With frustration written all over his face, Emma Uden (not real names), a sergeant in the police, kept muttering to himself, but dosed off few minutes later. Apparently disturbed by the music blaring in his neighbourhood, Uden could not but open his eyes feebly and intermittently.
His pain was obvious to anyone who came across him, but the reason for his frustration was largely unknown. However, as Uden would later tell our correspondent in a conversation he grudgingly consented to, since the apartment allotted to him in the barracks collapsed in June last year, he and his family had been living in the kitchen of one of the dilapidated buildings in Pedro police barracks, Somolu, Lagos. That was his main frustration.
“It was the only alternative we had at that time,” he said, as he unbuttoned his shirt to enjoy some fresh air.
Since he and his family were constrained to live in a room (kitchen), he said life had become one of bitterness and frustration. To escape the intense heat of the day and the constant constraint of space that his family of six could never live comfortably with, Uden had been used to sitting outside anytime he was home.
Hoping that respite could eventually come his way if he opened up to Saturday PUNCH, Uden wasted no time in leading our correspondent to his room where he lives with his wife and their four children. He opened the door and lowered his head as he made to enter, to avoid being bruised on the head by the doorframe. As he opened the curtain for our correspondent to enter, the odour, which seemed like a mixture of wet rug and accumulated sweat, that oozed out of the stuffy room was disturbing and could make anybody puke.
The room was like a store reserved for unused household items. The only window in the room appeared dysfunctional while the base of the wall that was visible was seriously dampened, and the ceiling riddled with signs of serious dilapidation. Expectedly, Uden, whose four children had occupied the only bed in the room, appeared discomfited by the state of the place he called home as he continually scratched his head to look for the right words.
Even though he is not alone in such a tortuous situation in the premises, he said he had resorted to coming home just to sleep, unless he was off duty. This, he said, was to avail his family some space in the room and that sometimes he would rather stay in his office or volunteer to go on patrol, all in a bid to stay away from home. They don’t even live alone in the house, occasionally, the family live with big rats that find their way out of the broken septic tank located close to the kitchen into the room.
He said, “When we were still living in the room and parlour before our building collapsed last year, we were managing because of the small space, not to talk of now that we have just one room, which used to be a kitchen. It’s like living in a cave. That is the lot of most of us.
“Can you imagine that? We live in a kitchen, and you want policemen to be your friends while you all live in your comfortable mansions. You expect us to carry rifle and risk our lives to protect people. Haba!”
His passionate expression of grief was second to none, even though he said he had concluded arrangements to leave the barracks for a room and parlour accommodation he secured somewhere in Bariga area of Lagos.
He added, “If nobody takes care of us, we will take care of ourselves, because apart from the space issue, we (residents of this barracks) queue to use toilet and bathroom, because the ones available are not adequate. So we queue to bathe every morning. Here, three-room and parlour flats share one toilet and bathroom. For me and my family who live in an abandoned kitchen, we pair with another flat. So, we join the queue every morning.
“Don’t forget that we are all adults with families. I feel ashamed that I go through this every morning? Tell those people in government what you saw here. Let them know we are suffering. Even when we get to the office, we either sit under the tree or stand in the sun.”
Some other policemen in the barracks who shared Uden’s views, lamented over the poor state of infrastructure in the barracks, saying they had always been living in perpetual fear for their lives, occasioned by the decrepit buildings.
As our correspondent observed during the visit, almost all the buildings in the barracks had obvious signs of imminent collapse. In fact, the derelict of the block six that collapsed last year gives an impression that the collapse must have been imminent before it happened.
‘I cry when I look at my children’
One of Uden’s neighbours, who also lives in a room and parlour, told Saturday Punch that it is interesting that Nigerians expect so much from policemen they are not well taken care of. He said the hardship and the living condition he had had to subject his four children and his pregnant wife to made him cry sometimes.
Fighting back tears, he said, “Sometimes, when I look at the way my children sleep on the floor, sweat almost all the time because of the poor ventilation, and the obvious frustration and inconvenience written on their faces, I cry. I know that they are not happy with the situation, but they are helpless.
“I pity them when I see them going out to look for water, living in such a condition. Sometimes, when I’m at work, I think about them and it affects me. These things make me cry, silently. Sometimes, we are on the same queue at the entrance of the bathroom. You can imagine that. Which father will be proud of such?”
The situation at the Pedro Barracks is akin to what obtains in many other barracks across the country. It also revealed how barracks that used to be a status symbol for policemen have become a shadow of death in disguise.
