I laid on the rough knitted polyester blanket at the benevolence of the cell president inside the police Special Tactical Squad detention centre in Abuja, sweating profusely as I read an old copy of a Christian daily guide printed by Paul Enenche’s Dunamis Gospel Centre.
It was the kind of spot the handbook was designed to prevent people from finding themselves. But for three days of last week, this mouldy, fetid cage — shared by dozens of violent crime suspects — was my reading, eating and sleeping corner.
It was my first time of seeing any work from Mr Enenche or his ministry, and I tried to savour it. In any case, it is the only written work smuggled in by a Dunamis devotee. I read a passage that preached about the value of freedom, and what believers must do to avoid any form of incarceration. Where individuals find themselves in custody through no fault of their own, though, it recommended holding on strongly to faith.
It was a striking sermon, one which bore comparisons to my case, and spurred me to remain confident of ultimate justice.
During the three days I spent behind bars for the crime of journalism, I heard from several others how people had been in and out of the STS detention due to sloppy investigation by the police. Their tales provided a mental fodder to help me endure my first experience in custody.
My experience with STS left me with a sense of a police unit more restrained than others, although some of its tactics still mirror the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad. The STS facility — a bungalow inside the larger SARS compound for hardened criminals — gives the impression that it is only a temporary custody, but this does not seem entirely true.
Like SARS’, STS detainees are condemned from day one, starting with the archaic prejudicial method of interrogation and unbearable conditions people face upon arrival.
Still like SARS, the STS seeks to psychologically torture detainees to give in — and many often do cave in — by isolating them in an attempt to crush their spirit and weaken their will. The only difference is that STS personnel appear more tidy, educated and evidently less crude than their SARS colleagues, whose notoriety has made Abuja residents dub their premises “abattoir”.
My journey to police detention began on August 11 when my colleague, Azeezat Adedigba, received a call from a police superintendent that essentially ruined her weekend. The officer, later identified as Emmanuel Onyeneho, told Ms. Adedigba she was being investigated for criminal offences.
The reporter alerted the office to the development. It was at first thought to be a prank from criminals who have continued to wax unchecked in Abuja, but Ms. Adedigba was asked to continue interacting with the caller under caution.
It was agreed that she should demand a formal invitation, written on police letterhead, from the caller. The invitation was delivered at the office two days later on August 13. In it, the police alleged criminal conspiracy, cyber crime, attempted kidnapping and fraud against Ms. Adedigba, mandating her to turn herself in by 10:00 a.m. on August 14.
My colleague honoured the invitation that Monday as instructed, accompanied by Editor-in-Chief Musikilu Mojeed. After keeping them waiting for four hours, Mr Oyeneho strolled in around 1:00 p.m. Before his arrival he had given instruction to a fully armed junior officer to forcefully confiscate Ms. Adedigba’s telephone. In the process of confiscating the phone, the officer manhandled Mr Mojeed who asked him why he was seizing it. Ms. Adedigba was then detained.
Hours after, Mr Oyeneho returned her phone and asked her to dial a number on it. The line turned out to be mine. The detective then asked that I be invited to join them. I received a call from Mr. Mojeed, through Ms. Adedigba’s line, that I was being sought on claims that I made contacts with violent crime suspects. I was halfway through a piece of choco pie when the call came in, and I devoured the rest before reaching for my keys.
I arrived at about 2:30 p.m. to a barrage of questions from Mr Oyeneho, all aiming to know the source of our story about Inspector-General Ibrahim Idris’ interim report to then Acting President Yemi Osinbajo on the State Security Service’s siege on the National Assembly on August 7.
I wrote the piece on the night of August 9, after receiving the report from a source and successfully getting two high-ranking police officers to help authenticate. The police had no complaints about the accuracy of the story. They only assumed it was not meant for public consumption. In fairness to the police chief, the five-page document, asides being clumsy, contained too many errors that cast him in a bad light.
On sighting me, Mr Oyeneho released Ms. Adedigba. “We only used you as a soft target to get our main suspect,” the officer told her.
