BY IKECHUKWU NNOCHIRI
A shaft of pain knifed through his facial contours as he recounted the grisly experiences he had in prison for more than 23 years.
Prior to 1989, Calistus Ike had dreamt of becoming a very successful business man.
Little did he know that he was going to spend seven years as an awaiting trial inmate and another 16 years on the death row.
As the first son and bread winner of his family at that time, Ike, had all his dreams quashed after he was sentenced to death following his refusal to pay N200 bribe to the policeman that investigated an allegation against him.
Luck however shone on him when through the intervention of a France- based human right group, Avocats Sans Frontieres, ASFF, also known as ‘Lawyers Without Borders France’, the Edo state government, pardoned him and approved his release from prison in 2012.
Reliving the harrowing times he had in jail and circumstances that led to his conviction with Saturday Vanguard, this disconsolate erstwhile death row inmate, insisted that he was innocent of the allegation that left him at the mercy of the hang-man, even as he called for a total overhaul of the criminal justice system in Nigeria.
Describing himself as a “lucky-survivor”, Ike, who is now in his early fifties, stressed that so many innocent Nigerians are currently languishing in various prison facilities across the federation.
“The unfortunate thing is that some of the people I left in prison did not even have a case-file. Some of them had stayed as ‘awaiting-trial’ inmates for more than 10 years”, he lamented.
Narrating the story of his life, Ike said: “It happened to me in the year 1989. I was resident in Benin, the Edo state capital. There was a man that lived in the same compound with me. His wife had stomach problem and he asked me to lead him to somewhere to collect a root(herbal medicine) for his wife.
”We went there about 5pm. After escorting him to the place where he collected the medicine, I returned to my house.
”The next day, I went to do my business. I did not know that the same man had engaged police to look for me and the other man that gave him the root, a man I didn’t even know. When I heard that police came to look for me, I inquired about the station they came from and went there myself. ”I reported myself and asked why they came to look for me.
They told me that there was an allegation that I conspired with the man we collected medicine from his house and broke into my neighbour’s house- who was the same man I accompanied to get the roots for his wife- and stole his properties.
”I never knew that they had equally arrested the man that gave us the root.
Thereafter, the policeman handling the case insisted that I must write a confessional statement otherwise he would deal with me. I refused to write anything. I told him that I would only narrate the exact thing that happened.
”It was at that juncture that he started beating me with ‘Koboko’. He flogged me mercilessly that day. I was tortured until the D.P.O in charge of the station asked him to stop and just take my statement.
”After I gave them my statement, the same policeman that flogged me, came back and said that he could not find any evidence to pin the alleged crime on me. He said that he had concluded all the investigations and found nothing against me.
”However, he said I should give him N200 so that he would drop the case and allow me to go home. Remember, we are talking about 1989. As at that time, that amount was big money to me.
So, I told him I had no such money to give out. I stood my ground that I was innocent of the charge and even asked them to take me to court if indeed they thought that I had a case to answer.
”Within two days, the policeman took the matter to court. We went to court, at the Magistrate court, the policeman freed the other man I was accused with and pinned the whole charge on me.
”From the Magistrate court, he took me to the Military Tribunal where the case changed overnight.
From the original allegation of ‘burglary and theft’, I was charged with armed robbery.
”Whereas the Policeman and that my compound man whose properties were allegedly stolen, as well as his wife, testified before Tribunal, I had no one to testify for me. I was left with only God and no one else.
”After a long run of the trial, I was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime I never committed or even imagined. I never for once had such dream for my life, but I was condemned to death.
”Nonetheless, my faith in God never wavered, I kept asking him to vindicate me. I was in death sentence cell in Edo state for over 14 years. After then, I was transferred to Enugu prison.
”One day, I was there, inside the prison with other inmates when information got to me that there were some people from France that were helping inmates in Benin prison. I quickly called my brother and asked him to take my plight to those people, maybe they could help me to regain my freedom.
”By the special grace of God, within three months, I was let loose from the grip of the wicked of this world and I thank God for it. What I however want Nigerians to know is that there is great level of injustice in our judiciary and because of that, many innocent people have died for crimes they never committed.
”Some of our lawyers are not helping matters. All they are interested in is money. Some cases they know they don’t have the capacity to handle they will just force themselves into them and their clients will be condemned and killed.
”Before my very eyes, I witnessed executions that took the lives of over 48 young and energetic men and women . It is a painful thing to experience.
”I was released in 2012. After I was arrested in 1989, I stayed as awaiting trial inmate for seven years, and stayed on death row for 16 years.
”My case did not go up to the Supreme Court. It was tried by the military tribunal so I didn’t even have the opportunity to go on appeal.
”My experience in the prison was very traumatic. That place is hell on earth! Some of the prison warders are very wicked- even though there are some good ones too. The bad ones are tormentors. They torment inmates at will.