In the past, it was mandatory for police officers and men to live in the barracks, as they were prevented from living among ‘civilians,’ but years after, the reverse is now the case.
These days, the status symbol is for any policeman worth his salt to live outside the barracks due to the ignominious life that obtains in there. Some of them even said jokingly that they live like prisoners.
This shift, as pointed out by the policemen who have lived in the barracks for many years, was due to the lack of maintenance of the barracks, increasing population with no attendant improvement in facilities and the refusal of the government to build new barracks for policemen.
Lamentation galore in police barracks
Entering the Obalende barracks, which contains an array of two-storey buildings for officers and men, one would not but get an impression of entering a calm and pleasant neighbourhood, more so that it is shielded from the ever noisy Obalende motor park that adjoins the premises.
However, just a few metres into the compound, the initial excitement and optimism in any visitor’s mind tend to diminish, being replaced swiftly by a puff of disappointment, shock and intense confusion.
The visitor is greeted by dilapidated structures, garnished with cracked and broken walls, overgrown weeds that line some of the major roads, broken sewage pipes littering some backyards, flooded and stinking drainages. Signs of reckless abandonment were all over the place. And the facility houses hundreds of police officers and their families who live in perpetual fear for their lives.
Apart from the fact that each officer is only entitled to a room and parlour with no private toilet and bathroom, each floor of the buildings (having nine flats on each floor), has about two toilets and bathrooms. Thus, the policemen and their families queue to use the facilities, coupled with the unstable water supply in the premises.
‘Our children pray never to be like us’
Another policeman who said he should be referred to as Mr. Obi Andrew, who lives in Obalende barracks, and would rather not disclose his real name or rank, lamented that anytime he had the opportunity of discussing with his children, they would always vent their anger and frustration about living in the barracks.
He said, “They tell me that they feel ashamed of themselves in the presence of their mates, and that’s why I withdrew them from a private school and took them to a police school. My youngest son once told me that he would never be a policeman, but he would do everything possible to join the army, air force or navy. They keep telling me to look for another job, and seriously, I’m considering it. In fact, my wife sings it to my ears now.
“They are just tired of living in the barracks, and since I can’t afford a better accommodation at the moment, they have to endure it, and I have to keep encouraging them.”
A policewoman, a divorcee, who identified herself simply as Grace, said her children, whom her ex-husband left in her custody had never hidden their dislike for her job. She said, “My daughter tells me that with the kind of life that we are subjected to in the barracks, if that is the best way to be rewarded for serving one’s country as a police officer, she would never be one.
“Barracks life is not the best for any child, or even parent. Most of us live here because of financial issues and because living here is cheaper and maybe safer.”
‘We are ashamed of having visitors’
It’s the same story of lamentations when our correspondent visited the Ijeh barracks, located around Obalende in Lagos Island. To a visitor, the room and parlour apartments, which share boundary with the old Dolphin Estate, look like block of stores with its frontage used mostly for petty trading by the wives of the policemen.
On the other side of the divide, separated by dirt and flooded stinking drainages, the story isn’t any better in the room and parlour bungalow, even though it’s located opposite a posh estate in the area, Abdullahi Adamu Housing Estate.
One of the policemen in the barracks, who pleaded anonymity, told Saturday Punch that the barracks is the worst place to live during the rainy season, as he said all the frontage and entrances to their homes would be flooded.
Because of the state of the barracks, this policeman and a few of his colleagues said they would never think of entertaining visitors in their homes.
“Anyone who wants to see me should come and meet me in the office or anywhere else. How can I receive a visitor in this kind of environment and such a person won’t look down on me?” he said.
Bright added, “There was a time my brother-in-law came in from the United States, and I hired a taxi to pick him from the airport. So, as we drove down towards Obalende, he admired the bridges and the streetlights, coupled with the trading activities that were still on at that time of the night.
“But on approaching Ijeh, the bad road and the darkness that enveloped everywhere changed his appraisal. By the time we got to my apartment, he managed to alight and say hello to the kids and then offered to look for a hotel to stay.
“On one hand, I wasn’t happy because of the embarrassment, but on the other hand, I was relieved that he went back, because if he had slept in that house that night, he would have been full of regrets. He would have been battered by mosquitoes which we contend with and the stuffy nature of the room. Besides, there might have been no space for him, unless on the sofa. So, it’s sad.”
