On new Year’s Eve, when everyone was listing their resolutions for the incoming year, something unusual, serious, and comical happened in Lagos. Yinka Badmus, a 24-year-old photojournalist, was sitting quietly and consuming noodles in a restaurant at the Gbagada suburb of Lagos. Unbeknown to him, he had broken the state law, not because of the way he ate the noodles but because of the way he carried his hair. Strange things happen in Nigeria, even on a festive day.
Badmus was picked up by excessively zealous and stringent policemen assigned to the Lagos State anti-cultism group. What was his offence? He wore dreadlocks, which the policemen reasoned was evidence that he was a member of a cult. How bizarre and insulting! Could anyone be deemed to be a member of a cult just because of their hairstyle or appearance? I am not aware that citizens wearing dreadlocks in Lagos State are guilty of an offence under the state’s anti-cultism law.
In various parts of the world, citizens are deemed innocent until guilt has been established by a court of competent jurisdiction. Apparently, this principle does not apply in Lagos. You are guilty until you can prove yourself innocent. The policemen arrested Badmus anyway. Not only was the photojournalist picked up, the police officers who arrested him denied him his right to contact his relatives and friends.
To deny a man his fundamental rights on the untested assumption that he is a member of a cult because of his hairstyle is not only ridiculous and imperious but also odious, impertinent, and repugnant. Appearances can be misleading but the policemen didn’t want to accept this basic creed.
This case is bizarre and baffling for a number of reasons. Badmus was held against his will for more than two days. He was held along with other serious criminals before he was charged at a magistrate’s court. The attempt by the photojournalist’s employer to secure his bail was met with a complex web of lies and intrigues.
This incident is similar to what happened in April 2017 during a morning parade by members of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) in Port Harcourt, when the regional commander decided he had the powers to chop off the hair of some female staff of the organisation whom he accused of breaching the code of dressing. The abuse was captured in photographs published in mainstream and online media. The mistreatment degraded Nigerian women, in particular, female staff of the FRSC. The photographs attracted severe criticisms of Nigeria and the overbearing manner in which senior officials of government agencies treated female staff members.
That incident generated questions that underlined civil society’s disapproval of the regional commander’s behaviour. Why would the head of a government agency treat women in such an appalling and abhorrent way? What caused the senior official of the FRSC to cut off the hair of female staff members as an appropriate punishment? Did the FRSC’s code of dressing stipulate the cropping of women’s hair when they breach the rules? These questions were as relevant in 2017 as they are unsettling today.
The shameful arrest of a photojournalist on the basis that he was wearing an unacceptable hairstyle has added comic relief to a politically charged atmosphere. What exactly is the approved hairstyle for everyone in Lagos? Is there a standard hairstyle that all journalists are required to observe while at work? When is it appropriate for the guardians of public hair to intervene to enforce the law? What is offensive or obscene to one person might be seen by another person as a great piece of artwork. Individual differences make it difficult for civil society to concur on a universal conceptualisation of what an appropriate hairstyle should look like.
No matter how you examine the ugly incident, the idea of detaining a photojournalist on a flimsy excuse is clearly excessive. Could the police officers have arrested and detained their own relative or kinsman?
The disgraceful treatment of the photojournalist by the police represented an objectionable form of reproach. The punishment was in no way proportionate to the “crime”. It lowered the man’s character in the public domain. If there are laws in our society that govern how people should carry their hair, appropriate punishment for offenders should be clarified.
The Lagos State government and the police hierarchy must discipline the officers who arrested and detained the photojournalist. If the essence of the rule that led to the man’s arrest was to curb the number of people who join cults, the authorities should understand that membership into cults is not defined or determined by the shape or style of one’s hair. The policemen who arrested and incarcerated the journalist acted well outside the powers conferred on them.
Checking the activities of cult members is not the same thing as checking the hairstyle of citizens. I would argue the police do not have the power to arrest people arbitrarily because of their appearance or their hairstyle. It is absurd that a photojournalist should be arrested and thrown behind bars just because he wore dreadlocks that made him look like a rastafarian. Let us get this point clear. Rastafarians are not criminals because of their hairstyle. It would be ludicrous if the police should go about arresting people who they perceive as criminals because of their hairstyle, their clothes, the way they walk, the way they speak, and the way they look.
Although the police represent the symbol of law and order, they are not above the law. Their public behaviour must reflect the high standards expected by members of our society. The police in Lagos State do not have the power and the right to degrade members of the public because of their hairstyle.
The policemen who abused the journalist must be punished to convey the message that government does not approve of actions that demean, abuse, and sully citizens. I was disappointed that civil society did not rise to express their disapproval of the behaviour of the policemen who insulted and detained the photojournalist. Civil society’s failure to show solidarity with the photojournalist says a lot about our priorities in general.
Although many people have been overwhelmed and dispirited by the daily challenges of trying to earn a living in a country that continues to drift like a ship taking in water on the high seas, the struggle to uphold the dignity of citizens should not be reduced to what goes into our stomach. The times are definitely tough but there are equally other important matters that require the collective attention of everyone. At a time like this, at a time when politicians abandon our welfare to focus on the forthcoming general election, this is not the time for everyone to keep silent when the fundamental rights of citizens are abused.
What happened to the photojournalist who was abused and insulted by some policemen in Lagos because of his hairstyle was evidently a case of abuse of power. Police humiliation of citizens should not be tolerated.