What is a father; I mean, a real father? What is the meaning behind that great word? What is the idea enshrined in the word “father” – the father of a nation? Do we suppose that these children in prison, as they grow older and begin to reason can avoid such questions? No, they cannot, and we must not impose on them an impossible restriction. The absence of a father involuntarily suggests tormenting questions to a young person, especially when they compare theirs with the father of other nations.
Worthy fathers, past and present will come to their minds; selfless leaders who put their citizens and nation first, Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, Tafawa Balewa, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Jerry Rawlings, Thomas Sankara, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Winston Churchill, Yakubu Gowon, amongst others.
The father of the nation goes beyond the power to loot the treasury with cronies. It is power to protect its citizens, for its leadership to be impacted on the least to the greatest through established institutions, to be able to reach out, to feel the pains of the lowest and the poorest of the poor.
In his inaugural speech on May 29, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari said, “I am for everybody…” Those words, set in marble, would imply that even the 11-year-old Goni Ali Shettima wasting away inside a dark and solitary cell also has a place in the heart of Buhari, the father of our potentially great nation. But it shouldn’t only be in fine words, but also in noble deeds.
Is it possible that a usually caring father and his pastoral vice are not aware of this horror and infamy against children under their watch? Let us give them the benefit of the doubt and see what action they will take after it has been brought to their notice. Many, if not all of the children have been held on mere suspicion and erroneous assumptions, and are in most cases, suffering today from the choices made by others beyond their control. They ought to be in school aspiring to become future leaders and even father of our nation. Instead, we are breeding bitter children inside the prison environment to become further forces of instability to their generation. They will grow up with resentment and hatred for the system that has stolen their youth and innocence while we all stood back and did nothing. We may not know it, but we may have sown an evil seed in them, and it may grow, and all because we were not careful before the children, because we did not foster in ourselves a careful, active, benevolent love for them.
As things stand today, the state has caused irreparable damage to many of these children, leaving indelible scars on their fragile psyche. Their definition of the word “prison” has been altered forever. What inspiration are we expecting a simple-hearted child like Goni Ali to get in prison from a psychopathic killer occupying the neighbouring cell? But again let us ask Mr President how relevant is their continued incarceration in prison.
The stinking breadth of corruption
While the children in prison are languishing, lacking even the basic necessities such as toiletries, clothes, good food, and most of all education, the MMSP has been generating a huge revenue internally (I will come to that later), as well as receiving N30m monthly (for feeding alone meant for the over one thousand Boko Haram detainees) not to mention what it receives annually from the budget and NGOs.
It happened on one occasion that a newly appointed General Officer Commanding 7 Division, Brigadier General A.B Biu, paid a surprise visit to MMSP on June 7, 2018 and marched straight to the kitchen. He requested to see the food that was being prepared for detainees. When it was brought to him, he exploded with anger! Lambasting the prison officials present, he asked them if they could eat such rubbish themselves. Turning to an army officer who accompanied him and to the hearing of everyone, he wanted to know why N30m monthly allocation disbursed to the MMSP was not reflected in the quality of the food he saw. Nobody could give him a satisfactory answer before he stormed off in anger.
After the drama in the kitchen nothing more was heard of the matter. The food quality remained the same, and Mr GOC was never heard from again. That got me thinking. Was the newly appointed GOC who was only just weeks at his new posting ranting without having facts and figure, and was he sure of the figure he mentioned publicly?
Perhaps after all the noise making in the MMSP kitchen, the enthusiastic newcomer was called aside, or through a phone call received from his corrupt superior was properly briefed on “how things are done here” – which is sharing over-inflated sums meant for the welfare of detainees between themselves.
Even when two cows are slaughtered occasionally, what trickles down to the inmates is a small piece of boiled meat; the size of eight cubes of sugar lumped together. The prison staff in MMSP who have a strange orientation that prisoners shouldn’t be properly fed, share the larger portion of the raw meat among themselves just as they steal or buy cheaply, the food stuff like cooking oil, rice etc. meant for inmate from kitchen staff.
