“The five of us entered, and the door was bang-shut – I was in a Black Maria! If the experience of being cupped inside the ventilated metal prison was sobering, the drive – which was less than 15 minutes – was premeditated torture. There was nothing to hold on to, except the slides of the four vents that served as peepholes or ‘windows’, and a diagonal positioning of one’s body to counterbalance the violent surges and bashing. The driver recklessly chose potholes, embankments, shallow gutters, and kerbs to ply and climb – in an attempt to beat the snarling Lagos traffic, between the GRA, Ikeja location of the courts, through Agege Motor Road, detouring at Bolade (Oshodi) and bursting onto the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway at the tail end of Oshodi main bus park. Even on the smooth Expressway, the driver would switch lanes suddenly, and frantically apply the brakes almost every 10 seconds. So, it seemed. He obviously was not expected to “off-load” his cargoes in a healthy physical condition.
Inside the small section, were lumps of wood, six inches thick and eight inches wide (about three); one of them provided my partner with a seat – he folded his long sparking white Senegalese toga in between his legs and bore down, stretching his legs wide to maintain balance. I stood throughout, savouring the glares – the coos and hails of Lagos road-users.
Many times, I saw Danfo commuters shake their heads in pity, disdain or disgust. I really wouldn’t know. For all they cared, we might all just be armed robbers or murderers!
BLACK MARIA (2)
During the hellish ride in the Black Maria, the only respite was a two-minute stop at a petrol station on Agege Motor Road. It couldn’t have been more than two minutes! Even then, the driver was in so much of a hurry. When the engine of the lorry ceased, it had to be pushed. And with almost 25 persons on board, two or three policemen would not be adequate. But we could not be counted on to be of help. Friendly or not, we were still suspects, and they could not hazard believing that we would not bolt from justice.
While the shake-down was on, Jonathan complained about the beastly nonchalance of the driver in a discussion with the other two fellows. And my partner donated a cold stare before shutting him off with a severe grunt, asking him who was the architect of our present predicament, and what would become of him now that his erstwhile benefactor and co-conspirator seemed to have turned his back to him? Bravely, Jonathan tried to say something, but my partner pinned him down with another barrage: asking if indeed he was told to resign and then suspended (from Fame)? Jonathan tried to correct him that he voluntarily resigned, and his letter was rejected… But my partner did not hear. He had said his mind, and shut the gates.
The very brief drama was a pleasant distraction. I silently prayed it would last the journey. No such luck. So, I concentrated on avoiding any crippling injuries due to the insane driving. Chief M. K. O. Abiola’s strangulated misgivings of his Black Maria experience crossed my mind. He said it was like a special punishment before the imprisonment. I now understand.
About 5pm, we arrived at the village-like precinct of the then Nigeria Prison Services, Kirikiri, Apapa (Lagos). First port of call was the Medium Prison, said to be home to the world’s most virulent skin diseases, and thorough-bred mosquitoes. Over-populated and immensely unhygienic. Knowledgeable suspects dread Medium.
Ikoyi Prison was said to be in custody of such a reputation, in time past; but Kirikiri Medium has since dethroned it. Really, it should be made compulsory for our judges and magistrates to spend two days of their annual vacation in the Kirikiri Medium Prison – no one will ever recommend that any soul should be remanded there. More details later on the huge inhuman number of ATMs (Awaiting Trial, Male) in the two prisons, and their appalling state.
When the lorry stopped in front of the freshly-painted gates. I said a little prayer; hoping not to join the motley being shepherded inside Medium. While this was going on, our friends and family in various cars pulled up opposite the prison, in a short staggered convoy. Harrison and Mike sped down to the mini-market just outside the precinct’s enclave. They got bottles of Eva water, sardines (I hate that), big loaves, pairs of slippers (a bit small for me, but did I care?) and toiletries. Earlier, my wife had taken the only jewelry I could use, my wedding ring. Unusually, I was fairly well-dressed for the day, and I wanted to enter the prison with my apparel prim and proper.
On that Thursday evening, 16 September, 1999, our police escorts knocked on the huge, foreboding gates of our jailers. A small door opened within the gate, and we filed in. The first warder we met, Owolabi, railed at us – not very seriously, though. He wanted us to squat, as it was usual (we saw the okada riders being so ordered at Medium). Well, we pretended deaf and dumb. And others, more senior, took over, and told us to sit on a long bench in the prison porch.
The questions soon came. Everyone wanted to know what we stole that we were sent to Kirikiri. As usual, I grew deaf in such circumstances, allowing my partner to narrate. He could say the same thing over and over, 200 times, without fainting or floundering. And he really could cut the whole two-year struggle to 20 words, more or less. Brisk, punchy and embracing all the kernels of a good story: the beginning, middle and end.
When they were told the psychological make-up of the mastermind behind our predicament, the warders ventilated their precise opinion of him. Mostly unprintable. But what did it matter? We were in Kirikiri, and the guy was in his bedroom.
Our money, personal effects and reading materials were taken and registered against our names. I had been aiming to read an espionage novel, Extraordinary Powers (by Joseph Finder), for weeks. I thought Kirikiri would allow me the chance to read it. But the warders disagreed. It was removed from my ‘load’. Only my big Dake’s annotated Bible and a religious booklet were allowed. Thank God for little mercies.
After few minutes waiting, the Records Officer (called GOC) arrived to take our bio-data:
Age: (I inadvertently added one year to my age, my partner reminded me later in our cell. Now, don’t start thinking of Enwerem or Tinubu – and no comparison, please – for or against).
Religion: (he actually asked for and wrote down my church). When he knew I was a member of Latter Rain Assembly, he chuckled, and hailed the boldness and freshness of my Pastor’s Moment of Truth (his weekly television programme).
Hometown: he threw down his pen, in frustration, when I told him that I originated from Oyo State, but my family had established Idofian in Kwara State as our homestead). I spent a few minutes explaining to him why Kwara could not be my “state of origin”. Eventually, he elected to use Oyo – since his big book asked for ‘home town’, and not state.
Then, he took me aside to an old measuring rod. G.O.C wrote “5ft, 11 inches! I was scandalised. All my life – at least, since over a decade ago when I found out I could not add an inch after 25 years of age – I had assured myself that I was a six-footer. I looked at the measuring rod, and declared it defective, and the result null, void, and of no effect….”
(The END – Series extracted from 2021 memoir titled “It’s A Dog’s Life: Kirikiri Prison Diary & Other Memories”)