”The food inside there is nothing to write home about. Roofs of some of the cells leak badly when it rains.
Getting good medication is rather a luxury too big to imagine, except in critical cases or upon an order of the court.
In the prison, every inmate is left to his own fate. Inmates are suffering badly even the awaiting trial inmates too.
”It hurts me when I see them on TV claiming that they are reforming the prisons. I am telling you today that they are doing nothing. Anyone that is so convinced that our prisons are better now should volunteer and spend a weekend inside any of our prisons. The hardship inside there is better imagined than experienced.
I saw hell!
”If the government gets up now and say they are reforming prisons, they are doing nothing! I am saying this because I experienced it for 16 years on the death row”.
There is no doubt that it is the case of men like Ike that has continued to sustain the debate for the abolition of the death penalty in Nigeria, in view of the seeming legal loopholes that have made the call justifiable.
In a recent conference it held in conjunction with the European Union, EU, in Abuja over the swelling number of inmates facing the capital punishment in Nigeria, the ASFF, said it had since 2011, launched a project with the aim of restricting the pronouncement of capital punishment in the Nigerian justice system.
The ‘Saving Lives’ project which is being run in partnership with the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, and Access to Justice, has offered pro-bono legal services to over 140 detainees facing capital punishment.
The project is currently running in seven target states: Abuja, Benue, Edo, Kaduna, Katsina, Plateau and Lagos.
The legal manager of the project, Mr. Kola Ogunbiyi, said the group was able to engage prerogatives of mercy committee members in the target states.
“One of the cases that was profiled, thanks to our intervention, is the case of Lasisi Yusuf, a Kogi state indigene who had been on death row for over 16 years in Kaduna prison and was pardoned by the Kogi state governor. So far, out of the 19 requests tendered before the committee, seven have been granted.
“In recent times, specifically in May 2014, ASFF set a precedence in the enforcement of the rights of detainees on death row in the case of Maimuna Abdulmummi and Thankgod Ebhos.
“Maimuna Abdulmumini was a child bride who was alleged to have killed her husband at the age of 13. She was tried and sentenced to death by a Katsina state high court. ASFF was able to secure judgment for Maimuna at the ECOWAS community court of justice which ordered that she be awarded damages for the violation of her rights as contained in regional and international legal laws.
“Thankgod Ebhos, who was the fifth inmate of the inmates of Edo prison, had an order from the same court for stay of execution granted to him and the government was also instructed to strike out his name off the death row list.
“While these cases are far from over, it is important to note that with our intervention in matters like this, we expect maximum adherence to due process in the prosecution of death penalty related cases. In all, 35 inmates facing death penalty have been released on court order and 88 cases are still ongoing before different courts across the target states.
“We are not saying that someone who committed an offence should not be punished, our argument is that the execution of death penalty will never be a solution or serve as a deterrent. We also know that some innocent persons have been erroneously tried and executed.
“90 per cent of cases in criminal matters are based on confessions. It stands on record that it is usually the indigents, illiterates or ignorant people that are mostly executed. Sometimes, they don’t even have anyone to defend them”, he added.
Investigations by Saturday Vanguard revealed that statistically, there were about 700 inmates on death row in Nigeria in 2003. The number almost doubled within a spate of 10 years, with a total of 1223 inmates condemned to death by 2013. In fact, four condemned prisoners were executed in 2013 after a suspension that started in 2006.
More so, from 1970 until 1999, there have been 2600 executions in Nigeria, with an average of 87 executions per year. And since 1999, 26 condemned inmates have been executed in the country.
Research has further shown that 98 per cent of condemned prisoners in Nigeria are people accused of armed robbery and/or culpable homicide (murder). Legally, such offence ought to be proved beyond every reasonable doubt in order to secure a conviction. But how well this burden of proof which is usually on the state has been effectively discharged, remains a story for another day.
Remarkably, death penalty has been part of the Nigerian justice system for centuries, even prior to the colonial era.
We need not forget that the movement towards the abolition of capital punishment in the country started in response to the unprecedented rate of executions of Nigerian citizens by it own government under the military regimes that preceded and followed the civil war.
This unbridled usage of death penalty as legal punishment reached a climax on November 10, 1995 with the gruesome execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and some of his companions by the late Sani Abacha’s military regime.
That particular incident drew flakes for the country from notable world leaders, including the late Nelson Mandela, and also culminated to the banishment of Nigeria from the commonwealth.
In spite of the outrage that trailed the executions, the Supreme Court in December 1998, in its judgment in the case of ‘Kalu vs The State’, went ahead and upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty.
However, in 2003-2004, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, appointed the then Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Akinlolu Olujimi, to set up the National Study Group on Death Penalty- which eventually conducted a debate on the maintenance or the abolition of death penalty in Nigeria.
Even though the consensus backed the abolition of capital punishment in the country, with the result of the national debate published in various newspapers, yet, the status-quo has remained.