After weeks of learning basic sign language, SOLOMON ODENIYI visited police stations across the country, feigning hearing and speech impairment to report on the neglect, frustration, and discrimination Persons With Disabilities encounter in their pursuit of justice
Unfettered access to justice is vital for rule of law to thrive in any country but the judicial system in Nigeria is discriminatory against People With Disabilities in search of justice.
Kazeem Lawal, a visually-impaired lawyer, has yet to get justice two years after he was battered and bruised by men of the Nigeria Police Force in the Kubwa area of the Federal Capital Territory.
During the lockdown occasioned by the Coronavirus pandemic, the lawyer had taken it upon himself to help distribute palliatives to those in the PWD community who were badly impacted by the pandemic.
He had just mounted a motorcycle alongside his niece after he had finished giving the palliative to a PWD residing in the area when a patrol vehicle from the police pulled over and pounced on him for moving around despite the imposed lockdown at the time of the incident.
The lockdown was one of the measures by the federal and state governments to curtail the spread of COVID-19. Vehicular and human movements were restricted during this period in the country except for essential workers.
His explanation that he was blind and was helping to give out stimulus packages to ameliorate the suffering of PWDs, fell on deaf ears of the policemen.
He accused the cops of making a mockery of his disability till the assault lasted, adding that he was freed after the policemen saw he was profusely bleeding.
“My 17-year-old niece that was with me took off immediately before the incident happened and another resident assisted me to the 2-1 police station in Kubwa, where I reported the case. On that same day, they took my statement and asked me to go for treatment. Nothing was done afterwards,” he said.
He said after efforts to ensure justice was dispensed on the matter were futile, the association of blind lawyers petitioned the Inspector General of Police.
The lawyer stated that the police capitalised on his disability (blindness) and denied that those who assaulted him were their personnel.
He also said the inability of an eyewitness to testify against the police for the fear of reprisal frustrated his efforts to get justice.
Kazeem said, “My association petitioned the IGP and the case was taken up but the police did not do anything.
“First, the police claimed they do not have fuel in their car and that I should mobilise them to visit the scene of the crime. During that time as well, the chairman of the NBA Bwari branch went to see the DPO; he denied that those people were not policemen.
“I told him my niece saw the police van the authority must know the team they sent out at that particular time. If they were identified, we would have been able to sue them individually but being a person with visual impairment, I did not have enough evidence to proceed against these people and the police were not ready to disclose their identity.
“The eyewitness who took me to the station was approached but declined to testify against the police. He said everyone in the area knows him. He relocated at that point to Suleja. If he had been available, we could have filed a suit in court to compel the police to produce those people. To date, I’m yet to get justice.”
Raped and ridiculed
Lilian (not her real name), a lady with albinism was running an errand for her mother when she was raped by a man in the Maraba area of the FCT.
Before the incident, she had severally turned down sexual advances from the man.
Lilian said she headed straight to the station in the area to report but the police discriminated against her because of her disability and allowed the suspect to flee.
She narrated, “It happened last year in September. My mum sent me on an errand, the man had been asking me out but I told him I was not ready for that now. He accosted me on my way and dragged me to an uncompleted building where he raped me.
“I went to the station at Maraba to report. When I got there, though the policemen did not say a word the way they looked at me and their reluctance to go after the culprit said it all. I am very sure that they won’t do that to other people without disabilities.
“They eventually went to the scene of the incident and they claimed he ran from them. To date, he’s yet to be found and I am not aware of any effort made to get him.
“I am not happy with the whole thing and the discrimination against us. I am not the only victim here, I have a friend with a disability with a similar case, in her case the police laughed at her and asked her to thank God that she was raped. We need help, something must be done to stop this discrimination. The way I was treated at the station was really bad. The way they attend to our cases is disheartening. The police should be enlightened.”
The heart-rending ordeals of Kazeem, Lillian and many members of the PWD community who have suffered discrimination in pursuit of justice informed this reporter’s decision to go undercover to police stations across the country to get a first-hand experience.