It soon became clear that Mr. Mojeed and I were in detention when an officer in jean and T-shirt suddenly appeared to take a seat beside us, blocking all accesses between tables. The officer was slightly dreadlocked and wore a yellow jungle boot. He kept a straight face and was completely attentive to the conversation my editor-in-chief and I were having when Supol Oyeneho stepped out to brief his boss that I had been captured.
Mr. Onyeneho had demanded to seize my phone when he came to collect me at the entrance, but I told him it was not with him. He was curious, and ambled around me to be sure, especially as I had just telephoned Mr. Mojeed to say I was at the gate. But he was unable to get me to hand my phone over.
Between calling Mr Mojeed that I was at the gate and when he arrived with Mr Oyeneho, I no longer had a phone. It was necessary I had no phone because my editors had advised I should not go in with my phones because the operatives might end up prying details unconnected with their investigation while also bugging the device.
Just before Mr Oyeneho started interrogating me, he boasted that my salary account with Ecobank had been frozen hours earlier. My mind immediately dashed to a transfer that failed to go through on my bank’s mobile app just before I received the call to turn up at the station. Before I could ask whether he procured a court order before taking this measure, he started growing increasingly furious about the source of my story.
When Mr Oyeneho could not get me to reveal my sources on the spot, the police superintendent informed his superior at the STS and sought the next move. Ibrahim Agu, a deputy superintendent of police and administrative officer in charge of STS detention centre, said we should proceed to the Force Headquarters for further interrogation.
Four plainclothes officers, including Messrs Agu and Oyeneho, then drove us into the bowels of the Force Headquarters, arriving at about 3:00 p.m.
We arrived at the office of Sani Ahmadu, the police commissioner overseeing the IGP Monitoring Unit. The STS is a department that cracks crimes and makes arrests under the IGP Monitoring Unit. Police sources said the department was created many years ago, but it had been largely inactive until Mr Idris reactivated it after President Muhammadu Buhari appointed him inspector-general in 2016.
As we took out seats, Mr Oyeneho tried to boast about the “intelligence operation” they executed to arrest me, but Mr Ahmadu interjected, apparently feeling that it would be too much information for Mr. Mojeed and I.
Mr Ahmadu then told us the story PREMIUM TIMES published was against the law, but assured us his men would be civil in handling the matter. I was subsequently given a pen and two sheets of paper to write a statement.
As I was writing my statement, Mr Oyeneho was interrupting. He tried many times to tell me what to write, but I declined each time. He insisted I must state the number of times I had written unfavourable stories about Mr Idris or the police as an institution or even the Nigerian government in general, but I paid no heed.
While I was writing my statement, an officer assisting Mr Oyeneho to monitor me on the writing table, placed directly opposite Mr Ahmadu’s, whispered that I was “in trouble”. I felt a bit concerned by his tone, but then, I looked at his curly hair and became relaxed.
After about one and a half hours of back and forth with the officers, during which I negotiated a loo timeout, I turned in my statement. I concluded just as Mr Ahmadu’s lunch — or early evening meal — was arriving. We would have to wait, I signaled to Mr Mojeed, who was seated about a metre to my left.
As we waited, I saw Mr Ahmadu working the keypad of his Samsung phone. He was shopping for a warrant to keep me in custody. Seeing his superior not making much progress, Mr Agu disclosed he was already on the phone with someone. During the conversation, which was just about a minute, Mr Agu could be heard saying in Hausa that the person on the other end had confirmed that he had succeeded in convincing a magistrate to issue a warrant. About 45 minutes later, the person arrived, bearing some paperwork. It turned out to be a police prosecutor attached to the STS.
He then pulled out a document and showed it to Mr Ahmadu and other officers. Mr Mojeed signaled to me that it was a warrant, and asked me to stay calm nonetheless.
We also heard the officers saying the warrant would be valid from August 15 until August 25. By then, Mr Ahmadu was through with his meal. He had also read my statement, and now ready to conclude the session.
