It is with great sadness that I pick my pen and allow my memory relay this story of overwhelming abyss of pain. The night was of unthinkable blackness in every sense of the word and I was sound asleep without a care in the world. The time was about one ‘0’ clock. The doors were wide open so as to allow the air come in to caress my bare chest. How could I have known I was making myself an easy prey? Of course, I hadn’t committed a crime. I was as law-abiding as the law itself. But they came, with their abysmal fury and lethal steels.
The door-net was flung powerfully open with a speed that could never have been captured by the fastest lens. They marched in, seven hefty, blood-reeking, hideous beings in black with AK-47 rifles, all pointed at me. Uhh! It’s worse than what you can imagine. To make matters worse, a blinding flashlight was pointed at me, driving me to partial oblivion. To say I was shocked would be a gross misconception of my state. It was like a truck-loaded of fear was downloaded on me. I must confess; I died.
“Where is he?” I heard one of them say, and I came alive. Believe me, at that moment, death was a better place.
“Hi…hi…him, who?” I stuttered.
“Oh, you’re pretending you don’t know,” Another one of them said. “We’ll jail you in his place and ensure you rot in cell.” Then I saw one of my cousins step forward with hand-cuffs and my surprise became a bit curious.
“What’s happening?” I wondered.
“Tall-B,” My cousin, John, called me. “It’s Michael they’re looking for.”
“Michael!” I had barely exclaimed before one of the policemen shouted at me to stretch my hands, and immediately, he roughly handcuffed and pushed me out of the door, cursing in words I cannot state here.
Out on the passage of my house, I was ashamed for what my neighbors would think, so I became hesitant to move, but I got a loud thump on the back from the barrel of the rifle that sent me racing to the truck they parked, which screeched off a moment later, heading off to the criminals’ tent – PANTI.
One glance into the cell, and bubbles of shock waves moved within me. Corpses, I thought, littered every single space the ground had. They were crammed on each other. Really, sardines are better packed. I looked further into the cell, heart thumping against my chest. More corpses lay on the ground; Legs and arms lying on heads and around bodies of ignorant inmates. “Hey! Heaven, help me,” I silently prayed, taking a furtive glance behind me. A man stood in black T- shirt with ‘RAIDER’ inscribed on it, with a face like molded clay and two blood-red spots on it that were his eyes.
I didn’t have to be told to move. My instincts told me to, than wait and be thrashed in. My cousin was beside me. We both moved in, stepping carefully on toes to avoid bodies on the ground. But, we never could have been careful enough. Every little space had been occupied. So, we stepped on legs, hands and bodies. Something began to happen. The supposed corpses began to move and stretch. “So, they are alive,” I heard my mind speak. How could humans be put in such condition? How could living humans be crammed like condemned sardines? Anyway, I needed to get to the inner cell, so I stepped on.
The inner cell was worse. The space was so small for the over seventy inmates that some had to stand while sleeping. Yes, the little space they got could only contain their feet.
The only unoccupied space was the latrine which had specks of excreta all around. My cousin and I had to find a way around there to squat, enduring the murderous stench that was capable of sending a pregnant woman to an unprepared delivery.
From my position, I had time to examine the cell. The ground was untarred and bumpy, with little gravels all over. I took my eyes from the ground to the roof and I was surprised to discover that there was no roof. I saw the sky turning dark and cloudy like it was about to rain. It did rain a few minutes later and all the inmates stood up while the rain gave them a mid-night, compulsory bath.
When the rain eventually stopped, it took us over twenty minutes to reduce the water from the ground so we could go back to sleep.
When it was dawn and the sandy-looking inmates had awoken, all eyes were on me and my cousin. They didn’t have to be told we were new. Our clothes made the introduction. A guy walked over to me with beards that covered his lips. He looked different from the rest. He wore an immaculately white singlet and appeared well-fed. I later got to know he was the Head-Marshal.
“Na when you come here?” The Marshall asked in very gruff voice.
“Last night,” I answered with my eyes on the cuffs on my wrist.
“Look me for eye!” He shouted, banging his wide palm on my chest. I staggered, but got a hold of myself.
“You no know where you dey? Na Panti be dis. Come here come claim fine boy, we go scatter you.” He looked at me closely, and then raised his hands over my head.
I closed my eyes and waited, prepared to endure the pain once and for all. For what seemed like a minute, I stood and nothing happened. Then he pointed his finger at me and said, “Take Time,” and he left.
Later, I was called by a police sergeant who took my statement. The crime was simple, “Brother of a criminal”. Funny huh?! This highlights the mis-orientation in Nigeria’s police force. It is only in Nigeria that a criminal is arrested in proxy. I was treated lightly while writing the statement, compared to other people around me. There was this rusted, blood-stained machete on the table. If a suspect seemed to be withholding any information from the policemen, he got a powerful whip of the machete which, most definitely, chopped the flesh on whatever part it touched.
The most annoying part is that this same machete would be used on several other suspects, with the flesh and blood on it, unwashed and unsterilized. Ey, ey! I don’t think you get the implication. With the present report that one out of every ten Nigerians has AIDS, what is the probability that the blood-stained machete is not infected? And lastly, how helpful is the Nigerian police in alleviating the epidemic of AIDS.
