The entire weekend was spent in police custody. It was now early Monday morning and I was eagerly waiting for the arrival of the police chief whom I was told was the only one I was told could let me go. I was already tired of sitting in a place against my will, but there was really little or nothing I could do to secure my freedom. A few friends that spoke with me on social media had suggested I contact the Nigerian Embassy in Malabo to come to my rescue but I knew it would be fruitless a trial would amount to a waste of time and resources.
I was detained the previous Friday by some officials at the Cameroon/Equatorial Guinea border on an accusation I was a terrorist. This accusation was labelled on me because I refused to pay a bribe of 5000 CFA which the two officials whom I think were customs officers had demanded when I was passing their stall at the border. When they realized I was not willing to pay the bribe, they demanded a complete search of my bag pack. They found my camera, black sweater and other personal effects, they demanded to know why I was travelling with those, this is because according to them, those items and the trousers I was wearing then were all like military wear. In the process of interrogation, a more senior officer than the two came and took up the case. He took me to the police station I have been there since that Friday evening till that Monday morning.
Let me note here that as a country, Equatorial Guinea nor the police force did not make any provision for food or any of such things for persons detained at the police station. Unlike when I was detained a few years ago in Nairobi Kenya by the men of their immigration service on an accusation that sounded as funny as the one was accused in Guinea, I was at least given a decent meal. I was told that the inmates were fed twice a day there in Nairobi but there was nothing like that here in Guinea. Santos, a friendly police officer how was committed to seeing I got released had kindly asked me if I could be able to pay for something to eat until my release. It was a good thing he cared and asked.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the situation of the prison and the inmates in the jail was very inhuman. Several of them had gone several days without a bath or something to eat. There was no fan, air conditioner or such thing in there. There was no electricity or a good toilet for these helpless ones inside the jail. I believe the different governments in Africa and places around the world should do a better job to improve the quality of life in jails in their countries. I would recommend those in power should bear in mind that they might one day end up in prisons and hence, would do all the best they can to ensure a friendlier environment for the inmates.
At around nine o’clock that morning, a new police officer had just resumed his shift while one of them that had been on duty, who was also present during my arrest signed off. This new guy was one slim fair man that would be in his early forties. He noticed me sitting and asked someone what I was doing there, I tried to explain to him in French that I was asked to stay there but he freaked out and shouted a few things in his Feng local dialect, faked he never understood what I was saying and the gestured I would drop my phone and get into the jail. I felt bad about this development but I also felt it was a moment to experience what life inside there was like.
For almost two hours or so that I was in there, I spent most of the time speaking with a few of the inmates on what it exactly got them in there. There was a pathetic case of a boy of thirteen who wanted to steal a plastic basin and was arrested. There were also two Cameroonian men who were accused of stealing from a Senegalese neighbor, even though they denied doing it. Even a guy who had helped me when I went to take my bath the second day I arrived there – he complained to me that he is married to an Equatorial Guinean but had problems with someone. The others either spoke Spanish or were not in the mood to talk to me.
Life inside that dungeon was horrific. Just by the entrance were used water bottles that was filled with water and those were to be drank by the inmates if any of them were to be thirsty. There were a few mats which were already occupied by the inmates who were in there earlier. As for me, I had to stand for a while till I had to go sit at the little space some kind inmates created for me. Some many others were lying on bare floors. Way up the walls, there were three little square holes which provided illumination and ventilation for the whole occupants – the only source of ventilation in there is when the door is opened to either bring in someone or take someone outside.
The other interesting thing in there was the metal entrance door which had holes and little openings on it. The inmates took turns to stand at the door peep into the reception to see what is happening and to know if their relative is around for them, they would stand and peep and if anyone comes to open the door, they would hurry to sit, to pretend they were not watching. Right in there, I recalled there were a few ungodly moments when I was terribly scratched in some private places and there were a few times I was left all alone in the reception when there were human beings visible that I had to take in my hands into my underwear to give the itching body a good and a lasting scratch that would last me the next 24 hours without having the desire to scratch again. I wondered if I over did this and if any of the inmates saw just more than the scratch. I only hoped they understood that we all were going through the same experience of not having a decent bath in a very long time.
Luckily, while I was sitting on my corner, many of my inmates cheered at me that Santos, my police friend has arrived the reception and was asking of me. He was very annoyed to learn that I was put into the jail. He demanded they should bring me out immediately. God so kind, the police chief that we had awaited his arrival for several days had just arrived. Santos assured me that he would attend to me in a few minutes. I felt relieved that at last, I would be leaving the jail and possibly leave the country. The police man who had thrown me into jail not tried to be a friend but I was not interested – even though I played along, I knew he was doing it for me to give him some cash, which I made sure I did not do.