At this point, Mr Mojeed’s lines had started buzzing non-stop. Apparently, Azeezat and Tosin Omoniyi, another colleague who was also at STS before Azeezat was freed, had gone to break the news to other colleagues at the office. Halfway into my statement, Mr Oyeneho had already started receiving calls from our lawyers and other concerned persons.
But just before I was returned to the STS by my minders, Mr Ahmadu would like to know for the last time if I could reveal my sources, and I turned him down yet again. As we made for the exit, Mr Mojeed had a word for him:
“I just want to let you know that this action you are taking, this attempt to lock up a reporter for writing a story, would embarrass this country seriously,” Mr Mojeed said.
“I do not care,” Mr Ahmadu initially said meekly before snapping: “Go and tell that to those who are afraid of the media. We are not!”
Mr Agu rushed us out to prevent Mr Mojeed from responding further. As we stepped out of Mr Ahmadu’s office, Mr Agu said Mr Mojeed was wrong to have challenged his principal like that.
“I passed the message across to him because he was the most-senior officer amongst those of you handling this case,” Mr Mojeed said. “If the IG himself were around, I would say exactly the same thing to his face.”
As we were making our way down the stairway from Mr Ahmadu’s office on the second floor, the officers were asking Mr Mojeed how detaining a journalist for publishing a confidential document would embarrass the country.
“Your question shows that you people do not understand the implication of the assignment you were given,” Mr Mojeed answered. Before they were able to give any coherent response, we were already at the car park and the same Hiace bus did a pirouette to take us back to the STS detention centre.
Within minutes, we were back at the detention centre. Mr Oyeneho quickly prepared a docket for my detention. He had been complaining at frequent intervals about an important trip to Owerri, and how he had to delay it for another day because of my case.
Subsequently, the officer asked me to remove my wrist watch, belt and shoes as he prepared to move me into the cell. Though apparently angry and disturbed, Mr Mojeed remained levelheaded, and he admonished Mr Oyeneho on the need to ensure I am not physically tortured or hurt in detention.
“Okay, I will tell the guys in cell not to touch him,” the officer responded to my relief. “That would go a long way,” I said meekly.
The next second, a female officer taking records of inmates gave Mr Oyeneho the key to the cell and pointed me towards the direction. “Follow him,” she ordered. Everyone brought in for interrogation is a “prime” suspect in this centre and treated with disdain, and it is even worse if you are being detained.
The cell is on a row of about eight rooms inside the bungalow that serves as offices for STS personnel. Mr Agu’s office is at the centre of the building, officers keep one for rendezvous towards the back end of the building and the remaining rooms are reserved for interrogation.
Around 5:30 p.m., I was escorted into the cell. As the iron bar door opened, I was buffeted by whiffy, musty odour oozing from the room. Mr Mojeed was asked to step back about a metre, and the officers pushed me in. For nearly a minute, Mr Onyeneho called out the leaders of the cell and warned each of them to ensure my safety in the cell.
“President, IG, OC Torture, this person is a journalist and a visitor of the IG (Mr Idris), he did not come in here the same way the rest of you came here,” Mr Oyeneho said. “If he complains about any of you, the person will pay seriously for the offence, is that clear?”
“Very clear,” they chorused.
He then pointed to a blanket in a corner of the cell and said a space should be created for me there. Before I could whisper my appreciation, the officer had disappeared and the cell door slammed shut.
I had been told how new prisoners are usually tortured, especially those who came in with nothing. It is a form of ritual aimed at weakening a new face into submission to the existing authority in the cell.
“Who be that?” a sleepy voice mumbled from a mound of filthy football teams jerseys. “Na one oga oh and dem don talk say make we no touch am,” the cell president responded.
“So person wey just come today now go dey siddon for president side, they sleep for president bed and e no bring anytin for president?” another guy fumed.
“My people wan know whether you bring bread come, oga?” the president asked me. “No, I no carry bread come but I get small change for my pocket if una wan buy anytin.”
The whole cell erupted in ecstasy.
“This our new journalist e weigh so?” the president asked rhythmically. “E weigh!”
“If una sure say e weigh make una give am seven gbosas!” the president said. “Gbosa! Gbosa! Gbosa! Gbosa! Gbosa! Gbosa! Gbosa!”