Pardon me for the digression. When I got back to the cell, I got lost in pensivity. A man sat on the far corner of the cell, starring at me, wondering what brought this young guy (me) into such dreary, God-forsaken environment of hardened criminals. He beckoned and I went to him. After explaining my case to him, he assured me I needed not to worry, that all was going to be fine. Later, I got to know his name was Tony.
After two days in cell, Tony and I became close. He was around thirty-five and was plump. He looked fragile and soft like if nudged a bit, he would fall. He was a gifted talker – very inspirational. He became the `big bros` I never had and never wanted to loose.
He told me of how he landed in panti and his story was really touching. He said he used to be a bad guy. What he meant by ‘bad guy’, I didn’t know. But, he swore that he knew nothing about the crime he was arrested for. According to him, he went to this hotel to lodge. There was a robbery incident the previous night and the manager claimed to have seen him around, close to the time of the operation.
He was arrested, brought to Panti and ‘hanged’.
Hanging is the crudest form of torture used in Panti to make suspects confess. The person’s hands and legs are cuffed and he is hanged on a long iron rod by the cuffs which are sharp and piercing. There is also a very heavy statue that is like a lead on the person’s neck, pulling and almost breaking the neck bone. While the person is in this position like a fish on a grill, the machete works on his back. That evil metal that is capable of inflicting an eternal injury on the human system.
All these, Tony went through until he could endure no more. He had to admit that he committed the crime which he knew nothing about. A statement was written for him to that effect and he signed. You could imagine how complicated his case was. But, which rational human being would receive such torture and still retain his sanity. Truly, I shed tears for him. I understood he had been involved in crime; he should still have been entitled to fair hearing. Why have the police become a colossal threat to the rule of law? Tony had been in cell for over three months without trial.
There were innocent people that had spent over five months in Panti. As a matter of fact, I discovered that 70% of those in cell were arrested for crimes they did not commit.
Meanwhile, my case was getting worse. The officer in charge threatened to hang me if I didn’t tell him where to find my brother, Michael.
I was getting increasely worried. Where would I see him? I hadn’t seen him more than twice in the last six months. Come to think of it, should it be my duty to arrest a criminal for the police. Of course, I knew I was supposed to help if I could, but I lacked information that could help. Anyway, I kept praying for God’s intervention.
Every morning, the police would come carry us to go work wherever there was dirty work to be done, like clearing gutter, cutting grasses and shifting ‘dirt hips’.
There is this other incidence that I must share. Once, at about 2am, some police men came into the cell. We all had to wake up. These men looked demonically deadly. Their mission was unknown to me initially, but the old timers began to whisper and shiver and I got to know that something bad was about to happen.
They called four names and told the boys to move out. They said the boys were traveling and might not come back. Although, I suspected the journey was not a physical one – their souls were traveling to an unknown destination – but I still had a tinge of doubt in me.
Two hours after they left, these same policemen came back and pointed at four of us to come out again. Honestly, I died for the second time. My heart stopped beating and I fell into a very deep oblivion. At that moment, I had a fast panoramic review of my short and unfulfilled life. Would I end up this way? But, I have not achieved my dreams. These thoughts ran through me, but I dropped them as soon as they came. God wouldn’t let me die until I fulfilled his purpose for my life.
I stood up with the others and went out with the men. When we got out, they told us to carry brooms and buckets. And then took us to a white truck and told us to get water and wash it. I stole a glass into the truck and what I saw was fresh boiling blood. Blood! My God! The blood of four humans I was with a few hours ago. May their souls rest in perfect peace! I fetched the water, while the others washed the blood.
By the next day, I had spent eight days in Panti. My uncle had made several attempts to bail me, but to no avail. I was sitting quietly at my corner, thinking about the incidence of the previous night, when I heard my name. I answered with immediate effect. I had got more desperate to get out of cell and taste the ‘free world’. I wouldn’t mind getting released naked. I would pretend to be mad until I got clothes to wear.
I was led to an office were my uncle was discussing modalities for my bail. He was told to pay forty-thousand naira. He paid it immediately, and I was taken back to the cell to get my clothes and depart.
The departure was the most painful part. I wished I could leave with every other innocent person that was suffering for nothing. I wished I could help Tony. He didn’t deserve to remain in cell. I wished I could have saved those four criminals that didn’t get the chance to change. But in all, I wished I could make the Nigerian police pay for the pain inflicted on the souls of innocent Nigerians.
I picked a torn singlet with stains of blood, wore it hastily and ran out of the cell before my bail got revoked. Gees, it’s good to be free!
They came at midnight like thieves
With their vicious minds and ignorant steels
Six men in all, they were
Prepared to blow me to pieces right there
Devastated is a gross misconception
Of the atmosphere and tension
The light shone too bright
On my tender, dizzy eyes
What could it be? I thought
Where is he? They sought
He that is worse than the Rogue of Rome
He whose heart is darker than coal
He whose sins are too much to atone
He whom we shall destroy even in bone
His whereabouts, I did not know
Neither his acts, I condoned
These I said to the men in black
But they nudged me to the truck they parked
With handcuffs on my wrists, we went
Straight in pain to the criminal’s tent
The acts in cell, I cannot tell
The ordeal was worse than hell.
After Panti, life started afresh for me…