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A young man leapt out of the Anti-Cultism Unit of the Nigeria Police Force in Gbagada, Lagos, as his mother hurtled towards him. Emaciated, and having his face twisted by glaring discomfort, he had just broken loose from what he said was the worst experience of his life, having spent the previous weeks locked up in torrid conditions by the Gbagada police unit.

Few steps to the infamous blue gate of the detention centre, he stopped, took a handful of red sand in the premises and swerved it over his head three times. Then, just as he finally stepped outside, he released the sand into the air, letting it go back into the compound. He then dusted his hands clean. It was a symbolic gesture: “Never again!”.

His experience offers a window into the encounters of several Nigerians, old and young, with the police institution that brazenly violates the country’s law through arbitrary arrests, illegal detention, torture, and commoditising justice and bail.

A year-long investigation, including weeks of undercover reporting, revealed one of the police establishments notorious for human rights violations. The Anti-Cultism Unit at Gbagada, a suburb of Lagos State, is dreadful, mainly to those unable to pay for a wiped slate. The single bungalow building is notorious for torture, extortion and criminal detention of hapless Nigerians.

Every day, family members of the detainees assemble in different clusters, opposite the building, agonising about the ‘ransom’ they have to pay the Investigating Police Officers (IPOs) of their detained relatives. Not paying this illegal fee only portends one thing — protracted legal battle or continued detention within a system skewed to crush the poor, ordinary Nigerian citizens.

The IPOs are gods, the generalissimos of the detention camp. They are feared because of the power they wield. They determine how long – days, weeks or months – suspects spend in the holding cell. Ex-detainees and families also say they are arrogant and disrespectful. In the presence of an IPO, relatives of detainees genuflect, with their hands in between their thighs, as they plead –and pay– for the freedom of their detained child or spouse.

So, when the young man dusted his hands, gesturing never to return to the ‘anti-cultism’, as the station is often called among the locals, other parents anticipating the release of their own children sighed, partly congratulatory but mostly hopeful that they, too, might lead their children out alive.

Prison warden extorting defendant's relative
Prison warden extorting defendant’s relative
“I thank God for his mother,” said a woman, anticipating the release of her child in a hushed voice. “Only God knows how much his mother paid to get him out.”

“Better don’t think about the money,” another woman replied as the conversation continued. “Getting our own people out is what we should be praying about. She should be thankful that she has money. Someone can rot inside here if their families don’t have money to pay their bail.”

inside the anti-cultism unit
Inside the anti-cultism unit
Indeed, detainees, who could not cough out the bail sums are held perpetually, and if they are unlucky, they get charged to court on trumped-up charges, investigations revealed.

‘Official’ fraud, extortion
After weeks of undercover reporting outside the station, yielding shocking details of how families scrape together money to bribe the police, this reporter gained access into the station to capture

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