The tax collectors
Side by side the abject lack of essential items for the daily needs of the children (such as mattresses, pillow, bed-sheet) is a thriving multi-million naira handcrafted traditional Northern Nigeria Bama cap industry inside the MMSP, with the over 1000 thousand Boko Haram detainees making the bulk of the cheap slave labour. For each cap sewn with materials provided by the Nigeria prison service, it takes about one month of concentrated needlework to complete a cap, and they are paid peanuts. The finished products are sold by the NPS to retailers and wholesalers.
To get out as many caps as possible from the detainees, the slave drivers punish those who fail to meet deadlines. Inside the cell in unit 3 of cluster 2, detainees are supplied with drugs like cannabis, and steroids that instantly turn them into sewing robots. With the help of the drugs, these addicts can take only two weeks to complete one cap, working day and night. They are supplied with torchlights that can be strapped to their forehead. At night, the dormitory type halls where hundreds of inmates have been crammed into like sardines, light up with hundreds of torch lights, giving the appearance of the inside of a dark cavernous coal mine.
For inmates who have the financial resources and expresses interest in participating in the cap business, the NPS does not object, but imposes on them a tax of N500 per cap known as the “controller General of prisons Special Cap Tax”.
Those who try to evade paying tax would have their caps seized and locked up in unit 3. To assist the inmates to sell their finished caps, a further N300 is collected as sales commission. Since these inmates have no access to the buyer, they must accept whatever amount is given as purchased price.
Whenever the warders are broke especially towards the end of the month when salaries haven’t been paid, they conduct formal searches for prohibited items and confiscate cash found on the same inmate they paid for sewing caps, listing the cash as “exhibit”. The inmate must then negotiate to have some of the money back.
The cap industry has its advantages as it keeps the inmates occupied, but the abuse and exploitation outweighs the benefits.
To this end, several questions merit answers: (1) Is the Controller General of Prisons authorised by the law to levy taxes on prisoners? (2) Can he arrogate to himself the power to impose taxes? (3) Is the CGP special cap tax paid into the treasury single account of the Federal Government as prisoners have been made to believe? (4) Is the Nigeria Labour Congress aware? And (5) Why hasn’t a part of this money been used to cater for the welfare of the children inside prison?
The Senate Committee on Prison should invite the CGP to throw more light on the questions raised except they receive “returns” from an obvious fraud.
Other ways the MMSP generates money illegally for a few crooked staff members is from the sale of the remnants of the course corn meal poorly prepared in a very large quantity for inmates. The anticipated leftovers are dried in the sun, chopped into small chunks and bagged in 25kg sacks, which are sold as animal feed. Each 25kg bag is sold for N1000 and over 200bags are sold monthly by the Chief Warder’s office with nothing getting to the children.
From the government-supplied logs of wood for firewood, the charcoal byproduct is also another source of business. Charcoal is packed in bags and sold outside the prison for profit.
The vault at home
One fine morning in June 2018, a strange young man with a severe bite mark on his neck (not an inmate) was brought into cluster 2, and led to unit 3 where he was locked up. This was unusual. So out of curiosity, I wanted to find out who he was and how come he found himself in unit 3 without a detention warrant. When he told us his story, it reminded me of Ali Baba and the 40Thieves.
Sam Adda, an adopted son of a now retired Deputy Controller of Prison resided with his parents inside the staff quarters, a barrack adjacent to the prison separated by a barbed wire fence. Sam had been noticing for some time large quantities of “Ghana-Must-Go” bags entering into the residence of the immediate past controller of the Borno State command who retired in November 2018. The bags were brought in an official hi-lux vehicle with sirens and Sam suspected the bags contained cash. So he decided to find out for himself. He then devised a way of beating the armed sentry posted to guard the house. With the skills of a cat burglar, Sam sneaked inside and discovered his hunch was right. A room had been converted to a vault where the bags he had noticed contained raw cash! Sam’s fortune changed from that day and he began helping himself whenever he ran out of cash. To his surprise, the theft wasn’t even noticed and he became greedy, helping himself on a more frequent basis with larger amounts. This bonanza continued for a long period of time until one day when Sam’s luck ran out.
