One Nigerians but two prisons

Nigerians were angry that Cecilia Ibru got off as light as she did. Over the past few months, she was vigorously pursued by the EFCC on allegations of abuse of office, granting loans up and above an approved CBN directive and using depositors’ funds for personal use. At the end, considering her status as a hypertensive patient, she would spend more of the 6month sentence in a high brow hospital. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong in granting this very sick lady leave to get treatment in a hospital even before and after her trial, conviction and eventual sentence.

Nigerians are not angry that this sick woman is getting medical attention in a high brow hospital. They are not as angry, it seems that her sentence was light. No. The issues are much more complicated than that. Over the years, Nigerians have been under this delusion that we are a nation under the same set of rules and regulations. If you look at the papers daily, you see so many cases of so many high brow instances of official corruption involving mind-bogging sums of monies. Yet, when these people get arrested, investigated and indicted by the courts, they get off very lightly.

But that is not the case with the average Nigerian. You do not need to go too far to see that investigations and sentences for the rest of us who are the unprivileged many are much more thorough. Sentences are longer and stiffer, and the terms are harsher as well. We all know what happens to an average Nigerian who steals N200 or less. With nobody to come effect his bail, he is likely to spend as much as ten years in detention or in a cell with hardened criminals. If he falls sick, there are no doctors in those dinghy cells; if he is hungry [as he always is] there is nothing for him to eat. His general condition is no different from that of the Jews in Hitler’s concentration camps. While all of that could take place in the 20th Century, Nigeria’s prisons and the dispensation of justice are still no different from Hitler’s camps.

All of these is not fiction and neither is it faction. Recently I found myself in this unusual but very fortunate position of spending time in two of Nigeria’s prison systems. In March this year, I tried my hands on the rudiments of undercover journalism while I was some sort of an ad-hoc staff with the FCDA, in Abuja [the full story you get at a later date, as I am still observing and studying the EFCC and the police]. With nobody to come bail me, I was locked up at the Utako police station. What I saw there broke my heart – we were about 14 inmates in a very dirty room without beds, without drinking water and without any food. The stench from the toilet was like gas from a lavatory that had not been cleaned in months. But the most significant thing about that prison or cell experience was the people I met there. There were twenty inmates in a room for one – one had stolen a car, the other had attacked someone who made amorous advances at his girlfriend, one stole a cell phone, another was an employee who was duped with fake naira notes and a couple more were hardened criminals and armed robbers. Now, my understanding of the basics of the law indicates that even the law has no power to hold anyone more than 24 hours, and that if there is no one to stand as surety, the law runs its course in a court of the law. When I interacted with these suspects, I found out that most of them had been in custody for as long as three months and more. If they had been in police custody for that time with food, water, and beddings, perhaps we would be a little less concerned. But my dears imagine being locked up in a dinghy room for three months lying on the floor, without the decency of a private bath and toilet.

Well, I left that place in 24 hours [and how I left, believe me, is another juicy story for another day]. Less than two weeks after, I was to spend another night in what should have been the cold embrace of the EFCC. They too were interested in my activities at the FCDA, Abuja, and because there was yet no one to bail me, I spent the night in their custody.

It was a shocker of a lifetime. The EFCC were professionals working nearly like the CIA or the FBI. When I got to their underground dungeon, I thought, oops, this is another Utako prison, and I braced myself for the worst. The first shocker was the guard at the cell. He was so nice, too nice to the extent that I thought this was a gimmick to prepare me for hell. But no, he ushered me into a very clean apartment that could take 400 of the inmates at the Utako prison. But we were just four of us. The beddings were stacked as high as the ceiling, the fan was set at room temperature and there were towels, toothpaste and water enough to irrigate 50 percent of the farms in Borno State. And what about the toilets and the food? The toilets looked like any you could find in any five star hotel, and that night, a nice looking guard brought food that the Utako inmates could eat in two weeks. The general atmosphere was no different from what we see in movies about American jail houses and correctional facilities.

Sincerely I was shocked. I couldn’t understand what all of this was about. Almost instantly, my professional instincts came alive and I warmed and wormed my way to one of the inmates, a fellow who claims he has a doctorate degree. ‘This place is not for ordinary Nigerians’, he said. ‘This place is for Governors, ministers, political heavyweights, special advisers to presidents and for commissioners. Why do you think it’s so clean? You see, these people are already used to a life of comfort. If you take them to ordinary prison cells, dem go die o!’’.

I left that cell the following morning with mixed feelings. One was gratitude for the inside scoop and insight into two of the prison environments for two different categories of Nigerians – the privileged and the underprivileged. I know that if I had applied to the EFFC or the Nigerian police for permit to go there as a journalist to see what I saw, I would be turned down. Secondly, I left that place hating my country, hating the outdated institutions that dehumanised one set of her own people, yet propagated the ego of another. This was what Nigerians were unhappy about, about the Ibru sentence. I also left that place with the intuition that Nigeria was one huge prison with a very privileged few in luxurious custodies.

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