By Achilleus-Chud Uchegbu
At the celebration of this year’s Judge’s week, President Muhammadu Buhari made a passionate call on the judiciary to embark on jail delivery and rescue person imprisoned for mundane crimes. That appeal hit me with a nostalgic feeling as I remembered my escapades, sneaking into the Kirikiri Maximum Prison to visit a high profile detainee who later died, regretfully, in the hand of Nigeria’s judicial officers.
I am talking of Hon. Maurice Ibekwe. I knew him during his travails. I became close to him while he was in Kirikiri, imprisoned and denied bail for an alleged offence which even the trial judge admitted was bailable. He fought for bail. He was denied. Evidence, including oral testimony in court, produced by senior prison officials to show his health had worsened were rebuffed both by the prosecution and trial judge. Upon his death, then EFCC chairman, Nuhu Ribadu, stated publicly that the commission would have been happier with a conviction. It did not matter that an accused should be well enough to attend to his trial. On the next adjourned date when an application was made to strike his name off the charge, the trial judge hesitated for a moment and declared “I did not know he was really sick”.
However, this is not about Ibekwe. It is about a young Nigerian who Ibekwe saved from unjust imprisonment by the Nigerian state. His name is Innocent. Can’t remember his surname now. And he is indeed innocent. He is, like Ibekwe, from Okwelle in Onuimo Local government area of Imo state. He was a bus driver in Lagos before he was put in prison and forgotten. By the time Ibekwe entered Kirikiri as a detainee, Innocent had spent seven years of his youthful life in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison on no verifiable charge. There was no evidence, no witnesses, and no diligent prosecution.
But that is not the story. The issue is that Ibekwe contributed resources for the burial of Innocent after he went ‘missing’ and a long drawn search could not find him. I still remember Innocent tumbling, dancing, rolling all over, hugging family and friends as soon as the Magistrate declared him ‘discharged and acquitted’. He could not hold back his tears. His mother wept. His dad was manly. His siblings and relations who had come to be with him on judgment day had buckets full of tears. He was indeed innocent.
He told me his story. Citizen Innocent lived somewhere in Ijesha area of Lagos. At the close of the day, he parked his bus at home and hung around with friends. Sometimes later, in the late evening, his bowels moved and he had to answer a natural call. He dashed across the road at Ijesha bus stop and found accommodating space in the bush beside. Through with duty, Innocent came out of the bush and made to rejoin friends. That was the beginning of his seven year sojourn in prison. He was picked up by rampaging members of Operation Sweep. They frisked him and found nothing. They asked questions upon question. Not satisfied with his response that he merely accessed the bush to empty his bowels, he was taken away. He begged for his freedom. They refused him. At the Police station in Kirikiri, he was asked to bail himself. He couldn’t. If he had premonition of what lay ahead, he probably would have paid anything to be free.
The next Innocent saw was a detention order. He was locked up in the Police cell. A few days after, he was taken to a magistrate’s court and charged with “loitering”. Outcome? The Magistrate granted a request by police prosecutor to remand him in prison custody pending further investigation. He was remanded. The case file, without details, was taken away pending further investigation. No police man came back for him. He was remanded. He was also forgotten.
Back home, a search party had gone out. Everyone who could be reached was contacted on Innocent’s where about. Every mortuary was searched. Every available hospital with capacity to keep accident victims was visited. No word came from anyone on his possible where about. Those who saw him last testified that they saw him cross the Oshodi-Apapa expressway. None said they saw him return. Different possibilities worked out. Some believed he may have become victim of ritualists. Some said Police may have taken him. Several police cells were visited yet no sign of him. Even a visit to Kirikiri and Ikoyi Prisons produced no result as case file had been removed. Innocent lost every hope of freedom and resigned to fate. Tired of waiting for his return and convinced that he may have died off somewhere, his family organized a funeral. Ibekwe participated.
Innocent further told me that on the day Ibekwe and the others were brought into Kirikiri on detention, the prison community was in high spirits. The prisoners, and other detainees, spoke among themselves saying at least, they would see some of society’s big names. It was then that he told a mate in prison that Ibekwe was an uncle to him. His mate encouraged him to reach out to Ibekwe. He refused. His argument? If his kinsmen cared about him, he would not have been holed up in Kirikiri. However, on further prompting, he reached out to Ibekwe. His story changed. That was the beginning of his journey out of Kirikiri.
At first, he told me that Ibekwe was scarred seeing him. “He said I am a ghost”. Innocent said he did his best to convince Ibekwe that it is still him. When convinced, he narrated his story to Ibekwe. The story reached Innocent’s family. In a few hours, all those who know him were trooping to Kirikiri to see him. Tears came down in torrents. Father, mother, brothers, sister, uncles, aunts, cousins etc… they came, they saw him, and they wept. “I believe that God brought me here for a purpose”, Ibekwe told me. He added “making sure that Innocent regains his freedom is now my assignment and even if that is the last good thing I will achieve on earth, I will do it”. He was very angry with the details.
Innocent’s case was re-opened at the Magistrate’s Court in Ikeja. He was brought to court in Black Maria. That was when he saw Lagos again in seven years. Charges were prepared and read. He pleaded not guilty. Prosecution was lost as to how to proceed with the trial. After some adjournments defence applied that the charge is struck out for want of diligent prosecution. There were no evidences or exhibits attached to the charge. There were no witnesses. And the charge still read “loitering”. The trial magistrate must have wondered how Police arrived at the charge. Innocent regained his freedom. That was Ibekwe’s last good deed.
There are more Innocents in Nigeria’s prisons. Statistics show that there are more detainees (awaiting trial inmates) than there are actual prisoners. A thorough review of the reasons they are in prison as awaiting trial inmates will reveal the level of decay in Nigeria’s justice administration system. There are citizens whose offences may require hours of community service, as punishment, behind prison walls awaiting trial. Many are in there while their case files gather dust on the tables of an IPO (Investigating Police Officer). Sometimes when Chief Judges of State go on jail delivery, they deliver persons nearing term completion. But the greater desire should be to get all the other Innocents out of prison and restore them to normal life.
RipplesNigeria… without borders, without fears
Join the conversation
Support Ripples Nigeria, hold up solutions journalism
Balanced, fearless journalism driven by data comes at huge financial costs.
As a media platform, we hold leadership accountable and will not trade the right to press freedom and free speech for a piece of cake.
If you like what we do, and are ready to uphold solutions journalism, kindly donate to the Ripples Nigeria cause.
Your support would help to ensure that citizens and institutions continue to have free access to credible and reliable information for societal development.
FEATURES: Rise in Monkeypox infection troubling Nigeria’s rural population
In this features, KELECHUKWU IRUOMA goes into the rural communities of Bayelsa State, south-south Nigeria to uncover the plight of...
SPECIAL REPORT: Kwara communities groan as erosion washes away roads, property
For a number of years communities in Ilorin South LGA of Kwara State have had to live with the menace...
SPECIAL REPORT: Lack of legal provisions, cultural sentiments fueling marital r*pe in Nigeria
By Arinze Chijioke In the early days of Sandra Izuckukwu’s marriage in 2019, her husband, Sunday Izuchukwu, did everything she...
INVESTIGATION… LIVES ON THE LINE (IV): Surviving in a dangerous media environment
This investigation is on the unresolved killing of three Nigerian journalists while on assignments between 2019 and 2020. For six...
INVESTIGATION… LIVES ON THE LINE (III): Precious Owolabi was killed covering a protest
This investigation is on the unresolved killing of three Nigerian journalists while on assignments between 2019-2020. For six months, Nigerian...