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.
‘But where is your ID?’ he asked, shuffling through the assorted documents in the drawer.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘you people took it.’
He wrote something in the book.
‘He looked up.
‘Books,’I said. There was a short silence as he paused over the appropriate column and then one of my fellow inmates said: ‘Professeur.’
He closed the ledger.
‘Perhaps now you can explain what I’m doing here,’ I said, but he ostentatiously ignored me and went back to his own desk in the far corner. I withdrew to the back.
A few minutes later, three policemen entered the station supporting a man in handcuffs.
‘Oh my God, who is going to help me now, who is going to help me now?’ he wailed over and over. I could tell by his accent that he was Nigerian. One of the policemen shoved him into a chair. The man was getting hysterical.
‘Oh my God, oh Jesus, who will help me, who will help me?’
‘Shut up!’ the desk sergeant barked, moving towards him.
‘Oh my God, oh Jesus, I didn’t know the money was counterfeit, please Jesus, help me, help me.’
One of the policemen fetched him a slap across the back of the head which almost toppled him, whereupon the man started screaming. This was the signal for the other policemen to pile in. They beat him about the head and body, scrambling over each other in their haste, and then dragged him off the chair across the concrete floor and through to the back, out of sight.
‘These people are animals,’ the man next to me said in English under his breath.
‘You’re Nigerian?’ I asked.
He nodded. We fell to talking. He told me that he had been living in Lomé for the last two years, that he and his brother imported second-hand clothing from Germany and that he had been on his way to the docks that morning when he was arrested at a checkpoint because he had inadvertently left his ID at home. Lack of papers was the main reason people were being detained, he said, including the majority of our inmates, almost all of whom were from the countries of the Sahel to the north, mainly Burkina Faso and Niger. They were used to being picked up, which was why they didn’t appear too concerned.
‘They are very backward,’ he said, ‘they don’t understand that they have rights.’ This seemed a bit rich coming from a Nigerian but I let it pass. I was pleased to have found an ally, and thought he might turn out to be useful – he told me his brother had been with him when he was arrested and was even now working for his release.
‘But I don’t understand why they arrested me,’ I said.
He shrugged. ‘Money, what else?’
‘So why haven’t they asked me for any?’
‘They want you to sweat first,’ he replied. ‘That’s all it is, you know. They have to supplement their income. The Government even encourages it because they can’t pay them properly.’
‘They’ve made a mistake this time,’ I said, only half convincing myself. I wrote my London number on a scrap of paper.
‘Ring this number if you get out before me and tell the person who answers to get in touch with the BBC and Reuters. Her name is June.’ I gave him 10,000 francs, about £15.
By now it was getting dark. The desk sergeant asked if anybody wanted to buy bread from the woman inside, another policeman fetched drinking water in plastic containers from the standing tap outside. We were obviously there for the night.
Time dragged. It would have bee nice to follow what was on the television but the desk sergeant deliberately turned the set away from us and lowered the volume while he filled column after column in his ledgers. As soon as he finished with one he produced another from his drawer and started all over again. He used a red biro to draw the vertical lines with a ruler and a blue biro for writing, pausing occasionally to admire his work. And all the while he pretended that we didn’t exist.
By about nine o’clock most of my fellow inmates were sleeping soundly on the bare floor. I made fitful conversation with my new-found friend, whose main topic was Togo’s irredeemable backwardness. Even so, he couldn’t think of going home because Nigeria’s economy was in even worse shape. That was why he had come to this country in the first place and why, despite the abuse of his rights, he would remain here after his release.
Shortly after midnight, a van pulled into the yard outside and disgorged a man dressed only in a pair of khaki shorts. He was quickly followed by four policemen who pushed and punched him into the station and then set about bearing him until we feared for his life. What was especially eerie was his complete silence. He never uttered a sound as he fell to the ground and was hauled up and fell down again. It was as if the beating was no more than he expected, deserved even, and the greater his compliance, the better his chances of survival would be. He might as well have been a punch bag: certainly that was how the police appeared to see him. By now the others were wide awake and we simply stood there watching, unable to say or do anything until, semi-conscious, he was dragged off in the same direction as the man who had been beaten up earlier. One of my cellmates said something in French, perhaps an attempt at a joke, but nobody responded.
About an hour later, two young women of eighteen or thereabouts were ushered in. One was dressed in a mini-skirt and a halter top that showed a lot of midriff. The other wore a cotton dress that emphasised the outline of her body. Both wore cheap high heels. The desk sergeant checked their IDs.
‘From Ghana,’ he said, as though this fact by itself was enough to incriminate them. Clearly, he didn’t like Anglophones.
‘So this is how you girls come and practise your business in Togo,’ he sneered. For a moment I thought he was going to slap them, and for a moment they thought so, too, and cringed, but instead he took the keys from the nail and opened the door of our cell.
‘Get in,’ he said.
‘Get in,’ he repeated, and gave them a shove. Then he turned off the main light and stretched out on a bench.
