As shared by Human Rights Lawyer, Dr Ayo Sogunro.
So, about last weekend’s events.
I had come to Abuja to facilitate a human rights meeting with several NGOs and my accommodation was also booked at the hotel where the meeting would be taking place.
Soon as I landed, I sent messages to my friends in Abuja confirming that I was around.
As always, whenever I am in Nigeria, my friends would come welcome me at my accommodation, share a drink or two and generally gist. This time was no different.
One of them promised to stop by on her way home from work, also in the area.
Of the people I texted, she was the first to get to my place. I had checked into the hotel around 6.20pm and she got there around 6.40pm. Barely 15 minutes later, three police officers came to my door.
When the police arrived at my door, they asked to be let inside.
I denied them entrance and told them they had no authority to enter a private space without a warrant or a a clear just cause. Instead, they just pushed me aside and made their way in.
On seeing my friend, they asked her to come with them. We both asked why. The police replied that because my friend was a married woman, she should not have been in the hotel with me. I said this was ridiculous. She was a citizen of Nigeria and had a right to meet with anyone.
The officers insisted that she must come with them and so must I. For ‘questioning’.
I said, NO WAY. ON WHAT GROUNDS
If they wanted to arrest me, I would comply. But I would not voluntarily follow them to answer questions on unclear and unstated allegations.
This argument went back and forth for a while; one officer even started recording it on his phone. Some other police officers were called in as backup (making them about 6 total). A few of my other friends also arrived. Hotel management came in. It was becoming quite the scene.
Eventually, the officers got fed up with my refusal to voluntarily accompany them and then said they were putting me under arrest – still no clear allegation or reason.
My friend and I then followed them out of the hotel where a van was waiting and they took us to the station.
Up to this point, I still had my phone on me. I wasn’t touched or cuffed or assaulted by the officers. Our interaction throughout was verbal only. I was able to use my phone to make calls and alert people about what was unfolding.
But because I was still confused by what was going on – and the officers were not telling me who had sent them, how they discovered my room, or why I had been targeted (and also to forestall the worst) I sent out a series of tweets to alert the wider public.
But the police officers did not appreciate me putting the tweets out. At the station, they asked me to turn off my phone and hand it over. I did.
They asked me to write a statement – still with no context as to the charges – and I declined to do so without my lawyer present.
After a while behind the counter, they called me for an interview with the DPO. I was still quite upset at this disruption of my day – and all this started barely one hour after I had landed in Nigeria and entered Abuja.
I told the DPO everything they did wrong:
– the process of arrest before investigation;
– using the police to settle what was now seeming to be a marital issue not involving me;
– barging into a hotel room without a warrant; and
– taking me into custody without a clear charge.
The DPO countered that (as we were in Northern Nigeria under the Penal Code), it was highly suspicious for a married woman to be visiting me and the police were within rights to have intervened and enter my hotel room without all that process.
I then asked her that, well if that’s the case, where’s their evidence that any offence had been committed.
She said she was not obliged to give me any evidence and I should simply state my case and explain myself to her. Lol.
She suggested that I was enticing my friend – against the Penal Code. I lol. My friend and I went back 15 years from Law School. It was normal in my world that people (regardless of sex, gender or marital status) visited me where I reside in Nigeria, and these were always hotels.
I then went into a long rant with the DPO about the need for proper police procedure, the need to respect constitutional rights, and the need to safeguard women’s rights and autonomy.
Eventually, she got fed up with my sermon and asked them to book me and take me to the cells.The issue then appeared to seem that, because I was continuing to be ‘rowdy’ and kept trying to demonstrate a clear understanding of law and police procedure, all the police officers had been offended.
Taking me into custody for the night was presumably to ‘teach me a lesson’.
The rest of the story is about the practical aspects of that lesson in respecting police officers.
By the next day, I realised that ‘cooling down’ was the way forward if I was still interested in leaving their station and conducting the event that had brought me to Abuja.
As they would not release me without a statement and a surety – I wrote a statement on the advice of my lawyer and a good friend stood surety for me.
I can’t say how this case started or how my room was identified. I still have questions myself. I don’t know whether or not there was a political element. However, I received solidarity visits from folks in both APC and PDP (as well as representatives from the NBA and the NHRC).
The night behind bars was philosophical. Later, I was more amused than angry. The idea of coming to do a human rights event in Nigeria only to end up in a cell was a hilarious and tragic testament to the Nigerian condition.
Btw, I had great cellmates – but that’s another story.
By the time I was released Saturday, I was on good terms with all the duty officers and even with the arresting officers.
My people even advised me to mend fences with the DPO and I went back into her offices to apologise for being an ‘unruly’ activist. Not sure if that worked.
Anyway, if you ask me why I am a feminist ally, it is because of issues like this: that we live in a country where a married woman cannot merely visit a male friend alone without both of them risking arrest and detention under gendered laws and their arbitrary application.
If you ask me why I am a believer in liberal democracy, it is because we cannot have a conservative country where the police are saddled with policing morality rather than protecting citizens from actual crimes. Because under such laws, everyone is a target.
If you ask me why I fight for human rights, it is because human rights are the only safeguard against the misuse of power. Otherwise, laws can be weaponised and become the arbitrary tools of those with some power against those without it.
Although the whole incident is behind me, I still feel there are systemic issues in the policing process that need to be addressed.
Otherwise, the less-privileged Nigerian may not be as fortunate as I have been in standing up for myself and navigating the system.
Grateful again for the show of support online and offline. I have never doubted the power of social media in bringing about social change in Nigeria, and last weekend’s events and the overwhelming solidarity from my online community was another testimony to this.