It so happened that on that day, the former controller was at home and heard rustling sounds coming from the vault and decided to find out if rats were responsible. This was how he came face to face with the human rat. A scuffle ensued as Sam who he immediately recognised, tried to escape. That was how Sam received a bite on his neck from the old man who screamed for help from his guards. Sam was caught and brought to MMSP where he was locked up with some money still stashed inside tight underwear worn for that purpose. He was generous and shared the money with inmates as he told his story. He didn’t remain at MMSP for long before his father and the controller resolved a “family affair” better hushed.
From all indication, the barracks now seem to be an ideal and secure place to hide loot that cannot be banked. What can be adduced here is that there is an on-going corruption of a monumental scale among the top echelon of the prison service to the detriment of the prisoners and the treasury. The Borno State command seems to have hit a jackpot with the Boko Haram insurgency and the high number of detainees in MMSP whose welfare have been pushed on the NGOs while a budget is still obtained from the Federal Government.
Then there is also the illegality of locking Sam Adda in a prison owned by the Federal Government without passing through the due process of a court remand warrant. The Nigerian prison as a government-owned institution does not belong to any individual and cannot be subjected to their whim.
A child’s cry for justice
If this article happens to get the attention of human rights advocate, Mr Femi Falana (SAN), please be informed through this unconventional medium and public brief that the trio of Goni Ali Shettima, Abba Musa, and Salisu Usman all three children locked for years inside the death row cells of cluster 2 alongside condemned criminals, wish to bring a fundamental human rights lawsuit against the Federal Government of Nigeria. The plaintiffs are asking for N1bn each as damages. They also want the court to declare their continued incarceration as null and void and cruel. They look forward to living a normal life outside of prison, get an education, and lead a normal existence as bona fide Nigeria citizens.
Modibo Musa, whose entire family was arrested along with his late father also wishes to bring a similar fundamental human rights law suit against the Federal Government of Nigeria. Modibo and the other plaintiffs made up of his six siblings – Hauwa, Aisha, Halima, Maryam, Usman and Mohammed are demanding N500m each as damages. They want the court to declare their continued incarceration null and void and cruel. They plead to be represented pro bono.
The curtains have finally come down on this emotional and thought-provoking article. At this point, I want to reflect back to the source that has given me the impetus to write this article, fearlessly confronting injustice and evil head-on, standing alone against a mighty army and surrounded by foes who must react when it becomes public.
In 1982, I made the life-changing decision to donate my left kidney to save another life. On August 8, 1982, just some minutes before parting ways into two separate operation theatres, I said to the recipient, “today, we cross the Rubicon”. I was repeating the decisive words spoken by Julius Ceaser in 49BC.
Just turned twenty a few days before, I was donating my kidney to my mother, Helen, at the Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai (Bombay) India. My dear mother was a successful and astute businesswoman of 42 years of age at the time. Unfortunately, the transplant was a failure. I couldn’t have back my kidney and my mother would pass on.
That major decision I took to make a sacrifice for love, to take a firm stand for what I believed was the right step under the circumstance, killed and buried a natural timid disposition forever. It then resurrected in me strength of mind and force of character, an iron resolve that can go calmly to death, rather than yield one jot of truth.
It also gave birth to my company, Tombra Life Support, which brought renewed hope to kidney failure patients in the 80’s at a time when even acute renal failure was as good as a death sentence. In a country like Nigeria, the rights of prisoners are trampled upon with impunity and dubiously interpreted as privileges. For a prisoner, especially one like myself serving a life sentence for that matter, I have the choice to: 1. Turn a blind eye, 2. Join them if you can’t beat them, 3. Mind my own business. But I have chosen none of the above.
Already, merely suspecting my intentions, the drums of war have started beating. I have been threatened by the pimps to kill me, and the authorities have treated the treat with levity because they encourage it. They use cheap blackmail of religion and tribe to ostracise me. I am told to remember this is none of my business. I reply that the children, first and foremost are Nigerian citizens, which makes them my business, and MMSP is a federal facility. I have been denied access to medical attention in definitive centres that can address my health concerns. Hindrances can only stimulate me, and the difficulties they are making for me will only nerve me to renewed exertion rather than yield a fraction of my resolve. I would rather be mistreated and do the right thing, than to enjoy any fleeting privileges.