It was also learnt that some policemen who had not been able to secure accommodation in the barracks put up planks where they sleep at night.
At the Ikeja police barracks, the one sharing boundary with Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way, it is another eyesore. On one hand are the overflowing septic tanks characterised by flies and the attendant smell, and on the other hand are the structural defects that adorn the buildings, including wide cracks, and an environment that exude neglect.
Findings showed that every policeman in the barracks is only entitled to a room and parlour, thus, regardless of their family size, they have a small space to play with, while about two or three flats have to share one toilet and bathroom. Some of the residents told Saturday Punch that the hygiene of the facilities remains an area of concern.
Bright noted, “Even when you choose to be neat, what of other people who share the toilet or the bathroom with you? Sometimes, I get to the toilet and someone would have used it without flushing it. In such cases, you either flush it and use or leave. How do you trace the person who did that, when about 15 people or more from three families could be entitled to it.
“There are cleaners, but what can they do. Soon after cleaning, the place is messed up already. Only God has been protecting our children from contracting diseases.”
Apart from some broken pipes conveying human waste materials and attendant smell, some of the septic tanks had no proper covering while some were already overflowing and awaiting evacuation. Thus, rats move freely, even in daytime.
‘I’m worried about my children’
No doubt, life in the barracks is in sharp contrast to what obtains in some saner climes. As Grace pointed out that barracks was not the best place to raise children, it could be observed that even teenagers and underage girls would easily be exposed to what should be the exclusive reserve for adults.
Some mothers pointed out that life in the barracks had always been a loose one and something to worry about, more so that peer pressure is a serious issue for teenagers.
For Mrs. Ada, a teacher, whose husband, an Inspector, leaves home for work very early each morning, it is by God’s grace that one of her daughters has not been impregnated so far in the barracks.
“She used to move around with one of my neighbours’ sons, who is about her age, but I never suspected anything until the day I caught them touching themselves in vital areas. I almost killed her because I don’t want her to end up like some others here. If I had told my husband, he would have beaten the daylight out of her because the boy’s father is a junior officer to him. So it’s a challenge and I’m worried about them. These things happen outside, but I think it’s more in the barracks.
‘We protect lives but nobody cares about us’
In other climes, it is a thing of pride to be a policeman but in Nigeria, it is a different reality. When Mr. James Eze joined the police force many years ago, he said he loved the job and his intention was to serve his country in his own way. But now, Eze, who joined the force as a complete man has almost lost one of his legs at the dilapidated barracks at Ojuelegba where he used to live. He could not hide his feelings while speaking with our correspondent recently.
Eze while narrating how he broke his leg in front of his own apartment, said he had just finished eating and decided to relax outside when the incident happened. “I was still busy rubbing my stomach and savouring the delicacy when, suddenly, rubbles from the slab of the floor above my head fell on my left leg and broke my left foot,” he said.
He explained that the injury he sustained on his leg did not only put him in pains, it ruptured the leg such that he could no longer wear shoes until recently.
He said, “If I knew, I would have stayed inside and endured the heat, just that sometimes staying inside is like being in the bakery. My brother, in spite of what I went through, not much was done to help me and nobody really cared, so I had to take to my heels with my family.
“Before I left, sometimes while climbing the staircase, you’d need to say your last prayer because those stairs can collapse anytime. The buildings in that barracks are very old, but nobody is doing anything about it. And many people live there. Many other people have been injured, but let’s leave it there.”
When our correspondent visited the Ojuelegba barracks, from the distance, it was like an abandoned property left to collapse, due to its level of dilapidation. But as bad as it is, it houses hundreds of police officers and their families, who live there with hope and optimism rather than peace of mind and joy. Suffice to say the buildings in this barracks are disasters waiting to happen.
“We spend our entire time protecting lives and properties, but see where we live. Anytime I’m coming home I feel sad. I’m not even proud to bring my relatives or friends here because it’s shameful,” a resident told Saturday Punch.
When former governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, went to inaugurate the administrative building of the Area ‘C’ Police Command beside the Ojuelegba barracks, he had warned that something urgent needed to be done by the Federal Government to address the poor state of the buildings in the barracks to avoid a collapse.
Apart from the untidy premises occasioned by lack of maintenance, standing on the pavement of the first floor was like standing under the shadow of death, because just like Eze experienced, one could see part of the iron rods used for the casting of the slab of the upper floor.
