Lessons from the ‘Guardroom’

As I reflected during my early morning walk today, I was reminded of a personal story that happened to me when I was only 17 years old. The day I was arrested and locked up in a cell by the Nigerian Military Army.

The year was 1996. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) was on strike (that meant no school; to your father’s house). The only way to live without running crazy doing nothing was to assist my mom in her pharmacy & business center.

You see, my mom’s pharmacy shop was located inside the army Cantonment (barracks), about half a mile away from the famous ‘mammy market’ – your one stop market for any product or service you need at home, in school or at work. Right after the bomb that exploded in the barracks in 1996 (can’t remember exactly the month) the order given was that closing time for every shop in the market was 7pm. My mom’s pharmacy however was not inside-inside the market, so that never really applied to us. As such, the pharmacy closed around 8:30/9:30pm.

Let me say at this point that I hated (the smell of) medicine/drugs and so it was a thorn in my flesh being in the Pharmacy. Plus it wasn’t in my agenda to do anything related to Pharmacy or even Medicine especially after I had failed Chemistry in my first semester in college. It was just so abstract to me. But working in my mom’s pharmacy was like a rite of passage in my family. My sister had done her bit, and it was my turn at the time. Sorry, I digress.

On this fateful day, around 7:10pm, a group of armed military men stormed into the Pharmacy. With me was the nurse on duty, and a salesgirl (cashier) that was already getting ready to close.  I wasn’t afraid; there was no reason to. However, they came in and started to shout in pidgin English with loud baritone voices. “CLOSE THIS PLACE NOW. WHY UNA STILL OPEN THIS PLACE? WETIN UNA STILL DEY DO? EVERYBODY, OUT!! OYA, GET OUT NOW!”

I was shocked. We’ve never had to close the shop on mammy market time. It was the only pharmacy in the whole of the Cantonment at the time (not sure if there’s more now), but even the clinics would send families of patients to my mom’s pharmacy to get prescriptions filled out for a family member that may have been in a serious ‘okada’ (bike) accident. It happened frequently.

Anyway, before I could try to explain to them why it would be impossible to commot (get out) asap, one of them pushed the salesgirl out the door. She ran for her dear life. The nurse couldn’t run because she just had a baby, and she still ‘kinda’ looked pregnant. So, they turned to me, and kept yelling at me to lock the doors.

The ‘main lock’ for the shop was a roller shutter door that had to be pulled down after the burglary proof door had been locked. But you see, at the time, I was only 4ft 11, (weighing 98 pounds), which meant I had to grab a stool to stand on to pull the shutter down. The nurse was already outside. She was visibly shaken. They had noticed she may have been pregnant. Still hoping I could talk to them to finish the money reconciliation for the day, pack up and keep the biscuits that could be eaten by rats, and turn off all the gadgets and lights in the business center section, I tried to run to the other side of the shop to grab ‘my’ stool from the business center. I say ‘my’ stool because no one else used it for the same purpose as I did.

Long story short, they wouldn’t let me get my stool. I tried to explain that I couldn’t leave the shop unlocked, and I needed a stool to resolve my vertically challenged situation. All I tried to say fell on deaf ears. My explanations were interpreted to mean that I was defying their orders. They kept yelling in pidgin English, I kept responding in proper English language.  I think that was my offense.  At this point also, I was upset, very upset especially because I didn’t want to come to the shop anyway.

They told the nurse to leave. She was free. I was ordered into the back of their truck. I knew there was nothing I could do at that time. I had no phone. Everyone had run into their houses for fear of getting arrested for no reason. My only witness (I think) was a 4-year-old girl that used to sometimes come to play with me in the shop. Her name was Blessing. She would later indeed be a blessing to me that day.

I got into the back of the truck. The boldness and toughness in me from how my parents (especially my dad) disciplined and trained me, kicked in immediately. (Yes, my father was a Retired Lieutenant Colonel. He was in the military all my life at that time).  There were other people in the truck. All males. They looked scared. Some were even begging to be released. My face was blank. I opened the book I had been reading all day to pass away time and continued reading. One of the soldiers hit the book off my hands, and then shouted, “Who be your papa?” I knew where he was going. So, in order not to make it look like I was trying to brag with my father’s ‘title’, I told him my father’s first name. That didn’t help him, but I could tell he was glad it wasn’t a ‘big man’ since he didn’t recognize the name. He then asked, “Which class you dey?” I looked him straight in the eye and told him I was a freshman at the Obafemi Awolowo University (greatest of the greatest Ife). That touched him in a place he didn’t like. His next set of words carried on till we got to the guardroom. With rage in his voice, and with his rifle pointing upwards, he went on talking about how his younger brother too is in ‘unifasity’, how his younger brother is making money, and how he can speak better grammar than me. I wasn’t sure why I needed to hear these but nothing he said moved me. I wasn’t intimidated, and I wasn’t going to let him put fear in me.