A travesty of justice
Let me use this rare opportunity to send out my greetings to my family members, the few friends who have not deserted me, comrades, and well-wishers who have not heard from me since my transfer from Kuje Prison, Abuja, on March 13, 2018 to MMSP situated in a war zone whereby even when the president visit, jet fighter planes and attack helicopters must patrol the skies until he departs.
Many of you must be curious to know how I received the shocking judgment on March 7,
22018 but before I go into that, I want you all to be assured that I am I high spirits. Often times we imagine that as soon as we are torn out of our habitual path all is over, but it is only the beginning of something new, good and profound. As long as there is life, there is hope. I have shaken off the unjust sentence, which is no more than the dust upon my clothes. God has been my strength and refuge, and I thank you for your prayers and financial support. I know for a fact that this too shall pass and that the strongest of all warriors are these two – time and patience.
To be honest, I was in shock as Justice Gabriel Kolawole read his lengthy monotonous (4 ½
hours) empty and speculative judgment, which was based on erroneous assumption. I began to feel faint and suddenly felt my legs growing weak under me when I realised where he was heading. I quickly took a hold of myself by taking in slow, deep breaths, and consoling myself that the emotions I was experiencing at the moment had been experienced by others before me – men and women falsely accused and convicted.
My mind immediately went to a certain man. He was a loyal servant and conscientious overseer, a disciplined man who spurned the advances of his masters beautiful wife who tried to seduce him and failed. She would use his abandoned coat as a circumstantial evidence to falsely accuse him of attempted rape. He was sentenced to prison indefinitely – he is the biblical Joseph.
Then there was Jesus Christ, who healed the sick, and raised the dead. A good man of unblemished integrity and unswerving rectitude who never did evil nor had sinful thoughts. Yet he was framed, betrayed, tried in a similar kangaroo court, and sentenced to death on the cross.
I escaped the trumped up charges of treason (a capital offence) when the funds in my Zenith bank account alleged to have been provided to me by former military Head of State, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, to contrive the assassination of Goodluck Jonathan was traced not to a local individual or organisation, but to the British High Commission. Insisting at the point would have implicated the British Government and exposed the lie.
Another charge that I imported explosives illegally was also dropped after the Department of State Services who had already impounded my 40 feet container at the Tin Can Port, realised that the contents of floating plastics docks was an order made by the United States Embassy from my company. Nonetheless, the container has remained impounded since 2010.
I prayed for the judge, asking God to forgive him for I had come to admire his intellect and sense of humour, not realising that one day the joke would be on me. I shook my head slowly in disbelief at the prejudice, reasoning and volte-face of this same man who described the prosecution’s case as “watery” and who exclaimed several times at the absurdity of the prosecution witnesses.
Justice Kolawole took it personal at one point; during the tail end of the trial I noticed when his body language and attitude began to change. This was about the time he mentioned to some visiting law students attached to his court that, “Charles Okah insulted me” even though I can’t remember when I supposedly insulted him. My prayer point is that the appeal court will accelerate my hearing due to my failing health, and that the three judges will not put their consciences up for sale, that they will stand solely upon the law and redress a glaring miscarriage of justice.
A year before his untimely death in 1912, James Allen with the gift of clairvoyance said this: “Should a judge, in deciding a case, forget the law, and fall into personal feeling and prejudice his dignity would be gone. The dignity of the judge arises from the fact that in the performance of his duty he sets aside all personal consideration and stands solely upon the law. His little personality, impermanent and fleeting is nothing, while the law, enduring and majestic becomes all.”
The story is not about me, but a cry for help for the cruel detention of the children at MMSP. So, I will close with a clarion call to change the story of these children deprived of their liberty without due process of law. Together, I strongly believe we can collectively change their story from that of hopelessness to hope and make a better life for the likes of Goni Ali Shettima.
Charles T. Okah, Cell 9, Unit 1, Cluster 2, MMSP