Michael, 25, was taking a causal stroll in his Gbagada, Lagos neighborhood one warm evening, when a police van pulled up in front of him in commando-like fashion.
Michael was under arrest. Just like that.
When Michael asked to know what he had done wrong, a couple of vicious slaps from the police officers set his head straight. It would dawn on him in seconds that he had just been profiled for the hairstyle he was sporting. He was charged guilty for being a cultist until he was proven innocent.
When Michael rang a friend to come bail him at the Gbagada police station, that friend was also detained after it was discovered that he was sporting a punk hairstyle.
"When he got there, they were trying to aggravate the situation by saying that my hairstyle gave me away. He was wearing a cap so they asked him to take it off. Next thing they saw his hair and were like, 'Ah you sef be cultist'. They asked him to pull his shirt off and detained him," Michael says.
Oluwasegun Haziz, another young man, shares the story of how men of the Police Special Anti-Cultism Squad (SACS) arrested his colleague around Sabo, Yaba on March 21, 2019, because of his hairstyle.
Haziz claims that the head of the Gbagada anti-cultism unit, popularly known as Omo Eko, made him pay the sum of N5,000 for the release of his colleague after initially demanding for the sum of N50,000.
Across Nigeria, young men, most of whom are undergraduates in the nation’s universities or just fresh out of school and looking for a job or working at one, are often picked up randomly and hauled into police trucks just because of how they look.
When laptops and smartphones become evidence
It gets worse if you are young and carrying a backpack with a laptop. Some police officers consider you an internet fraudster (Yahoo Yahoo boy) if you combine all attributes on any given day.
Segun and Tony are in their 20s. Both young men have been picked up around Ojuelegba bus stop in Lagos on their way home from work, because they had their office laptops with them.
“They asked for my Identity card and I handed it to them. But they weren’t satisfied or were hell bent on extorting. I however stood my grounds and refused to hand them a penny. After keeping me rooted to a spot near their shadowy Danfo bus for 30 minutes, they grabbed my laptop, powered it on and kept looking at nothing in particular. Then they seized my phones, went through them, found nothing and barked at me to continue my journey home. My offence was that I was young and carrying a laptop”, says Segun.
Tony wasn’t so lucky. When the policemen stationed at Ojuelegba shouted at him to “hold it there” and stopped him dead in his tracks, they seized his ID card, phones and laptops and drove him around town. He was only let out of the yellow Danfo after parting with N20,000.
“It was certainly one of the worst days of my life”, says Tony, a 24-year-old man with the height and looks to make the girls swoon. “These days when I alight from the commercial bus at Ojuelegba, I just take to my heels. I would not be extorted again like that in this town”, he vows, while laughing hysterically.
Some young men have been shot dead by the police, for less.
When a party cup makes you irresponsible
Another young man called Arinze J Olejeme, has a story revolving around police extortion and profiling to share.
Olejeme was arrested at the Zibet Bus Stop, Ajah on Saturday, March 23 by gun totting police officers of the SACS unit.
Olejeme was arrested for 'irresponsibly' holding a red cup while seeing a female friend off after a party.
"I was tasered a couple of times like I stole. I was bruised and violated like a common thief. They said I'm an irresponsible person," Olejeme says.
Olejeme was then driven to Langbasa police station where his friend paid the officers the sum of N10,000, "which they used to drink local brandy in my very presence".
Olejeme continues: “I work with GIG (God is Good motors) Logistics as a customer service representative. It was my friend’s birthday and we had a small party. I don’t leave my drinks unattended to. One of my friends wanted to leave and we had packed stuff for her. We were at the bus-stop and I was with my cup. There was slight traffic on the route and the next thing, the police officers just jumped from a Danfo bus and began harassing me and asking why I’m drinking on the road…”
When Olejeme asked the officers what his crime was, they said he was resisting arrest. “And then they started hitting me and beating me.”
Watch Pulse' Documentary on Police Brutality below:
Mr Segun Awosanya, an activist who has now committed a chunk of his life to addressing issues of police brutality and who takes up cases of victims, says tales of how police treats young men “further proves the decadence in the system. It shows how decrepit the system is. It shows a lack of transparency and accountability” within the rank and file of the police force.
Awosanya also says police extortion has little to do with their remuneration. “Even if you pay police officers a billion Naira each now, they are still going to abuse the rights of citizens. Police should be a place for patriotic citizens who want to serve their nation”.
Lagos police spokesperson, DSP Bala Elkana admits that the police badly needs to cleanse itself. “We are paid to protect the lives and property of people. We are also paid to protect the rights of the people”, he says.
Elkana also says no young person should be victimized by the police because of how they look. “Young men out there are being harassed by police officers who are supposed to protect them, simply because of the way they look and not because they are guilty of a crime. Simply because they are wearing dreadlocks, wearing tattoo or dressed in a particular manner. This is totally unacceptable. It may be true that suspects that you have arrested in the past for cultism sported dreadlocks and tattoos, but that does not mean that anyone out there with dreadlocks and tattoo is a cultist”.
Mr. Elkana also says police monthly take-home pay has nothing to do with their widespread extortion tendencies. He also tells Pulse that by handing money to police officers, members of the public aren’t helping the force to cleanse itself, either.
“Is police the least paid organization in Nigeria? Before you join, you know how much they are paying the police. You have seen other places before you join and if you think they are not paying you well, then you can change. Officers with this mindset, even if you pay them a billion Naira, they would still be who they are.
“Some few elements have spoilt a good part of what we are doing. You would do ten things well and then one person would go and do one stupid thing. People won’t look at the ten anymore. They focus on the one and that one will rubbish the whole ten. But that would not deter or discourage us”, says Elkana who maintains that “the police is not just a friend, but a dependable friend and helper”.
President Muhammadu Buhari recently received the report of a special panel set up to look at ways of reforming a police force that has since been blacklisted by the people.
The president assured Nigerians that it's one of his administration's major policies to reform and reposition the police to become a more effective and efficient unit, one that safeguards lives and properties, apprehends offenders and generally improves the internal security of the nation in line with its laws and international best practices.
Buhari said, "In order to reposition the Nigeria Police Force to effectively carry out its statutory responsibilities, I have taken major steps by increasing the workforce of the Nigeria Police as well as improving the welfare of police officers, because they put their lives on the front line on a daily basis so that the rest of us may freely go about our business in safety.
"However, in carrying out their statutory responsibilities, the police must at all times act within the ambit of the law and must not violate the fundamental human rights of Nigerians whom they have sworn to protect”.
The president noted that the panel was empowered to make appropriate recommendations for holding police officers accountable and proffer suggestions on how the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and the Nigeria police in general, can be reformed.