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Tuesday, 12 June 2018

NEWTON GOES TO JAIL

I had two brushes with the law many years ago and they taught me a lesson in circumspection while leaving me with a strong impression of how the law works and how a careless action, or throw-away comment, can make the difference between freedom and imprisonment.

First, I will tell the story of a dear colleague of mine, a Dutch man with the difficult-to-pronounce name of Coo Grutueizen. Now, before I tell you of Grutueizen, let me tell you a little about a pesky little problem we used to have at Costain. It was called Vendors.

Vendors were owners of small businesses who executed small contracts for our company. We called them ‘small’ but the truth is that without the participation of the small Nigerian businesses, we would have found it extremely difficult to execute our contracts effectively.

These small businesses could supply anything from building materials to food at the construction sites. So as a Project and Contracts Manager, you had to always contend with a string of business-seeking vendors in your office. Most times if you were not careful, these vendors could take up your whole day. And they came in all forms, shapes, sizes and genders.

One of my mentors and contemporaries in the office was a brilliant Dutch engineer called Coo Grutueizen. He used to complain quite a lot about the persistent visits of these vendors to his office, ostensibly in the quest of supply contracts but most times with no idea of what they even wanted to supply.

He was particularly exasperated, especially, with some of the women who, in answer to questions on what they wished to supply, would simply say, “anything you want” before fluttering their eye lashes seductively and leaving you uncomfortable.

Early in the 70’s, we were on a piling project in the Ikoyi area of Lagos and due to a particularly wet season, we fell slightly behind schedule and so resorted to working longer hours on-site to make up for lost time. Being a residential neighbourhood, the residents were not at all pleased with this prolonged and noisy driving of piles and the whirring of machines.

One fine morning, a well-dressed gentleman who lived near the construction site decided to take his complaint about the noise pollution to our office, after repeated complaints to the Project Manager did not produce any respite for him. At the head office, he requested to see the Contracts Manager and was ushered into Grutueizen’s office where he met the secretary, who politely offered him a seat.

“Sir, Mr. Grutueizen will see you shortly. He has someone with him at the moment. Please sit down and make yourself comfortable,” the secretary said with a bright smile.

“Thank you,” the gentleman replied as he took his seat.

“Would you like to see the dailies?” the secretary asked as she handed over the office newspapers to the visitor.

Unknown to them, Grutueizen was just ending another tense encounter with a pretty lady seeking to supply something he did not need. Within a few minutes of the gentleman’s arrival, Grutueizen and the lady came out of the office with Grutueizen obviously on his way out.

His secretary blurted out, “Sir, I have Justice Taylor here to see you.”

“I do not need any tailors this morning,” Grutueizen retorted angrily before storming out of his office and the building.

The secretary was shaking and proceeded to apologize profusely to the gentleman, who calmly stood up, and left without saying a word.

Now, this gentleman was not just an ordinary gentleman. He was a car enthusiast whom I met many years earlier, following my cross-desert return to the UK, and also the Chief Justice of Lagos state.

Now, Justice Taylor was a unique Lagosian, a wonderful human being, and as I said earlier, a car enthusiast. He owned about 3 or 4 sports cars and he would polish and even service those cars himself. If you went to his garage, you would find him taking the cars apart, changing the oil, and fixing things. So, it was natural that he would hear about me through Segun Olusola and through stories written about my drive through the Sahara by Sad Sam aka Sam Amuka.

That Justice Taylor, motor enthusiast and lover of cars, was the very same gentleman in our office reception; the same one whom my colleague Coo Grutueizen, had dismissed so casually as a tailor seeking contracts.

Later that afternoon, a detachment of the Nigerian Police came to the office and arrested Grutueizen for insulting a Justice of the High Court, Justice J. I. C. Taylor, the Chief Justice of Lagos State.
                                                                                                         
His residence was next to our piling site and he had just about had it with our extended working hours. His mission to the office was to ask for some flexibility in our working hours, only to be called a tailor by an expatriate who could not even acknowledge his presence in his office, and who seemed more intent on taking a lady out for lunch or whatever.

I was away at a meeting outside Lagos while all this was happening but on my way back to the office, the Managing Director, Peter Farrington, called me on our VHF radio, narrated the events to me and requested me to intervene to free Grutueizen from jail.

Luckily I had become very well-known to Justice Taylor and considered him a friend.
Segun had introduced us and we became friends and it was also Segun that told me to get Justice Taylor to write the foreword to my first book,Alone Across the Sands of Sahara. He accepted, wrote it and came to the launch of the book at Kings College where he made a wonderful speech.
Yet on that very day, he had put my colleague in jail for contempt. I drove straight to his house that evening and was ushered into his living room.

“Newton, where have you been? I came looking for you in the office, you were not there. Then your people sent me to one white man who called me a tailor and told me he was not interested in seeing me,” the Justice said as he came in to shake my hand.

“I am so sorry, my Lord,” I began. “Grutueizen had no idea who you were. He was having a bad day. He was being harassed by suppliers and women hawking all sorts of things and was actually running out of the office to seek some peace on site.”

“Yes indeed, with a lady in tow,” the Justice interjected.

I went on to explain the situation better and then we discussed the noise pollution coming from our site. At the end we agreed on flexible working hours that would produce the least nuisance to the residents. Then with a quick phone call, he ordered the release of Grutueizen, to my eternal gratitude.

Now, on the day I went to Justice Taylor’s house to plead for my friend, nothing in the proceedings could have warned me that the day would come when I would also have an encounter with a judge, that would see me end up in jail. But it happened.

One day, while working on a site I decided to go to my head office because we were short of supplies for something. Back then, Western Avenue was just one lane, not the dual carriage we have today. Then also, we were driving on the wrong side of the road, like the British, and so when you are driving into Costain, the man with the red flag would come out and flag vehicles to a stop for you to go through, which was what the gateman did when he saw my car.

Then, especially during rush hour, traffic would usually go from two lanes to three to sometimes four. At the time I passed the first and second lanes, I was not expecting another lane, so there was this car that I almost collided with and the man in front shouted at me and I said, “Go to hell!”

So I drove into my office and about 30 minutes later, some police men came to my office and asked, who the owner of one of the cars was. I was promptly arrested when I said it was me.

They took me to Iponri police station. When I asked what my offence was, they said; “You abused a judge on his way to court and it is contempt and we are charging you immediately to court.”

And before I knew it, they had added three or four other charges - dangerous driving, resisting arrest and some other thing.

They said, “Look, we are doing you a favour by charging you immediately to court, if not we would have locked you up here in the cell!”

So I went to court, just me and a colleague who had accompanied me from my office. When we got to the court, the magistrate treated it fast because the report came from a Judge. The name of the judge whom I was supposed to have offended was Justice Martins, by the way.

The magistrate called me to the bench and said, “Young man, this report came from a Judge. The judge is the only witness so, in your own interest, when we read out the charges, plead guilty and when you do, I’ll give you a warning and since you have no previous criminal record you will, maybe, pay a small fine and the matter will end but if you plead not guilty, we will charge you and since the Judge cannot come to a junior court, your case will drag on, however, if he does come, the consequences for you will be severe. Do you hear me?”

I said, “Yes my Lord!”

So he asked them to read out the charges and that was when I got to know that there were other charges along with abusing a Judge on his way to court.
When they finished, they asked, “Guilty or not guilty?

I said, “Not guilty, sir.”

The Magistrate was speechless...
 (An excerpt from 'Hunger For Power' a book by Dr. Newton Jibunoh)

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