them, the office (a private property) was sealed because there was word trespassers were around the area. As soon as I produced the broken lock, the pitch of their already loud voices increased; they were shouting that “I must pay o”, or follow them to their station.
I know it says ₦20,000 stood between me and freedom, but on the day of my arrest, it was a lot less, at ₦2,000, maybe even ₦1,500 if I negotiated properly. But this amount, on my salary of ₦30,000 which I shared between my mother and a cousin, wasn’t something I carried around. At the time, I didn’t appreciate how serious my situation was. Even when we got to the station, I stupidly thought I could still beg my way out of it, or help would somehow come for me. But by 1 pm, when none of these had happened, I was charged with ‘wilful destruction of property’ at Ikoyi Magistrate and remanded in Ikoyi prison. I didn’t stand a chance.
Even though I was in prison for a month and some days, the time I spent there broke me. It’s difficult to narrate and even harder to forgive.
On my first day in prison, there’s no other way to put it, I was rushed by the older inmates. While getting kicked and punched, I struggled to explain that I was new, and begged them to release me. I believed they had me confused for someone else. When this only made them hit harder, I kept quiet, praying for a quick end to the attack. Eventually, I was told it was the prison idea of a welcome party. The guards and wardens knew when this happened, yet nobody stopped it.
If there’s one thing I learned in Nigerian prison, it’s that Nigeria is a reflection of its prison system. It is filled with people who want to escape. The prison is run by people unconcerned with those placed under their care, just like the country it operates in. It is also run down and powered by bribes like I came to find out.
There is no part of prison life that doesn’t feel like it is made specifically to break you. Even eating was difficult. We were served twice every day: morning and night. Breakfast was always small portions of watery beans and garri, while dinner was eba with pepper and water — their idea of stew. My body didn’t adjust to the meals quickly, and my stomach was always upset early on, which was even worse for me because the prison space is set up in such a way that, you’re expected to eat where you shit.
The only way I can describe the way we slept is to liken it to chickens in a coop. We slept on the bare, overcrowded floor, dreading every breath exhaled from the next person, each one of us praying they were just a size smaller, so our limbs wouldn’t have to touch on hot nights.
The hopelessness I experienced in prison was so present and so real, you could have stretched and touched it.
While I was trying to make sense of my situation, my employers and mother — who eventually came to know what happened to me — were doing their best to get me out. From their daily visits, I learned that there was no real case against me, that the police and some members of the judiciary were only trying to get some money, a game they usually played on easy targets. It was from these visits I learned at least three bribes had to be paid by visitors.
Before my time in prison, I had no reason to consider the problems the judiciary; I had problems of my own. But by the end of my second week in prison, those problems became mine when, at my second appearance at the Ikoyi Magistrate, I was informed that the charge against me, was no longer just the willful destruction of property, but had increased to include cultism.
According to the lawyer hired by my employers, this was an effort by the police and members of the judiciary to make sure a bribe for my bail — ₦100,000 was paid.
In the remaining weeks, while my stomach adjusted to the meals and I learned to carry out commands to clear waste from the older inmates quickly, to avoid another ‘rushing’ — my lawyer did a lot of running around, trying to get the bail money reduced and sureties to stand in for me.
During that time, to cheer my mother, whose visits always started and ended in tears, I would tell her the progress my lawyer had made with reducing my bail, both of us choosing to ignore the fact that my freedom was being priced like choice meat in the market.
Eventually, ₦20,000 was agreed on, which thanks to my mother, her church group and my employers was paid at the end of my fourth week behind bars. I was only allowed to leave five days after the money was paid, because one of the people responsible for keeping me locked up, refused to share it equally with the rest of his group.
It’s been some months since I was released, but it is still hard to describe the feeling of taking the first steps outside of prison at almost midnight, not quite a free man, but thankfully no-longer an imprisoned one.
(The narrator has since had the charges against him dismissed, but chose not to relay the details)