We got to the guardroom, and we were ordered to be in a straight file and do frog jumps. [Frog jump was a type of corporal punishment where you hold both ears and do squat jumps] (I laugh) Frog jump that we do in school every day. The guys that were arrested were pleading, some were even crying. It may have been fake tears.  I knew I could do frog jumps. In fact, I was sure I could do more than what they asked. It was common punishment in the boarding school I went to.

I rolled up my sleeves, rolled up my pants and got to work. I had done 2 laps of frog jumps when one of the soldiers said something to me that made me know he was upset that I could do the frog jumps without breaking. What they thought would break me, was very familiar to me. Before college, I went to military-governed schools all my life. There was no corporal punishment I wasn’t familiar with. Then, one by one, we were called to come write our statement. I had never written one before, so I wasn’t sure what had to be in a statement. Was it what led to the arrest, or the crime you committed, or what was on your mind? I didn’t know. But when it got to my turn, I looked at the soldier next to me, holding on to his rifle like an expensive woman’s bag, and asked him; “what should I write?” He was angry. He then shouted, “MY FRIEND, WRITE YOUR OFFENSE JOO!” My offense? What was my offense. I wasn’t sure, so I asked him again, “Oga, what’s my offense?” This was when he started calling for backup. I could tell that he was angry. The other soldiers came, and they too were very angry that I had the guts to question them. But honestly, I wasn’t ready to write anything. I didn’t do anything. At worst, I would write my name. I heard my co-arrestees whispering words of advice and talking about what the soldiers could do to me if I did not comply.

Comply? Comply with what? I didn’t do anything, and I wasn’t ready to make them make me feel intimidated or threaten me. When nothing else worked, they booked me into a cell after another lap or two of frog jumps.

What they thought would break me only fueled my determination to stand my grounds.

I was in the cell for about thirty to forty minutes before help came for me. What I experienced in the cell is a story for another day. And no, I wasn’t raped or assaulted, because I know you people now. I was harassed a bit though. It could have been worse if I had spent a minute longer in the cell.

Help came for me about an hour later. My little friend, Blessing, narrated what happened to me to my brother who had come to pick up but didn’t see me. He and my dad were able to trace me to the guardroom based on Blessing’s story.

So, as I reflected on this story earlier today, I was reminded again that the disciplines we receive in life (from our parents, and guardians) are meant to give us a boost to overcome our challenges when life happens. For every whip lash, for every punishment, and for every scolding I received in my younger life for my mistakes, I am always thankful. Life happened to me that day, but I was already equipped to face the situation. Thanks to my parent’s discipline and training.  

In my reflections, I also realized that we are as strong as what has been deposited inside of us. At the end of the day, I am eternally thankful for these three (things) that I have received from my parents that have helped me and continue to help me navigate through life:

God – my plug for salvation

Family – my plug for support

Education – my plug for income/wealth

I need nothing more, nothing less. These three, I do not joke with.

Lastly, big blessings come in small packages. Don’t run after the big packages. They may be empty. (Side thought: Ever wondered why baby Jesus was wrapped …? He was our big blessing in a small package). My size-kolio (small) 4-year-old friend, Blessing, was a saving grace for me that day. My life may have taken an irrecoverable dent.

PS- Guardrooms in Nigeria are so overrated. I hope we will have a government one day that will reform our prisons.

I know many will also want to know what happened to the soldiers that arrested me. Leave that side 😊. I’m here now, still standing, still praising, still thankful!

What lesson(s) are you taking away from this story?

6 thoughts on “Lessons from the ‘Guardroom’

  1. That was quite an experience! What Terrible way of the Soldiers intimidating people but appreciative of perspective you gave regarding discipline being a way to prepare for life’s difficulties.

    Liked by 1 person

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