I received my last meal, given execution number 29 – Arthur Judah Angel
…Reveals how he spent 17 years on death row
…Witnessed death of over 380 inmates, how God saved him
Arthur Judah Angel is a self-trained artist, human rights activist, motivational speaker, writer and singer. He had spent the better part of his youth in the Enugu, Onitsha and Calabar prisons.
Today, he runs a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that is fully involved in prisons activities.
His soft spot for inmates resulted from his experience while in prison and today, he chairs the Amnesty Desk of the Nigerian Prison Mission; he is the President of Life Wire International Foundations that propagates the abolition of capital punishments in Nigerian Prisons, as well as chairs the The Good Man Home.
He relocated to Edo State in the last two years to build a retreat camp, where ex-inmates would be rehabilitated.
He narrated his chilling prison story to the Sunday Sun. Excerpts:
Why did Arthur Judah Angel go to jail?
I like to tell my gripping story both in graphics and real life just like yesterday. I am full blooded Nigerian from Anambra State in the South East; I was born on November 21, 1962. My father was an Aeronautic Engineer with RT Briscoe then, but was separated from my mother when I was young. My mother took me along to Onitsha though my father never liked it. I grew up in Onitsha in the midst of other friends. I had innocently gone to Otuocha Police Station in Anambra State to visit Victor, my secondary school senior, and friend who was being detained in connection with a fraud case. I had no inkling that the Divisional Crime Inspector (DCI) had instructed his men to arrest anybody who had come to visit Victor.
That was how I walked into the Lion’s den. At first, it seemed like a cruel joke when I was accused of involvement in an armed robbery operation and was placed under arrest. The police said my name was mentioned in an armed robbery case and placed me under arrest. I was detained at the police station for some days and was transferred to Idemili police headquarters where I was given the beating of my life. In the middle of the night, I was taken to a zinc house by a bush path where I watched the police officers flog a suspect to death. Out of fear of the unknown, the police made me sign a statement written by one of them.
They knew my name was not mentioned, but wanted to extort money from me, which I didn’t have. As I appended my signature on that statement, little did I realize I was signing my death warrant? He revealed that a lot of people had gone like that without committing any crime. I knew a lot of people in prison who died without committing any offense; I also know a lot of people in prison who were picked on the streets by the police, and they died without committing any offence, it is still happening today. Words got to my mother two days after my arrest; she hurried to the police station to find out what happened. The police rolled out charges of armed robbery against me and she said: “No, my son is not a ghost; he could not have been in Onitsha and Port Harcourt at the same time on the said day.” She argued vehemently and rained abuses on the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) because she was aware of my movement. She went home and sought for the services of a lawyer as I was charged to court. The magistrate handling my case dismissed it immediately and referred us to the Directorate for Public Prosecution (DPP), because magistrates do not handle armed robbery cases. That was how I spent the first two years in prison before my case finally came up for trial on February 7, 1986. My story is that of divine intervention on death row. It shows that it’s never too late until it’s over. I am like the biblical Joseph, but was about to die with a rope on my neck for an offense I never committed.
After 16 years, the prison gate that swallowed me opened widely and vomited me out to breathe the fresh air of freedom once again. When the presiding judge passed a death sentence on me after reading a lengthy speech, declaring that “the accused person shall be hanged or fired until confirmed dead”, something within me had quietly, but resolutely rejected that harsh judgement. With that declaration, three hours later I was put on the dreaded Black Maria, which took me to the Enugu Prisons.
It was a day of uncertainty and mixed feelings because I might smile home to celebrate or still remain in the deep bowels of the prisons. Justice Obiesie sat at the judgement and the court was declared open. The judge removed his white wig and exchanged it with a black cap and announced unexpectedly: “The accused person (Arthur Judah Angel) will die with a rope around his neck or through firing squad until confirmed dead.” For the first time, my Indian hemp effect seemed to clear off a bit. I have been sentenced to death by hanging! As I alighted from the Black Maria in front of Enugu Prisons, my family members who had waited anxiously broke down and tears flowed freely. My clothes were immediately changed with a striped blue and white outfit marked Condemned Criminal (‘CC’). I was given a blanket, a cup, a plate and matched straight to death row where I spent nine years and six months.