I had some cash crammed in my pockets. The total was about N6,000, and Mr Mojeed advised that it should be split into two. I took one half into the cell.
Even if I had no cash on me when I entered, the president would still have covered me from any harm strictly on the basis of Mr Oyeneho’s warning. I learnt there are worse cells in the premises where people could be moved to.
The president asked that I should hold on to my cash until the next morning when they would need to place order for food. I had barely spent 15 minutes in the cell and my head was already hot. Thirty-four of us were packed in the 12 by 12 room.
Inside the cell, which is only concrete, dozens of young men sat in rows, some with unshaved beards and dusty heads laying out like orchard plantation in the harmattan; really difficult to imagine how they sleep at night in such a compressed setting.
Amongst the 34 men I met in the cell were kidnapping, armed robbery and even Boko Haram suspects. But they had not been moved to the “condemned” suspects’ jail because they were providing intelligence to the police and some were already negotiating their way out.
“I have been in this situation since February ending,” the president told me. “The former president smuggled this blanket in May and I inherited it from him when he was moved out.”
It was at this point that I knew the blanket I was sitting on had not been laundered for three months.
“I go bring clothes now make you use am do pillow, dem dirty small but you fit manage am,” the president said in a bid to help me adjust to my new reality.
He was here on car-jacking allegations. An accomplice with whom he was arrested had since left after ‘bailing’ himself. But the president had no resources to extricate himself of the charges.
“Dem no even gree carry me go court again,” he said. “My mama and brother no get enough money wey dem fit use fight for me.”
It was already 7:30 p.m., and we were being called on to rise for Christian prayers because Muslim inmates had concluded theirs. A digital wrist watch owned by the president read 7:12. “We know say e no correct, but e get as we dey use am.”
“Why you no fit correct am?” I asked. He threw it at me, and I immediately noticed the crown had broken. “Just add 18 minutes to anytin wey you see for the screen,” he said.
After the prayer, which lasted about an hour with songs of praise, it was time for dinner. And strong vexation rented the air. The cell president had ordered food at 4:40 p.m., but the vendor was yet to deliver.
“Cell guard!” He called out, trying to get the police officer on duty to look for the food vendor at an adjoining shade just a few metres away. “Oga journalist, na so dem dey treat us for here.” The guys know exactly which officers behave well and which are unkind, and they are taking mental notes.
At about 9:00 p.m., dinner arrived. The president, assisted by the IG and OC torture, served disposable packs to 26 cellmates. Some had noodles, while others ordered porridge beans. The food was divided, each person getting not more than little portions.
But more than a dozen had only garri and kulikuli for the night. I was told these were inmates who had run out of money and no family or associates cared enough to visit them in jail, much less replenishing their pockets.
As they were eating, I quickly fell asleep. Luckily, and strange enough, there were no mosquitoes. It would be 5:00 a.m. before I wake up. By 6:40 a.m., both Muslim and Christian brothers had concluded prayers.
At 7:00 a.m., the cell guard came in for a routine counting of inmates. All others knew the officer was going to come in, so they were already standing. “Who dey sit like chief for there?” the officer said as he flashed a powerful torchlight into my eyes.
Of all the inmates, I was the only one the cell guard, who resumed shift that morning, was meeting for the first time. He asked that I join others on one end of the open concrete. One after the other, we were asked to move to the opposite side and given numbers as we obliged.
At some point, I pushed the OC Torture forward. “Na your turn,” I said. “Na you dey sleep for Aso Rock, make you go first,” he replied. Aso Rock is what inmates call the president’s blanket area, named to match with Nigeria’s presidential villa.
Before the counting session was over, I was already blending in with the inmates, with my remarks frequently eliciting cheers from many of them.
The impression I had always had about cells was about violence and exploitation. But I realised just the next morning that inmates, no matter how long they had been behind bars, could also be persons of candour.