For this expedition to be successful, I learnt, I had to go through the rigorous exercise of learning basic sign language. This training, I undertook for weeks before setting out for the journey. Also, throughout the investigation, I made a deliberate attempt at looking unkempt.
Osun Police Divisional Headquarters
A police patrol vehicle had just zoomed in, and shortly after, the Police officers onboard disembarked from the vehicle with their guns strapped to their shoulders after the driver pulled over.
It appeared they were just returning from an operation when I walked into the Dada Estate Police Divisional Headquarters in Osogbo, the capital of Osun State.
I was stopped by a policeman donning a fading orange shirt neatly tucked inside black trousers. He was shutting the gate at that time.
He inquired from me what I wanted. I lamented that I had been cheated by someone I worked for using sign language with a face creased with a frown.
“Can you write? It would have been better if you can but you can go inside hopefully you would be attended to,’’ the cop said.
Although he did not understand the gestures by this reporter indicating that he could not write, he nonetheless pointed the way to the reception popularly known as the counter.
As I proceeded to the counter, I met a man who was referred to as SO.
After the sign language, he asked one of the police officers there with him if such a case as mine could be handled at the station but the cop’s answer was in the negative.
While with him, he could neither understand what my problem was nor could he communicate in basic sign language.
All he muttered was “Ataoja”, which was an indication that this reporter should try out the Divisional Police Headquarters in the Ataoja area.
Named after the title of the king of Osogbo, the Police Division according to google maps is 3.6 kilometres to the State Assembly complex and 6.5 kilometres to the government secretariat at Abeere.
On getting to the station, a policewoman at the counter who attended to me was soaked in pity after I repeatedly told her my problem through the use of sign language. She could not connect with my gestures. “Eyahhh O ma se o… (What a pity),” she kept saying.
She called another colleague of hers who made a fruitless attempt to make sense of my gestures.
Worried she was not getting it right, she brought paper and a pen to write what had happened.
Rather than nodding, I hit my thumb with two of my fingers (a sign language for no) but she appeared confused. She came close but I repeated the sign language.
She grabbed my hand and took me along to her superior who she addressed as Oga Sola.
“Oga Sola ati gba alejo nla o…,’’ she said in Yoruba language. This, loosely translated, means, “My boss, we have an August visitor.’
With a probing expression on his face, Sola also could not make sense of my gestures after many occasions. The more I tried, the more he got confused.
“Come back to see the DPO on Monday,” he said to me using his fingers to count the number of days.
I pretended I was angry. Since it was a Friday, asking me to come back on Monday to see the DPO, who I wasn’t sure would be any different was a no-brainer. He, however, pleaded with me to do as he had earlier said.
Like Osun like Lagos
The centre of excellence is one of the most populous cities in West Africa and the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria, thus one would have expected a difference but that is not to be.
I was at Meiran Police divisional headquarters, in the Alimosho Local Government Area of the state. The division serves over 20 different communities.
At the gate was a man, whose name tag identified him as Ajiboye.
Similar to the approach in Osun, I also spoke using sign language. The look on his face showed he was star-struck to see someone with sign language approaching him or the station as the case was. He brought out a paper and pen but I continued using sign language.
Apparently tired of my feigned disability, he pointed to the way leading to the counter.
On getting there, I was being tossed around like a football. Immediately I turned to one, they directed me to another. While few gave a listening ear, many of them shunned me. One of the female police officers I went to, rather than attend to me, was miming a song by Evangelist Bola Are coming from outside the station.
In total, I met nine police officers and no one came close to knowing the complaint I came to make.
One with the name tag Oluwadare tried to help out but to no avail.
“The young man here said he cannot find his wife,” he said smiling. He felt happy he got it right but all that soon changed as I slowly repeated the sign language.
