When investigative journalist Damilola Banjo covered police briefings in Nigeria where suspects were paraded in front of journalists, she realised that many of them had been randomly picked up during street raids or even from parties.
She did a story, which turned into an investigation that earned her the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism’s investigative journalist of the year award in 2020.
Banjo went undercover to expose corruption at the police’s anti-cultism unit in Lagos State. Cults, she explains, are organised youth gangs. “They carry out various atrocities. They rape, rob and generally disturb the peace in the neighbourhood.”
Her three-part investigation, which was published by the news website Sahara Reporters in March 2020, documents the struggles of the seemingly innocent people who are rounded up by this unit during raids, and the families who have to pay bribes to ensure their release.
She wrote: “Securing the release of detainees from police stations in Nigeria is usually draining financially and emotionally but the anti-cultism unit pushes limits. At every turn, there is a policeman demanding a bribe for any interaction with those in their custody.”
Banjo, who posed as a family member of one of the detainees, was worried that her cover would be blown – and it almost was. A police officer recognised her and warned his colleague that Banjo was a journalist. She “played calm” and found that the colleague – a corrupt police officer – was more concerned that she was speaking to another officer about the deal she was negotiating to ensure her “uncle’s” release.
The same corrupt officer sexually harassed her. “It was tricky,” she said. “The relative of the family I embedded with was still in police custody so I needed to be careful. I did not want to make things worse for the old man.”
She made up excuses not to spend time with the harasser until her assignment was complete, and then stopped using that phone number.
“As a reporter in the field, sexual harassment is almost inevitable,” she said. “If you are not done with your investigation in the place you’re getting harassed, you have to find a way to deflate the situation. If you can’t, you have to decide if your story is more important to you.”
Banjo never uses her primary number for investigations. And when she goes undercover, she makes sure her best friend knows where she is. “Make sure you have an exit plan.”
She says she finds it discouraging to take on dangerous assignments and not see change. “When the [investigation] was published, the Lagos State police command said it had suspended the activities of the anti-cultism unit. The Lagos State judiciary also said a court clerk … was going to be disciplined, but I don’t know if these things ever happened.”
Banjo began her career as a beat reporter for Sahara Reporters, which “encourages citizen journalists to report ongoing corruption and government malfeasance in Africa”. She worked at the BBC until January 2021 when she started a master’s degree at the Columbia Journalism School in the United States.