Citizen Okpaluba and the rough road to prison

First published in Hallmark newspaper

You may not know Dr Chidi Okpaluba. He is a young man who, recently, embarked on a journey many Nigerians are familiar with, but dread to experience. 

That trip is worth restating here. On Monday, February 10, 2014, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arraigned him at a Lagos High Court for alleged equity fraud. He reportedly deceived a man to buy shares in Quartermasters, a brand company he founded some years back. According to online media reports, the complainant claimed that when he demanded his share certificate, he discovered that the company was not registered.

Okpaluba pleaded not guilty but has been remanded in Ikoyi Prisons. The case for his bail application comes up on Wednesday, February 19. Already, because the matter is in the public domain, people have started passing judgement even when trial has not commenced. Our online lynch mob has called for his crucifixion, branding him a fraudster.

But I find it difficult to believe that this same Okpaluba I know could do what he was accused of doing.  In our secondary school days, we called him nkpuru akwukwo (a studious person). He rose to become the senior prefect of Boys Secondary School Uga, in Anambra State. A brilliant chap, he graduated with distinction in veterinary medicine from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and is also an alumnus of the Lagos Business School. He is a life coach and has handled some programmes for youths and the National Youth Service Corps. He has been the managing director of Quartermasters and Citizens Electronics.

I have a feeling that something must have gone wrong somewhere. I’m aware he took EFCC to court for intimidation and harassment over this same matter. The matter is still in court. The same EFCC has taken him to another court. Since the matter is in court, I will reserve my comment for now and watch as events unfold.

What worries me more is that there are many awaiting trial inmates in our prisons. Many of these inmates are innocent of the allegations against them. I particularly remember one Harrison Gwamnishu who has been in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison for months now. His case is pathetic because he has nobody to defend him. Somehow, I got wind of his story and we got it published in Hallmark last year.

Gwamnishu was a driver to a certain madam. They had accident on their way to Ekpoma in Edo State in October 2012. For this reason, madam withheld his November salary. Harrison resigned in December. Two months after, armed robbers attacked the madam. She suspected Harrison had a hand in it. Pronto, he got him arrested in Delta and thus began his long road to prison.

The police first took him to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Ikeja where they severely tortured him just to make him confess to a crime he said he knew nothing about. From SARS Ikeja, they sent him to Kirikiri to share accommodation with hardened criminals. Not being able to bear the plight of her only son, his mother passed away. His father is down with partial stroke. A lawyer and philanthropist, Chief Gabriel Giwa-Amu, decided to help him. As he put it, “The charge against him is alleged armed robbery. But by my own personal investigation and perception, there is no such thing as armed robbery here. But I think that is better left for the court to decide.” He filed an application on his behalf and regretted that the young man had been in detention for months against the law which stipulates that BPP advice should come out within two months. The Magistrate Court that remanded him based on a holding charge does not have the power to keep him there beyond 60 days.

 Even one of the robbers brought to identify him said he didn’t know him. So far, he is still in detention but has been moved to a prison in Benin.

The question is, what manner of criminal justice system will keep somebody in prison for years without trial? So many people are in our prisons for offences they know nothing about. I am not a lawyer but I know that something is fundamentally wrong with clamping one in prison for long without trial. Amnesty International has had cause to condemn this system many times. The organisation once described our justice system as a conveyor belt of injustice. Many Presidential commissions and committees had recommended reforms. So far, nothing much has been done.

Even, the condition of most of these prisons is another story for another day. Prisoners look very malnourished. Some suffer skin rashes. Some are down with various other ailments. If you have cause to visit any of these prisons, be prepared to pay all manner of bribes to gain access. If you are a privileged prisoner and you pay the right fee, you are given a preferential treatment. The place is an epitome of corruption.

This is partly why Nigerians in better prisons abroad dread being transferred to our prisons. Recently, some Nigerian prisoners in the United Kingdom protested against their planned repatriation to Nigeria.               

As it is now, Okpaluba and Gwamnishu are still sweating it out in prison. But unless the necessary reforms are embarked upon, we are all prisoners of some sort. Let no man call himself free until that day when the key locking the unjust criminal justice system in Nigeria is unlocked.    

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1 Comment »

  1. 1
    Curtisglak Says:

    acrwaal


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