We moved straight to the office of the police chief. Several paper works were done. We were joined by another police lawyer called Lino who spoke English fluently. My passport, camera and sweater – which I had missed for those number of days especially at night when temperature was cold, was returned to me.
The police chief through Lino told me that the actions of the officials were in error and they were sorry for all they had made me go through. He went on to tell me their country respect and treat visitors well and that I should enjoy the rest on my stay in Equatorial Guinea. He requested Lino and Santos to drive me to my hotel and to ensure I was safe.
I however did not forget my comrades in a hurry. So many of the prisoners looked up to me as someone that could make an impact in their live right there. It pained me that I did not speak up for some of them who were there especially the 13-year-old boy who was arrested for an attempt to steal. I even feel sad for not helping the man who helped me while I took my bath. He only required less than 20000CFA to be free and I could have given him the money but that would impact my trip. I however gave the inmates an token I will not want to disclose here before leaving.
I was a free man again. At the instruction of the police chief, Lino and Santos took me to one of the best hotels in the town – although the I paid for it and they ensured I was settled down before they left me that evening. It was so good to be free again. We don’t value freedom until we lose it. I thought of going out to see the beautiful town of Ebibiyin that evening but I was too tired. I decided to rest and continue the tour the next day but I was however interrupted by the hotel receptionist who came to request I pay cash after I had paid him $70 cash for the room which normally I would have paid $60. According to him, I did not factor in the extra charges he would be charged if he went to change the money at the bank. I was not willing to dole out any more money to him so I decided to go find a place in town to change the money to local currency. I was not able to change the money and by the time I returned to the hotel, the guy’s shift was over.
The night was very fast, but I slept perfectly well, unlike the three previous nights that I spent sleeping on chairs at the police station. I went around the town to see for myself what it looked like. The town of Ebibyin apart from its beauty, is very peaceful and quiet. A tropical rain-forest with very mild weather. I noticed the presence of several foreigners from almost everywhere in West Africa – Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and several others. There were a number of Spaniards and few Europeans who were living there also. During my stay, I never witnessed any power failure but I saw some of my Igbo brothers who had shops and several generators there for repairs.
In line with my early morning routine, I made enquiries of where I could get a very good dish (most of you would know a good dish outside Nigeria for me is a plate of cooked rice). Fortunately, there was a Cameroonian lady, Madam Rita who owned a decent restaurant and she made delicious meal at a very cheap price and very close to my hotel and the Central Market. The name of the restaurant is La Souza Restaurant. She had all sorts of food – rice, stew, fufu and eri soup. It was during my meal that a gentleman who was having his breakfast with a large bottle of Fanta asked sales girl to give me a drink, a gesture of friendship which I accepted and appreciated. The name of the guy is George. He is a very friendly guy and he is a barber and operates a game center in Ebibiyin. He was very helpful sharing tips on how to get around in the country and he also directed me to a cheaper hotel the next day when I returned from my trip to Bata.
My next stop was to the ATM machines to make withdrawals. Visa and MasterCard were not working. I could not make any withdrawals. I was told I could get a working ATM machine in Bata or Malabo which is their capital. I even tried to see if I could change some of the USD I had on me but several people whom I told could be able to help me change were either afraid of being arrested or wanted to reap me off. First, I was told to find the shop of someone popularly referred to as Champion that he would be able to change the money for me. On arrival, his wife who was a half cast was not even willing to help. She told me she does not change, just like several other people I met earlier but I was very sure she was afraid because she does not know me.
There was even a case of a guy who agreed to help me change but instead of changing $100 USD for 52000 CFA, he told me he could change for me at 27000 CFA for the same amount of USD. It was at that point I decided I would not be going ahead with my planned journey to Bata and Malabo. For this reason, I would advise travelers to always have enough cash when travelling within Equatorial Guinea. I am sure things will however get better in the nearest future.
I headed for the Equatorial Guinea/Gabon border in Ebibiyin but on arrival, I was told it is not operational and that I will have to go use the border with Cameroon at Kiossi. Just a few minutes’ walk to where I was arrested, I met with Lino, one of the police officers who also is a legal practitioner who helped me gain freedom. He was worried I was already leaving and on hearing I was having challenge with getting cash, he took me to one immigration officer who helped me change the few dollars I had at the correct exchange rate and with this development, I had to cancel my trip back to Cameroon and head towards the Ebibiyin Park from where I would get a vehicle to Bata, the largest city on the Equatorial Guinea mainland.