A few days after celebrating her 50th birthday, Olapeju Okafor ended up in prison. Her journey to the female holding facility of the Nigerian Correctional Centre in Kirikiri, Lagos, began on the day she complained to a police station against a local beer retailer.
It turned out, to her chagrin, that the retailer wields enormous influence among the police.
“I didn’t commit any crime, I only went to the police station to report a beer seller in my area that the police should warn her,” Mrs Okafor, now 52, told PREMIUM TIMES.
“A police officer slapped me in the presence of the Area Commander, and the Area Commander also asked them to lock me in the cell. For what? I was crying bitterly.”
Mrs Okafor, a trader, was subsequently charged to court for ‘obstructing’ police investigation and spent the next 30 days in prison.
“People are now calling me an ex-convict, that I am a prisoner, even though I did not commit a crime,” she said.
Mrs Okafor’s journey to Kirikiri began three years before then when she decided to invite friends to celebrate her 50th birthday.
Her friends and their husbands gathered in her home in Agege, a Lagos suburb, for a “low-key celebration.”
“As we were celebrating, the male guests decided to buy alcoholic drinks,” she said.
“They went for Trophy beer which they bought from a woman (known as Mummy Chichi) within our neighbourhood.”
As the party continued, the men found that some of the corked beer contained particles, and stopped drinking.
“It was a crate of Trophy beer, they had taken part of the beer but there was a particular bottle that had plenty of particles inside, so my guests stopped at Mummy Chichi’s shop to complain about the drinks.”
Instead of listening to the customers and apologising, Mrs Okafor said ‘Mummy Chichi’ flared up, insulting her guests and claiming she was not the manufacturer of the drink.
One of Mrs Okafor’s guests who drank the beer was reportedly hospitalised the following day, for stomach upset and diarrhoea. Mrs Okafor showed a hospital card and receipt carrying the name of the patient to PREMIUM TIMES.
Mrs Okafor said with her guests still holding on to some of the beer bottles, Mummy Chichi ”began to harass her, calling her unprintable names and demanding the return of the bottles”.
“This embarrassment was too much, at times, she rains curses on me and shouts at me whenever I pass in front of her shop.
“This was what made me go to Abesan police station to make a report so that the police will help me warn her. I only went there for them to warn her,” she said.
Her decision to involve the police, however, became one she would regret later.
On getting to the Abesan Police Station, under the Area P Police Command, she complained to the beer seller and wrote down a statement about the incident.
“The police said I should bring the Trophy bottle and I explained to them that it is not with me and that the people that have (them) want to take it to NAFDAC,” Mrs Okafor said.
The police insisted that Mrs Okafor bring the bottle as evidence. So she pleaded with one of her guests, who had the bottle, to release it so she could show the police.
She showed the police and they invited the beer seller for questioning. A few days later, the police invited both parties again, and they reportedly offered Mrs Okafor money to forget about the incident.
“I told them I cannot collect the money because I am not even the one affected by the beer. And other people, my friends and their husbands should be there.”
PREMIUM TIMES was unable to hear the beer seller’s accounts of events. Phone calls and messages sent to her were not answered.
Mrs Okafor said after turning down the offer, she asked the police for the beer bottle so she could return it to those taking it for NAFDAC examination.
“The police refused to give me the bottle, they kept saying they are ‘investigating’ the bottle. I was going there repeatedly and they kept dragging the case.
“I told the police that all I went there for is for them to help me warn the beer seller to stop abusing and harassing me and not to ‘investigate’ the bottle. They did not listen, they said they want to keep the bottle as evidence.
“While I was dragging with the police, they said they were going to lock me up, so I now reported them to the area commander,” she said.
After reporting to the Area Commander, she said she was informed that the senior police officer had requested to see her on April 12, 2018.
“I went to the Area commander the day they gave me to come,” she said. “I explained to him that the policemen told me the bottles were exhibits and under investigation. The Area Commander asked me what do I want to do with the bottle, that the bottle is evidence, it is an exhibit.”
Mrs Okafor said while she was explaining that she needed to return the bottles for the NAFDAC examination, the Area Commander ordered the police officers to bring the bottle to his office.
“When they bring (brought) the bottle, they put it on the Area Commander’s table. So as I just hold the bottle to look at it because it was like they have opened the bottle, the Area Commander said: ‘Why did I touch the bottle?’
“The Area Commander said they should arrest me; ‘arrest this woman’, I was looking at my back, that who is the woman? The next thing is they say I should get up; ‘Get up madam, you are very stupid.’
“I said what did I do, they just slapped me in my face, I was like what is going on? The next thing I saw was that they pushed me out of the Area Commander’s office, they pushed me to the counter where they said I should write a statement. I said I don’t know the statement I will write, they said I was playing with fire. I was surprised.”
From police to prison
Mrs Okafor said she was pushed behind the counter at the area command, and told she was being detained.
“I took my phone to call one of my brothers, they collected that phone from me. I said why, what did I do? Am I a slave? In fact, a lady officer on the counter said she does not want to hear me that it is me and the Area Commander and the instruction is to lock me.