Some of the more personable ones were kidnappers. When their hideouts were raided, the police found condoms, bras, panties and other undergarments of women who had been raped after being abducted on Abuja-Kaduna Highway and taken into the deeper bush. Their parents had forced them to marry early even though they had no jobs, and they had to find any means to care for their kids, they said.
One of them is only 21, but he already has four kids. “I don do some of the things wey I do before I know say na criminal offence,” he said.
We fraternised and discussed our individual ordeals without fears. Some would openly share their offences in the cell while still keeping investigators in the dark. An unwritten convention says cell mates are not expected to divulge confessions shared, and flouting it could be costly.
Some said they had already confessed to the police and were waiting to be arraigned. The police often promise to help them through trial if they confess, but since such arrangements are seldom done before a lawyer, it is difficult to enforce. Yet, the court continues to admit verbal confession of suspects as evidence.
I had a slight share of this one-sided practice in my own case when I was secretly and hurriedly driven to court in the afternoon of August 15. The prosecutor and officers promised to let me call the office or our lawyers if I cooperate with them and enter into a vehicle to court, an assurance that turned out a ruse.
Earlier in the day, Mr Ahmadu, whose office is at the Force Headquarters, had come to the detention centre to interrogate me a second time.
The commissioner’s expectation was that I would divulge the source of my story because I had become isolated from Mr Mojeed. He also made promises about how I would be released immediately with some benefits he would not want to say on the spot.
I, however, dug my heels in. And it ended up being a wasted 40 minutes for both of us, or mostly for him.
Around 11:00 a.m., my breakfast arrived, brought in by our company’s Administrative Manager, Williams Obase-Ota. He came in with one of our lawyers, and the two ensured I started eating before they left around noon.
By 1:00 p.m., I was being told preparations were underway to take me to court, and I started asking that I be allowed to call Mr Mojeed or our lawyers. They declined. By 1:30 p.m., I was compelled to enter a Nissan light truck to court in Kubwa, which was about 25 minutes drive away. I insisted on making calls, but I was denied yet again.
The prosecutor called me aside, saying I should not resist because he would allow me make a call along the way and he had no plans of submitting any application to further detain me, anyway.
I got into the vehicle with three officers, guarded on both sides by two. The driver is also a policeman. The prosecutor led us in his own car. The prosecutor stopped along the way to conduct some personal business in Mpape, and the officers started arguing that it was already 2:00 p.m. and that the court would soon close for the day.
We eventually arrived at the magistrate’s court in Kubwa around 2:30 p.m. The prosecutor asked that we wait inside the car, and he went into the chambers to meet the magistrate.
We were eventually called in around 3:45 p.m., after the discussion between prosecutor and the magistrate had dragged for well over an hour. As we stepped into the courtroom, I was immediately docked. While we were waiting outside, I repeatedly asked the prosecutor to live up to his words and allow me just a telephone call, but he declined repeatedly.
I was alone in the courtroom. The prosecution side had the prosecutor, another lawyer whom he had called to meet him at the court, and two of the three police personnel that brought me.
The charges were read as a violation of sections 352, 288 and 319A of the penal codes, offences that were later found to be related to sexual assault and murder.
Even though I had not studied the charges for sufficient understanding, I entered a not guilty plea, nonetheless. The prosecutor who had promised not to seek my further remand demanded that the magistrate should keep me in custody so officers continue their investigation.
The magistrate immediately granted the relief, saying I should be kept in custody for five more days and returned to court on August 20.
Having listened to the charges and the curious meeting the two held in camera, the prosecutor had stripped my identity and I needed to clarify this before the magistrate.
Just before the magistrate hit the gavel and retreated into his chambers, I quickly informed him that I am a journalist with PREMIUM TIMES. I told him I did not burgle the Force Headquarters to steal documents from the IGP’s office as the prosecutor implied in the first information report.
The magistrate was stunned, and looked right into the eyes of the prosecutor, apparently feeling a sense of manipulation. I needed to make a call, I told him. I had been denied access to my office and lawyers.
The magistrate initially said the prosecutor should allow me make a phone call later. Then he changed his mind on the spot, demanding that the court registrar should bring his cell phone to me so I could call whoever I wanted.
