“Your case is simple, you will soon be released,” the Sergeant said to Paiko. Paiko had been arrested earlier that evening during a police raid on Jolly Hotel, a brothel that harbored more than 30 female prostitutes.
In the late evening, Paiko was still sitting on a worn brown wooden seat behind the counter. He was beginning to get worried. His arrest was likely to stop him from going to his stall at Alade Market, where he sold imported used clothes and bags locally known as Okrika Wake Up. Since after his arrest, his girlfriend, Sweet, for whom he had been waiting to finish having sex with her last client, so they could go home together, had not yet come to visit him at the police station. He recalled a conversation he’d had with Sweet a long time ago, when he had first told her he wanted her to become his special woman. She had smiled and told him that any man who wanted to keep an ashewo, a prostitute, as his woman must be prepared to catch the clap and should be ready to spend some time at the police station. He had been lucky until last night. Usually he would bribe the police, whenever they came on a raid of Jolly Hotel, but last night was different. The people who had arrested him were members of the newly formed Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS.
A new Sergeant was taking over from the one who had been at the desk when Paiko was arrested. Paiko watched the new Sergeant’s face closely and smiled. He liked what he saw. The new Sergeant had an overflowing belly, which was a good sign. He was likely to be a bribe-taker.
“Don’t worry, you’ll soon be released, I am sure my colleague who is taking over from me will be the one to release you,” the departing Sergeant said to Paiko.
Paiko smiled nervously and said nothing. He was not too worried; this was a police post and not a full-fledged station. He suspected that no hardened criminals were in the cell and that the only smell that came from there was a faint odor of old urine. He was happy, however, that he was not in the cell.
The new Sergeant cleared his throat, spat into a dusty corner of the room, and turned to Paiko.
“What is your offense, my friend?” Without pausing, he asked the same question in a different way. “What offense did you commit, Mister?”
Paiko became worried; he thought the departed Sergeant had briefed the new one on his case. He had seen them put heads together while looking in his direction. Paiko summoned up some courage and smiled at the Sergeant.
“I did not commit any offense, Sir. I was arrested in a raid on Jolly Hotel,” Paiko said.
“Then why do you say that you have committed no offense? Your being caught in a raid on a brothel is an offense. Or do you want to lawyer me?” the Sergeant asked, peering at Paiko through restless, bloodshot eyes. From where Paiko sat, he could smell the ogogoro vapors being emitted by the Sergeant.
“Oh no, not at all, Sir; I’m not trying to lawyer you at all, Sir,” Paiko said.
“Anyway, your case is a small matter. You will soon be released,” the Sergeant said, and began to read a sheaf of dog-eared football-pool coupons.
Just then, the station radio came alive. The Sergeant threw the frayed sheaf of football-pool coupons aside and snatched the radio. He saluted smartly, his huge belly juggling like a water gourd.
“All correct, Sah. I am the Sergeant on duty, Sah, what do you say, an armed robbery along Ikorodu Road, a Commissioner’s official car snatched? Ah, that is very serious, Sah.”
Paiko watched as the Sergeant began to twitch nervously, all the time scratching his large buttocks through a torn uniform patched in three places.
“No problem, Sah, we have enough of them here. You can come and pick them up with the Land Rover. We have no vehicle in our post. It is a small post, but we can provide you the men you need for the parade, no problem at all, Sah.”
The Sergeant was suddenly transformed into a shouting, barking, wild-eyed looking creature.
“All of you criminals in the cell, form a line and start coming out of the cell with your hands raised in the air. If you try any monkey tricks with me, I will shoot you right away, and your family can come and collect your body in the mortuary.”
He opened the door of the cell with a bunch of keys he picked up from a wooden board nailed to the wall. Six men shambled out, looking confused and bewildered. All the while that Paiko had been sitting behind the counter, he’d had no suspicion that the cell held such tough-looking men. The Sergeant turned to Paiko and barked.
“What are you doing there? Join the line, in fact you should be the first person on the line, and raise your hand in the air or you will chop bullet right now.”
“Ah, Sir, I am not a criminal. You told me my case is simple. I told you I was arrested at Jolly Hotel,” Paiko stammered.
The Sergeant walked toward Paiko and gave him a slap across the face. Paiko blinked and blinked again, trying to dispel flashing stars.
“Now fall into the line before I waste you,” the Sergeant said. Paiko stumbled, his feet unsteady and his hands raised in the air like the other men.
An old police Land Rover arrived, and the Sergeant led the men outside. An Inspector with three broad tribal marks across both sides of his face jumped out, and the Sergeant saluted him smartly.
