I find it a bit ironic that on the day I noticed the #ThePoliceIWant hashtag on twitter was the day I got my first experience with the police we have in this country.
That morning, I’d been on twitter and came upon the hashtag. It was trending with lots of Nigerians tweeting characteristics they’d appreciate in the Nigerian Police Force. I retweeted most of them. The tweets were sense-making and spoke to an exasperation, a frustration, a pain felt by Nigerians over how rotten and cankerworm-eaten the law enforcement system is in this country.
Later that day, I was on my way home from work. I’m a career editor employed by an advertizing firm, and this means I’m almost always going about with the weighty load of my backpack on my back, inside which is my laptop. The laptop is my everything. My family often teases me that the day the laptop is stolen is the day I’ll commit suicide; they have no idea how close they are to the truth.
Anyway, I was on a bike, on my way back home when just before making a turn, the okada man said to me, “Police dey front o. They dey do stop-and-search.”
I shrugged. I didn’t think much of his words. So what if they were doing stop-and-search? My mind was wrapped up with thoughts of dinner, a bath and sleep. Besides, my phone battery was very dead. Good luck trying to get into it to see where the bodies are buried.
We were driving past where I could see a cluster of men who seemed busy by the side of the road, when one of them noticed my bike approaching and waved the okada man to a stop. The okada man pulled over and the man approached.
“Good afternoon,” he said to me when he got to us.
“Good evening,” I replied. It was after all 5pm. Simple greeting, he couldn’t even get right.
“I’m the police and we are doing stop-and-search,” he said. As he spoke, he gestured for me to get down from the bike.
I did, with my face set with a heavy frown. This man from the police was in plain clothes, no uniform, nothing. I was just supposed to take his word for it. I was tired and in no mood for trouble, so I responded as calmly as I could, “Okay, what has that got to do with me?”
“Can I see your ID card?”
I produced my ID card, both work and National ID, and handed them over to him. He squinted at the work ID, stumbling over the words as he tried to pronounce the name of my employer.
“What’s in your bag?” As he asked this, another man, who was in plain clothes too, had approached, his eyes on my backpack.
“It’s just my laptop and some work documents,” I said.
“Can we see the laptop?” the second man asked.
“Why?” I was starting to get agitated.
“We have been hearing many reports of yahoo boys operating around here.”
“I live just nearby with my family,” I protested, pointing in the direction of my estate. “Why not follow me to my house and find out if I’m a yahoo boy or not.”
The two men snickered, and the second one reached for my bag.
“Excuse me, but this is wrong,” I said, moving the bag out of his reach.
“Let’s just see your laptop,” the man said, an ugly look coming into his eyes. “If you don’t have anything to be afraid of, then we won’t have a problem.”
Technically, I didn’t have anything to be afraid of. My gay porn stash was the only incriminating thing in the laptop and was tucked away under layers of folders it would take someone more tech-savvy than these ignoramuses to find. I merely resented the idea of these men violating my privacy so brashly, bullying their way to it simply because they are the police. It wasn’t even as if they were uniformed. That was the second reason for my apprehension. For all I knew, they were criminals masquerading as policemen. But then, I saw two uniformed policemen among the cluster of men a few yards away from us, also rifling through some other young men’s bags, and I relented.
I pulled my laptop from my bag and handed it over to the second man, all the while protesting the violation.
They were talking back at me as the second man booted the laptop. I was lecturing them on how wrong they were, talking about a violation of human rights and bringing up the issue of the Police IG expressly banning this kind of behaviour from them. Initially, they responded to my lecture with dismissive amusement, until my voice started getting louder and I touched on the part about the IG ban, and then the one who stopped me turned to me with a belligerent expression and snarled, “Why are you talking too much sef? Abi will you like us to take this to the station?”
I looked at him with all the disdain I could put into one look. This is why Nigerians have no respect for the police. They are not only thugs, they are also ignorant bullies, preferring to use bluster to try to intimidate civilians into behaving, instead of sound knowledge. Because the truth is: they know nothing!
From where I was standing, I could see the screen of my laptop. The moment it booted open, I saw the man handling it click open My Documents. He flicked a glance over it and instantly zeroed in on the folder I’d labeled ‘LGBT’. Out of all the documents and files in there, that was the one he went for right away.
A criminal with a mission – except the mission wasn’t to track down yahoo boys. The Nigerian Police has discovered the mother lode of extortions – and that is with the LGBT community or anyone even remotely associated with it. And they are not letting go anytime soon. You hear of roadside arrests of male pedestrians simply because the guy walks like a girl, or searching phones to discover nude male pictures or gay porn and promptly arresting the owners. Grossly abusing the fundamental human rights of gay Nigerians under a distorted interpretation of the antigay law.
When I saw him click open the folder, I wasn’t at all bothered. The documents in there ranged from a PDF file of the full Nigerian Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Law, speeches made by President Obama, some LGBT literature downloaded from the internet to LGBT novels purchased from Amazon and a list of inspiring quotes I’ve collected during the course of my perusal online and from watching television. I watched him click open the document that was the final UN address President Obama made; he skimmed through it with disinterest, before minimizing it and clicking open the PDF file of the antigay law.
“Are you a lawyer?” he asked.
“No, but my mother is,” I said stoically. My mother is an entrepreneur, but who’s checking.
He nodded and clicked open a few more documents. Nothing screamed the words ‘I want you to suck my dick’ or ‘Please fuck my ass’ at him. Such disappointment he must’ve felt as he exited the folder.
Then he saw a document named ‘The Army’. It was actually a novel I was editing for a client intended for Farafina. The title however must have arrested his attention because he asked while pointing at it, “What’s this?”
Without missing a beat, I said, “It’s a brief I’m working on for my uncle. He’s in the army.”
The two of them turned to look at me.
“What did you say you do again?”
I told them.
“And your uncle…he’s in the army?”
“At Ojo Barracks.” I’d never been to Ojo Barracks. I had no idea what I was talking about, but again, who’s checking.
Quietly and without further ado, the man with my laptop shut it and handed it back to me.
Unable to resist, I said, “Have you finished? Is that all? Is there nothing in there that says I’m a yahoo guy?”
“Mai fren, just go!” he snapped sullenly.
They waved me away and turned to join the others. I watched them go, shaking my head with sadness for this country before returning to where my okada man was waiting.
What exactly are we getting right in this country? I ask sometimes. Government. Amenities. Human rights. Law enforcement. International relations. Economy. None of these are we getting right in Nigeria. We are a country where basically, every man is an island unto himself, because he cannot count on the system to be there for him. How does such a country work? Nigeria is a failed experiment and it’s a miracle that we’ve been able to last this long.
President Buhari says the change he promises us starts with you and I. Well, if you’re in the Police and you’re reading this, here’s the change I expect from you, the police I want:
He should know the law and uphold it rightfully. The Police I want should understand that they are supposed to be good guys, and not extortionists, bullies, opportunists seeking to ravage and exploit. The Police I want should represent the respect we have for our country instead of the scorn we harbour for it. The Police I want should see their job as a calling to serve and to protect, not abuse and intimidate.
I know Nigeria is famed for her resilience, but honestly, how much more can we last with the awareness that the enemy is as much the one we need protection from as the one tasked to protect us from them.
Written by Mandy