When they are not being harassed and intimidated by stern- looking but disguised security personnel, they are hounded and harangued into submission, on very flimsy excuses, by one task force or the other, and even the Oodua People’s congress, OPC. Such was the case of Anthony Okoh, a 21-year-old Civil Engineer with a Chinese company, CHCI Construction Company, at Lekki.
Penultimate Friday, he was in his one-room apartment near his place of work at Lekki sleeping when fierce –looking but armed uniformed men who claimed to be members of Lagos State Task Force on Environment broke into his room and bundled him to their coffin-like Black Maria.
Before he knew what was happening, he found himself inside their cell at Oshodi where he, alongside fifty other young men, three ladies, two underaged boys and a sick elderly man were confined till the next Monday when they were arraigned without charges and later taken to Badagry Prison where they spent 20 days in confinement. They were later released on the orders of Lagos state Director of Public Prosecution, DPP. His story is a study in denial, reckless infringement of human rights and social degradation.
The day of arrest
On the 10th of August, 2018, after the night duty, I went home in the morning and slept off. Later when I woke up and was speaking with my friend on phone, I heard noise outside and saw people running but I didn’t really know what was happening. The next thing I saw was a police officer wearing a task force vest who broke into my room and arrested me.
Immediately I tried to identify myself as a site engineer and supervisor at CHCI, the police officer slapped me and I kept quiet. The policemen then took me and bundled me into a waiting Black Maria. That was how I found myself in the Task Force office at Oshodi. When I was there, I called my brother but they stopped him from coming to see me.
That was how I was detained there till Monday morning with three ladies, two underaged boys, a sick elderly man and others numbering about 53. We spent three days in the task force office. A statement was taken from me on Saturday. The head of the task force actually came on Sunday. I then identified myself to him explaining that I was innocent but he told us not to worry that it would be sorted out by Monday. Based on his assurance, I was relaxed.
Appearance in court
On Monday morning, as early as 6am, they brought us all out straight to the court.
That was when it dawned on me that it was a serious matter. That was how we were arraigned in court on Monday morning and remanded at Badagry prison for 20 days. We were 53 altogether. I was just confused, I didn’t know what was happening. They accused us of breach of peace and that we destroyed government machinery when nobody destroyed anything. I didn’t even see any machinery on the I was arrested.
Arrival at Badagry prison
On arrival at Badagry prison, they checked us in and actually took us to a cell called Angola which was known as the worst cell in the whole prison. We were up to 20 locked up in the cell which was very small. There was no toilet facility so we were allowed to go outside to ease ourselves.
However, there was a small lavatory which we used at night and there was no light inside the cell. In the morning, they took our data, including our finger prints before allocating us to different cells. The first cell I stayed was ‘I ward’ and we were about 48 inmates there.
Two small sized beds were allocated to 10 of us and we were practically lying on top of one another. A Hausa man I met there narrated to me how he was arrested with 150 of his kinsmen and brought to the prison.
He said they were arrested around 5am while they were sleeping inside a compound belonging to one Alhaji who provided the place for them to sleep and go out in the morning to do their various businesses before coming back to sleep at night. He said when the task force men came that early morning, they tried to break the gate but they couldn’t.
They then jumped the fence into the compound, opened the gate from inside, moved their Black Maria inside the compound and bundled all of them into the vehicle for onward trip to Badagry prison. That was the first ugly story I heard from the man I met at the prison.
Nobody ever asked us if we were guilty or not, nobody cared to even know what happened, we were just remanded in prison. The judge who presided over the court the first day we appeared in court actually said the governor was interested in the case. I was asking mysel; is this a punishment or what and how long will I remain here?
I was thinking every day and night. When I woke up from sleep and saw those big gates, I would ask myself, am I still here? I cried a few times at night and the Lord gave me strength. I read my bible and said my prayers.
Parley with under aged detainees
One of the boys I met there was 17 years old while the other was 16. They told me they were arrested in front of their house; that the task force men came to raid their house and picked them up. One of them narrated his story in tears saying he was picked up in front of his house and when he tried to call his mother, the task force men did not allow him.
He said when they got to their office, they asked him of his age and when he told them he was 17, they said it was a lie and hit him on the head while the lady who was taking down his statement wrote 18 for him. And that was how he ended up at Badagry prison where he spent a month and two weeks.”
I was wondering how someone would be arrested on the road, you don’t know why you were arrested, you did nothing wrong and you just went to jail to become an ex-convict. They then sent some papers to us in jail about plea bargain to admit that we were guilty and they would reduce our jail sentence.
I think many of our youths did that in order to be free because if you are on awaiting trial, the court may not sit and the next adjournment will be for three months. In order not to continue to languish in prison, the youths would just admit to plea-bargain and will be given one or two months sentence which he would serve and thereafter come out.
We ate sour beans in the morning by 8am. They served us a milk cup of garri without water or sugar in the afternoon while in the evening we ate eba with tiny meat popularly called ‘Shapa’. They also served us small fresh fish with rice.
They served us rice on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. The only dish that made us happy was the rice which they served in the afternoon. On Sundays, we would go to church. That was the only way of going out while on Saturdays, we were allowed to come out and take a walk round the prison. There was a football field and film house provided by the IBTC bank for the inmates.
Attitude of wardens
The warders assigned to guard us were very diligent with their duties. They were not harsh and they always counselled us. The only problem was the issue of some inmates who developed mental problem in the prison. The prison was free from vices such as hard drugs and the environment was very neat. Pastors from different churches came to preach to us.
I noticed that 85% of the inmates in Badagry prison were brought by the task force. I don’t think real convicts were up to 20%. I will commend the warders, they really tried, and they encouraged us. They also did their best to make us feel comfortable but one cannot feel comfortable in prison when you don’t even know your offence.
Day of freedom
“The day news came to us from warders to come and receive bail paper, we didn’t believe it. They gave us reminder on the 22nd that they were releasing us two weeks before that day and we felt relaxed. I didn’t actually take it for real. I later learnt from my sister who was in court on the day we were released that the judge who heard my case set everybody free because the DPP’s advice declared that we were all innocent. “
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