Inside the cell the women clung to the bars and studiously ignored the men behind them. They conversed in low voices, but self-consciously. They knew perfectly well that every man in the cell was looking at them, mentally undressing them, even weighing up their chances, as perhaps the desk sergeant was encouraging them to do. It didn’t matter that they tried to keep still, as though to minimise the space they occupied. Their presence was enough; and then there were the clothes, worn for the very reason that was now working against them.
‘What if they decide to rape them?’ my friend whispered, indicating the other prisoners. In fact, a few of the rougher-looking men – the dock workers from Burkina Faso and Niger – attempted to engage the women in conversation, but too many of the others were awake for them to risk taking it any further, at least until they could be reasonably certain of getting away with it. As time went by and the others started failing asleep, the pushier men seemed to become more emboldened, but by then it was too late. The morning shift arrived with the first hint of daybreak and the desk sergeant roused himself from his slumber. One of the newcomers, a round man with a pleasant smile, came over.
‘Where is the white man?’ he said. I stood up. He said something in French but I shrugged to indicate that I didn’t understand. He shook his head and turned away. The desk sergeant opened the cell and ordered the women out. He couldn’t resist the lecture, which went on for a good five minutes, after which he handed each of them a broom and ordered them to sweep out the station. He then turned his attention to us and barked out an order. Everybody stood up and formed three lines, just like before. I sat where I was with my back to the wall. The smiling policemen looked at me and told me to join one of the lines. I jumped up and started shouting that they had detained me without so much as an explanation and that if they thought they were going to get away with it then they were badly mistaken and who the hell did they think they were, anyway? I was more upset than I’d realised; I was shaking with rage.
‘Okay, okay, go and sit down,’ the desk sergeant said with a placatory gesture, and then busied himself counting off the others on his ledger. He was the perfect bureaucrat, though I wondered whether he really believed some of us might have escaped while he slept.
As I had suspected, my Nigerian friend was eventually released at eight o’clock, along with a third of the others. I saw the money change hands but nobody had yet said anything to me. It was about an hour later that one of those left behind, ID-less and pot-less, asked me why I, too, didn’t just pay the 5000 francs and go.
‘Why should I?’ I retorted petulantly, but after another two hours, hungry, thirsty and beginning to wonder whether my friend hadn’t absconded with the money I had given him, I was tempted to make a deal. Before I caved in, help arrived in the person of the British Honorary Consul; Togo is too insignificant in the scheme of things to warrant a proper consulate, let alone an embassy. I heard later that the BBC Africa Service in London had been less than helpful when contacted; Reuters, by contrast, sent their local correspondent to investigate the story, but I missed him by a matter of minutes.
The Honorary Consul – ‘Yes, just like the Graham Greene novel,’ she confirmed – was waiting for me in the police chief’s office. The police chief, a pleasant-looking man in his forties, shook hands with me and pointed to a chair.
‘What happened?’ he asked.
‘Why are you asking me?’ I replied. ‘I thought this was meant to be your station.’
‘Perhaps you’d just better tell him the facts,’ the Honorary Consul admonished. ‘That’s how we do things here.’
I bit my lip and did as I was told, but stressing the fact that at no time did any of his officers explain why I was being held. I also mentioned the beatings I had witnessed and the two women who were locked in a cell with sixty men for three hours. When I had finished he opened the passport on the page with my photograph.
‘You see, madam,’ he began by way of explanation to the Honorary Consul, ‘if you look closely, you will notice that the photograph doesn’t exactly cover the space for it. That is why my men were suspicious. They thought that it might be counterfeit. We tried to get in touch with the Nigerian Embassy in order to clarify the matter but unfortunately we could not get an answer on the telephone.’
‘Why should anybody want a dodgy Nigerian passport?’ I asked, my sarcasm tempered by the suspicion that he was telling the truth. Nigerian missions abroad do little for their citizens, hence my detention. What they hadn’t bargained for was my British connection.
‘And there was a security alert,’ the police chief said, ignoring me.
‘Chef,’ I said, ‘I have only one question to ask you. How long are you permitted to hold a person before charging them?’
‘Forty-eight hours,’ he said without hesitation.
‘Its really a nice country,’ the Honorary Consul said as we walked out of the station. She paused by her car. ‘And what he said about the Nigerian Embassy is true. I tried to get hold of them when I was told that you weren’t travelling on your British passport but ...’ She shrugged. So I was free, 24 hours later, to have my long-delayed beer.
At three o’clock the following afternoon, I happened to be walking past the central police station – Lomé is a very small city – when two young men beckoned me from the yard. They were standing by a heap of dead leaves, one of them leaning on a broom. I recognised them at once.
‘Are you still here?’ I asked. They explained that they were only now about to be released, which meant that they had been detained for longer than the stipulated 48 hours. Not that they would be suing any-body. They had no money for food, which was why they were pleased to see me.
In January last year, according to the latest Amnesty report, an army officer, Captain Azote, was purportedly mistaken for a ‘terrorist’ and shot dead in Lomé. In fact Captain Azote, who had been dismissed from the Army in 1986 following an attempted coup and later reinstated, was a member of the Ligue togolaise des droits de l’homme. In Togo, detention without trial is only the half of it.