Shortly after, he greeted a senior police officer who donned a T-shirt with a police logo. He asked why he was yet to proceed on leave. “I’ll be going soon,” he responded. Dare seized the opportunity to ask his superior if he could be of help in my matter.
Dare’s superior asked me to go ahead with my complaints. He, however, didn’t wait for me to complete the signing before he threw in the towel.
I left the station looking dejected. Ajiboye (the policeman I met at the gate) noticed my look. He robbed his five fingers against his chest to plead with me to calm down.
I then proceeded to the Police Divisional Headquarters at Ile-epo.
The Oke-Odo divisional Police headquarters is situated around one of the busiest markets in Lagos, the Asiwaju Bola Tinubu ultramodern market popularly known as Ile-epo market.
I met two policemen at the gate, they wasted no time directing me to a group of policemen sitting under a shed in front of the station.
The policemen, four in number, watched as I signed my complaints on two different occasions.
They tried to provide an interpretation to my signed complaints, another was joking with a young lady who was using his car mirror, the other recalled his experience with a PwD and the last was quiet.
“He said his bike has been stolen,” the cop said.
The other policeman who was recounting his experience narrated, ‘’Ajadi, (the name of the police officer sitting next to him) the last time I experienced this kind of thing was while I was in Ilorin. A special needs school was not too far from my station. A deaf person came to our station then and was doing the same thing this man was doing,” he said in Yoruba. He didn’t, however, state if the PWD was attended to or not.
I was later left to myself. I had to leave the scene pretending I was displeased.
Same in FCT
Being the nation’s capital, this reporter had harboured doubt that the police divisional headquarters in the Federal Capital Territory would have at least one person in every station who can attend to PwDs.
Two days after I arrived in Abuja I contemplated if I should go ahead with the plan or shelve it. I had concluded to opt for the police divisional headquarters in neighbouring Niger or Nasarawa State but I later settled for Abuja.
So, I rehearsed the sign language and asked my tutor to teach me others I am likely to come in contact with so as not to cheaply give myself out and importantly, to prevent myself from being locked up in one of their cells. Besides, I alerted our acting Abuja Bureau Chief, Adelani Adepegba in case the unforeseen happens.
Still, with the same complaint, I headed to the Police Divisional Headquarters in Kuje which is situated along the ever-busy Kuje-Gwagwalada road.
A policeman with the name tag Christopher stopped me as I tried to walk into the premises. He asked what I wanted. Using sign language, I explained myself to him. He called Victor who was putting on a faded orange uniform with black trousers. The look on Victor’s face after I spoke to him using sign language gave him out as someone who was surprised his colleague called him to attend to a person with hearing and speech impairment.
He wasted no time showing me the way to the reception.
At the reception, I met a couple of police officers there and I ensured I got the attention of all of them by being dramatic.
A soft-spoken policeman without wasting much time confessed that there was nothing anyone in the station could do to wade into my matter.
“We no sabi that one o. How we wan take do am now, we no get person wey understand people with special needs here o,” he sincerely said.
A police officer with the name Francis, according to his tag, inquired if I could write but I kept on with the sign language.
Francis took me to an office that had a ‘crime office’ inscribed at the entrance. Also, at the door was a printout of some sections of the Administration of Criminal Justice.
In that office, I observed no police officer was wearing a uniform. Although the investigation was done on a Friday morning one would expect them to be in their uniforms.
I watched as Francis explained my situation to a police officer who was putting on a yellow and black striped shirt but he was snubbed. Despite that, I approached him with sign language to see if he would have a change of mind, but the policeman was unmoved.
“You are supposed to come here with an interpreter, how do you expect us to understand what you are saying?, “ a woman wearing a purple native dress said from her seat close to the second window of the office.
A policeman identified as Barnabas was the only one not in the office at that time, Francis asked me to wait for him, perhaps he could help.
“Please, wait till he comes back, Francis said. After waiting for about 20 minutes, I learned he went for an assignment, So, I had to take my leave.”
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