We had just reached the outskirts of Lomé when my shared taxi was flagged down at a police checkpoint. One of the Togolese officers asked me for ID. I handed him my Nigerian passport. He looked at it, nodded his head in a way that suggested he had discovered something significant and ordered me to get out. I was perplexed but didn’t think there was any reason to worry. I knew there were periodic security alerts in Togo. General Gnassingbe Eyadéma, in power since 1067, was refusing to bow to popular pressure and quit office. It was for this reason that independent Togolese journalists were regularly detained and their newspapers impounded.
‘What is your profession?’ the policeman asked, leafing through my passport.
‘Publisher,’ I said.
‘What is publisher?’
‘Books,’ I said, ‘les livres.’ I tried to find the right French words. ‘Pour I’école,’ I added hopefully.
He shook his head, dismissed my driver and pointed to a police van parked in the shade of a tree on the other side of the road.
‘Get inside,’ he said, putting my passport in his pocket and turning his back on me.
The van was occupied by half a dozen riot policemen eating lunch. They indicated the back seat. One or two of them looked bemused. I was a métis, after all, almost a white man, unlike the assorted street hawkers they had rounded up in the course of a busy morning and who were now squatting on their haunches under the midday sun with their wares: calculators, watches, leather belts, cigarettes, boiled eggs. Presently the policemen finished eating, strapped on their smart blue helmets and piled out. The hawkers were directed to get in and off we went.
It was a short drive to the first police station. We were taken to the charge room and told to sit on the wooden benches that ran along two walls. To one side was cell filled to capacity with some thirty young men, standing room only. Policemen wandered in and out pretending not to notice me, so I just stared out the window and affected nonchalance. In fact I was pressed for time but there was nothing I could usefully say or do until I knew what was going on.
An hour passed. Other young men were ushered in, until the room could hardly contain any more. By now my shirt was soaked from the heat. A little while later I caught the sound of vehicles in the yard outside. One of the policemen told us to stand up and form a queue. The man at the front was instructed to bend over and reach between his legs with his right hand to grasp the left hand of the man behind him, who was to do the same with the man behind him and so on down the line. I refused to comply and the policemen didn’t push it as they led all sixty of us to three parked vans, my fellow culprits shuffling awkwardly, much to the amusement of the onlookers.
We set off towards the city centre and soon reached the main boulevard that ran parallel with the Atlantic Ocean on our left. I noted a couple of hotels along the way that looked as if they might be reasonably priced. I had visited Lomé only once before, about three years back, but I couldn’t remember where I had stayed. It hadn’t yet occurred to me, as we pulled into the central police station, that I might be detained overnight, and I could almost taste my first cold beer of the day even as we were instructed to remove our shoes and drop our bags and file into an empty cell.
It was big – it could have easily contained twice our number, and as soon as I saw the bucket in the far corner I decided to refrain from eating or drinking for the duration of my stay. It took two hours for the bucket to fill up, and that was before we discovered that one of our fellows was suffering from diarrhoea. The police, for their part, ignored us until five o’clock, four hours after our arrival, when we were suddenly ordered to form three lines. The desk sergeant, a neat, handsome man in a freshly-pressed uniform, began taking down our particulars in a ledger: name, address, nationality and profession. I was the last. Fortunately, his English was good.