I have no regrets going through prisons. I saw the opportunity as a turning point in my life. Prison was a big school where I learnt a lot of things. I am an international figure today because I went to prison, it was in prison that I learnt how to wait on the Lord; true discovery of myself, my talent and independence were all the fruits of prison. Human rights activism for me started from there. The same prison taught me that trusting God alone can move mountains. I was thrown into the lunatic asylum where I did not close my eyes for five days. I praised and thanked God for survival in that place because when a madman kills an inmate, nobody talks about it. As a punishment as well, I was taken to the worst cells like a windowless six-feet square room that contained seven inmates.
We bathed and defecated in that room. I was also taken to a mini-pool where an inmate is expected to live inside water like a fish. But I would hang by the thick burglary and when the energy is no more, I jump and stand inside the pool of water for hours. When I saw the rate of deaths among the inmates, I was afraid and began to pray. At a point, I knew my prayers were not enough because I did not even know the God I was praying to. I requested a copy of the Holy Bible and in less than seven months, I read from Genesis through Revelations several times. On death row, I laid my hands on several religions except native doctors, but one day a fellow inmate by name Josephat Nwafor met me and in less than 20 minutes, he gave me a concise message that finally captured my heart. He was able to prove that only Jesus Christ can save me. Immediately, I knew my heart was on fire and I gave my life to Christ and experienced boldness to live a full life. Unfortunately, Nwafor died in the hands of a hangman. I began to experience new phase of life after my encounter with the late Nwafor.
New phase as a born-again Christian on death row
In a dream, I saw myself standing before a law court exactly like the one that sentenced me to death. The judge opened his book and started reading out my judgement and everything was against me. There was a man who stood out and told the judge that you cannot find me guilty here and the judge presented a whole lot of cases against me. I discovered those were the things I did before I became born again. Those simple things I took for granted which included telling lies, hatred, anger and careless talk. I also discovered that the man who interceded on my behalf was Jesus Christ who defended my case until it was 4:30 a.m. The judge became tired and set me free. At this point, it dawned on me that those found guilty were kept in a place likened to be death row. I started the journey back to my cell and at exactly 5:00a.m that was our waking up time in the cell, I saw my body and wore it like a cloth and then realized this dream was just for me alone.
Challenging prison authorities
After that dream, I became convinced that my case has been settled in the spiritual realm, and I knew I will not die in prison. I became an activist in prison, challenging the ill treatments meted out to prison inmates and also became an enemy to the prison authorities. Nobody intimidated me again. On a certain day, I told a prison officer who insisted I would die in prison: ‘Look, do not threaten my life so that God would not be angry with you. My life is hidden in Christ and Christ in God; I will walk out of this prison a freeman.’ I had another vision in which I was asked to begin to draw. Initially, I wondered how the vision would be realized because drawing materials were contrabands in prison. The problem was eventually solved when I started drawing with charcoal from the prison kitchen, using the wall of my death row cell as my canvass. Not knowing I had inadvertently laid the foundation for my escape from the gallows. I remember vividly my first drawing in prison which was a cowboy with a big bowler hat; on his face was a thick moustache and a big-size wrapped Indian hemp stuck in his mouth. I named it ‘Slydon Bayo’. My work amazed the prison warders. In no time, my fame began to grow. When an important personality visits the prison, his photograph would be brought to me to draw. Sometimes, the warders got contracts for me from outside like calendars, cards and portraits, and would pay me to do the artwork.
Creativity and artwork on death row
In 1988, I produced the sculptural portrait of the then Bishop of Enugu, His Lordship, the late M.U. Eneje, which immediately endeared the Catholic Community. In 1993, Rev. Fr. Obiora Ikeh visited the prison and I created a hand-made card that was given to him. He questioned the prison authorities for spending so much to produce just a card.
The Comptroller of Prisons told him: ‘The yeye boy wey produce the card dey here o.’ Ike insisted on seeing me and later brought his portrait for painting. Fr. Ike swore that he would never be alive and see me die in prison. He swung into action with everything within his power to ensure my release. I painted Mr Ignatius Abiakam, the Deputy Comptroller of Prisons, and he was taken aback. He said ‘anything that could be done to get me out, he should do because my brain should not be wasted.’ They brought me painting materials and encouraged me to do various paintings. My works were collected and sent to Dr. Harrison, who was then the British Council Director and they were exhibited for seven days in the hall of British Council. Cable News Network (CNN) was invited, Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), London Times, Amnesty International, government functionaries and media houses were also present. Some came to admire the works while some others came to see the artist on death row.
