By Emeka Ugwuonye, Esquire, President, Eculaw Group, Founder and CEO, DPA
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 atrocities 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 weapon. 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…
To be continued in next episode