15A Awolowo Road (Prison memoir)
All night, it had been impossible to shut our eyes for a minute due to waves upon waves of attacks by mosquitoes. They were so many their battle song achieved a near-orchestral harmony.
Now and then we would switch on the fluorescent light in the hope of returning battle. We did swat a lot. They flew in such thick formations some even found their way into our nostrils and mouths, once in mine and twice in Akin’s. And in the darker corners where it seemed regiments waited their turns to join the onslaught, all we needed do was clap our hands together and open them to reveal corpses and gore. But what numbers we killed amounted to a negligible fraction, and, it seemed, were more than doubled by reinforcements. Their battle buzz achieved higher crescendos and, eventually, we tired of clapping and slapping ourselves with each bite.
Sometimes, two or three mosquitoes timed their bites to achieve the needle sharp, itchy pain at the same time. Then we were startled into slapping ourselves even more viciously, sure as a result not to have a single casualty for consolation.
Although the room was dusty and stuffy, we were constrained to shut all the windows, which were also barricaded. Unfortunately, one windowpane was entirely broken and the newspaper sheets draped over it obviously by a former detainee proved sorely inadequate to keep the ferocious insects at bay.
Another window, its pane though hanging on to its frame, was so riddled with cracks and holes of various sizes that it was pointless trying to block them all with paper, which in any case wasn’t available, or bits of foam from the decrepit couch.
Already, many holes had been blocked with foam, which probably explained why the arm-rests of the couch were bare. Yet another window could only be shut half way as its hinges were so stiff and rusty any pressure to force it beyond its fixed half-way point would bring it tumbling down.
The choice was between a vain effort to sleep, which would be merely lying down and surrendering to the torture, and sitting up for an all-night vigil. We chose the latter, pulled off our shirts and swooshed around our heads and shoulders at regular intervals, especially at the beginning of a coordinated attack betrayed by a war whine.
When our backs ached, we would lie down and swoosh above us and over our legs until we tired in that position then we would get up and sit on the couch or cabinet, our prone position having signalled our final surrender and the full army of mosquitoes advanced for the kill. It was at such times they had flown into our mouths and nostrils, perhaps seeking to enter inside our veins so they could just wallow in the blood they would die for.
But as it got closer to dawn, there was a gradual abatement in the attacks and we finally could snatch short stretches of actual sleep until a malicious bite reminded us not to get carried away. We had just had the unbelievable luck of an undisturbed half hour or so of sleep when the jangling keys woke us up.
A light complexioned man of average height came into the room. He couldn’t be more than thirty-five. He was dressed in traditional top and trousers of flowered patterns on a mainly green background. He held a torchlight in his left hand.
As he stepped into the centre of the room, two steps from Akin and about four from me, the smell of tobacco thickened the air. It seemed he marked the dawn of day with a cigarette, no, it seemed he marked every hour with a glowing stick; the tang around him suggested a chain smoker.
“Good morning. I hope you managed to sleep well,” he said.
We said nothing, wishing that he would just go away and let us see if we could “sleep well” now that the mosquitoes had called a unilateral daytime truce.
“I’ll be back.”
He left the room, this time locking only the barricade. We promptly went back to sleep. When he awakened us again, it was to bring food.
“I have brought your food. It is not very much. If you’d like to have more, then you’d need to give me money for it. Your daily food allowance is thirty naira. I am to bring food for you twice a day.”
“Thirty naira?!” Akin and I yelled our bewilderment at the same time.
“That is how much I am given for each detainee. They just increased it from twenty naira, after two detainees who had no way of supplementing their food died and the oga who was in charge at the time was redeployed. That was only because it got to the press. E be like say government approved more money for the feeding of detainees but the man no want release am. Me I think . . . go back inside, I’ll be back.”
We had come closer to the door as he spoke. We had noticed that he kept looking over his shoulder at the corridor and anytime he heard footsteps he would say, “Yes, why did you call me?” And when they disappeared, he would continue.
Now, he could no longer continue and had to hurry away. We were unsure what to make of him. Was this an entrapment strategy? Was he trying to gain our confidence, make us lower our guard and so lure us into incriminating ourselves? Forced to stay awake all night, we had pondered several notions, including whether or not there were hidden microphones in the walls or concrete decking. We had even turned the cabinet and old couch over in search of hidden bugs. We did find some bugs, crawling and winged critters that didn’t look like they had been recording us. At a point, I had said loudly: “Wanted dead and buried by the Nigerian people: General Abacha.”
