The call that came through on my phone, from a female voice, on the evening of last week Thursday, September 3, 2020, showed that it came from an unknown phone number not registered in my contact list. A further check showed that the call came in at exactly 5.14 p.m. The caller at the other end introduced herself as “Helen Oki,” a policewoman, and said something about my cousin being detained at their police station for contravening the COVID-19 curfew. I asked where she was calling from. She told me.
It turned out that my cousin she was talking about is Ijeoma Ogu who works at the Nigerian Ports Authority in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. The policewoman told me that she (my cousin) was the one that gave her my phone number to contact me. She needed to be ‘bailed’ from their custody, she said. Not too sure of who I was talking to, I asked the said Helen to connect me with my cousin so that I can hear from her directly and be sure that I was not dealing with a bunch of fraudsters somewhere. She agreed to do so. Shortly afterward, she returned with her to the counter to talk with me.
The arrest ordeal
From our short conversation over the phone, I gathered that she was arrested by the officers and operatives of Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) along with others on the night of Wednesday, September 2, 2020, herded into their Hilux van and driven off only to be put behind bars at Eleme Police Station in the city of Port Harcourt. I asked her why she should be out by that time of the night when she knows too well that there is a curfew in town. She explained that she was on her way back from work and was almost home when the incident happened. She said that she was, in fact, at a T-junction leading to her residence, which is about two minutes walk away when the police accosted her and forcefully took her away despite her protest that it was not yet time for the curfew to begin. She added that although it was supposed to start by 10pm, the police operatives arrested her at about 9.50 p.m. 10 minutes shy of the commencement time.
According to her, she tried to make them understand that fact but the operatives who came on the raid were in no mood for explanation. She showed them her ID card to authenticate her claim about coming back from work. This too did not cut an ice with them. She asked them to take her to her compound of residence which is a pole away so that she can inform her family about her whereabouts. They refused and insisted that she must go with them. When she tried to show some resistance, one of the policemen reached out and slapped her very hard across her face, almost blinding her. She saw stars and was promptly subdued. Psychologically! This is what the slap was intended to achieve anyway. She said that even Muhammadu Adamu, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) who, during his inaugural address, spoke of fulfilling the yearnings of Nigerians for “a policing system that will not only assure them of their safety, but treat them with civility and hold their rights sacred,” would have wept at the sorry sight that she suddenly cut.
At the Eleme Police Station where she and others similarly arrested were taken to, they laid before them the condition for securing their freedom: each and every one of them would have to bail themselves with N10, 000. Some victims paid that night and were set free; others did, the following morning, That left only my cousin who had on her only N3, 000.
“That was all the money I had in my handbag,” she told me with a lachrymal voice. You could detect from the sound of her voice that she had been traumatized, thoroughly unhinged by the experience. Those conversant with the philosophy guiding the operations of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), say that slapping a woman that hard, with such savagery, runs contrary to Article 4 of its Mission Statement: “to build a people’s friendly Police Force that will respect and uphold the fundamental rights of all citizens.” They insist that it runs against the purport of Articles 2 and 3 of the Force Values’ statement: “Building a lasting trust in the police by members of the public” and “protecting and upholding the rights of persons, to be impartial and respectful in the performance of Police duties.”
She didn’t want to disturb my peace initially, Ijeoma said. This is why she didn’t bother to call me earlier. But when she saw that with the way things were, if something urgent was not done, she might spend two or more nights in their cell without anybody knowing anything about her whereabouts, she had no choice than to ask that I be contacted. Moreover, by that time, the police rank-and-file had begun to mount pressure on her by asking her, time and again, if she did not have anybody she can contact to bail her out.
Rescue attempts and payment of bail money
Having been briefed, I decided to take matters up from there. I asked her to hand the phone back to Helen. She did. She not only confirmed what she told me but added that others arrested and taken into custody along with her “had all gone” (meaning, secured their freedom and left the cell), except my cousin.
I tried to talk her into accepting the amount she was offering but she refused. I then asked her to send her bank account number to me so that I can forward into it the balance, which is about N7, 000. She promised to do so. And, shortly afterward, she did. But looking at the name she sent to me, I discovered that it had no correlation whatsoever with her name: “Helen Oki.” The UBA account she sent bore the name of one Mercy Okoi which I assumed to be Efik or Ibibio. I wanted to point that fact out to her. But on a second thought I dropped the idea and played along.
In the meantime, I decided to explore alternative ways of getting Ijeoma out of the place by contacting people I felt could help. They include: Tony John, The Sun Rivers State correspondent; Christopher Oji, The Sun Head of Crime Desk; Ngozi Uwujare, one of our crime correspondents with robust access to police authorities and Frank Mba, Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) and Police Force Headquarters Public Relations Officer (PRO), Abuja. With the exception of Mba who could not initially take my calls (he later called back though, but the poor quality network service could not allow any meaningful communication between us), others promised to do all within their powers to see that my cousin was released from detention.
While John and Ngozi got in touch with Nnamdi Omoni (Deputy Superintendent of Police, DSP) and Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Rivers State Command, Oji chose to reach out to Helen, the policewoman who contacted me a while ago concerning the case. After several calls and text messages, all of which went unanswered, he eventually got through to her. She was full of apologies and explained that she left her phone at the “counter” to see her Oga. And, she was just coming out of his office when Oji’s last call came through.
