Mr Olaide Olatunji, a photographer who was set free after spending 24 years of his life in prison for a crime he never committed, has shared his heartbreaking story. His lawyer and head of the Joint Legal Action Aids JLAA, Kingsley Ughe, shared his story on Facebook. Read below
I trained as a photographer but back in the 80s I didn’t have enough photography work to sustain me so I worked with my father who traded in cattle. My father was an old man so I joined him and I used to go to the bush to buy the animals. I was married with two sons.
That year, as the time for the Ileya Festival drew closer, we were going to supply some companies with cattle so I had to go and buy them from Niger state. He listed all the things that I was going to buy – cows, rams and goats. I left Lagos on the 30th of May, 1988 to Gwari in Niger state. I had to go inside the bush to select the animals I wanted so that I would get a trailer to convey them to Lagos.
Because of the language barrier, I needed an interpreter for the negotiations. We were in the bush when some policemen came and asked me if I was a visitor. I said yes, I was a visitor that I had been coming to the village for many years. The man said they were looking for people who ran into the bush.
I said I didn’t know anything about it that I was selecting rams there. Then they arrested me and took me to the police station even though the interpreter told them I had been coming to the village for some time.
The next day, the 1st of June, they said the case could not be handled at that station and it was transferred to the State CID at Niger. From there they transferred me to Ilorin in Kwara state. All the while, I never knew what they were accusing me of. After a week, some policemen came from Lagos, they said they were from the Anti-Terrorsist squad and they conveyed me and some people that were arrested with me to Lagos.
I was with N325,000 cash which I wanted to use to buy cows at Niger. The money followed me up to Ilorin but when we got to Lagos, I didn’t hear anything about the money again. The Police men did not give me or my family members.
PAIN , TORTURE AND TRIAL
They took me to Adeniji Adele Police Station, Lagos. That was when they started giving me hell. They hung me, beat and tortured me. That was the day I knew they were accusing me of murder. They said somebody was killed in Lagos and his car was snatched and they later found the car around the village where I was in Gwari.
The policemen said the people fled into the bush that was why they were looking for visitors around that area. All the while I had no idea why I had been arrested. The confessional statement in my case file, they wrote it themselves and forced me to sign. After that they transferred me to Ikoyi Prison and that was where they resumed another round of torture.
I spent almost 9 months there before they took me to court with four other men. I didn’t even know those men. They charged us all for conspiracy to murder. My lawyer told me to plead ‘Not Guilty’ so I did and from there they took me to Kirikiri Medium Security Prison.
SENTENCED TO DEATH
Four months later, they said we had a case to answer at Apapa Court. Osibodu Jaydis Babajide after reading the charges, they took us back to Ikoyi Prisons.The trial started in 1989 and it ran on for 6 years.
On February 15, 1995, Justice Da Silva sentenced me to death. I told the judge that day, “You have condemned me, but God did not condemn me.” My Mum, my Dad, my children and family members were in the court that day. I was transferred to the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison.
LIFE AS A MAN SENTENCED TO DEATH.
They put me in a condemned cell. It was hell on earth. They kept 9 of us in a very small room. That was where we took our bath, ate, slept, defecated and eased ourselves. There were no beds. Who would give us beds? By law, they don’t let any condemned man come out. But sometimes, they let us out for about one hour in a day. Life in the prison was very rough. There, I hardly slept. The prison authorities gave us food but not good food.
In the condemned prisoners cell, you wouldn’t know which day they will call you and just execute you. In 1996, I can’t remember the date, we were 9 in the cell. They took 8 of them out, they never brought them back. When they call your name like that, you know what will happen. They executed all of them.
Then, when we want to communicate with our family or our lawyers, we go to the welfare unit and write a letter. We must wear our blue uniform and they’ll put handcuffs and chains on our legs. Any time we wanted to come out to welfare, or clinic or for visitation, they’ll put the handcuffs on us. That was until 2002 when we protested and they stopped it.
I have been hearing of what has been happening in Nigeria. I have been hearing of Boko Haram, of Obasanjo, of Goodluck Jonathan. All the information we have there is carried over information, you can’t get the exact information. It is what they say to us that we will believe.
My brothers used to visit me. My parents died when I was in prison and they told me. I felt bad but I could not do anything. I just prayed to God not to let me die in prison.
Around the millennium time, my family members brought a phone to me at the prison but it was not approved. I had to sneak it in and we hide to use it. If the prison wardens catch anyone with a phone, they will send the person to prison inside prison. Real torture.
