The Fisayo Soyombo Challenge

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The story of Fisayo Soyombo, an investigative reporter, is a positive challenge to development journalism in the country, writes Olawale Olaleye

Professional, adventurous, daring and of course, atypical of the spirit of the average Nigerian journalist, Fisayo Soyombo, had set a new standard in investigative reporting by exposing some of the sleaze that goes on in high places, making the Nigeria police stations and the prisons a citable example.

From framing himself with a non-existent offence, Ojo Olajumoke as he chose to be called for the period of the investigation, spent two weeks in detention, five days in a Police cell and eight more days as an inmate in Ikoyi Prison, just to track corruption in the nation’s criminal justice system, accounts which captured the moments of his arrest by the Police to the point of release from prison.

With fine expository prose delivered with lucid narratives, Soyombo told of his chilling experience in the first of this three-part series, which started with his feigned offence and culminated in his arrest and detention as well as his arraignment and eventual remand in prison.

Citing incontrovertible evidence, which combines both video and still pictures, he told of how the police perverted the course of justice in their quest to make money off suspects and subjected many to needless hardship, mostly by trampling on the laws that guide their operations.

Armed with bodycam and recording tools, mostly, his experience exposed many of the underhand dealings at the police stations, which involved practically all the officers regardless of their ranks. His expose included alleged wrongful arrests, denial of bails, conflation of charges to increase bail sum, and alleged bribes for everything from the reception of visitors to phone charging of suspects.

With images of police cell, audio recording and footage of police officers receiving bribes, Soyombo has even made denial difficult for the authorities and his story remains a compelling read for everyone, who seeks genuine reform in critical areas of the nation’s body polity like the prisons.
But, first, how about a short trip to the introductory part of his experience at the station and in the hands of the police, who were supposed to be his friends?

“It cost only N500 for a policeman to arrest me, and N1,000 for another to hurl me into a cell. Of course they didn’t know I was a journalist; I had assumed a pseudonym and grown my hair long enough — for 10 months — to blend with artificial dreads. My locks were tinted in gold and almost all my facial hair removed.

“I cut the profile of the kind of youth the Police indiscriminately railroad into their notoriously ramshackle vans for no reason, for onward transfer to their cells. One look at me, and the typical policeman would have mistaken me for a compulsive hemp smoker, an incorrigible internet-fraudster, or a serial drug abuser.

“Therefore, it didn’t take too long after my arrest for me to begin to see the Police in their true elements. My supposed offence was that someone had sold me a car worth N2.8million in November 2018; however, after paying N300,000 cash, I began to avoid him — until I was eventually apprehended on Monday July 8.

“Once I was arrested and whisked into an innocuously passing danfo, I imagined I would be immediately taken to the cell of Pedro Police Station, Shomolu, Lagos. But it wasn’t that straightforward. I was first shoved behind the counter; and after half-an-hour, the Crime Officer (CO), Inspector Badmus, fetched me into a back office where I was grilled for close to two hours, culminating in a written statement from me that represented his thoughts more than mine.

“He asked me questions but only allowed me to write the answers that suited him; if the answers didn’t, he cut me short halfway. Afterwards, I was led to the expansive office of the Divisional Police Officer (DPO), a tall, dark, rotund, middle-aged man who pronounced me guilty in a matter of minutes. ‘This is one of the many criminals destroying this city’, he yelled after a long, menacing glance all over me. ‘Please hold him well!’

“Armed with this new order, the CO, who had been relatively civil all along, groped for my trousers then grabbed me by the waist as we made the short return trip to the counter. It was a walk of no more than 50 metres, but by the way he held me, anyone would have thought we were walking over a thousand kilometres and there was the potential for escape.

“The complainant was already registering the case with a policewoman by the time we returned, and soon after they were haggling over the fees. Chigozie Odo, the policewoman, had rejected his offer of N500. After some five minutes of talking, he handed her a N1,000 note. Immediately the money touched her hand, Odo turned on me: ‘Look at you. Fine boy like you; just look at yourself. Instead make you go find better work, you dey defraud people. Oya, come here!’

“The suspects in the cell had gathered by the iron barricade, hungering for an entrant, clinging to the bars and chillingly rolling their eyes from the policewoman to me and then to the complainant. My heart began to pound: Are they going to pummel me? Would they accept it if I offered some cash in exchange for beating?

“Odo stripped me of my shirt, singlet, belt, wristwatch, shoes and cash. ‘Look at his hair; na you gangan be Ruggedy Baba’, she said as she unlocked the cell and bundled me in.

“As I take my first steps into the cell gate, I immediately attempt to ingratiate myself with my ‘new friends’ by asking what they want — food or drink? It endears me to them, and the policewoman immediately proclaims me the new ‘leader’. It didn’t take quite long for the food to arrive; it was around 3pm or thereabouts and they apparently hadn’t been fed that day yet. As they guzzle their food — rice for some, bread for others — I embark on a quick, surreptitious survey of the cell.

“To the right is a small opening housing a bathroom and a latrine oozing with thick fecal stench, one I very quickly resolved my buttocks would never near. To achieve this, I would eat only once daily — bread with a bottle of water or soft drink — throughout my stay. Opposite it is the smallest of the inner cells. Lying awkwardly on the floor is a mat too small to contain even one person; but every night, five or six cross-breathing inmates share it.

“Being the warmest inner cell, it proved the popular cell of choice — particularly at nighttime. Further ahead are two bigger cells, dingy and often damp, each measuring roughly 16 by 16 metres, with fading, defaced blue walls. Holding my head in my hands, I slump into one of the cells, enveloping myself with thoughts of the hardship to come.”

For a good grasp of the beauty of Soyombo’s adventure, the report is definitely a must read for everyone, not only because of the collective embarrassment it brings to all and the institutions – the police being the first line of defence – it could also provide serious insight into how some of the long sought reforms in that sector could be fixed.

It was understandable that the first and natural reaction of the prison authority was to threaten arrest of Soyombo, perhaps, to scare him and deter others from going on such adventure. Unfortunately, that was some serious misfire by an authority that was supposed to have immediately gone into serious rethink, meeting and consulting and of course, investigating the content of the report, which it has eventually resorted to.

Importantly, this has exposed the typical lackadaisical attitude of an average government official to work. They lack even the intuitive perception to smell rats – the basic intelligence to identify certain gadgets. They were helplessly and habitually laid back, the same manner they never see dangers coming their way or when attackers invade their stations.

There are certainly many things to learn from the Soyombo work and the lessons of his bravery cut across the board. Whilst the government should look into this first part, whilst the second and third are being awaited, to fix the obviously man-made challenges confronting the police and the prison systems, he has also provided a major challenge for journalism in the country beyond the currently thriving ‘junkalism’ that the social media is proliferating.

With seemingly obvious threat to his life since he has put the jobs of many on the line, this is the time for NIGERIA to stand up for what is right, at least for once, by supporting and protecting the young man, who took a lone initiative to save some of the many corrosive systems from themselves.

Without doubts, Soyombo is the face of the new age journalism. He has broken barriers, crushed boundaries and set an enviable standard that all must aspire to, even though the Nigerian environment does not naturally support or encourage such adventures.

But the Soyombo challenge has become inevitable for all ‘genuine practitioners’ if journalism in this part of the world must stand to be counted and ‘junkalism’ put its place.