Kolade Johnson a victim of the tainted rise of Lagos Police's anti-cultism unit

Kolade Johnson

While casually strolling through his Abule-Oja neighbourhood in Yaba, Lagos State around 3pm on Friday, March 22, 2019, Ayobami walked past a young man, who appeared to be in his early 20s, whose peculiar purple-coloured hair drew his attention.

Merely seconds later when he glanced back to steal a second look at the stranger's hair, Ayobami witnessed as he was being forcefully dragged into a yellow commercial bus, popularly called danfo, by a team of men who he later discovered to be police officers.

With the bus parked squarely in the middle of the road with a trail of other cars behind it, the purple-haired man struggled relentlessly against the officers but was soon subdued and thrown into the back of the bus, the first victim of what soon became a full-blown raid.

Three armed officers alighted from the bus and started picking young men off the street, the bus following slowly behind, with what appeared to be a random selection.

A young man who had witnessed the first arrest had sought refuge inside a residential building that was just by the side of the road, but the officers must have sighted him first because they went into the building without reservations and dragged him out with another person that appeared to be a friend to become unwilling occupants of the yellow bus.

When the dust settled, the officers picked up five young men, and it soon became clear that their only immediately obvious crime was their choice of hairstyle.

The plain-clothed police officers that picked them up, Ayobami soon learned, were men of the Special Anti-Cultism Squad (SACS) of the Lagos State Police Command, a unit that was created to combat the unique problem of cultism in Nigeria's economic capital.

The modus operandi of the unit has, in recent time, left a lot to be desired as officers appear to have taken it upon themselves to act as the Fashion Police while jeopardising the civil liberties of everyday Nigerians, with youths being their prime targets.

The officers are notorious for punishing and tagging as cultists people with curly hair, dreadlocks, coloured hair, or any manner of alterations to natural hair, as dictated by the whims of the officers. Young Nigerians sporting tattoos and others dressed in peculiar fashion are no exceptions, too.

A basket of bad apples
For nearly two years, there has been a concerted effort by a great portion of Nigerians, especially on social media, to pressure the government into scrapping the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) for a series of well-publicised misconducts.

The birth of the #EndSARS campaign was as a result of the public's outrage at the impunity of the Police unit that had several allegations of misconducts levelled against it including harassment, extortion, assault and extra-judicial killing.

SARS' notoriety has grown so great in the country that when news filtered on social media that police officers irresponsibly shot and killed Kolade Johnson, a 36-year-old father of one, in Lagos on Sunday, March 31, many wrongly pointed accusing fingers at SARS.

However, the latest example of Police barbarity in Nigeria was committed by officers of the Special Anti-Cultism Squad (SACS) of the Lagos State Police Command.

SACS officers had arrived at the Mangoro area of Lagos on Sunday to conduct another indiscriminate raid when they attempted to arrest a certain Ismail Folorunsho, a well-known man in the neighbourhood who appeared to have been targeted simply because he was sporting dreadlocks.

The scene of the attempted arrest was close to a viewing centre where Johnson had been with his friends watching the English Premier League match between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspurs, a game that started at 4:30pm.

Many in the neighbourhood, including Johnson, had gathered around the team to assure them that Folorunsho was innocent of whatever he was being targeted for when gunshots rang in the air to disperse the crowd. Johnson was the only victim of those gunshots as he died minutes after he was pierced by a bullet.

Deji Omoloja, an eyewitness, told Premium Times that he had been picked up at Ikeja Under Bridge by the same SACS team, for sporting curly hair, just before they arrived in Mangoro where Johnson was eventually killed.

According to him, the infamous danfo already housed eight victims, all young, male and sporting either curly hair or dreadlocks, when he was picked up and driven to Mangoro.

Johnson's fatal shooting and, more importantly, the events that led up to it has now beamed a stark spotlight on the years of improper conducts committed by SACS officers who, like their SARS counterparts, appear to prosecute the nation's laws based on their personal whims and wield their power to torture, extort, and, in Johnson's case, sometimes kill innocent Nigerians.

SACS' reign of terror in Lagos

Michael (not real name) told Pulse that he was randomly picked up by the Gbagada division of SACS on Thursday, March 28, and labelled a cultist strictly for his hairstyle.

He claimed he was slapped for initially resisting arrest and reported that another young man, a student, was sprayed with teargas in his eyes for resisting even more stubbornly.

"A guy whose wife just gave birth through caesarean section and went to buy food for her was arrested. No reason," he tweeted shortly upon his release six hours after his indiscriminate arrest.

When Michael called a friend to come down to the Gbagada station to bail him out of detention, he was also detained after it was discovered that he was sporting a punk hairstyle.

"When he got there they were trying to aggravate the situation by saying that my hairstyle gave me off. He was wearing a cap so they asked him to take it off. Next thing they saw his hair and were like, 'Ah you sef be cultist'. They asked him to pull his shirt off and detained him," he said.

Both were only released after Michael called another friend to bail them out. They paid N10,000 "with a lot of begging" to regain their freedom, something that's quite a common story for the, mostly, young men who have been unfortunate to come in contact with SACS officers.

Leye S.O and his brother, nicknamed Hylarious, were waiting to board a bus home around 8pm at Alapere Bus Stop on Monday, March 25, when a SACS officer started dragging his brother, a drummer, towards that dreaded danfo bus, with many other youths getting ushered into it by other officers.

"My brother was slapped just because he asked the policeman of his offence. I tried to intervene but the other officers told me frankly they would shoot if I didn't move back," he told Pulse.

He could not reach his brother until 11:20pm when the detainee was finally allowed to make a phone call, usually one you're only reasonably expected to make to someone that could pay for your freedom.

"I stepped into the police station to see some terrifying faces of some policemen sitting very close to the gate. Then this man on white T-shirt and big tummy came to me with a machete in his hand," he recounted with horror.

The man on white T-shirt and big tummy who was brandishing the machete, and eventually collected 10,000 from Leye to secure his brother's release, is Inspector Ogunyemi Olalekan.

In a statement released by the Police on Tuesday, April 2, Olalekan and Sergeant Godwin Orji were named as the primary suspects in the fatal shooting of Kolade Johnson.

The Police disclosed that the two men have been subjected to internal disciplinary procedures and may be prosecuted in conventional court if implicated by investigation.

Olalekan, it turns out, is quite well-known for coordinating the racket of picking up young people at random through illegal profiling and holding them for ransom until they can pay their way to freedom.

Since he was unmasked on Tuesday, many, including Leye, have taken to social media to accuse him of extorting them or someone they know.

One of the most striking complaints made was by a certain Oluwasegun Haziz on Twitter (@hazizsegun), who raised alarm over how one of his work colleagues was arrested, because of his hairstyle, by Gbagada's anti-cultism unit in Sabo, Yaba on Thursday, March 21.

In a series of tweets posted on March 22, Haziz claimed the head of Gbagada's anti-cultism unit, popularly known as Omo Eko, made him pay the sum of N5,000 for the release of his colleague after initially demanding for the sum of N50,000.