I Spent 36 Days In Prison. ₦20,000 Stood Between Me And Freedom.

July 30, 2019
Illustration by Felix Lucero

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)

Join The Conversation

Bring a friend.

You'll like this

October 12, 2020

On Sunday, October 11 2020, the Inspector General of Police announced the dissolution of SARS. However, these officers are still on the road and harassing peaceful protesters. Earlier today, Police officers opened fire on another set of protesters at Surulere, Lagos. Recall that Jimoh Isiaq was also killed in a protest at Ogbomosho, Oyo State […]

Watch

Now on Zikoko

Recommended Quizzes

November 27, 2019

Do you have a face that could make angels jealous, or should you really be walking around with a nylon bag over your head so you don’t scare children? Well, this quiz is here to answer that by telling you exactly how good-looking you are. Take and find out: 11 Quizzes For People Who Aren’t […]

November 11, 2019

Today, we are going to be using your taste in music to determine how good you actually are in bed. All you need to do is create the ultimate Nigerian hit — from the lead artist to the producer — and we’ll tell you if all your partners leave satisfied, or if you are just […]

November 25, 2019

We already guessed how many people you’ve slept with, and y’all were out here denying the truth. Anyway, we won’t hold that against you. This time, however, we’ve created a quiz that predicts who you’ll sleep with next — so you can either prepare or try (unsuccessfully) to prevent it. So, take and see:

September 1, 2021

August is over, and here are some of our best quizzes from August. Enjoy: 1. QUIZ: Only Ajebutters Can Get 10/21 On This Quiz Some people like to form ajepako when they’re really ajebutter. Are you one of them? Let’s find out. 2. QUIZ: Sorry, If You’re Under 25 There’s No Way You Can Pass […]

April 1, 2020

Everyone has a Nigerian bank that matches their personality. You could either be as likeable as GTB, as efficient as Access or as mature as First Bank. Either way, all you have to do is take this quiz and we’ll let you know with almost 100% certainty. So, go ahead:

November 14, 2019

The fourth season of Big Brother Naija came to an end over a month ago, but the conversation surrounding the housemates is far from over. So, in a bid to keep the fire burning, we decided to create a quiz that tells you which famous member of the ‘Pepper Dem’ gang is your soulmate. Take […]

More from Citizen

December 24, 2021

Abroad Life tells the stories of Nigerians who japa’d, but many times, the stories have a shocking twist.

From jaw-dropping stories of grand-scale internet fraud to heartbreaking stories of family betrayal, these are the top 10 most-read Abroad Life stories of 2021.

Watch

Trending Videos

Zikoko Originals

December 14, 2020
What happens when a group of chatty young Nigerians talk about things they're passionate about? You get Nigerians talk. A show that discusses very familiar struggles for the average Nigerian. From relationship deal breakers to sex education with Nigerian parents to leaving Nigeria, be prepared for a ride.
November 2, 2020
'The Couch' is a Zikoko series featuring real life stories from anonymous people.
October 26, 2020
A collection of videos documenting some of the events of the EndSARS protests.
June 22, 2020
'The Couch' is a Zikoko series featuring real life stories from anonymous people.
June 22, 2020
Hacked is an interesting new series by Zikoko made up of fictional but hilarious chat conversations.
June 4, 2020
What happens when a group of chatty young Nigerians talk about things they're passionate about? You get Nigerians talk. A show that discusses very familiar struggles for the average Nigerian. From relationship deal breakers to sex education with Nigerian parents to leaving Nigeria, be prepared for a ride.
June 2, 2020
Quickie is a video series where everyone featured gets only one minute to rant, review or do absolutely anything.
May 14, 2020
Isolation Diary is a Zikoko series that showcases what isolation is like for one young Nigerian working from home due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
March 12, 2020
Life is already hard. Deciding where to eat and get the best lifestyle experiences, isn't something you should stress about. Let VRSUS do that for you.

Z! Stacks

Here's a rabbit hole of stories to lose yourself in:

Zikoko amplifies African youth culture by curating and creating smart and joyful content for young Africans and the world.
X