“Are these the robbers?” he asked.
“Yes, Sah, they are the armed robbers I told you about, Sah.”
“Why are they wearing all these clothes?”
“Sah, they were dressed like this when we arrested them at the scene of the crime, Sah.”
“You all, take off your trousers and your shirts. All of you, take them off quickly,” the Inspector said to Paiko and the rest of the men. Paiko was of a mind to tell the Inspector that he was not an armed robber, but he changed his mind and decided to bide his time. The men removed their clothes and stood in their undergarments, which were in different colors and sizes and different states of disrepair. The Sergeant commanded them to jump into the back of the Land Rover. He sensed some hesitation on their part. Pulling out a pistol, he raised it up and shot into the air. Paiko threw himself into the back of the Land Rover, banging his head against the hard metal. As the smell of petrol filled his nose in the pitch-blackness of the vehicle, he began to cry like a baby. The vehicle pulled out of the station, and they were on their way to Area F, the state headquarters of the police command.
The men in the vehicle soon found their voices and began to talk in whispers.
“Where are they taking us?” a voice in the darkness asked.
“To Area F, now, their headquarters.”
“Ah, Area F is a bad place, I tell you. That is one place I do not want to go to again. That is where they have the worst torture chamber in the whole of this country.”
“But why are they taking us there?” another voice asked.
Paiko cleared his throat and spoke for the first time. He was listening to his own voice as the words came out, almost as if the words were not his. His mouth felt like an instrument that was separate from the rest of him.
“I heard the Sergeant on the radio. He said some armed robbers snatched the official vehicle of a Commissioner and that they needed to make a quick arrest. Not long after he spoke on the radio, that Inspector came.”
“Ah, that means they are going to parade us as the armed robbers that snatched the Commissioner’s car. They told us to remove our clothes so we’ll look like the real robbers. We are even lucky that they did not shoot some of us in the leg. Sometimes they do that to convince the public that the robbers were trying to escape, or they were captured after a serious gun battle,” a voice filled with experience said in the darkness.
“Area F Torture Chamber is the worst, except for Alagbon Close Torture Chamber at Force CID.” The voice saying this seemed to be getting a lot of satisfaction from telling his tale.
“In Area F, they have large hooks in the ceiling. They tie the hands and legs of suspects like roasted chickens. They hang them upside down and use heavy batons and koboko to wallop them all over their body, and tell them to confess. If the person is proving stubborn and does not want to confess, they invite in a popular Sergeant there. His nickname is Sergeant Torture, and by the time he’s done with you, you’ll confess both the crimes you committed and the ones you didn’t,” the same man said, chuckling to himself.
Paiko began to wonder why the man was doing this. He felt a warm trickle of sweat running down the crack to his anus. The same man cleared his throat and continued.
“Sergeant Torture will hold a suspect’s penis in his hand and insert a rusty sharp bicycle spoke into it. Sometimes, if he does not want you to suffer too much, he will use a sharp broomstick, ah, that place na waya,” the speaker concluded.
The police Land Rover pulled into Area F. Before the vehicle could come to a proper stop the Inspector jumped out, and as the vehicle stopped, it was surrounded by men holding guns raised into the air. Some of them were wearing khaki shorts and black singlets and berets; others wore no shirt at all and were carelessly swinging their guns from side to side.
Area F had a peeling milky fence around it. Outside the fence hawkers had dripping bags of sachet water for sale; a few sold dead-looking loaves of bread and fried buns. After the vehicle stopped in the compound, Paiko and the other detainees were marched into the police station.
“You can take their statements later. These are dangerous criminals. They robbed the Commissioner of his car. I am taking them straight into the cell,” the Inspector who brought Paiko and the others said to the Corporal at the desk. He ordered Paiko and the other men to form a single line and, with their arms raised, they were marched into the cell.
The cell was a small room with a single lightbulb hanging very far away from the cement-decked ceiling; the floor was dark and grimy from urine, tears, sweat, and feces. Paiko could not see his way as he walked into the cell, and stepped on someone lying on the floor.
“Who goes there, human beings or animals?” a raucous voice barked.
Paiko stepped gingerly away. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the cell, he began to see that at least three rings of men had formed circles. A tiny window on the far reaches of the wall, covered with three dark, rusty iron bars, was the only means through which air came into the cell. The heat was like that which emanates from the oven of a bakery. In one corner of the cell was a small pit latrine, out of which thick vapors and a horrible stench emanated. The space around the pit latrine was cleared for the newcomers. The man Paiko had stepped on was bleeding from a bullet wound. Another man knelt beside him and was massaging a strong-smelling Chinese balm into the still-fresh wound.