For six days people were coming to sign the register. On that same day, people protested and said, “we have seen these works for the past six days, allow us see the artist.” That was how the exhibition was brought to prison premises and I was brought out from death row cell in good clothes, but a pair of bathroom slippers. I saw people from embassies, government houses, media houses, CNN, CLO, various human rights groups, all came to honour me on death row. From that day, the prison could no longer hide me. My works made way for me and I became the most important inmate in Enugu Prisons. All my gang chains, leg iron and handcuff were removed from me. I was removed from the death row and placed in the prison hospital that was supposed to serve as the reformatory home. I could receive visitors at odd times, buy newspapers and wear my own clothes. Important personalities could walk into the prison and request to see the artist on death row. I was receiving visitors more than the Comptroller of Prisons.
This exhibition was as a result of that encounter and it came to pass after four years.
The name Angel
I became a big boy prisoner at this point. Some inmates would bribe the warders to transfer them to my room cell just to watch me draw. In any cell where I was, my numerous visitors would come with beverages, toiletries, and foodstuff and I would generously share with other inmates and that was how the inmates gave me the name ‘Angel.’ Though I had gained prominence and freedom of a sort, my joy was far from being complete. For starters, watching executions take place could be a traumatic experience. Each execution started with a court clerk reading the dismissal judgement before the accused is handed over to the hangman. I witnessed the death of over 380 inmates in the three prisons I served before I was released. My first experience is still fresh in my memory. A female prisoner was brought in from the female wing and hung in the gallows. I listened to her chanting ‘Abasi mbok! Abasi Mbok! until I heard the sound of the gallows, and she fell silent in death.
Date with the hangman and God’s intervention
August 2, 1994 was my date with the hangman. It was for me a day of unforgettable emotions. The warders came for a march-past and I was finally chained. I was given my last meal of Bournvita, milk and bread, my number was 29 on the execution list. I lacked words to express my feeling when I was served my last meal. That was the only way I knew my execution had come either by hanging or firing squad. It was that day I knew the difference between fear and confusion. I feared until I became confused. I bowed down my head and did not know what to say.
At 9:00a.m, the warders came to me for the final check. After checking on me, I told myself that unless God announces otherwise, this might be my last time of seeing these warders. I challenged God on a piece of paper and said “if you allow this to happen, it means you do not keep promises because you promised me you will save me”. God honoured and answered my prayer. I felt it in my heart. I saw Jeremiah, 39 verses 17 and 18 beaming like traffic light. I opened my Bible and it told me: “I will deliver you on that day….” After that, Jeremiah 40, verse 4 also beamed like traffic light again in my Bible…“Behold I lose you today from your chains that are upon your hands….” Till date, I do not know how my name disappeared from the execution list. That day alone saw the execution of 38 inmates in Enugu Prisons.
Freedom at last
The miracle was completed when God used the famous lawyer and human rights activist, Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) to do the final battle for me. Agbakoba was arrested on his way from Ghana for being part of 2000 march against Abacha then, he was brought to the Enugu Prisons and the prison was tumultuous that night when inmates heard that Olisa Agbakoba was here. I went to meet him through his window and introduced myself. He did a lot to see my secure and release. The morning of February 15, 2000, I was called to leave the prison to mean I have regained my freedom from Uyo Prisons in Akwa Ibom State. I traced my sister Rita Iwuchukwu, who lived in Enugu. I came out and boarded a vehicle going to Enugu and people in the same vehicle with me did not know where I was coming from.
Everything became tourism for me, including bushes that the vehicle passed. I traced the address and beckoned on a young girl to find out the residence of the Iwuchukwu’s not knowing that my elder sister overheard and shifted the window blind slightly to know who was looking for them. Lo and behold, I was the one! Their shocking scream and wild jubilation attracted passers-by. As far as my mother was concerned, her king had come out of prison. When I remember that I would have died with a rope on my neck years ago, and that today, I am happily married to Sophia and we are blessed with five children namely Amanda, Arthur Judah 11, Elizabeth, Precious and baby Gold, I bow down and worship God. My works are found in homes and offices in Africa, America, Europe, Asia and Australia, making me an international celebrity of sort. Who says miracles no longer happen?