My experience in a Nigerian jail

Last year we publicised the plight of a group of Nigerian students who were shot at and arrested during one of their protes. Here one of those students describes the appalling conditions in Nigerian jails, but he also draws inspiration from his experience to continue in the struggle to transform society, the most noble cause anyone can dedicate themselves to. "Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains"

Last year we publicised the plight of a group of Nigerian students who were shot at and arrested during one of their protests. (See Nigerian students injured by police gunfire and then arrested in Ondo State ). Here one of those students describes the appalling conditions in Nigerian jails, but he also draws inspiration from his experience to continue in the struggle to transform society, the most noble cause anyone can dedicate themselves to.

I woke up with a start and the feel of a sharp pain in my left arm; I had been sleeping with my arms and legs cramped in grotesque angles. I sat up on the bare-concrete floor and looked around me and I saw several human bodies packed closely together, reminiscence of slave ships of the slave trade era in the 18th and 19th century. Everywhere was pitch-black except a tiny ray of moonlight seeping through the crossed-bars of a tiny hole, the so-called cell "window". As I lifted my left arm to wave away mosquitoes buzzing all around me I felt the sharp pain again, I looked down and felt my swollen biceps and it was just then that the full realization of where I was (A cell in the state investigation bureau of Akure) and how I had got there dawned on me!

The Arrest

At about 1pm. on Tuesday, December 3rd 2002, myself and six other students were arrested by men of the mobile police force at Akungba in Ondo state. We were battered mercilessly with clubs, gun-butts, kicks, blows, slaps etc., by over twenty men who, after felling us with blows, carried us into their van. We were packed on top of each other like logs of wood.

From Akungba we were driven to Owo Police Station, a journey of about 80 kilometres, where our statements were taken and we were locked up together with suspects of hard criminal cases in a dirty, stinking and tiny cell. We spent the night in the overcrowded bare-concrete-floor cell. The next day we were handcuffed and taken to a police station (the state investigation bureau) in Akure where we spent the rest of our days in detention. We were arrested and treated like criminals. The fact that we are students who were exercising their constitutional and democratic rights of freedom of assembly and peaceful protest was, to them, insignificant.

The Protest Movement

On Monday December 2nd 2002, students of the higher institutions in the South-Western zone of Nigeria, under the NANS (National Association of Nigerian Students) zone D leadership, converged at AAU, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba in Ondo state, to express their solidarity with the AAU students and to further lend weight to their two day lecture boycott and agitational protest against the victimization of their Union leaders who had been rusticated for championing the struggle for better infrastructural facilities on their campus in April 2002.

The protest was massively attended and very peaceful to the extent that the men of the Mobile police units who had been dispatched to harass and brutalise us could not find any excuse that could justify an attack.

We were demanding adequate funding of education by both the Federal and the State governments in order to create the necessary conditions that would be conducive to learning. These conditions were, unforgivably, absent at AAU. We totally condemned the increasing tendency to victimize student leaders who champion struggles for good welfare conditions and we also exposed the hypocrisy of the authorities who, rather than correct the anomalies that had sparked off the student protests, always choose to victimize the leaders of such protests.

We therefore demanded the immediate reinstatement of the rusticated student leaders, and criticized the attempt by the University authorities to impose a caretaker committee on the AAU students which was an attempt to deny them the right to independent unionism, in order to prevent them from speaking against their own anti-student mispolicies.

It was an unprecedented movement which we continued on the second day of the two-day lecture-boycott, Tuesday December 3, 2002. The same peaceful, non-violent attitude reigned on the part of students, but this time the mobile police units behaved differently (apparently on the orders of their masters; Professor Akere, the Vice-chancellor of AAU and Adebisi Adefarati, the Governor of Ondo State, who were furious at the peaceful and successful nature of the movement on the first day; which had exposed their evil deeds to the Nigerian Press and the world at large). This time the police shot live bullets at us and tear gassed us. With these methods they drove us away from the campus and drove us into the town.

We gathered round a tree in the centre of the town, chanting solidarity songs and slogans, and discussed the events of the moment and several other revolutionary and political topics. The Mobile police, despite the fact that we had left the campus, still came after us and opened fire with live ammunition and teargas, beating up several students, and brutally arrested seven of us and threw us into jail.

Life in Jail

Right from the first moment that I stepped into the cell, I knew that my experience in prison, whether short or long, would be a harrowing one. Upon stepping into the cell we were greeted with a strong odour of filth - urine, stale sweat, dirt and faeces - and it was in that filth that we ate, drank, slept, sat and lived throughout our days in detention.

