By Chioma Igbokwe
This is the story of a Nigerian journalist, Taiwo Oluwadare whose quest for information landed him in jail in far away Togo. The police at a checkpoint who felt that he was hired to ridicule the government during the country’s last election would not listen to any explanation from him that he was just being professionally nosy and not after the security of the tiny West African nation.
Oluwadare who writes for the Saturday Sun had gone to Togo for some family concerns and decided to fish out the family of international footballer, Emmnauel Adebayor to interview his mother. But out of curiosity, he went into some other matters of interest that made him take shots of some scenes with his camera. That was not just okay with the Togo police that accosted him and demanded his mission in town. Owing to some communication barrier, he could not express himself in French to make a good case out of the logjam, and the police do not understand the language he speaks. There was a breakdown that later lingered into nine days in detention before reprieve came his way.
Narrating his ordeal to Saturday Sun , Taiwo explained that he saw it as a golden opportunity when his relatives invited him to Togo on holiday.
He quickly grabbed it with the sole aim of getting across to the mother of ace footballer, Emmanuel Adebayor. His dream was to meet the woman who gave birth to the famous soccer star who decided to play for the national team of his mother’s land.
His journalistic instincts made him observe carefully details of this country as they arrived Togo. On getting to Hilla Kondji, Benin/ Togo border, Taiwo saw posters of campaign, which means that the country was in the heat of an election. Uninvited, Taiwo felt like being an observer to compare the election procedure in Togo and that of Nigeria.
Getting to Togo on March 2, Taiwo went to market with a brother from Nigeria to buy few things he needed at Assigame, an international market. ‘There I saw a crowd of people doing campaign. They are people of UFC party, a major rival party to ruling party, RTP. I took several pictures. Also on election day being March 4, I followed my relatives to the polling booth and also took pictures there. The following day, I went to the electoral commission office to ask for the situational report. After series of interrogation by the security officers, Taiwo was asked to follow due process by getting an accreditation letter before he could be given access to any information needed as regards the result of the election. ‘ My inability to communicate with them in French made it difficult for me to trace the place where I was to get the accreditation. I decided to forget about the information since I was not in Togo to monitor the election.’
On his way back, Taiwo noticed that people were rushing towards the direction of a man, waving in admiration and taking photos. Out of curiosity and since there seem to be a paparazzi, Taiwo joined the group and took snap shots of the man. ‘The man was in an area at Nyikonapoe buying flowers. After taking some snap shots, I asked people around who the man was and they told me his name is Gilchrist Olympio. He is the son to the first president in Togo, Sylvanus Olympio who was assassinated and is the founder of UFC party. I never knew that there was a controversy surrounding the death of his father, that the picture was taboo to be seen on any Togo national TV let alone a visitor.’
On Sunday when his contact to see Adebayor’s mother failed, Taiwo decided to take a tour around Togo. ‘When I waited for him and did not see him, I begged my cousin to take me to the seashore to have fun and probably to take pictures too. On our way, he told me that Aflao, Togo/ Ghana Border is not far, so we decided to go there first. When I got there, I tried to take shots of the billboard where it was written ‘welcome to Ghana’ ignorant of the fact that some policemen were watching us under the tree. As I was about leaving, one of the policemen beckoned on me. I was warned by passerby to ignore them and run but since I felt that I had committed no offence, I decided to answer the call. I was shocked when the policeman gave me a dirty slap, that I tasted blood in my mouth. He seized my camera and started scrolling through the photos that I took.’
When the policemen who spoke in French noticed the picture of Gilchrist Olympio, they became more hostile to Taiwo. ‘They asked me why I took only pictures that has to do with the rival party to ruling party. I told them I took the pictures of what I saw. Actually, I didn’t see where RTP was doing political rally and I didn’t see any personality that has to do with RTP.’
Determined to know who and what Taiwo was up to, the policemen conducted a thorough search and in the process discovered a press Identity card in his pocket. At that point hell was let loose and the police descended on him and gave him the beating of his life alleging that he was a spy on the government. ‘ They dragged me to their immigration office shouting that I’ll be killed or die in prison.
They took me inside the immigration office where a man asked me questions about my nationality and why I am in their country. He wrote it on a paper and left while one of the policemen drew out an AK rifle and ordered me to stand up or he will shoot. He handcuffed me and said they are taking me to an unknown place to be killed. At that moment I confessed all my sins to God incase they decide to kill me. I was terrified because I heard some people have died in this process. In the course of my incarceration, I learnt that those in the opposition fled the country to take refuge in Benin and Ghana and the border was blocked against them.
‘I pleaded with them to spare me as I was an innocent tourist who happen to be a journalist. When we got down, I saw my cousin down stairs waiting for me and they immediately asked both of us to enter a car. We were taken to a police station called DPJ (Direction de la police Judiciaire) and detained. The next day, they released my cousin who is a citizen, it was then that I knew that I had hope of living as he promised to get help.’
For nine days, Taiwo was kept behind bars. ‘ It was then that I valued my freedom. Initially I expected that I would be thrown into a stinking over crowded cell but the cell I was kept was neat and has toilet, bathroom and water system. The oldest person in the cell takes control of the cell and he is addressed as ‘chef de grille’ meaning the boss. I was the oldest in the cell but because I don’t understand their language, another person took over. The inmates treated me with respect although I couldn’t understand their language. When I was brooding over this, one of the co-accused pet me. He said what I did is no offence but in Togo, it is a serious offence.’
Taiwo observed that the police in the country were well taken care of as they readily provided food for anyone in the prison from their pocket before the daily supply was given. ‘There are many times some of the police would ask what I would eat or need and gave it to me. In fact, I see there are good things about Togo only their political atmosphere that is tense.’
After much lobbying and pleading, Taiwo was released on the ninth day. He learnt from his family members that he was detained because they suspected that Taiwo was paid to be an agent to the political dissident in Togo and if I was found guilty, the punishable offence is seven years imprisonment. ‘It was after nine days of fervent prayers and pleas from relations in Togo, they realized that I had no link with any political dissident and they ordered my release.
I was warned to stay away from the borderline as government promised any policeman that arrest persons in relation to political matter a sum of 25,000 Fcfa.
I also wish to thank Emmanuel Adebayor’s mother who came to the police station to beg on my behalf, insisting that I came to Togo because of her and not for any political issue. I thank my stars, that my relatives where resident in Togo, probably I would have been six feet under.’