On Thursday, April 9, 2020, ten days after Nigeria entered partial lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, officers of the Nigeria police, army, correctional service and others had extra-judicially killed 13 while enforcing the curfew – the virus had only claimed six lives then. By May 4, when the government eased the lockdown, about 20 persons had been killed in similar circumstances. For three months, investigative journalist, Kemi Busari, followed the trails of these arbitrary killings which have left many families devastated, with no hope of justice.
Wisdom Felix has been dead – or said to be dead - for about 11 months now but his siblings would dare not break the news to his aged mum.
For one reason, Felicia, Cyprian and Doris believe such an announcement would worsen her health situation. Before Wisdom was arrested and taken to the Kaduna Correctional Centre in 2018, Mrs Ruth Felix was already suffering from high blood pressure and excess sugar among other ailments.
Her health status was aggravated by the news of her beloved son, Wisdom, being imprisoned and even made worse by the many futile attempts to get him out. She is now bedridden.
“The news will just kill her,” Wisdom’s elder brother, Cyprian, says, having agreed to an interview at a location other than their house also to prevent their mum from knowing.
On the other hand, circumstances surrounding his killings are so hideous its announcement would break even a hale being. At first, it was said that Wisdom was caught in the brawl between the correctional officers and rioting inmates. Then, the most corroborated account was that he was beaten by the warders for no just reason other than ‘’they had the power to do so’’.
Worst still, his corpse has not been released to the family for proper burial 11 months after. How then do you tell such an awful story of a child’s death to a mum grappling within the gravity of life and death?
The story of his journey to the correctional centre was enough headache for the 64-year-old. It all started in June 2018, then 25-year-old Wisdom was dating Godiya Elisha. Some acquaintances of these lovers said the relationship had lasted for just a few months before they started having misunderstanding, which climaxed on June 9.
On this very day, he was in the middle of an altercation with the girlfriend then he seized her phone. Irked by this move, Godiya screamed, calling the attention of officers of the Special Anti-robbery Squad (SARS) who immediately took him into custody and detained him.
Wisdom was not immediately charged to court, instead, the officers kept him for about a week then transferred him to the correctional centre awaiting arraignment.
Against Nigerian law which stipulates that persons accused must be charged to court within 24 hours where a court of competent jurisdiction is located within a radius of 40 kilometres from the police station, Wisdom was neither charged nor released until February 2019, eight months after. He was charged with armed robbery at the Kaduna High Court.
Contrary to accounts of witnesses, which attest to a domestic fight between Wisdom and the girlfriend, the charge sheet reads that Godiya was “violently attacked while (Wisdom was) armed with a knife, which led to the dislocation of her arm when he robbed her of her Gionee M6 Mobile Phone valued at Fifty Thousand Naira (50, 000).”
Several attempts made by this newspaper to speak with Godiya were rebuffed on the excuse that she is now married.
Futile efforts at bail
Having escalated this much, Wisdom’s family decided to hire a lawyer to secure his bail.
“At a point in time, he told me he was having issues,” Wisdom’s elder brother, Cyprian says of the lawyer’s effort. “I told him you were the one recommended to us by them who we can bank on in getting bail, he said yes he can do it but there are many other people involved.
“He said I have to make the girl available to go and see the Director of Prosecution at the Ministry of Justice. When I made the girl available, she came down, we went to the lawyer, the lawyer took us to the director. When we got there, he (director) asked for the file, he asked the girl some questions that how and what does she think, what does she want and the girl categorically told him that she let go, she has forgiven him (Wisdom). He assured us that he was going to be bailed but after seven months, he was not released.”
Cyprian said the lawyer told the family his brother was only eligible for bail after three months but by March 2019, nine months after, he was disengaged due to his inability to deliver.
The family contacted other lawyers but none could secure the needed bail. Two other lawyers, contracted by the family, who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES, gave excuses of bureaucracy, judiciary’s holiday and inability to get a brief as the reason why getting Wisdom out of the prison was difficult.
The family kept visiting Wisdom and making efforts to get him out when the unexpected happened from late March to early April 2020.
