‘Shoeless Night’ is the title of a gripping and compelling story written by Oluwafemi Oloidi. Published by Omojojolo Press, Nigeria, the 187-page book captures, in amazing details, the gruesome encounter of four exuberant youths in the hands of the Nigeria Police Force in Port Harcourt. It is a true-life story garnished with no fiction, no fabrication. Written in a language that greases the pages with fluidity, comedic effects and hilarity, this outstanding literary piece overwhelms the reader with boisterous merriments of rib-cracking laughter. It contains a total of 33 chapters, the shortness of which makes it easier to connect one to the other. With this, continuity is maintained even for slow readers and the story can be effortlessly assimilated.
The journey begins from Chioma’s house where the four friends have reeled in the merry of a social party before venturing into the dark belly of the night. The seeming innocent venture eventually transforms itself into a gory adventure in the hands of the policemen who are on duty at a checkpoint and swiftly arrest them (for no offence whatsoever).
The wear and tear of the night humble the bubbling friends and toughen the policemen who make sure they (the bubbling friends) are goaded, with no known charges, straight into the gaol! Interestingly, this is not where the author begins his story from, as his first encounter with Chioma at the party actually manifests in Chapter 5 aptly titled ‘Chioma’. From that point, the real cruise into the hands of the men in black takes its excruciating toll on the victims of injustice.
The author’s interchangeable use of suspense and flashbacks generates tension and diversion in such a way that the reader is wholesomely captivated. All happenstances at the police station are a devastating drama, which in itself is laced with occasional comic reliefs as literally painted by the author. The officer-in-charge, apparently proving to be in charge, charged at his victims with venom of hate and anger splattering from his eyes: “Why do fine boys like una dey do ugly, yeye things?” But ironically, those “yeye things” are not explained. So, the accused (or suspects) remain in perpetual ignorance of the purported offence. All the same, the word of every officer at the station, whether it makes sense or not, is law.
The accused simply comply to avoid untold physical assault. So, when the officer yells, “Move!”, it simply means move and move they must into the cell. No trial, no interrogation; just suspicion, accusation and pronouncement of a guilty verdict – away from the court of law. The cell rooms are better described by the author: “Cell 0 is for hardened women criminals, known as Eve’s Den. Cell 1 is for regulars, but still moderately tough. It’s called Christian Cell. While Cell 2 is called Heavenly Cell, Cell 3 is where they keep dark hearted criminals and the most fearful thing is that one hardly hears voices from the cell, and this shows the kind of evil happening inside.
Cell 4, the final Cell known as The Paradise of Hell, has almost the same mortuary mood with (sic) cell 3, but criminals are not kept there for a long period because it’s a cell where they temporarily keep the hoodlums, before transferring them to the gallows room…”
That gallows room is called Sinking Hell and is of a few metres away from the Cell. For the next four days or so, Oluwafemi and his friends, ignorant of what offence they have committed, lampooned inside Cell 1. They suffered. They gnashed their teeth. They cried, they sorrowed, they hissed, they pleaded, but the claws of injustice nail them to the floor. In a couple of hours, however, the author is driven by those instincts of a writer that compel him to see the experience from a more positive angle. So, while the hope of freedom dims, he throws himself on old cellmates who are soon cajoled into divulging true information about themselves – the types that even the police have found difficult to extract. There are many of such shady characters in the cell; and there are many innocent ones who just suffer for no known reason. They are all confined by destiny, in a striking variety of strange names: Monster Seed; Ogene, the cell conductor, also known as Six-Feet De Terminator; DOC, etc.
One of the first new cellmates thrown in to join Oluwafemi and other old cellmates in Cell 1 is the die-hard and commando-like Obinna popularly called Full Payment. An intellectual criminal, he has a transcending reputation for kidnapping, highway robbery and other criminal activities. There is also Celestin who has been brutally tortured by his prisoners, but rather than being subdued, remains emboldened. He gives the author a more intriguing conversation more than anyone else in the cell. Also present is Tochi who is an intimate friend of Ubom. In Ubom’s assessment, Tochi is a good person and a chorister who was forced by a community clash that saw her family house razed to ashes, to escape from Akpabuyo in Calabar, Cross Rivers State.
He found himself in Port Harcourt. Tochi is already doing fine in the city before Ubom encounters him again and got him involved in a case of kidnaping that lands them in police cell. Osas is a Delta boy who makes a frightening revelation to the author in their private conversation. He identifies a graffiti on the wall of the cell room, which he claims was written by his brother. The brother had disappeared from home, but when Osas got to the cell, he discovered, to his amazement, that his brother was shot along with another friend by the police right there in the same cell room.
The graffiti says it all. The story of Gloria (who is in Cell 0) is told by Osas. She is a female footballer who has played with Falcons (Nigerian female football team) and missed the Olympics due to her predicament. She was arrested in company of her boyfriend who was a car thief, drug dealer and had bought stolen Murano and Land Cruiser jeeps! There are many men and women of shady characters in the cell rooms, yet some are innocent or have committed pardonable offences. These cell rooms, however, serve as temporary painful cooling abode while the road is being prepared for suspects and accused persons to either stroll into freedom or go to prison via the prism of the lawful. Inexplicably, however, some unlucky ones get exterminated right there in the cell rooms – trials or no trials.
The cell room itself is not run without its many hilarious happenstances. The storytelling sessions bring the best out of every mate. In their interactions, they have devised a comic interpretation of the character of the Nigeria Police. Here, the police uniform is used as a metaphor: “Chai! You see, the police now change uniform like we criminals. Yesterday black, next yesterday orange, today blue, tomorrow army uniform or commonflag (camouflag). Dey go soon change, like chameleon, to Cherubim and Seraphim church dress.”
After spending four nights and four days in the dark belly of the cell, Michael’s father, who has been to almost twelve police stations before forcing an SOS call that traces their detention, finally secures their release. Ironically, the Nigerian Police Force is not dominated only by mean and wicked men who abhor justice and harbour injustice. In the same Force are some good-natured individuals. This is revealed towards the end of the book by the author when he and his friends encounter one or two officers who have displayed exemplary characters.
That balance shows that the author is not biased against the Force, in spite of his gory encounter. The journey to the cell begins from Chioma’s house but when the air of freedom blows on Oluwafemi, a number of factors impedes on their re-union.
The game of suspense persists until Chioma puts a call through. The typical Nigerian network, with its usual fluctuating pain in the neck, takes charge. In search of clarity, he has to climb a hill of blocks from where he crashes to the ground and breaks his right arm! He ends up in the bone specialist’s den where he later reconnects with Chioma. As expected, they both later become lovers. That is, at least, one pint of sweetness that brings a happy ending to the story of trauma and torture in the hands of the Nigerian police.