Thirty-year-old Peace Ugochukwu left Abakaliki for Lagos, Nigeria’s trading nerve, to earn money seven years ago, but landed in Ikoyi Prison for a crime he knew nothing about.
On August 26, 2019, Ugochukwu was at a relaxation centre in the Ijora area of Lagos when a suspect joined the team of young people there. A few minutes later, police officers from Orile police station ransacked the centre and arrested eight young people, including Ugochukwu and Ikechukwu Amanegbu, on allegations of fraud.
AN ILLEGAL DETENTION OF ALMOST TWO YEARS
Recalling his journey to police custody, Ugochukwu told FIJ that he left Abakaliki, the capital of Ebonyi State, in 2014, after his father handed him over to Michael Esene, so he could learn a trade in Lagos.
“I stayed in Mr Michael’s house for some time before he handed me over to Bernard Edeh, his friend who is a spare parts seller in Lagos,” Ugochukwu said. “I was learning the trade at Iyana Oba when this happened.”
Two days after their detention at the Orile Police Station, three of the eight persons were brought before the Magistrate Court in Ebute Metta, Lagos, while the other five were released after paying N10,000 each, according to Ugochukwu.
“A guy just arrived at the relaxation centre and accused me, as well as others, of duping him of the money his master asked him to take to the bank,” Ugochukwu told FIJ.
“I called my co-worker at Bernard’s place and told him to inform our master of my plight, but my boss didn’t show up at all until we were remanded in Ikoyi Prison. There was no one to help us meet our bail conditions as other detainees did, so three of us were taken to Ikoyi.”
One of their fellow inmates regained freedom in January 2020, but Ugochukwu and Amanegbu did not get any family members to seek justice, so they remained there for 23 months.
HEADFORT FOUNDATION TO THE RESCUE
A few months after being remanded in prison, the Headfort Foundation, a Lagos-based non-governmental organisation that has helped more than 100 detainees get out of prison, took over their case.
The NGO that started as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of Headfort Chambers asked its lawyers to represent the two inmates in court. However, COVID-19, court vandalism after #EndSARS nationwide protests and the two-month Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) strike delayed the proceedings.
“All three circumstances held up justice,” said Juliet Akah, one of the lawyers. “Their case was opened before coronavirus lockdown, but the prosecutor was not serious.
“It is a great injustice if the court must wait until the prosecutor presents witnesses or evidence before the trial begins, as happened in this case. Finally, the case was dismissed in July 2021, a year and eleven months later, because of a lack of diligent prosecution.”
PRISON CONGESTION, THE NIGHTMARE OF NIGERIA’S CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
In July, Interior Minister Rauf Aregbesola condemned prison congestion in Nigeria. While opening the Osun State Headquarters of the Correctional Service of Nigeria (NCoS) in Osogbo, he revealed that a total of 50,992 out of 68,747 Nigerian prisoners, or 74%, were awaiting trial.
The story of Ugochukwu and Amanegbu is one of hundreds of forgotten cases which characterise Nigeria’s criminal justice system. Amanegbu told Headfort after his bail that he had learned a lesson from detention.
“Prison is for correction, but only for those who truly want to change,” he said. “Those who do wrong need to remember that prison is real.”
As for Ugochukwu, he may not be able to continue his studies, but he would soon return to Lagos to “hustle and become an independent man”.
“I regret that I did not have the contacts of my family members travelling to Lagos,” Uzochukwu added. “Mr. Michael, who took me to Lagos, also died soon after handing me over to this new master who did not care about my detention in Ikoyi Prison.”
“My family was unable to locate me during my time in remand.”
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