After that initial bravado, however, we had agreed to mind what we said. But here was Yellow speaking so freely. If he hadn’t been looking over his shoulders, if he, in fact, hadn’t hurried away half-way through whatever he thought was the reason for the miserable feeding allowance for detainees, we would have retained that caution.
Now, it seemed to us, we could banish any fear of bugs. But what were we to make of Yellow? Well, no need to worry yet. If the promise made last night was anything to hope on, then we could be on our way out of detention and mosquitodom by Monday. Then we wouldn’t have to care about Yellow’s motives. If, on the other hand, that promise was of the same stock as we had seen from Sèmè, then we were likely to be here for a while. In which case, we would know soon enough what to do with him.
We turned to the plates of food. I opened one and Akin the other. It was rice so over-boiled in the effort to let it rise to its fullest it looked like mashed potatoes. There was a small circle of what had to be a mixture of palm oil and pepper boiled in copious amounts of water on top of it. I looked at Akin. He was staring at his plate of rice with that same look he had when contemplating his bed in the night as if the spider now sat on top of his meal.
“What is the problem, you are not hungry?” asked Yellow, looking genuinely concerned. “Oh, I understand. Detainees take time to get used to this place and the food. I’ll advise you, however, not to think about the food but to just eat. I was going to tell you that I believe the ogas here are sharing the larger part of the money meant for feeding. They . . . ”
Voices accompanied footsteps into the corridor. The voices sounded authoritative.
“I have told you, you cannot go to the toilet until it is night. If you like, you can piss in your legs.”
Yellow had changed his tone from conspiratorial to contemptuous. He was locking us in again when two men, one in a brown French suit and the other in a white caftan and a tall, black cap halted him and entered the room. The one in the brown suit spoke.
“Hello my friends. I hope you enjoyed your first night with us here.” He looked at the two plates of rice. “I see you are already being looked after. Well, enjoy your meal.”
The man in the caftan took a few more steps inside. “I didn’t know we had such nice beds in here for our friends,” he gestured at the filthy things we had had to make do with. Then turned to join his colleague who was already at the door.
Yellow locked us in. We were silent for almost ten minutes, individually trying to interpret the portent of this visit. It was clear that there was no question of our regaining freedom in a day’s time. And surprisingly, rather than be alarmed, my chief regret was that we had been allowed only a book each. I decided then that I had no option now than to come to terms with the bleak reality we faced. Be sure, I said to myself, to get out of here with little or no damage to your health. Above all else, I almost said aloud, “Do not fall ill.”
I looked at the rice. Yellow had also brought us plastic spoons. The ration was indeed meagre as fifteen naira’s worth of rice including the cost of labour and profit was meant to be. There couldn’t have been more than seven table-spoonfuls on the plate. I picked up the yellow plastic spoon and churned the oil-water into the rice. There was a piece of meat about the size of a brass button. I took a deep breath and began to eat. Akin, by degrees, came to the same conclusion about a quarter of an hour after I had finished. When finally he decided to eat, he spent nearly another quarter of an hour between the first and second spoonfuls.
“Look, you only increase the torture by lingering over each spoon,” I said. “Swallow the food, if possible in one mouthful, with the same grimace and speed you would bitter medicine.”
“I would if it were medicine, but this looks like poison to me.”
“If it is, then it must have delayed effect; it’s at least thirty minutes since I took mine and I am not foaming in the mouth yet.”
“Who is to say it is not indeed slow-acting poison?”
“Well, in that case, you are either going to die of poison, and have your death more appropriately blamed on Abacha, or of starvation. I have chosen to die of poisoning and I recommend that to you.”
The joke worked. Akin lingered less and less over every bite, announcing at the end, “I have heard of trial by ordeal. This is eating by ordeal!”
We had finished eating. Now we needed water. There was none. I went to the door and banged on it. Yellow came, opened the door, leaving the barricade locked. I asked for water. He apologised for not bringing us any and left.
He returned with a large plastic bottle of tap water. I went to the window, lifted it up to the light to see if there was dirt floating in it. It looked clean enough. I tilted back my head and drank by tipping water into my mouth. I missed a swallow and water spilled on my chest and the floor. I began to cough as water trickled out of my nostrils. I handed the bottle to Akin as I did my best to subdue the coughing. Akin drank without any trouble…
• Ifowodo, a lecturer, lawyer, writer, and activist, was former Delta State Commissioner for Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). This excerpt is from his unpublished memoir on his activism and consequent imprisonment during the dark days of Abacha regime
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