The entire court proceeding lasted only about 10 minutes. I called Mr Mojeed to brief him about it, passing across enough information before I was whisked back to detention.
I returned to detention devastated, unnerved at the thought of staying through the weekend and wondering why I would be denied access to my office or lawyers.
The next day Mr Mojeed visited, he urged patience, saying I would soon be out. It was at that time that he first hinted that my arrest had sparked even bigger anger amongst freedom lovers in and out of Nigeria.
“You will be very proud of yourself when you come out,” Mr. Mojeed said. “Just be patient and continue to endure whatever treatment you get in here, because you will soon be out.”
Just before Mr Mojeed came in, an officer had denied me a chance to brush my teeth outside the cell, not to talk of having a shower. I had now spent two full days without bathing, and brushed only once.
I whispered these to Mr Mojeed inside Mr Agu’s office. “I understand everything, it is all part of their tactics,” he responded. “They want to break your spirit as much as they can. Just hold on and do not let them succeed.”
Some minutes later, just before Mr Mojeed turned to Mr Agu to discuss my welfare, the senior officer offered both of us akara and water. That was my first meal for the day. The same officer that prevented me from brushing had prevented me from eating outside the cell. I had to give the food Mr. Obase-Ota brought to me on Thursday morning to cellmates because I could not eat inside there because of the offensive odour in there.
After discussing with Mr Agu for about half an hour, Mr Mojeed was ready to go. Mr Agu asked that I remain at his office for some fresh air, but this was only a face-saving gesture. A few seconds after Mr Mojeed exited the building, a personnel was called in to usher me back to the cell.
That was already past 7:00 p.m., and the president was preparing Christian inmates for prayer. The akara I had was too heavy on me, knocking me straight to sleep in the middle of the evening prayer.
When the cell guard arrived for the routine count of inmates by 7:00 a.m. Friday, he asked me to step outside and gave me a seat at the front desk. “If you get anything for inside, make you go carry am,” he said.
I had nothing in there, I had been wearing the same clothes since Tuesday. “Call that your oga make he come sign for your bail,” the officer said.
I called Mr Mojeed, who was already on his way to the station. I later learnt that my release had been concluded the night before, but it was too late to take me to court at that time. I had to be taken before the magistrate who ordered my remand until Monday before I could be released on Friday.
“What if the magistrate denied me bail again?” I asked an officer. “No be him put you for cell, e no fit talk say make we no release you.“
Adding my experience before the magistrate two days earlier, I began to appreciate the domineering influence police and other law enforcement agencies wield over magistrates across the country. Magistrates are often said to cluck under police officers like hens, but I did not know much about this scandalous affair until now.
Just before Mr Mojeed stepped in, the cell guard asked me to go and take a shower. There had been an order from above that I should not be allowed to leave the station in the tattered way I had been for days. Some of the kidnapping suspects in my cell were called out to fetch water from a nearby well.
The bucket took only about eight litres of water. “This would not be enough,” I pleaded with the officer in a bathroom reserved for senior officers. “Just manage am, because 50 litres sef no fit clean the yanmayanma wey dey your body, you go clean body well well wen you reach your house.”
“No wahala,” I said. I had my shower and put on new clothes my colleague brought the day before but which I was denied from putting on because I could not shower.
I met Mr Mojeed at the front desk as I emerged from the bathroom. “You are free now,” he said to me gleefully. “Amen, thank you sir!” I responded reservedly.
Mr Mojeed called Mr Agu that he had arrived to bail me. The officer said we should wait until 9:00 a.m. when he would be at the office. It was around 7:30 a.m., but we had to wait because he had some documents to sign that we would take to court.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m., Mr Agu arrived to complete the paperwork. I was driven to court in the same Hiace bus that took Mr Mojeed and I to the Force Headquarters the first day.
Mr Oyeneho led the team of four officers that took me to court. He had returned from Owerri the afternoon before. At about 10:00 a.m., we arrived the court. Our lawyers were already present, and it was not long before the magistrate arrived.