One day, something flew into my eye, maybe an insect or something. At the prison, there was no good treatment, no specialist there to treat us. My family members couldn’t do more than buy me drugs but I did not see any doctor for my eye. It got badly infected and that’s how it got to its current state.
WIFE AND CHILDREN
As a young woman, if my wife was my sister, I would have even advised her to marry someone else because no one knew when I was going to come out. I won’t advice my sister to wait for a man who doesn’t have hope of coming out. She has married again and I don’t feel bad about it. My children used to come once in a while but they don’t really know me. Now that I am out, they will know me better.
WHAT KEEP ME GOING.
My biggest encouragement there were the Christian brothers. They were very good to me. They took care of us, especially the catholics. They didn’t want to know whether you are an idol worshipper or whatever, they will just embrace you. I’m very close to the church now. When God does something for you, you just have to give thanks to God.
I thank God for Pastor Ariyo Popoola. He had been coming to prison for a very long time. He used to come and talk to us, preach to us, tell us that this is not the end of life and that we could become something in future. At that time, so many lawyers had duped my family, collected money and just dropped my case.
One day in 2005, he came to me and said he wanted to take up my case. Then, they used to call me Mr. No Hope. I didn’t believe him, I said he should go. He came back again after some months and said he wants to take my case. I said “is it by force, I won’t give my case to you”. But somebody encouraged me telling me that afterall, he was not asking me for money or anything like that. He introduced me to Chino Obiagwu, the Executive Director of LEDAP and Kingsley Ughe,the Chief Lawyer of JLAA.
When I met them, the first thing they said to me was “My friend, we are taking up your case and we are going to win that case. Are you ready to sign for us?” I said I will not sign with biro, I will use thumbprint. Then they said “I will give you a warning. Don’t call us, don’t send anybody to us. Are you going to have patience?” I said, “Is it me that you are talking to about patience?”
THE FINAL APPEAL
I didn’t even have faith at all. Sometimes, when Pastor Popoola came to prison, I would hide from him. The prisoners don’t go to the Court of Appeal, it is only the lawyers that were representing us. He didn’t even tell me anything and I didn’t bother to ask. Sometimes they were communicating with my family but I didn’t believe anything will happen.
THE CALL TO CHANGE AND GO HOME.
On the 5th of June 2012, they called me to come to the Welfare Unit to get the progress of my case. I said I wasn’t not going there. Some people that were sitting with me said I should go but I said I wasn’t going, that they will just be lying to me. Later I called Pastor Popoola. He said “Egbon” (Big brother), I said “wetin be dat” (what is it?). He said “o ti sele o” (It has happened). He said the court of Appeal has let me go. I just started shouting, I didn’t know what to do, how to thank him. I was very happy.
MY VIEWS ABOUT POLICE AND THE NIGERIAN JUSTICE SYSTEM.
The police are bad, they are not doing a good job. They are killing innocent people. Lawyers will collect your money, they will not do any job. If a person has spent 6 years on trial and is sentenced to 15 years, they will not count the years spent on trial, they will just start counting the 15 years from the judgment day.
Justice was not done in my case. Justice is for only people that are rich and it is not supposed to be so. Justice is supposed to be for all Nigerians. The man who calls himself a judge will see the truth and will not even listen. My judge was biased towards me and I don’t know why.
We still have people languishing in that prison. People that have spent 28, 30, 33 years. The government is not doing well. How long will somebody be in prison? Which time will he spend the rest of his life? Let the justice prevail.
People are changing there. A lot of people are becoming born again. Imagine, somebody who did not go to school for his whole life will attend primary school, secondary school and go to Open University there. Let the government come to the aid of these poor men. A 14 year-old boy is in prison there charged for robbery case.
WHAT FREEDOM MEANS TO ME.
Freedom is good. The freedom to be able to walk about, to do the things I want to do by myself. I’m not even used to it yet but it’s very good. I’m breathing different air, eating different food. Just these few days, my system has already changed.
I thank God for Pastor Popoola.God will be with him. I thank God for Chino Obiagwu, JLAA and LEDAP. Thank God for Pastor Barrister Opeyemi Baderu and Barrister Kingsley Ughe. They didn’t collect one naira from me, up till today.
The only advice I would give is hold on to God.Be patient and have faith. Let that person be saying to himself, “God if I’m a sinner, forgive me and set me free. Let the people of the world see your glory in me”. It takes a lot of pain, it’s not an easy task for somebody to be in prison.
I will still go back to my job. If the Government wants to help me, fine but I believe my family and my children will take me up. I’m very hopeful. The rest of my life is going to be a very good life because I am going to take everything so easy. If it comes, I give thanks to God, if it doesn’t come, I give thanks to God Almighty.