The slab had not only weakened, pebbles fell down from it occasionally and part of the iron rods used to hold the concrete had pulled out of position and could injure any tall person in the dark. There were wide cracks on the walls, and because of broken pipes, the bathroom and kitchen walls had a stomach-churning colouration and outlook, while holes of different sizes dot some walls.
Apart from the infrastructural decay, residents spread clothes on the lines in their frontage making the environment disgusting.
But in spite of the bad state of the barracks, findings showed that policemen would always look for accommodation there, because, according to them, it is cheaper and safer to live among themselves.
“The amount they deduct from our salary for lodging could be about N10, 000, depending on rank, and it is deducted from source. Whereas, if you don’t stay in the barracks, they pay you like housing allowance, just that it is small. Besides, barracks are safer and there can’t be armed robbery there, unless petty stealing from within, and it is not rampant,” a resident said.
Police, an endangered security agency
Unlike their counterparts in the army, Navy and Air Force, who live in decent and comfortable accommodation, policemen seem to live like refugees in their own barracks.
Findings showed that the least form of accommodation for soldiers in the army barracks and navy officers in their barracks is a decent two-bedroom flat while police officers struggle to get a decrepit room and parlour accommodation lacking basic amenities.
Apart from the respect accorded these two agencies, findings showed that policemen, who have the primary responsibility of protecting lives and properties and are closer to the civil populace, have a lot to contend with, including poor societal perception, delayed promotion and many other issues.
Coupled with their salary, which they often describe as not too good, some of them are now into some private ventures to make more money, such as being security guards for private institutions and car dealers, while many lobby for special postings.
Bright said, “It seems being a policeman in Nigeria is fast becoming a curse because everything works against us. No proper accommodation, you buy your own uniform, no timely promotion, even the people you risk your life to protect are ready to lynch you for committing any slight error. Too bad, my brother.”
One thing these policemen will not but emphasise is that their living condition and welfare has a lot of impact on their performance, attitude and behaviour.
Police barracks in other climes
Given that the police barracks across Nigeria are in bad shape and in a serious state of disrepair, findings also showed that while some police barracks suffer the same fate with Nigeria, some others are a lot better, giving the policemen in such places a better lease of life.
In South Africa, for instance, it was gathered that a number of barracks have been left unkempt, while some, like the Herdeshof, a 15-storey building police barracks, which houses about 184 police officers and their families, are said to be in good shape.
In Ghana, a non-commissioned officer is entitled to a two bedroom flat while a commissioned staff is entitled to a single-quatered room. But, sometime last month, the Mamprobi police barracks was heavily flooded, leading to loss of valuables belonging to the policemen living in such barracks. Some of the officers were quoted to have lamented the state of the infrastructure in the barracks. This, to a large extent, shows the way policemen are being treated in these countries.
Environment dictates human behaviour and conduct
Speaking on the effects of dilapidated barracks and other associated problems on police residents, a professor of psychology, Toba Elegbeleye, pointed out that the environment does not only affect human behaviour and conduct, it also goes a long way to affect people’s input in their work.
He explained that a society that treats its policemen like animals would always get the feedback in the way they do their work, adding that when people see those around them as being better placed, they tend to visit their anger on those innocent individuals.
He said, “We normally analyse environment in four categories, which are human, physical, psychological and contingency, and they all have direct implication on human behaviour and conduct. So, the environment goes a long way to affect people’s conduct and to give you the confidence required to boost and enhance your input into your work.
“Also, when you operate in an environment that does not fit your calling/status, you lose a lot of confidence and your own assessment of self will be less than par, leading to having low self esteem. When that sets in and you see other individuals around you living a better life, you tend to visit your anger on innocent individuals, which is akin to what we have.”
We are aware of the decay –Police
In his reaction, the Force Public Relations Officer, Mr. Emmanuel Ojukwu, admitted that police barracks across the country were in bad shape, but noted that the police authorities were making efforts to rehabilitate them and to also help policemen and women own their own homes outside the barracks.
He said, “We are aware that there are issues about the decayed infrastructure in police barracks nationwide and that some of them are very old, but efforts are being made to rehabilitate as many of them as possible.
“Besides, we are making efforts to help officers to own their own homes outside the barracks. That is the major thrust of this administration.”
When asked about the time the rehabilitation of the barracks would commence, he said, “There can’t be any time frame because everything has to be tied to funds, and you know the nature of the economy now.
“The police do not act above the state of the economy of the country. Therefore, as we get money and intervention from the members of the public, things will change.”