‘How Wisdom, others were killed in Kaduna correctional centre’
A regular day for inmates at the correctional centre starts as early as 6 a.m. with denominational prayers. This is then followed a few hours after with domestic chores, most times fetching water. But March 31, 2020, deviated from the norm. Multiple sources recounted the events of the day to PREMIUM TIMES.
A fresh inmate, who was brought to the facility some few days back then started showing some COVID-19 symptoms around 10.30 a.m. on March 31. Coughing profusely, the condition of the inmate soon caught the attention of other inmates who suspected she had contracted the virus.
Soon, the inmates mobilised in numbers demanding the authority do something about the virus. Five days earlier, the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola had called for a speedy decongestion of prisons nationwide to avert the spread of COVID-19.
Worried by this development, the Deputy Comptroller of the prison, Ahmed Usman, accompanied by some other officers came to address the agitated crowd but his pacification won’t quell their demand.
“When he came, he saw people shouting ba maso (we don’t want this). He asked them to calm down but they said ‘no’. That was when he called the officers at the gate to come in,” one of the sources narrated.
Normally, officers within the facility only move around with batons but the ones guarding the entrance, who were called upon to quell the agitation used rifles. They didn’t hesitate using the rifles on the protesters. Soon five bodies fell. First three, then another, then another.
An earlier investigation by PREMIUM TIMES identified the five as Hammed Abdullahi, 25, awaiting trial for a murder case at the Kaduna State High Court 5; Lucky Ujokama, 24, awaiting trial for a rape case at Barnawa Magistrate Court 17; Ibrahim Abubakar, 37 awaiting trial for armed robbery. Yahu Salisu, appearing before Magistrate Court 21, died from gunshot wounds while Oluchukwu Oche, a condemned inmate died from injuries sustained from beating.
Prison authorities had then told PREMIUM TIMES 16 officers of the correctional service died as a result of the furore.
Irked by this confrontation, the officers became more brutal with their treatment of inmates and tightened security. In one of the brutalities confirmed by three of our sources, officers went on a show of force immediately after the incident. In doing this, the correctional officers, led by one officer, whose name this newspaper decided not to publish as his role could not be independently verified, used batons on the inmates several times.
“Wisdom didn’t do anything, he was inside the cell before they come and call all of them to come outside. He was a quiet inmate. When they opened their place, Wisdom was coming down, he was first attacked by (the officer with name withheld). Anyone who comes down the step must be given that heavy beating. They hit Wisdom in the chest, he fell, then started crying, they continue to hit him on the ground. That was how the guy died. He didn’t die instantly, he died at the hospital,” a source narrates.
It is not clear which date Wisdom died but the centre recorded it as April 5, 2020. It is also not clear how he died as the centre offered no convincing explanation.
In a notice sent to the Court 2 of the Kaduna High Court, the centre wrote that Wisdom died at the custodial centre hospital of ‘protracted illness’ but offered no explanation on the kind of illness.
However, on the death certificate sighted by this reporter, he was recorded to have died of ‘head injury’ due to ‘blunt trauma’. This was also recorded on the warrant for burial. Again, the centre did not explain how Wisdom sustained the head injury, the kind of care he received or how he eventually died.
Game of lies
When the news of the incident first broke out, authorities at the prison first claimed no inmate died in what it branded ‘attempted jailbreak.’
A few days later, however, the service released a statement admitting that four inmates died.
“Four inmates later died in the hospital from the injuries sustained in the melee that ensued while being restrained by the custodial officers from breaking jail. For the avoidance of doubt, all the deceased inmates were from the condemned section of the Custodial Centre where the jail-break occurred,” a statement by the controller of corrections, Kaduna State command, Sanusi Danmusa reads.
By condemned, the service meant only those that have been sentenced to death.
This again turned out to be a lie as at least three of the deceased were awaiting trial inmates. Hammed Abdullahi, Lucky Ujokama and Yahu Salisu and Ibrahim Abubakar were not condemned inmates as claimed by the service.
The statement noted further that an investigation had been opened on the issue. However, when contacted in February, the Public Relations Officer of the Kaduna NCS, Ahmadu Wadai, requested more time when asked about the investigation.
“We are still working on some documents. If you can give me some time, I can relate with you,” he said.
