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MY FIRST DAYS IN KUJE PRISON

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By Emeka Ugwuonye, Esquire

The full story about my time in the Kuje Medium Correctional Center, Abuja, is contained in my forthcoming prison memoir. But it is tempting for me to share here in summary and in advance some of my prison experience, particularly my first days in prison.

I was charged with murder and armed robbery. That was after five failed attempts to charge me with insulting the Nigerian police by accusing them of corruption and incompetence in the social media. Under Nigerian law, especially in the Northern part of Nigeria, including particularly Abuja, the most effective means of silencing a critic of government is to charge him with criminal defamation. This means that someone with some money has hired the Nigerian police to charge you for saying something unpleasant about him. Apostle Suleman is the latest “big” man to hire the police for such purpose. In my case, the police was the main complainant against me. The wanted to silence me to prevent revelations of widespread ateocities that ultimately led to the EndSARS protest two years later and the Abba Kyari indictment in the US three years later.

After the Abuja police failed on six occasions to pin me down with such ignoble tactic, they just charged me with murder and armed robbery, the highest offenses they could imagine. Because that case is still pending in court, let me not say here how ridiculous those charges are. I shall leave the court to speak to that.

However, on 13th December 2018, after 16 days in Abattoir, a place I previously described as the killing ground for the Nigerian police, I was arraigned with two other men for armed robbery and murder of the same person. When the court official read the charges against me, the only thing that annoyed me in the charge was when it stated that I, Emeka Ugwuonye, used machete to kill the victim in order to rob her of her property. I can’t quite remember what property it was that I was said to have robbed. But I remembered vividly how they said i did the robbery: that I used machete to kill and rob the victim. As they read the charges in court, I wanted to raise my hand and protest.

How could I be said to have used machete as my choice of weapon, for robbery? Automatically, that was an insult and an unforgivable belittlement. I knew I might be detained in the same prison where they detained hardened armed robbers. Those armed robbery inmates were all accused of using AK-47 or some firearms to rob. How would I be accused of using machete and then be sent to live among those inmates? That was most unfair. That meant that I would be arriving at the prison as the poorest armed robbery suspect. When others used AK-47, nobody would respect me among the inmates hearing that I used machete to commit my own robbery. So, as they read machete, I thought of raising my hand to object. I wanted the court to replace the word machete with bomb. Let it be said that I used some serious wrapon. I really thought that if the prison inmates heard that I used bomb, they would respect me more in prison. I was not able to get the court to change the alleged weapon from machete to something really bad. I felt bad going to the prison as the poorest armed robber in Nigerian history, who could not even afford a gun. I wondered how far the police would go to insult me and rubbish my name. They already rubbished my name by accusing me of murder and armed robbery. To go ahead and paint me as the poorest armed robber in Nigeria was the straw that nearly broke the camel’s back for me.

After arraignment, I was remanded in Kuje prison along with the other two men. You will not believe what happened when I got to the prison. I was not aware of the fact that inmates had a lot of things and televisions in their cells. So, I was not prepared for what happened to me upon arrival in prison. As I stood at the inmates entrance gate, being processed by the warders on duty, I noticed one man standing at the gate from the inside smiling at me. Immediately I was processed and I made to pass through that iron bar, the man greeted me so warmly. He called me “Dede”, meaning he was an Igbo man from Abia or Imo State. I later confirmed he was from Abia State. He told me he how he had been following my writings on Facebook and how he adored me and that he was my greatest fan. He looked clean, well dressed and well gloomed. I assumed he was one of the prison officers, though not in uniform.

As I was processed to the office known as the Records, where a few warders carried old tick tattered registers over some rusty desks, the way things have been done since 1930s, collecting and documenting the names of newly arriving inmates and processing out those leaving the prisons, I was offered a chair, while the two other men accused along with me sat on the floor. I was to later learn that only inmates that were considered high profile inmates or elders were allowed to sit down in that office. Otherwise, the prison makes sure that every arriving inmate was left in no doubt as to how lowly he is. One out of many ways to do this is to make an arriving inmate squat or sit on the bare floor while being processed in. But I was offered a chair. As I sat there, the same man that met me at the gate came into that office and spoke to the most senior officer in the office. He appeared to be reminding the uniformed officer who I was and the need for me to be accorded respect and privileges. The uniformed officer nodded very attentively. Then, the man said to me again: “Dede, don’t worry, I will make sure you are offered a good cell befitting your status”. I must admit openly that these words were quite comforting and reassuring.

From the Records, I was processed to the Chief Warder’s office. The Chief Warder is a very important prison official. He is relativeky low in rank compared to more senior officers. But administratively, he runs the yard next in line to the number two and the Officer-in-Charge. The Chief Warder is responsible for determining how comfortable you are in the prison. He can assign you the poor inmates section. A custody is like a hostel in the university. They are distict from one another as hostels are. There are four custodies in Kuje. The poorest of the custodies is called Egypt or Custody Two. It is hard to describe it to you. But that is where the wretched of the earth stay. Another Custody is called Bomb Blast or Custody One. They called Custody One Bomb Blast because that is where Boko Haram and terrorist suspects are placed. Custody 3 is where mostly convicts are placed. Custody Four is where more well off awaiting trial inmates are placed. Custodies 3 and 4 have sections where privileged inmates stay. There are special cells meant for a single individual or very few inmates to be in. Such cells have their own private toilets and bath. Privileged inmates pay money to get such cells. Indeed, depending on how much you are willing to part with, you will get something as comfortable as possible. Even before you pay money, it can be assumed that you are privileged and should be in a special cell. All that will be initially determined by the Chief Warder.

