Former governor of Adamawa State, Mr. James Ngilari, has an unenviable choice to make. He has been given the ‘liberty’ of choosing, from any of Nigeria’s many prisons, where he would like to spend the next five years.
It was a queer option handed down by Justice Nathan Musa of the Yola High Court on Monday, as he sentenced the former deputy governor-governor to five years imprisonment, without option of fine.
The ex-governor was dragged to court by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on charges of corruption, particularly, for ignoring the due process.
But, if you think this former deputy to Gov. Murtala Nyako is spoilt for choice, then you have another think coming. For between Nigerian prisons, there’s nothing to choose from. At best, Justice Musa merely asked the former governor to choose how to suffer.
How do I mean? Well, yours sincerely, last week, had the fortune (or is it misfortune?) of joining the Security and Justice Reform Programme (SJRP) on a visit to the Kirikiri Prisons. It was part of a three-day Prison Reform Project workshop, put together by the Nigeria Prisons Service and the Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA), with the support of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
That visit left me feeling a little less than human.
I had to summon up everything in me, that makes me a man, not to shed a tear. I did not want to weep for the inmates per se. Rather, I wanted to weep for a country where pickpockets and petty thieves are locked up in jail while the big thieves run the society. I wanted to weep for a country where 80% of prison inmates are Awaiting Trial Persons. I wanted to weep for a country where the police are still arresting people for ‘wandering’, decades after it was removed as an offence from our statutes.
I wanted to weep for a country that would cramp 5000 people into a facility meant for less than 2000. I wanted to weep for a country whose prisons have gradually become recruiting grounds for extremists and training ground for aspiring criminals – a country that mixes murder suspects with minor offenders.
I wanted to weep for a country where a heavily pregnant, crippled woman is thrown into prison (awaiting trial) for carrying a pregnancy her husband suspects is not his. And as her water breaks in prison cell, her alleged lover is still locked up in the male prison, while the alleged cuckold has since vanished into thin air with his police accomplices. The prison officers are then left to either play gynecologist, nurse and pediatrician (rolled in one) or look for money from wherever and take her to a proper hospital.
I wanted to weep for a country that continues to detain and imprison pregnant women and nursing mothers (and their babies) without any budgetary provision for a crèche or nursery for the inmates’ infants.
I wanted to weep for a country the wheels of which criminal justice system turns so slowly that an Awaiting Trial Inmate could stay for a whole year without having his day in court, or get to court and discover that judge chose that day to either bury his late mother or give his daughter away in marriage and could, therefore, not come to court.
I wanted to weep for a country where prisons have since been forced to abandon their roles as corrective and reformative institutions to focus on maintaining security within the walls of the prison.
I wanted to weep for a system that is so blinded by mindless looting that it seems to cut its nose to spite its face.
My only joy in all this is that the chicken always comes home to roost. Yes!
About a year ago, I happened upon an anonymous social media post that read: “Limit all politicians to two terms; one in office and one in prison”.
We have not statutorily effected this limitation in Nigeria, but we always, more often than not, come to that pass. That is why I have always advised our politicians not to neglect the prisons. This advice is not necessarily informed by any altruistic concern for the lot of the inmates there presently, or for the welfare of the warders and other prisons officials. Rather, it is in the enlightened self-interest of our politicians to fix the prisons.
The reason is simply: Most of our politicians and public officers live so dangerously that is almost unthinkable that a conservative 60% of them would not end up in prison. And this is apart from the fact that many presidents graduated to the presidency from the prison. So, it’s only proper that we take more than just a passing interest in the ‘school’ where we groom both those who rule us (the politicians) and those who ruin us (the robbers and other criminals). A few years ago, an inmate of Kuje prisons, in Abuja, told me of how a former governor detained there was complaining about heat, no air-conditioners and no television sets in the cells. At a point, he even asked to be allowed to bring in the power generating set in his Abuja home. Yeye dey smell!
Assuming that Ngilari (governor for about eight months) had taken time to fix the Yola Prisons, while he was in office, he’d probably be going into some form of comfort, even if he were to successfully appeal and upturn Justice Musa’s verdict. But since he didn’t do that, Yola Prison is just as bad as all the other prisons in other parts of Nigeria – maybe not as bad as Lagos, Port Harcourt or Kano prisons, but bad enough.
However, the curious thing is that we have hurriedly convicted Ngilari, who is of the PDP and ruled for only eight months. Meanwhile, we’re running in circles in the case of his former boss, Murtala Nyako, who is now of the APC, but actually ruled for a little over seven years of the eight years that the duo ran the affairs of Adamawa State.
But, jokes apart, if Ngilari could do that much in eight months, one can then imagine what Nyako did in seven years.
… Between prosecution and persecution
In the Adamawa conviction, I’m intentionally turning a blind eye to the allegations of a misunderstanding between Ngilari and the sitting governor. But that does not remove the fact that many of the ongoing corruption trials are a clear case of persecution. Take the case of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, who planned no coup but was, all the same, roped into a coup plot by the Gen. Sani Abacha junta and sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment). Obasanjo’s only offence then was that he was outspoken against the evils of the Abacha regime.
But instead of ‘reforming’ Obasanjo, our evil prisons increased Obasanjo’s agnst, so much so that when the tables turned and OBJ found himself in power again, he became the nightmare of opposition elements – real or imagined.
It’s for this disposition that the likes of Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, former governor of Abia State, is facing trial today – as the EFCC runs from pillar to post trying to find a genuine ground for a clear case of political persecution of Kalu.
Yes, there has to be a justification putting a man in the dock, few years after a sitting president had eulogised him as ‘Action Governor’.
There had to be a justification for arraigning a man on whom the EFCC could not put together a convincing file, beyond a watery petition that was first circulated in 2002, in the heat of Kalu’s quest for re-election the next year.
Today, the figure of the alleged loot has gone down from N88 billion to N42 billion, 24 billion, and ultimately to a little less than N4 billion. Sometimes, it falls as low as N1.2 billion, depending on which prosecutor/or persecutor is rehashing the tale.
At some point, the persecutors attempted to drag everything Kalu (a dollar-denominated billionaire-businessman before he became governor) ever owned into the matter – especially those they could not automatically decree out of existence with one presidential fiat or another.
Today, that same case, which had already been assigned to a judge in Abuja, where it had been going on, and where all the principal actors are domiciled, has been curiously transferred from Abuja to Lagos, in what observers interpret to amount to shopping for…(whatever).
Of course, this piece is not about Kalu’s travails. Rather, it is to underscore how central to our polity – and politicking, the prisons have become, and why our politicians would do themselves a world of good to ensure that the prisons are in good shape.