Meanwhile, the conduct of the officers was against the dictates of the Nigeria Correctional Service Act which spelt out instances where officers may use firearms which include cases of the attempted jailbreak, attempted escape when inmates use weapons against correctional officers among others.
Despite this provision, the Act only provides for the use of firearms with a caution. “The use of weapons under this section shall as far as possible be to disable and not to kill,” it states in section 20 (6).
Since the incident, the NCS has provided no justifiable reason for the killings and neither has any officer been charged to court for the extra-judicial killings.
No plea, no corpse
When the killings happened, families of the victims were not informed of the demise of their relatives, instead, the correctional service put out a series of press statement mostly false and full of denials.
Cyprian said he only got to know about the death of his brother through the news some days after.
“Around 11.47 p.m. that was when the publication came out. A friend screenshot it and forwarded it to me on WhatsApp. They did not contact us.”
If the explanation of the service was anything to go by, Wisdom was still alive when Cyprian read the news on March 31.
Still, in disbelief, Cyprian did not inform Felicia and Doris, his siblings. The following day, two people called Cyprian, the first to announce Wisdom’s death, the second to inform him that he was seriously beaten and needed urgent medical attention.
Despite the lockdown in force in Kaduna then, Cyprian made his way to the correctional service. He was denied entry on the excuse of COVID-19 but told that his brother ‘’was being well taken care of’’ by officers at the gate.
“I kept going there until someone now advised that I should get a lawyer that the lawyer would gain access to the inside to know his condition,” he said of his many futile efforts to ascertain the condition of his brother.
The family was not contacted until April 27 when an official asked them to come for Wisdom’s corpse. The family met, without the matriarch’s knowledge, and decided to retrieve the corpse.
“When we went, they now gave us a format, they gave us a copy of the format to follow in pleading for the release of the corpse.”
To retrieve Wisdom’s corpse, the family was asked to process and sign three documents: a formal letter to apply for the release of the body, a letter of indemnity in which the family must ‘beg’ for the release of the corpse ‘’and affirm that they held nothing against the service’’ and an affidavit in support of these documents.
Copies of the three samples were sighted by PREMIUM TIMES. The sample letter of indemnity, which the family considered most ridiculous reads, “On behalf of the family of the above-named inmate, we are pleading with the Nigerian Correctional Service to release his body to me for burial and that we don’t hold anything against the Nigerian Correctional Service about his death.
“We believe that he died a natural death.”
This letter must be signed by a family member of the deceased, Cyprian said adding that the service was eager to have the letters delivered and processed.
“That period, they arranged the court for me to go to the court to swear indemnity oath attesting that I owe nothing against the correctional centre before the body would be released to us,” Cyprian recounts. “The moment they gave us that copy, they started calling, they were frequent with their calls. They kept calling that other people have started coming for their corpse that it remains only us.”
However, the family decided not to claim the corpse under the circumstances to which they were held by the correctional centre.
“It is disheartening that someone is asking you to attest to something contrary to your belief. That boy is my junior brother, how will I go, because I want to take his corpse, you’re asking me to write to the authority pleading for the release of his body and also stating in the letter that he died a natural death.”
Meanwhile, other families had claimed their corpses, sources within the centre confirmed to PREMIUM TIMES.
A family member of one of the killed inmates told PREMIUM TIME's corpse of their relative was released after signing all these documents and payment of N20, 000. The corpse, the relative said, was released three months after.
“Before the corpse was released, they had to swear affidavits that he was not murdered,” the relative added.
Eleven months after, the correctional centre still holds on to Wisdom’s corpse deposited at the General Hospital, Sabon Tasha. Although the family had made some efforts through some lawyers, none has been successful.
In one of these efforts, Falana and Falana in June 2020 wrote the correctional service to demand N200 million as damages for the extra-judicial killing of Felix. In response, the centre lied that Wisdom is ‘unknown’.
Now, all Wisdom’s sibling want is justice, a release of his corpse under fair circumstances and some compensation.
“They should pay for damages and release the corpse of our brother to us for burial. They should bring all officers involved to book and let them face the law as the case may be,” a distraught Cyprian says.