Saturday, June 6, 2009

My lawful criminal story

The ‘Lawful’ criminals in Fashola’s LGA administration

I was not planning on any adventure when I left home this morning to keep a job-search appointment at the corporate headquarters of champion newspapers. It was like every other day, only my finances made it imperative I trek a little of the distance to reduce cost. I got to the bus stop opposite Ibis hotel at the airport junction in Ajao estate to meet the usual unexplained transport hike that Lagos residents have had to do with since the unset of the current fuel crisis (yes, the crisis is officially over, but the passengers usually bear the blunt of whatever loss the drivers might have incurred while it lasted for some few extra weeks, with no apologies.). Opting to pay the N50 that was charged for a trip that usually goes for N20 or N30, I boarded the bus and endured the bristling heat while the driver played the usual ‘I don dey move’ trick. After a few well placed insults from a rather fiery middle aged woman at the windowless back seat, the driver decided not to wait for the remaining one passenger and drove off, but not without stopping at every designated bus stop to look for that one passenger. Since most people shied away from the conductor’s higher price, we got to Ilasamaja minutes later than was normal. As I disembarked, the angry woman was still cursing the conductor and driver to high heavens. They, in their usual thick skinned ways ignored her.
My visit to the media house did not take me as far as the editor as I had hoped, so I found my self outside almost immediately, with nothing new other than an instruction from the male receptionist to come with an application or a letter of introduction.
Since I have to cross over to board a bus back to airport road, I stood by the roadside awaiting the traffic to clear a bit, in my haste, completely ignoring the pedestrian bridge that was a few meters away.
It took me up to two minutes to cross over to the other side. I had almost boarded a bus that stopped to pick me when, out of the blues, I was surrounded by three scruffy looking young men, who flashed plastic ID cards before my eyes and told me in authoritative language that I am under arrest.
Bewildered, I asked them what for-I was still walking. One of them, who appear to be the one with clearer sounding English, politely told me to stop. I obeyed, hoping to get to the root of the matter, though still unaware of what my sin(s) were.
“Why did you cross the express way?” he asked gently.
“Am I not supposed to?” I asked, wondering where all this was heading.
“No you should have used the foot bridge.”
“Oh!” I said, smiling slowly, at least it is nothing serious “But that’s not against any law.”
“It is sir. That is why we are arresting you.”
“What do you mean arrest me? My friend get out of my way, I am in a big hurry.” I countered, trying to force my way through their loose circle. They resisted, it was then that I noticed that more of them were approaching from a packed bus a few meters away.
We were still bantering words when a burly man walked up and demanded to see me. I insisted that I am not going anywhere, but on second thought, I followed him to the packed car where his ‘boss’ was reclining on the door.
The ‘boss’, a young man in his thirties looked me up an down appraisingly and told me to be a gentleman and board the bus before talking to him, since he will not talk to me otherwise.
Angered at being treated like a common criminal just because I walked across an express way, I let him have a piece of my mind, gently though.
Commending me for looking and talking like a gentleman he started to lecture me on the hazards of crossing an expressway.
Tired of his lecture I decided to board the bus and hopefully get him to listen to me, since we both know that the number of footbridges available does not in any way equate the intersections that need them.

That obviously was my undoing, for no sooner had I taken my seat; he rushed up to block all exits, thereby ensuring my entrapment in the vehicle. Sensing a story and not having anywhere of great import to be at, I decided to play it cool and watch proceeding.

I must have sat there for up to thirty minutes when a docile, nicely dressed Youngman of my age was brought to the ‘prison’ bus. I believe it was the sight of me sitting calmly in the heat that made him enter the bus without complaint.

I took that time to pounder at the logic behind hiding amongst okada men and hawkers, waiting for someone to dash across the road when the easiest and rightful thing to do would have been to stop the person from attempting the act in the first place.

A few moments latter another youth was brought up. He was agitated and wouldn’t to enter the bus, throwing back their threats at them. After some phone calls to a madam he claimed is well known in the neighborhood he boarded the bus and almost immediately the entire ‘team’ appeared from their hiding places and swarmed the bus.

A man who had earlier told me to ‘settle’ the ‘case’ there turned out to be the driver. The bus drove out. I ignored the protests of my fellow captives (a man who packed his car by the roadside and crossed over to buy recharge card was our last comrade, he was dragged in screaming just as the car was about to leave) and watched the busy streets of Mushin float by as we headed towards what was to me an adventure in waiting. Though I noticed fear in the eyes of my fellow captives, I felt non whatsoever.

We arrived at a two story building, painted a dirty off-white color, adjacent to the Mushin general hospital and directly opposite the national population commission. At the entrance, a large green metal signboard with “the presidency, public complaints commission’ written in bold white paint, stands guard.

