He gave the briefest of introduction: “My name is Yisa Yusuf, an ex-convict.” This man who walked into the newsroom uninvited and insisted that someone must hear his story was an acutely distressed individual. Sweaty and dust-coated; a notebook, a pen and a battered phone, were all he had with him. He doesn’t want to go back to prison ever again in his life, that was his message––and yes, he wants a financial assistance to start a farm.
“For as small as N500, 000, I can establish a farm that will one day become a major source of food in this country,” said the man who had spent 15 years in prison. He was sentenced to death in 1995, when he shot a man while hunting in a bush at Ilesa, Osun State. “What I shot was an antelope but it mysteriously changed into a full-grown man,” he insisted.
The lengthy interview that followed started as a cautionary effort to diagnose his state of mind, to check out the veracity of his story, to ascertain if he was just another crank or a publicity ghoul. And when the facts checked out, the objective then was to dredge up his past and distill from it some insight about prison life. A recount of his personal tribulation was an aperture to the life of prisoners on death row and the difficulty of fitting back into society after a long jail term.
Journey to prison
For the 51-year-old, starting life as a hunter was a natural disposition. He came from a lineage of hunters and farmers in Osun State. “We are great hunters and I learnt how to shoot [Dane] guns as a child. I used to join my father and uncles on hunting expeditions untill I became independent. I was one of the best shooters in our area. I made enough money to build a house in Ore, Ondo State,” he stated.
Life went on smoothly for him until he was 25 years old.
He recounted the moment his life turned upside down that fateful day in 1995:
“I went hunting with my colleagues. We saw an antelope. Everyone saw the antelope before I fired a shot. In excitement, we rushed to the spot to pick the game, and discovered to our horror that it had turned into a man. We were all shocked. But because my hands were clean, we took the dead body to the police station. The police even saw that its legs had not completely changed at the time we arrived at the station, yet they refused to believe my story.”
Arrested and charged to court, he was remanded at Ilesa prison for two years before he was sentenced to death by hanging. For 15 years, he languished inside the cell, first, in Ilesha prisons, later in Abeokuta prison and finally in Lagos’ Kirikiri Maximum Prison, before his eventual release.
Donkey years on death row
With hope that he could convince the court of his innocence, Yusuf did not hesitate to sell all his worldly possession to hire a lawyer, he narrated.
“While I was awaiting trial, my family sold my property to hire a lawyer; all the money that was raised was exhausted.”
When his lawyer, however, became lackadaisical about his case, he had an idea that there were dark days ahead. He found God–– “I had no choice but to embrace Christ,” he said.
“I discovered that most of the people who were coming to visit prisoners were Christians. They gave us food, clothing and taught us how to pray. If you are awaiting trial, you can hardly get good food to eat, so if you really want to survive in prison, there is need to associate with people from the church,” he explained.
He became a conscientious worker in the church, even becoming the altar boy in Kirikiri Maximum Prison.
He continued on the path even after he was sentenced to death.
“I am also good at singing,” he said. That endeared him to pastors who ministered to prisoners.
Being on the death row had its benefits, said Yusuf. How so? As soon as a prisoner is sentenced to death, warders start to feed him fat, he claimed.
“It was a horrible experience,” he avowed, pointing out the sadistic streak that made such altruistic gesture deceptive. “They serve you the best food and they remind you that it could be your last food.”
He detailed the harrowing part of being an inmate awaiting death inside Abeokuta prison: “I witnessed the death of many because our cell was close to the gallows. You would be sleeping and suddenly, you’d hear the priest praying for someone about to be hanged. It got to a point almost everyone on the awaiting death cell had been hanged except three of us.”
Before the hangman’s noose got on his neck, he was transferred to Kirikiri Prison in Lagos.
The feeding policy was the same––a large serving of food for those awaiting death. “If the dinner was rice, they’d give me a big bowl of rice and two pieces of fish big enough to feed four adults.”
