KINGSLEY Amadi(not real name), 16, was one of several young men and women who made their living by hawking various items on the streets of Lagos, especially on major roads during traffic rush hours that have come to be associated with serious gridlocks.
Given the demands of this means of earning a living, which also include being able to run very fast after fast-moving vehicles in order to make sales, he considered himself blessed for being strong and agile.
Being a fast runner was an asset that also served him well in other ways: it enabled him to escape or make a quick get-away when officials of the Lagos State Task Force on Environment swoop on street traders and hawkers, as they are wont to do, to enforce the state government’s ban on street trading and related offences by arresting offenders and carting them away to detention centres where they are processed for quick trial and sentencing by mobile courts.
Indeed, for a long time, he and many itinerant hawkers like him had to devise ways of evading these unpopular Task Force operatives who had intensified their raids in recent time. That was until that fateful day on March 9, 2017 when he fell into the hands of officials of a task force team that had raided the Ketu axis of the Ikorodu Road and arrested several individuals deemed as undesirable elements.
But pleading his innocence, Kingsley had insisted that he was a victim of circumstance, claiming that he was actually on his way to Idumota in central Lagos to make purchases for his trading business. He said he had unknowingly boarded what he initially thought was a commercial bus but which turned out to be a vehicle being used by the task force officials to carry out their raid in that area. According to him: “I was at the bus-stop when I noticed many people running helter skelter.
Not quite long after, a bus stopped not far from me and thinking it was going to Oshodi, I rushed to enter. That was when I saw the policemen sitting inside. Before I could turn back, they ordered me to enter the bus. I had no choice but to obey them and they collected my phone and the money I had on me.”
That was how his journey to prison began. According to him, he and several others arrested that day were first taken to two detention centres in Agege and Lagos Island which turned out to be already over-crowded and had no room for more detainees.
They were then brought to the Lagos Task Force Office at Oshodi where they were detained, tried by a mobile court and subsequently sentenced to various jail terms with options of steep fines. Kingsley, whose charge sheet read that he was arrested hawking belts which was considered an offence under the law pertaining to street trading, was handed a stiff jail term of three years with an option of N120,000 fine. That was the beginning of his four-month prison nightmare that almost ended in his death.
His story: “When we got to Oshodi Task Force office, there were many other people there who had been arrested in different parts of Lagos. Since it was already evening, they took us straight to their detention cells. We were all jammed together in that cell that I found it difficult to breathe. At a point, I thought I was going to die of suffocation. In fact, I didn’t know how I survived till the following day.
“The next morning, they brought us out and started interrogating us before taking us to the mobile court. Most of us pleaded not guilty, but they threatened us that if we don’t plead guilty, we will all die in prison. They said it was better for us to plead guilty and get light sentences than to plead innocent and be found guilty and punished severely for it. Since we were all afraid, we agreed to plead guilty at the mobile court.
“In my case, as soon as I pleaded guilty, they sentenced me to three years in prison with option of paying N120,000 to secure my freedom. The problem was I didn’t have that kind of money and those who arrested me had earlier collected my phone, so I had no means of contacting any of my relations for help. Apart from that, I didn’t know my phone contacts off hand, even those of my father, mother and brothers in the village.
“So when a visiting relation of one of those arrested with me asked for the phone contacts of my family members, I could not provide them. I only managed to give him direction to the shop of one of my relations in Ketu, hoping that once he was able to make contact, my people will come for me.
“Unfortunately, that was not to be as I never saw him again to find out whether he made any effort to contact my relations. But after my trial and conviction by the mobile court, I and several others who were convicted that day were taken to the Prison in Badagry. That was my first time of seeing a prison and my first time of entering inside one for that matter. It was something I never thought was possible because due to my upbringing, I have always tried never to break the law. But here I was in prison in the midst of several other young people for a crime I didn’t even commit or know anything about.
“On getting there, most of us were crying as we didn’t know what would become of us. The experience is something I will never forget for the simple reason that it left painful scars on my mind. The cells where they put us were over-crowded and we had to sleep on bare floor. Apart from one or two warders who acted harsh, most of them were actually nice and sympathised with us. But obviously they had a job to do and ensured that we were kept locked up without any chance of escape.
“Because of the over-crowding, we were always falling ill. In fact, not long after we got there, I collapsed after becoming very ill and would have died but for the warders who took me to the clinic and paid for my treatment. Some others who fell ill were not so lucky: they died either before they could be taken to hospital or while being treated at the hospital. In fact, while I was at that prison, death was so common that we were tormented by the fear that it could strike any of us at any moment.
“And indeed, we had every reason to be afraid because of the frequency at which the inmates became ill and died. I will not easily forget the case of one boy, Mufu. When he became ill, the warders rushed him to hospital. When he came back we saw he was still not looking okay, especially as he was no longer walking normally as before. So, I was not surprised when one morning he called some of his very close friends at the prison and told them in Yoruba language that he was not sure that he would make it. He begged them to help him contact his parents and brothers to tell them that he was sorry that in spite of his efforts he could not make it in life and that it was a pity that he had to die without achieving anything worthwhile. Having said that, he died. That day, there was a lot of crying in our own section of the prison. Even the warders found it difficult controlling and consoling us.
“Another problem that troubled us was hunger as food was not always available. We were always afraid of hunger. But we thank God for the many churches and some other organisations that were always coming around to bring us food and other essential items like clothes, soaps, medicines and so on.
Frivolous, trumped up charge
“While there, I made efforts to reach out to my people to let them know that I was in prison and how I came to be there. Initially, I couldn’t get anybody to help. But later I was able to get somebody who was able to trace my relation in Ketu who got in touch with my father and told him what happened. Unfortunately, my father, who is a transporter, was not in a position to raise money to secure my release because shortly before my arrest, he was involved in a ghastly accident and was admitted in hospital. In fact, he was still on admission when he was contacted and told about my plight.
To make matters worse, the doctors gave him little or no chance of being able to walk again even after being discharged from hospital.
“It was my father who contacted some of my uncles for help and two of them promptly responded by visiting me in prison. They were enraged that I was in jail on account of a frivolous, trumped up charge.
They were more angry that officials of the Task Force and the mobile court did not give me the opportunity to contact my family members and others who could have provided legal assistance before I was tried and sentenced. They thereafter tried to get my conviction upturned but to no avail as the authorities insisted that the fine of N120,000 must be paid before I would be freed.
“Unfortunately, that amount was not easy to come by, so I had to remain in prison while my uncles went in search of the money. I had been in prison for two months before my uncles got to know about my plight, two months later I was still there languishing in pain and despair that there was no way out for me. But to God be the glory, my uncles eventually raised the money and the fine as demanded by the court. That was how I regained my freedom.
“But thinking about my experience in prison, especially those I left there, I still feel as if I’m not free yet. The thought that an innocent man can end up in prison just for being at a place at the wrong time and made to suffer such indignity and dehumanising experiences is something I still cannot understand. Yes, I may be free, but what about many others there who are innocent victims, who found themselves there for a crime or offence they never committed?