Without further waste of time, he launched into the reason he was trying to reach her. She listened attentively before explaining that she is not the Investigating Police Officer (IPO) but was only trying to help. Oji then begged her in Pidgin English to help appeal to the IPO to accept the amount that my cousin was offering them. But she remarked that she didn’t think she would want to hear that. He then suggested adding something like N2, 000 to the amount with my cousin so that they can release her. She said that even if they accept anything less than the N10, 000 being demanded, we would still have to pay “counter money” which she claimed to be N1, 000. At the end of the discussion and negotiation, she agreed to accept something less but added that she needed to seek the opinion of the IPO in-charge. At this juncture, Oji nearly blew our cover when he asked the woman whether she was aware that she was dealing with journalists. But somehow that bit of information got lost to her as she was busy talking about the need to see the IPO.
Thinking that a deal had been clinched, I quickly transferred N3, 000 (see receipt) into the bank account number sent to me earlier. Time: 7.11pm, Thursday, September 3, 2020. But about 20 minutes later, Helen called back to protest. “Na wetin be dat kind money wey you send?” she asked in Pidgin English. “I don talk to the IPO as woman to woman and e talk say e no fit collect anything less than N8, 000.” She warned that if I don’t do something urgently about the matter, my cousin may spend the second night in the cell. I promised to send N2, 000 more to bring everything to the amount they were demanding. With my cousin’s N3,000 being added, that is! I later did (see receipt). Time: 7.34 pm. But when some minutes later I called to ask whether she had gotten the bank alert, she said: “No bi my account be dat. Na de IPO’s wey dey handle di matter. But e don talk say im don see am. You don try. In fact, you be correct, material broda. Don’t worry. De woman don talk say your sister go comot for cell in about one hour time from now. But na for tomorrow morning I go see di woman because as I dey so na go I dey go because I don close for work.”
A litany of doubtful information
At exactly 9.07pm, a call from a strange number came through on my phone. I checked to see who was calling and my Truecaller identified the caller as “Ore IB”. But when I took the call it turned out to be Helen on the line. It is her second line, she explained, and said she was calling to inform me that my cousin had been released. She suggested that I call her line to confirm and ended her call with a repeat of “you bi correct material broda” (whatever that means). At 9.43pm, I called her back to report that I had been calling my cousin’s line but it was switched off. I wondered what could have gone wrong. She suggested that it could be flat battery problem and asked me to relax, reassuring me that she had been released and should be home by then.
But unknown me, it was all lies as Ijeoma was not released until 7.20am the following day, Friday, September 4. According to her, the IPO said that the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) needed to sign her ‘bail bond’ before she could be released. Again, it was all lies as there was no paper anywhere to be signed. Bail bond is usually co-signed by, among others, a guarantor. Here there was nothing like that. But the case took another turn that Friday when Omoni got in touch with John, gave him the Eleme Police Station’s DPO’s name and phone number and asked him (John) to speak to him (the DPO) as he had discussed my cousin’s matter with him.
“I got the DPO, Jesse Manasis Adamu, on the phone by 2:04pm,” John reported. “He told me that he had spoken with the PPRO. He added that he had personally checked through the records at his station and the cell list, but did not see any name or a person answering to Ijeoma Ogu. He also said that there is no police staff at the station answering to the name, Helen. I told him that I would inform you and send his (DPO)’s phone number to you. He said okay.”
This latest piece of information from our correspondent gave me some chills. Since my cousin’s arrest has something to do with breach of curfew, I found it unsettling that it was not incidented anywhere in the police records at Eleme Police Station. What it means is that if anything evil had happened to her, God forbid, there would have been no trace of her ever being detained by the police, going by the official record. This is troubling. This is mind-boggling.
Armed with the information from John, I put a call through to the DPO. He confirmed what he told me earlier: that my cousin’s name was nowhere on the list of detainees at his station, neither is there any policewoman there that bears the name, Helen. I gave him other names like Ore IB and Mercy Okoi into whose bank account I paid in the said ‘bail’ money. He said there are no names of police staff like that working with him. The only person that he admitted, though reluctantly, as being a member of the police staff working under him is Love, the IPO.
But three developments contributed to cast some doubts on the DPO’s claim. To start with, during our conversation, I observed that for each name that I mentioned, he would ask a policewoman, possibly his administrative assistant, whose voice I could hear at the background, whether there is such a person working at the station. And she would answer either yes or no. And, depending on what answer she gave, he would relay that to me. From the way he spoke as if he depended on others to be told who is a member of his staff and who is not, under what was supposed to be his area of jurisdiction, I got the impression that it is either he is new to that police station, which makes it understandable, or he is acting out a script. But because you don’t have all the facts at your disposal, it is difficult to know which is which on this score.
Secondly, when John, during an investigation, after speaking with the DPO, called the two phone numbers belonging to the ‘non-existent’ Helen, and with which we have been communicating all this while, and asked to speak to her, he reported that initially a female voice answered him and said she was not “on seat” at that moment. She then asked him to call back. He left a message asking her to tell Helen when she comes back that one John from Port Harcourt, called. But later when he called back as he was instructed, our correspondent reports that the phone rang several times without anybody taking the call. The question is: if, as they claim, there is no policewoman bearing such name at the station, the ‘other’ policewoman who took the call would have said so. She would have asked: “which Helen?” Or, in normal order of discourse, informed him that there is nobody bearing such name at the station. But she only said she was not “on seat,” inadvertently confirming that there is someone bearing such name.
Thirdly, my cousin reports seeing the name “Helen Oki” clearly embossed on the name-tag of one of the policewomen while she was there. Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who wrote much about values and their significance in human existence was quoted to have said: “I’m not upset that you lied to me; I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” Georges André Malraux, French novelist, art theorist and one-time Minister of Information, and later Cultural Affairs, under President Charles De Gaulle, rightly observed that “man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.” Don’t let anybody fool you with the much-touted police slogan about bail being free. It is not.