At his office on the Island where he works for a law firm, Ridwan Olayemi is in a black suit. He is soft spoken and wears a shy smile. On Twitter, his username reads: ‘Lawyer Awon Hoodlums’. It is a response to those who labelled the EndSARS protesters as hoodlums. Ridwan at some point represented the protesters in police stations and at the Lagos Judicial panel.
When he got admission to study law at the University of Ilorin, his father told him that he knew he was stubborn but that he should take it easy. Ridwan understood that law was the backbone he needed to fight injustice. He also understood that anyone fighting against injustice either needed some financial backing to support the work, or a platform to volunteer with. This informed his decision to volunteer for the Rotaract club where he eventually became the president of the organisation and won the Rotary International President’s Presidential citation.
As a law student, Ridwan started participating in Legal Aid Clinic and visited prisons in Kwara State as the Director of Prison Decongestion. This exposed him to the realities of the Nigerian justice system. He would later become the Head of the Clinic.
At Oke Kura Prison, he met with inmates who were kept in prison because they were unable to pay fines. Some of their families didn’t know where they were. “You see people who just came in from another state and as they are dropping from the vehicle they get arrested and their families will be looking for them for years, meanwhile they are in prison,” Ridwan said, noting that these were some of the cases the Clinic dealt with.
One case which made him almost cry was of a man who had been kept awaiting trial for three years. “The complainant was nowhere to be found and we were able to get him out”. At the time, Ridwan was in his early twenties. He reflected on how one could easily be picked up by the police and get lost in the prison system without anyone knowing.
Years later while thinking about this Modupe Odele, (popularly known as Moe on Twitter) and Adetola Onayemi gave him a call. Protesters had been arrested and he was needed to help get them out of police custody.
“During the protests, people didn’t really foresee getting arrested. So when it started happening we started getting calls. ‘They’ve taken ten people to Panti. They’ve arrested people at Festac, Adeniji and the likes,’” Ridwan says when I ask him of the first call he received from Moe. He tweeted at Moe whenever the need for lawyers arose and filled the form that was put out. Even though Ridwan could easily get to Panti and help protesters, it was against the ethics of law to present himself saying he just wanted to represent someone. Ridwan still worked at the law firm and was lucky to have a boss, Kehinde Buraimoh, who gave him the freedom to be involved in helping protesters out of jail.
Moe’s call was for him to attend an orderly room trial that involved the brutalization of Felicia Opara and Treasure by the Area C Nigeria Police. From that day, Ridwan became involved in the legal team that had been set up by Moe and Tola to handle cases of imprisonment of protesters.
The next case Ridwan would be called to attend was on a Saturday. A tweet had surfaced showing young boys who were in police custody at Lion’s Building. On getting to Lion’s Building, he was told that the teenagers were at KiriKiri Prison. Locating the young boys was a challenge because the prison did not have a database.
“I had to take a canoe. The major boats that work during the week at CMS didn’t work that day. I had to take a canoe from CMS crossed to Apapa and then took a bike to KiriKiri where I was able to speak with about five of them (the teenage boys),” he said.
Luckily, the warden in charge was helpful. Having lost his wallet which contained his ID Card due to the trips to the orderly room trial, when he got to Kirikiri he printed out the letter head of his firm before writing an application letter that allowed him see the boys. On Monday, he identified the Magistrate Court the boys were in.
“Then the craziest thing happened! I checked through their file and they said they had released them. But I was with them on Saturday, I saw them at Kirikiri.” One of the boys was a 16 year old who had a speech defect and picked tennis balls at TBS for a living.
Ridwan had to start searching for the person with the release warrant. He checked with the legal officer at Panti but it wasn’t there. He was directed to the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) at Surulere. Here, they looked at him as a charge and bail lawyer and tried to treat him shabbily saying they’ll get back to him. The release warrant said the boys had been released over three weeks ago, but the boys were still in prison.
For Ridwan, the end game was to get the boys out of prison as soon as possible. The lawyer from the OPD took the release warrant to Kirikiri. Ridwan linked him up with the family of one of the boys who followed the lawyer. Caught up with office commitments, Ridwan followed up with calls and spoke to the boys after their release. “The interest of the boys was paramount,” Ridwan said.
Ridwan was at a wedding around Mile 12 hoping to eat some wedding rice when a call came in from Moe. Some people had been arrested by task-force on Friday night and taken from Ikorodu to Oshodi. From Mile 12, Ridwan took a bike to Oshodi. When the first bike couldn’t continue, he got into a second one. At the wedding, he had not tasted any food. At Oshodi the person in charge of the raid was not taking up calls and was nowhere to be found, a tactic that is sometimes deliberately used to frustrate the families of those picked up.