The same voice that had asked the question when the newcomers came in asked again, in a tone that was getting angrier.
“Who goes there, human beings or animals?”
“Animals,” answered the man who had been talking about the torture chambers on the ride down to Area F. The other voices answered, “Humans.”
The man cleared his throat and laughed out loud, his laughter clearly without humor, and as he laughed, the other people in the cell, except for the newcomers, laughed along with him.
“I am the President of this cell and I am known as Presido. This is the Jungle Republic. No human beings live here in Jungle Republic. We are all animals. The only people who are human beings live in the outside world. Those of us in this inside world are all animals. Abi, my people, no be true I talk?” he asked.
“True talk, Presido,” the voices chorused.
“Just as you have your President and Commander in Chief in the outside world, I am the President and Commander in Chief in this Jungle Republic, even sef, I have more powers than the President of this country, because if I want any one of you to die this very minute, you will die, no trial, no judge, fiam, like that, you are dead.”
“Up Presido!” the voices around the cell chorused. As the Presido spoke, someone fanned him with a square piece of cardboard.
“Now all of you line up according to your height and tell us why you should be admitted into this Jungle Republic,” the Presido said. The man who was behind Paiko nudged Paiko and whispered into his right ear. Paiko could smell the man’s sour breath amidst the general stench of the cell, an admixture of old cigarettes, marijuana, local gin, and decaying teeth.
“Tell them that you are a notorious armed robber, that you have led many operations and killed many people, they will fear you and give you an important position here in the cell,” the man whispered. Paiko thought about this and shook his head. Something told him not to heed the man’s advice. What he did not know was that the police sometimes locked up one of their own in the cell along with the criminals to help them gather information about robbers.
The man who had spoken to Paiko was the first to speak. He cleared his throat and launched forth boastfully.
“My name is Robert, but I am popularly known as Bob Risky. In the daytime, I am a motor-park tout at Iddo, but at night I am a robber. I have been robbing and killing since I was expelled from Mushin Grammar School in form two, for smoking and selling marijuana. No operation is too risky for me to undertake. That is how I earned my nickname, Risky. I have been detained in almost all the police stations in Lagos, including Isokoko, Panti, Alagbon, Bar-Beach, and even the old station on Malu Road. I was drinking in my girlfriend’s beer parlor when the police raided the place and arrested me. They found a locally made pistol in my pocket and some wraps of marijuana. When they are tired, they will release me. I have no other profession than armed robbery, and, as we say, once a robber, always a robber.” Bob Risky finished his introduction, to loud applause. Even the Presido appeared to be impressed.
“You are one of us, and you are qualified to be a member of this Republic. From today I make you the Assistant Provost of this Republic. Your job is to maintain peace and law and order here, and make sure that everybody stays in his position,” the Presido said. A cheer went up once again, and everyone in the cell hailed the new Assistant Provost.
Many people rose up to speak, and talked about themselves and all their achievements in the world of armed robbery. One of them sang a song, which he said a musician had composed in his honor. When Paiko’s turn came, he became jittery. He opened his mouth to speak, but he only croaked. He swallowed the little saliva in his mouth and started again.
“My name is Paiko. I was drinking at Jolly Hotel while waiting for my girlfriend, Sweet, to finish entertaining a customer so we could go home together, when the police raided the place and took me to Iloro police post. They told me my case was a simple one and that I would soon be released, but after some time the Sergeant spoke with an Inspector, who told him that some people had robbed a Commissioner of his car and that they needed people to parade as the robbers, and they put me in their Land Rover and brought me here,” Paiko said, and swallowed again.
“Eehen, so tell us the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Were you drinking and waiting for your girlfriend, Sweet, after you returned from a robbery operation? Is she the one that helps you to hide your Luger? Tell us the truth and nothing but the truth,” the Presido said again, and the other voices in the cell echoed after him, “The truth and nothing but the truth.”
“I am not a robber. I sell used clothing and handbags and shoes at Alade Market, I am an honest man,” Paiko said.
“Everybody in this cell is innocent until proven guilty, or is that not so?” the Presido asked.
“We are all innocent until proven guilty,” the voices in the cell repeated. Paiko did not know what made him do it, but he suddenly cleared his throat and began to tell them a story.
“One day I was in the open ground in front of the market when a customer came to me to buy a handbag. When she opened the handbag, she found $200 in shiny bills in the bag.” At the mention of dollars, a sudden silence descended on the people in the cell. Their mood changed as if a foreigner with a different color of skin had walked in.