Inside proper, I discovered that the building, which turned out to be the old local government secretariat, houses the Nigerian immigration service, which shares the same floor/room with our captors, the so-called ‘traffic controllers’, on the second floor; the Nigerian legion, the civil defense corps, the Nigerian immigration service share the top floor with the afore mentioned public complaints commission whose sign tell you to bring ‘any type of complaint to us’. On the ground floor, an eye sore police post makes do with a dirt ridden corner, while a broken chair and table are the sole furniture in a stairwell office of some agbero-like young men.

Though some of my fellow captives, noticing the environment and the predatory stares of the workers, started acting up in a vain hope of being spared whatever justice is to be met upstairs, I boldly followed the youth that was then acting like our lives were in his hands.

They took us up the stairs, past the area boy looking youths in the dingy office by the stairwell, into a large room on the first floor. The room is drab without any particular identity; the same dirty off-white paint that is used for the outside walls was also applied here with a much more unflattering appeal. Three long benches with back rest that reminds on of either an orthodox church or a colonial style court, competes with other patched up benches for space. In the front, at a place of honors, a beat up desk stands. An official wearing a multi colored kaftan sits behind the desk, talking with what I am sure he assumed to be a fear inducing voice.
The talk was an adaptation of what one of our captors said in the bus, A summary of the sections of the law we broke and the penalty, which includes a fine of N5000 (five thousand naira) or six months jail term with hard labor. This is excluding the one week we are to spend in their detention cell downstairs.

As he talked, I paid more attention to my surroundings and those that are in its vicinity. I noticed that the plywood that demarcates the room is rot ridden and that the walls are smudged and dirty, also, the ‘officials’ who brought us were not with us any more and those that are here, three women and about four men, all wore the sour faced expression of the empowered.

Soon, our names were taken and the ‘oga’ in traditional clothes proceeded to call them out. I waited patiently for my turn, refraining from asking those who have gone in what transpired-I had a Nigerian sense of what was going on.

Then my name echoed, murdered as usual, my surname was. I went in to face the ‘master’ who pointed out a sign that read ‘court in process. Silence!’. I smiled while I answered his questions.
“Please identify yourself?”
Knowing it means who you are in Nigeria, I replied.
“I am a writer sir,”
“Can I see an ID.? Which paper do you work for?”
“Sir, I don’t work for any paper. I am unemployed; actually that’s why I was at champion sir.”

He looked at me disbelievingly for a while, belying my well feed appearance. Noting his look, I pulled out my CV and credentials which were in my carry bag.

Disappointed, but determined to collect his due, he pressed on.
“Call someone close to you to bring your fine.” He said with bluffing finality which I saw through.”

That is the problem, I say, I don’t have any one and what I have here is not up to one thousand naira.
“How much do you have exactly?” He asked
I pulled out my wallet and brought out all the money in it, eight hundred in all.
“You mean you can’t use your ATM to get the money?”
“Sir, I don’t have up to two thousand in my account, like I said before, I am a job seeker.”

“Ok,” he said, “go outside and wait in the hall.”

Outside, I waited while everyone was attended to; soon he noticed me at my corner and called me into his office again. See, he said, I want to help, go and bring two thousand.
“I can’t sir, I can’t afford it.”
He didn’t answer but stormed out and ordered that I be taken together with the others to the cell. Not surprisingly, many panicked and last minute pleas and hidden money started appearing.
Ignoring all, I walked with a light headed bounce down the stairs, even managing to walk before the man that was taking us down.

Inside the police post mentioned before, we were headed into a corridor jam-packed with apparently sized okadas. This, I was told by some other captors who were there before us, is the cell. In all we were about 15 in number and during the course of my vigil, which lasted about 5 hours, more people were brought in(I didn’t note the number because they were releasing people who were able to pay up or whose relatives showed up to pay.

Sometime in the afternoon, a woman was brought in, crying bitterly. She claimed she has a pot on the fire, literary. She was cooking and ran across the road to buy spices and got arrested. The major fear was that the electric stove she is using might explode and burn down the tenement she is living in. we all forgot our problems to appeal to the official to either let her go or let someone accompany her home. They didn’t budge and I furiously gave all of them, police included a bitter piece of my mind.

Soon after, I heard my name and upon investigation discovered that the ‘oga’ wanted me to be brought back upstairs. Getting there, I was told to go get my things and go. No, not free, I had to forfeit most of my meager eight hundred naira, leaving with only enough transport to take me back to Oshodi.
As I made my way home, I wondered about the fate of my fellow ‘captives’ and the long arm of a very stupid law that doesn’t have any provision for first offenders. Passing the very spot of my abduction, I noticed that there was no warning sign post to warn people about the dangers of crossing the main road and the inherent fine.

I am positive that the system has found a way to milk the masses off their hard earned cash, and like everything Nigerian, a source of unfettered corruption. Fashola should take note.