While there, Tola and Moe made calls, trying to get those arrested released. Till, 8pm, Ridwan was still at Oshodi, tired and hungry and frustrated. Barely some few minutes after Tola asked Ridwan to leave when it seemed nothing was coming through, they were released. As Ridwan tells me of his experiences, he laughs, sometimes smiles. They are now memories coloured with victory in a country where injustice festers.
When the Lagos Judicial Panel gave permission for the Lekki Concession Company to repossess the Lekki Toll Gate, it sparked outrage on Twitter. The next day, February 13, young Nigerians went to the toll gate to protest and were met with heavily armed policemen. Among the young Nigerians was Debo Adebayo, popularly called Mr Macaroni. He was part of the 40 youths who were arrested, beaten and dehumanised. When the news of their arrest filtered on Twitter, again Moe, Tola and the legal team got into the thick of it.
“When they arrest them like that, they wouldn’t know where they are taking them to because they wouldn’t allow them make calls. We were able to identify they were in Adeniji Police Station,” Ridwan said, asserting that even though it is a violation of human rights, the Nigeria Police still does it. “There is this guy, Temi, he is part of the team too, when I see his call, I know there is trouble somewhere.”
On that Saturday, Ridwan had planned to visit his aunt when Temi’s call came through. He went to Adeniji police station where he met with hostile policemen at the entrance. The policemen denied that the protesters were at the station.
“What they do is that they first of all deny so you won’t be able to help them, because what they want is to ensure that these people suffer so they try to prevent them from getting helpers for as long as possible,” Ridwan said. Conscious that they were holding guns and were probably in a bad state of mind, Ridwan left the entrance of the station and kept making calls with Rinu, Moe, Temi and the team, giving them updates on what was happening and where he was just in case he was also picked up.
Later on, three to four danfo buses were brought into the station to transport the protesters. Ridwan was sent out of the station by one of the policemen at gunpoint.
By then David and Charles, two other members of the team had joined Ridwan. The police had informed them that the protesters were being taken to Ikeja but this was a lie. It was a deliberate ploy to mislead them and waste their time. On getting to Ikeja the protesters were nowhere to be found. A call from Panti confirmed that the protesters were at Panti, and a judge had been brought in to listen to the case on a Saturday.
At the court, a lawyer who claimed to be from the Legal Aid said he would represent the protesters. Ridwan was not having it. His experience with the lawyers at the OPD who handled the Kirkiri case was still fresh in his mind. Seeing that there was a bit of confusion on who would represent the protesters, the judge asked the protesters to decide.
Ridwan told them he was from the EndSARS Legal Aid. The moment he mentioned Moe, FK and Tola they said “we are going with you”.
When Mr Adesina Ogunlana who also represented people at the EndSARS panel came in, it became a joint effort. Temitope Majekodumi, the youth representative who was on the panel told the magistrate he would stand as surety for all 40 protesters. The whole process lasted until midnight. The joy for Ridwan was seeing that the sacrifice was worth it.
But he tells me what he considers to be a major achievement, so far. “Felicia is someone who is very zealous, she wanted justice. She told me, whatever it takes I want justice. When we started the case she’d come from Ikorodu and go back and she’d be tired.”
There were times Felicia would to the Lagos Judicial panel and her case won’t be heard on that day. Being a single mother who earned her living from doing odd jobs like cleaning houses, it took a lot of grit from her. Felicia was arrested on the day she went for an interview. She had just finished the interview and was going to photocopy her CV when she learned that some people were protesting at Surulere. She joined the protests and was making videos when a plain-clothed policeman accosted her without identifying himself and asked her to stop the video. She ignored him. When the man showed her his gun that was when she realised he was a policeman.
“How would you approach someone, ask them to do stop doing something they have legal right to do and you didn’t even identify yourself as a policeman?” Ridwan questioned. Felicia and Treasure were taken to the Area C Command at Surulere. As soon as they entered the station policemen rushed out and beat them. Ridwan took up the case pro-bono and got Felicia a settlement.
When I ask him how hard it is to get justice in Nigeria, Ridwan does not hesitate. “Very hard, very very hard,” he says. Making reference to Felicia, he said, “There were days she won’t get home until 8pm just coming to the panel. The incurred expenses, the incurred time that you can never get back and then you might still not get justice. If you have the money and you have the time that is a different case.”
Even after the EndSARS protests, the EndSARS Legal Aid team continues to work behind the scenes as newer cases of those imprisoned across the country during the protests come up.
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