Just like every other sector of the Nigerian socio-economic and political system, the prison system is in a state of absolute neglect and decay. Those suspected of crime are treated like animals. The tragedy is that they find themselves in prison as a result of the harsh economic conditions created by the anarchy of the so-called "free-market". Among them we find the unemployed, workers who have not had their wages paid for months, the poor and the hungry! Even animals do not deserve such inhuman treatment!!

Moreover, students are being dumped and locked up daily in such sickly conditions!
Despite the fact that the cell inmates (excluding us students) are mostly suspects - for none of them have been tried or found guilty – they are still locked up in such unhealthy conditions, and most of them have been locked up for over six months without appearing before a Court of Law! What a travesty of justice under a so-called "democratic" system!

Life in prison follows a set pattern, an intolerably rigid routine, whereby one does the same thing almost at the same time every day. In Nigeria, which has an underdeveloped and backward capitalist economy, prison life is even more terrible, for there are no such things as time-occupying activities like reading, T.V. Gymnastics etc., which are available in some developed capitalist countries.

We would wake up every morning with muscular pains, caused partly by the injuries inflicted on us by the mobile police but mainly by the hard, bare concrete floor we slept on every night and day. From dawn to dusk, the only activity one engages in is talking and napping, sometimes eating - and that is only when a member of on of our families visits with something edible otherwise we stay hungry.

Apart from living in filth, not being allowed to brush one's teeth or having a bath and a change of clothes, provision of food for cell inmates is not catered for in the Nigerian prison system. The tiny cell, in addition to the filth, was always overcrowded, holding at least 35 people at a time. There is no lavatory facility: we urinate and excrete faeces in a bucket in the corner of the cell which one of us empties outside the building (escorted a police guard) every morning.

The conditions under which we existed in jail were so humanly degrading that depressing thoughts usually would come to mind. But whenever such thoughts came to me, I would remember the numerous prisoners who had died in the past, guilty of simply speaking up and standing up against injustice. Many of them were my betters in terms of energy, talent and historical character. This memory would dawn on me and always overwhelmed, but this was also for me the source of a certain courage and determination.

Lessons: an inordinate system

"Capitalism is horror without end." This statement of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin suffices to aptly describe the horrific nature of human society under the socio-economic system called capitalism (unemployment, poverty, hunger, crime, wars, terror, oppression, etc). This is doubly aggravated in the conditions of underdeveloped capitalist economies, of which Nigeria is a particular example.

Capitalism, which is the latest variant of class society, is based on the struggle for individual existence, a situation whereby each struggles against all, that is to say, the survival of each individual human being is wholly independent on (and against) the survival of every other human being. This means, in the simplest of terms, that, for every person to survive it has to be at the detriment of other people. This system, which is based on the accumulation of huge wealth and private property by a few, while billions languish in penury, creates the situation whereby everybody scrambles in an attempt to become part of the propertied classes (and those who are already members of such classes scramble for more and more) at whatever risk and cost. This in turn creates the appalling horrors (crime, terror, oppression, war, etc) that pervade human society today.

It's attendant consequences

The horrors of capitalism are of a more terrible nature in the underdeveloped countries like Nigeria due to their backwardness in all fields - scientific, technological, agricultural, industrial and all other fields of human advancement. This leads the lay mind to believe that horrific phenomena such as police brutality exist only in the third world countries because of their pronounced and more primitive nature and do not exist in the advanced countries The horrors of capitalism appear to be less openly brutal in the advanced capitalist countries because of their supposedly "milder" nature. I understand that in reality the only difference is that in the advanced countries they have to find excuses, defences, arguments etc., to justify police brutality as opposed to the underdeveloped "third world" countries where it is carried out with impunity.

The widespread use of police brutality against students, workers and all other oppressed strata of Nigerian society, goes a long way to expose the hypocritical nature of the so-called "democratic" system we are supposed to be living in. It is clear that the "democracy" we have in Nigeria is a democracy for the rich only - bourgeois democracy in Marxist terminology - and certainly not for the poor and oppressed. The cardinal pillars of true democracy, which include all fundamental human and democratic rights, e.g. freedom of association, assembly and expression, are met with stiff opposition and brutality by the ruling class through their instruments of oppression, the police, army, prisons, media and all the rest.

It is even clearer when one understands the real historical role of the police, as opposed to the fantastic one - protection of life and property? - which we have been forced to believe in right from birth. The role of the police is to defend the status quo and suppress all voices of dissenting opinions by whatever means and at whatever cost. Dissenting opinions that challenge the corrupt practices, misdeeds and evildoings of the ruling class and pose a threat to the continuance of their undeserved and ill-gotten privileges are to be stamped out.