“I burst into tears. Before I know it, they said I cannot sleep behind the counter at night, they took me to a cell, I was sweating, they did not allow me to call anyone,” said Mrs Okafor.
The following day, Mrs Okafor said she was brought out of the cell, given her personal belongings, and told to enter a waiting vehicle. She thought she was going home but, instead, they drove to the court.
“Before I know, I met myself in the court, what did I do? Many lawyers in the court surrounded me asking ‘madam can we be your lawyer?’ I just burst into tears, I said I don’t know what I did.”
Mrs Okafor said she narrated her ordeal to a lawyer who charged her N30,000. “I told the lawyer I only had N2,000 on me and that the police did not give me my phone to call my people.”
Mrs Okafor said the lawyer collected her phone from the police and she pleaded with him to help her out of the situation.
She was later arraigned on a six-count charge at Ogba Magistrate Court, before Samuel Ilori, the magistrate.
In a copy of the charge sheet obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, Mrs Okafor was charged with:
i. Felony to wit destruction of the exhibit,
ii. Constituting nuisance by forcefully and unlawfully seizing a bottle of Trophy lager beer an exhibit under investigation just to cause inconvenience in the ongoing investigation,
iii. Stealing a bottle of Trophy lager beer, an exhibit under investigation with the intent to divert the attention of the investigators,
iv. Giving a false statement and declaration that a friend was hospitalised as a result of consumption of Trophy Lager beer,
v. Disrupting an interview conducted by the Area ‘P’ Commander over a case she reported,
vi. Disobedience to a lawful order by refusing to make a statement on allegations levelled against her.
The defendant pleaded not guilty and was granted bail by the magistrate. But she was immediately unable to meet her bail conditions.
“Before my people come, they said I should enter Black Maria and that I’m going to prison, for what I did not do,” Mrs Okafor recalled.
“That was how I went to prison. Oh, it was a terrible day. I got to prison, my experience is nothing that I can explain in my life, it is not something that I can tell my generation. I suffered in that place.”
Mrs Okafor told PREMIUM TIMES that it took her a month before she was released from prison and that her family spent over N100,000 to secure her bail.
Mrs Okafor said upon her release from custody, the area commander told the prosecutor to ask her “whether she was still interested in the case.”
However, during the next three court hearings, the police, the prosecution, were absent. As a result, the magistrate struck out the case.
‘Accuser becomes accused’
Mrs Okafor had earlier approached Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC), a non-governmental organisation that investigates police abuse of powers and breach of human rights, for assistance.
Okechukwu Nwanguma, the Executive Director of RULAAC, described the matter as a case of the “accuser becoming the accused.”
He said the assault on the woman by police officers is ”unprofessional, unethical and condemnable and that it happened in the presence of the Area Commander is worrisome”.
“From all indications, going by the woman’s account, it seems like the police compromised and twisted the case against the woman who was the complainant. The only likely reason for this action by the police would be that the accused persons are influential.”
Mr Nwanguma said the seller of the drinks, “could have paid the police to intimidate the complainant.”
“They twisted the case, turned the complainant into the accused and charged her maliciously to intimidate her. This is a corrupt practice that should be investigated to ensure that those found responsible are brought to account while the victim is compensated for the violation of her rights,” he said.
Alleged aggressor responds
When PREMIUM TIMES contacted Abdulsalam Alade, the then Commander of Area P Command, about the incident, he said he couldn’t remember the case.
“But let me ask you if she brought the bottle by herself to the police and for touching the bottle in my office, she was now arrested, and detained for touching the bottle, is that logical?” Mr Alade asked.
When told that one of the charges levelled by the police against the alleged victim was that ”she stole the bottle”, Mr Alade, who is now a Deputy Commissioner of Police in Abuja, insisted ”the story does not make sense”.
“I don’t even remember the case, there are a lot of cases, a lot. I was the head of Area P then when I was there, so there were a lot of cases handled by the IPOs and charged to court.
“Once a case is charged to court, it is no longer within the realm of the police, it is now with the judiciary. It is for the judiciary to determine the right or wrong of the case.
“If she needs anything, let her go to the court and sort herself out. It is not a case that ended with the police that we would have said the police compromised it and others, a lot of allegations can be raised,” Mr Alade said.
The senior officer also told this reporter to “warn” Mrs Okafor to stop mentioning his name.
“Let her continue publishing it, maybe she wants to get from the ‘#EndSARS fund’ of the Lagos State government or federal government; she is targeting it. Let her look for somewhere else to extort money from the government, not using my name.”
Meanwhile, while she was in custody, Mrs Okafor’s shop at the Oke-Odo Market, where she sold food spices, was among the structures demolished when the government wanted to renovate the market.
She said she wants to ”try her hands at politics”, but adds that her brief stay in prison has continued to haunt her.
“Since that time (in prison), people have been calling me ex-convict and it always brings sadness to me,” she said.