The Kubwa Grade 1 Magistrate Court is off Arab Road towards a busy train station here. It looks relatively new, as with most public structures in Abuja, but an apparent lack of maintenance had begun to tell on the premises.
The seats and the floor were uncleaned. A dirty quilt was abandoned between the dock and the wall. No single computer or clock in the room. The ornamental bulbs and blinds had also broken.
Magistrate Abdulwahab Mohammed took his seat around 10:15 a.m. My case was listed at number four, but the magistrate moved it to number one, seconds after the registrar had already called the first case on the list.
I entered the dock before being prompted. It was a bail hearing, so our lawyers were called on first. The application for my bail was moved, and the prosecutor raised no objection. It was already a done deal.
The prosecutor even sought lenient bail terms for me, even on self-recognisance, he said.
The suave magistrate (likely in his thirties) found this funny, and he first concealed his chuckle with his pen before using the sleeve of his jacket.
“Is he the acting president?” he asked the prosecutor. “He is a known journalist,” your lordship,” he responded.
The magistrate approved the November 7 adjournment sought by the prosecutor and agreed to the motion by our lawyers and the hearing quickly wrapped up.
In less than half an hour I was a free man. The entire hearing and tidying of paperwork for my bail were concluded within 20 minutes.
The officers who brought me to court were the first to appeal for selfies with me. I was reluctant at first, then one said the picture was only an innocuous way of showing that I had no personal reservations towards them. I obliged.
I also posed for photographs with our lawyers and Mr. Obase-Ota who was in court to drive me to the office. But just as we were about driving away, I saw a news item pop up on his phone, saying the police accused me of violating the official secrets law.
Why would they charge me with violating official secrets when I am not a public official? What I could immediately think of was that the government was out to muzzle the press, and it would stop at nothing, no matter how ridiculous. Even then, it would be difficult to describe the document as secret because nothing in it warned it was, a fact widely observed.
Moreover, PREMIUM TIMES later learnt separately days after my release that Mr Idris was angry about some of my stories in the past. This is understandable, especially as the factual bases of my work were not in dispute. But this was not enough grounds to lock me up for days, one would imagine. Then again, there have been several cases of journalists being hounded within the past three years, some of which I chronicled here only last year.
With the 2019 elections in view, there are fears that journalists may be deliberately targeted, or some, like me, would be made as scapegoats. It was in the car that my colleague informed me that another journalist Jones Abiri had been released after two years in custody. He was freed on August 15, a day after my arrest.
I also began noticing the magnitude of support and how big the story of my arrest was when my colleague at the digital strategy desk could not allow me to get to the office before taking new pictures of me to upload with the breaking story of my release. Mr. Obase-Ota quickly parked at a safe compound and took pictures in specified resolutions. The picture was everywhere before I got to the office, and both the management and I had to put together separate statements of gratitude.
The Buhari administration understands the critical role the media will play in the upcoming election, just like those before it, including the one that brought him to power three years ago. And, as The Punch noted in an editorial last week, PREMIUM TIMES has been playing a front-role role in unearthing the missteps of this administration, making the investigative newspaper a prime target for harassment.
Babajide Otitoju, a political analyst, also saw my arrest as part of a desperate strategy by state actors to instill fears in journalists ahead of 2019, describing my arrest as an “elevated exaggeration.”
Early last year, it was the leadership of the Nigerian Army that was uncomfortable with our journalism and goaded the police into arresting publisher Dapo Olorunyomi and Evelyn Okakwu, my colleague at the judiciary desk. They were released the same day and the matter was never charged to court, apparently because, as with my case, they had no serious complaint at the time.
I spent three days in detention. But it was enough time for me to appreciate the precarious fate of journalism in Nigeria, despite nearly two decades of uninterrupted civil rule. I felt terrible to be incarcerated and isolated and accused of crimes that were clearly unfounded.
But I remain eternally grateful to everyone around the world who pushed for my release. The unbelievable magnitude of support my organisation and I enjoyed during this episode has strengthened my resolve to always be a voice for the voiceless while also pushing for the people’s right to know and holding our leaders accountable.