Come to think of it, the police in a narrow and restricted sense do protect life and property, but the question is: whose life and whose property? Certainly not that of the common and oppressed man who in the real sense has no property but abundant poverty and whose life is cut short daily on the streets of our major cities by these same armed bodies of men. It is the property, life and interests of the oppressor and exploiter ruling class that they protect and safeguard.

Police brutality will continue as long as this capitalist system and class society persist, for the ruling class will always need to suppress everything that poses a threat to their privileges and their rule of oppression and exploitation over society. The intensity of this oppression would, however, depend on the level of cultural advancement of each society.

The Solution

The only viable alternative to this chaos and evil is Socialism, reorganizing the economy so production is for the fulfilment of human needs and not private greed. The commanding heights of the economy (which are the foundations upon which all other superstructures - political, social, moral, legal, religious, etc., - of a society are erected), the top 200 banks and corporations that control 90% of Nigerian Commerce, must be nationalized and democratically controlled by the workers.

The bosses can't take their factories elsewhere if the workers are occupying and controlling them. When the majority comes together to collectively decide how to plan the economy in the interests of all, we will be able to eradicate poverty. Production for need would enable us to put an end to the boom-slump cycle and reduce working hours to create full employment. The production process would be subjected to systematic planning and order, and the wealth of society would be equally and evenly distributed.

However, this ideal society can only be achieved through the formation of a labour party by the trade and industrial workers' unions in the Nation, that is to say, a workers' party, the party of the working class, of that class which produces the wealth of the society. Such a party would lead all other oppressed layers of society in the struggle for the socialist transformation of human society. This historical role is placed on the shoulders of the workers because of the vital role they play in the economic (production) process, hence in the production of the wealth of society. Without the workers, the nation would grind to a standstill.

In Nigeria we already have a labour party, the PSD (Party for Social Democracy), unfortunately it is not the kind of labour party that can serve as a vanguard in the process of transforming society because it exists, in the real sense of the word, only on paper. There is no concrete programme. There are no structures, no meetings. In fact no publicity is given to it. This is because of the non-committal and irresponsible attitude of our non-credible and opportunist labour leaders, such as Adams Oshiomole & co. It is their responsibility, as Nigerian Labour Congress representatives, to give to this party the necessary exposition.

Nevertheless all hope is not lost. What needs to be done is to step up the pressure – that same pressure that brought about the formation of the PSD in the first place - for its transformation. And that is the major duty of the trade and industrial workers' unions that comprise the NLC and also of the students (that sensitive “barometer” of society) in the National Association of Nigerian Students and of all progressive people and groups in Nigeria.

Socialism is the only long-term answer to the evils of police brutality in particular, and of the catastrophic crises of capitalism and class society in general. However, there is also a short-term answer which can be given to the problem, which is through political action in the form of widespread protests by students and workers, industrial strikes by workers, etc. But we must say that, although this may go a long way towards securing various concessions and reforms from the ruling class, it can never totally solve the problems. Unless the protests and strikes are developed to such a stage where political power is taken from the ruling class by the workers, peasants, students and other oppressed layers of society, the capitalist system is overthrown and a new society established and organized on the basis of socialism along the lines of October 1917 in Russia, (before the Stalinist political counterrevolution put an end to it) then no long term solution will be forthcoming.

The Molecular Process of Change

Student protests and demonstrations cannot in themselves change society but can only serve as catalysts in the molecular process of revolution. The evolution and development of human society can be likened to a chemical process that is bound to reach a conclusive end no matter how long it takes, but whose reaction is sometimes speeded up by the addition of a catalyst.

The transition from capitalism to socialism is a chemical process that is bound to take place no matter how long it may seem to take. The catalysts are the people that speed up the reaction by making it clear to all and sundry that change is needed and that it is inevitable. Such is the role the student movement can play.

The Only Meaning of Life!

Right from the point when I was arrested, throughout my stay in detention, and until the day of my release (December11, 2002), and even when I reminisce about the whole affair, I never for once and can never regret being a catalyst in the chemical process of change, no matter the risks and the price I have to bear and pay. I consider it all a wonderfully worthwhile experience and I enjoin all my readers to join in the struggle to change society for the better. In the words of Leon Trotsky, "life is beautiful but there is need to cleanse it of all evils, violence and oppression in order to enjoy it to the fullest". Furthermore, in a similar statement of Victor Serge, "The only meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of history, one must range oneself actively against everything that tends to diminish and enslave man, and involve oneself in all struggles that tend to liberate and enlarge him."

Ile-Ife, Nigeria, March 1, 2003.

Join Us

Join the International Marxist Tendency and help build a revolutionary organisation to participate in the struggle for socialism worldwide!

In order to join fill in this form and we will get back to you as soon as possible.