“Two hundred dollars, that is a lot of money. Wait, let me convert it. That is roughly 30,000 naira. So what happened?” the Presido asked.
“This was not the first time I would find strange things in some of the clothes and bags that I sell. I would sometimes find lipsticks in handbags, sometimes condoms, love letters, a few coins, chaplets, and photographs.”
“So what happened?” the Presido asked.
“The woman was still haggling with me about the cost of the bag when she discovered the money and said the money was hers. I told her the money was not hers, because we had not yet agreed on a price, and she had not paid me. I told her to give the bag to me, that I was no longer interested in selling. But she refused. We began to struggle for the bag and a fight broke out.”
“Stop right there,” the Presido said. “Jungle Republic Legal Adviser, where are you? Come out here and give us your advice.” A wiry young man stepped forward. He was not a real lawyer, but was known in the cell for his argumentative abilities. He gave advice and sometimes uninformed legal opinions to the detainees who were awaiting trial.
“Since they have not yet agreed on a price, and the woman has not paid for the bag, then she cannot take the money. As a Legal Adviser I make bold to say that there was an invitation to treat but an offer had not been agreed upon,” the Legal Adviser said.
A voice suddenly began to speak from the rear end of the cell close to the open-pit latrine. “A man once bought a bottle of 7Up for his girlfriend, who had come to visit him on a Sunday afternoon. This was during the 7Up millionaire promotion: if you discovered any amount of money written on the crown of your soft drink, you won. The girl peeled the crown and discovered the amount of 500,000 naira written on the bottle crown. She told the man that the money belonged to her and not him,” the voice said, enjoying the story.
“Who asked that man to speak? Did he raise his hand to ask permission before speaking?” the Presido asked, sounding quite enraged. “Assistant Provost, help me give that foolish loudmouth three hot cups of tea.”
The newly appointed Assistant Provost dragged the man out and delivered three very hot slaps to the man’s face. “Now go close to the latrine and put your face there. Do you think this is the outside world, where no one is disciplined and you people do whatever you like?” the Presido asked.
“Eehen, continue with your fine story, my innocent trader.”
“The woman and I were both taken before the leader of our market, Alhaja Isiwa. She gave the lady $50, fined me $50 for fighting in the market, and gave me the remaining $100.”
“So what did you do with the $100?” the Presido asked.
“I gave half of the money to my girlfriend, Sweet, and invested the remaining $50 in my business.”
“Your girlfriend must have given you special service that night, eh?” the Presido said, smiling.
“She kissed the money, placed it on her breast, and told me that one day she too would start earning dollars.”
“That your girlfriend, sef, don’t forget that a beautiful woman is like delicious soup. Everyone wants to get a taste of it. Now tell me, does your market leader know that you are here?”
“No, I have not been able to call anybody since I was arrested,” Paiko said.
“I will help you, you are a good hardworking man, and you are a good storyteller. Someone call the Corporal on duty, and tell him we want to hire his cell phone,” the Presido said.
Paiko was able to get through to Alhaja Isiwa, and she raised money from other traders at Alade Market and used her influence to bribe the police. Paiko was released after a few days and went back home.
All the while that Paiko was in the cell, he had been thinking of Sweet and why she had not bothered to come and see him, and what he was going to tell her when he set eyes on her. The evening after his release, he took a shower, dressed up, and went down to Jolly Hotel. He ordered a bottle of Star Lager beer and sat on a stool, sipping it slowly as he waited for Sweet to come out and wrap her soft, sweaty hands around his eyes, a game that they often played.
“Where is Sweet?” Paiko asked the barman.
“Ah, you have not heard?” the barman asked
“Heard what, did something happen to her?” Paiko asked.
“Yes, something good happened to her. She has gone to Italy.”
“To Italy? What has she gone to do in Italy?”
“What else, haba, are you not living in this country? She has gone to continue the business she was doing here and earn dollars.”
“When did she leave?” Paiko asked.
“The day after our hotel was raided by policemen,” the barman said. “But don’t worry, women come and women go, but Jolly Hotel remains. A new girl that has just arrived, her name is Beauty, and she is a real sweet 16. Should I go and call her for you?”
Paiko did not respond. He remembered when he had handed the $50 note to Sweet and she had kissed it and placed the money on her breast and said one day she too would start earning dollars. He had assumed that she meant that she would start going to nightclubs and dating the expatriate oil workers. He recalled what the Presido had said in Jungle Republic about a beautiful woman being like delicious soup and everyone wanting a taste. He took a sip of his beer and turned to the barman.
“Call that new girl for me.”