Knowing that he was being fed in anticipation of death was cold comfort and that robbed him of the appetite for the sumptuous meal he had come to regard as “food for the dead.”
“What I did was to share the meals with poor inmates, sometimes in exchange for their own food or the special meals from the prison church,” he said.
Meeting Ade Bendel, Al Mustapha and Bamaiyi
How did he manage to spend donkey years in prison without being influenced by bad inmates? “Like I said earlier,” he reiterated, “I am not a criminal. My record is there. I have never been arrested for any crime except the unfortunate incident that led to my incarceration.”
Continuing, he stated: “In prison, you have a choice. Things are hard for an average inmate; to survive, most of the prisoners fall into the trap of hardened criminals who will turn them into notorious criminals, that is why the come out worse.”
He recalled prominent prisoners he met. One of them was Ade Bendel, the 419 kingpin-turned-evangelist who served jail term before his release in 2007.
“I was the altar boy at Kirikiri Maximum for many years, that was how I met the likes of Evangelist Ade Bendel,” Yusuf narrated, describing Bendel, real name Ade Alumile, as generous to a fault, even to those incarcerated in other prisons.
“He used to send food to female, medium and Ikoyi prisons. He also hired lawyers for many inmates. Even warders adored him because he was also taking care of them if they asked for his assistance.”
Yusuf also met Major Hamzat al-Mustapha and Lt. Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi, henchmen of the late military dictator, Gen Sani Abacha.
He had good memory of them: “They helped a lot of innocent inmates to secure their freedom by hiring lawyers for them. They killed at least one cow every other weekend and asked warders to cook good food for inmates.”
Released into the hard knock life
After 13 years on death row, death did not eventually come for him. Freedom, instead, came his way. How come? Divine intervention, that was the best explanation he could come up with for his freedom. His angel-in-human-form was Pastor Bola Olujodu, General Overseer, Carry Out Ministry, Agodi, Ibadan, who, after hearing his story decided to take up his case.
“He was moved by my commitment in the church,” Yusuf recounted, “and as a result followed up my case and took it up with the former governor of Osun State, Olagunsoye Oyinlola.”
His name was among prisoners granted amnesty on May 19, 2009.
Thus, after 15 years behind bars ––and 13 years waiting to be hanged––Yisa Yusuf found himself a free man, walking free on the street.
But it was immediately clear to him that he had lost valuable years of his life. A young man when he was arrested, he came out a middle-aged man, with no home or family to go to.
Stranded in life, he had gone in search of Bishop Kayode Williams, the Director General of Prison Rehabilitation Mission International (PREMI).
“I was amongst those that Bishop Williams took under his wing and nurtured to find their feet,” he said.
He stayed with him many years. “Since I am good at singing, I was always singing in most of his programmes. Bishop took care of so many prisoners and I was one of them.”
Slowly, he began to put his life together. In the beginning, he was lucky. “The first woman that I dated was ready to marry me. God blessed us with two children. She was doing well, so I decided to go and live with her,” he easily recalled this good part.
Then, he became a victim of the vagaries of life. When the state government embarked on demolitions of shops along the Yaba market axis to pave way for urban renewal, his wife’s was among the shops affected by the exercise.
Losing their main source of livelihood opened doors for calamities.
“It was impossible for me to sustain our family with the menial jobs that I was doing. We kept managing till it became impossible to pay for our house rent, so both of us agreed that she should move back to her parent’s house.”
We came to the crux of his story.
“I am currently squatting with a friend. I decided to tell my story because I need help,” he said.
But, he is not planning to live on handouts, he added quickly. What he needs, he stressed, is a one-off aid. “I am good at farming; if the government can, for instance, grant me a loan of N500, 000, I will farm, make a profit, and will be able to pay back the loan,” he articulated.
He went back to the refrain of his sad story: “I do not want to go into crime, because I was never a criminal.”
Said he: “There are many of us released from prison who are jobless and in need of what to do to survive. I want to survive by doing anything legitimate. I am not ashamed to work. Kindly help me; tell the world my story.”