So, as I was at the office of the Chief Warder, that well gloomed guy came in and whispered to the Chief Warder. And as he was leaving, he whispered to me again: “Dede, don’t worry, everything will be alright”. Again, this reaffirmed my impression that this man must be an officer. Then the Yard Master, another officer, directly under the Chief Warder, said to me: “Barrister, you know you have to pay money for the special place we are to give you”. I replied: “No problem”.

It was actually when I was placed in a cell with two other men that I realized that the man that was calling me Dede was indeed an inmate himself. He was lobbying for me to be sent to a cell he shared with another inmates, who was the General Overseer (GO) for Christian inmates. The GO is a powerful official in the prison Government and very close to the Warders. He had a cell to himself. But he and the office of the Chief Warder make some money through placing rich new arrivals in that cell. I understood that when you are placed in that cell, your cellmates would trick you into bringing money which they shared with the officials in tge office of the Chief Warder.

It took me the first night to understand that the man calling me Dede who was actually serving a death sentence was part of a syndicate. He had everything he needed and watched TV. He was active on the internet. He was following my case. He knew was to be arraigned the same day. He knew I was to be detained in Kuje. He knew when the vehicle taking me to prison arrived. He made sure he was at the gate at the moment I worked in.

This Abia man’s reason for wanting me in his cell was twofold. His first reason was becayse he had hoped I would take over his appeal, which was pending. Apart from that, between December 13 and December 29, I had spent N300k paying money demanded by my two cellmates. They never forced me. They would come up with one excuse or the other to get money from me. They even used my money to buy and slaughter a goat on December 25th. That was not the funny thing. The funny thing was that they made me feel so grateful when they gave me two pieces of the goat meat. I didn’t know that I paid for the goat. I was thanking them for being nice by giving me two pieces of the meat. It was on December 29, when the man in my cell fell out with the Chief Warders office over the fact that he did not give them the money he collected from me in their names. Of the 300k he collected from me, he gave 15k to the Chief Warders office. He would say to them: “You know that Barrister is a human right lawyer. He doesn’t have money.” The Chief Warder bought that story and all believed that I was one of those to be respected even though they had no money. It was actually by coincidence that the Chief Warder’s office realized that N300k had be obtained from me in their name. There was war between them. And when the warders are angry with you, they will search your cell in a way that will make you hate yourself. You know what that means: any phone near you will be found and seized and other privileges could be taken away.

My problem also started from that moment. The man that called me Dede became my greatest nuisance. He was reporting me each time he felt I used a phone. Coupled with the reports, all false, coming from the police that I was active on the internet, things became so hard for me. I ended up falling out with the Officer-in-Charge then. The man was an aggressive operator. I did not understand his game initially. So, we became enemies. And when the Officer-In-Charge considers you an enemy, your stay in the prison will be doubly painful.

I was eventually placed in solitary confinement when the rumor went out that I was planning to expose corruption within the prison. I wasn’t really planning to do that. I made up my mind from the beginning not to antagonize the prison. I figured that it would be too much to have both the police and the prison services hate you at the same time. So, despite the massive corruption and abnormalities I saw within the prison, I didn’t want to expose them. Yet, they feared that I would.

I remember one meeting the officer-in-Charge had with his staff and I was called in. He said to them: “The day Barrister Emeka came here, my colleagues from other parts of the country warned me that there was a troublesome man in my prison. They all told me to sit up, that this man would cause me to lose my job”. Continuing, he said to the Chief Warder, “I warned you to keep an eye on him (pointing at me), to monitor him 24/7. But you failed and now look at what is happening. He is taking over the prison. The inates are now wearing caps with DPA written on them. The whole prison has turned into DPA”. Of course, the-in-Charge banned the wearing of anything DPA in the prison and tried to ban the mentioning of DPA in Kuje prison. But it was too late. The more he tried, the more the inmates became interested in DPA brand. Even many warders were supporting DPA. So, when I was placed in solitary confinement, it did not achieve the intended effect. The Officer-in-Charge, before I came out from isolation, took me into an office and said to me. “You turned my staff against me. I’ve never had this sort of problem with my staff”.

When the officer-in-Charge realized that 6 weeks in solitary confinement did not break me, that I maintained the same smile and coolness, he and I became such good friends. By then, I had learned his game. He realized that I really didn’t want to expose him. Otherwise, I could have done so even from solitary confinement. Before then, it was rough between us. He just suspected that I was planning on exposing the prison service as I exposed the Abuja police in their poor handling of Chacha’s death. One Friday morning, while he was having the usual meeting with the prison staff, the in-Charge said about me: “That Barrister will never leave solitary confinement while I am still the in-Charge here. The only way he can leave solitary is I either the judge grants him bail or I am transferred”. Then he added, suspecting disloyalty among his staff: “I know that some of you are his friends. You can tell him I said that. I don’t care!”. Indeed, within thirty minutes of him saying that, three officers came to inform me. I smiled and said: “Well, let’s see which one happens first – my bail or his transfer”.

Both the in-Charge and the Chief Warder I met at arrival in prison were transferred two months after my solitary confinement. The officers that replaced them were different. But that was because we started on different note. Each side understood each other better. But by the time I left the prison, I was one of the best inmates they have ever seen. Some of the warders were so good. I feel sad that I don’t have much time to go and visit them, as I had promised. Indeed, some of them because my client while I was still in prison, and some paid to consult me. That is how close we got. And some risked their jobs to help me. Thank God that my memoir is not yet out. The more time that passes, the less troublesome it would be. It will reveal things that might threaten some people’s job. And I don’t want anyone to lose his job for helping me. Indeed, some took risks to help me, which is very rare among prison officers. They rarely get close to inmates. But some got very close with me and helped me in ways I cannot openly admit while they are still in service.

 

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