By Romanus Ugwu
As the spokesperson for the Kuje inmates footballers, Delta State-born Ezenwa Arinze, would leave no one in doubt of the mental, psychological and intellectual endowment he is made of. Combining academics, football career and skill in computer maintenance and repairs were enough indicators that Arinze was a man on mission to greatness.
He was really progressing and excelling in his chosen field until August 26, 2008 when things went sour for him. The event of the day halted his upward movement.
While recounting the incidence of that faithful day, Arinze recalled how men of the FCT Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), arrested and tortured him before finally throwing him behind the high walls of the Kuje Medium Prison in 2008 . His claim is that he was thrown into prison for innocently reformatting what turned out to be a stolen laptop.
Speaking to Daily Sun when Rotary Club International Abuja Metro visited Kuje prison recently, Arinze blamed his nine-year sojourn as an awaiting trial inmate in Kuje majorly on poverty. He lamented that while he languished in the prison, the real robbers that brought the stolen laptop for reformatting as well as the person that bought the device are walking the streets of FCT freely after allegedly paying N500,000 to the security agents that arrested them . He alleged that they were freed after paying the money.
Blaming his ordeals and the circumstances that resulted in his spending nine years as awaiting trial inmate in Kuje prison basically on the inability of his family to raise the half a million naira demanded by the security agents , he recalled that after several months of selling their property , his family was able to raise only N170,000 out of the N500,000.
Arinze, a dropout of the Federal Polytechnic Oko, further expressed sadness over the actions of the security agents , alleging that even after collecting the N170,000 his family raised , they still threw and abandoned him to languish in prison for nine years .
According to him, it was obvious that Satan unleashed his ugly fangs at him while in prison when help for freedom refused to come from anywhere. He recalled how one Service Chief after another promised to intervene to secure his freedom after hearing his pathetic tales but failed to.
Quantifying what the incarceration has caused him especially losing the lady he was planning to marry, losing the love of his family members and sacrificing his academic and football career, he concluded that nature has been very cruel to him.
Going down memory lane he recalled the incident that resulted to his sojourn to the Kuje prison. Arinze argued that there was nothing he could have done than to accept his fate.
His account : “My journey to Kuje prison started in August 26, 2008 when men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) arrested me for according to them reformatting what they told me was a stolen laptop alongside the others accused of stealing and or buying the stolen item.
“After the arrest, I spent nine months in detention at the SARS where they slammed charges of receiving and reformatting stolen laptop. Regrettably, those SARS accused of stealing and buying the laptop left SARS custody after just one month and eight months respectively after paying the N500,000 SARS charged each of us.
“I waited that long to enable my family run around to raise the N500,000 but at the end, my sister was able to raise only N170,000 even after auctioning family and her own valuables. SARS collected that money and insisted that it must be complete before they let me off the hook.
“When it became obvious to SARS that my family cannot raise the remaining balance of the money they demanded, they heartlessly ragged me to Kuje prison around July 2009 and dumped me there. My sister and I pleaded with them but it rather fell on deaf ear and that was how I found myself in Kuje prison,” he recalled.
Narrating what he described as hostility with nature, Arinze recollected that: “Before my arrest, I had dropped out of my National Diploma (ND) programme at the Federal Polytechnic Oko, Anambra State when it became extremely difficult for my family to sponsor my schooling.”
“Left with no other option, I came to Abuja and started playing for one football club after another within and around the FCT. I am a talented football and was trying to survive playing for the local clubs but I could not make any major breakthrough with football career before I found myself inside the prison.
“I also learnt repair and maintenance of computer and laptops combining it with playing football. There was no meaningful job I did not do to survive and free myself from poverty. I was succeeding in my own little way until that incident of reformatting stolen laptop happened.
For Arinze, it was easier for camel to pass through the eyes of the needle than to come to the reality that he is a prisoner. However, the most annoying part of his prison experiences was the number of failed promises even from highly placed Nigerians to secure his freedom.
Sharing his experiences, he said: “When I finally found myself inside the prison, I had no option than to adjust and resign to fate. But the most painful aspect of my stay here in prison is that since my entry, it has been one hopeless promise after the other.
“For example, when a certain Chief of Army Staff visited Kuje prison and heard my story of spending many years as an awaiting trial prison inmate just for a case as minor as reformatting laptop, he promised to do something very urgent to secure my freedom but I could not hear from him when he left despite raising my hope.
“The same circumstance and promises exactly played out when a Chief of Naval Staff equally visited the prison. He raised my hope with the same promise to help me but left with his promise as I did not hear from him till now I speak with you. Like them, many others came with promises that were never fulfilled,” he quipped.
Arinze equally lamented that life has not only lost its real meaning to him but he has also lost everything including the love of his family, his football career, his computer repair skills and above all the lady he was planning to settle down in 2011.
“It is very difficult to quantify what I have lost in the nine years I was arrested and dumped in prison. As I said earlier, I was managing to sustain myself doing all kinds of meaningful job. I lost all after my arrest including the love of my family. You can imagine how traumatic it has been separating me from my family for these nine years. There are many of my family members I have not seen for those years.
“However, apart from missing my family, none of the losses is comparable with the pains of losing the lady I was dating then and planning to settle down with in 2011. She tried her best waiting for my freedom for some years and even visiting me here, but she could not understandably continue to wait.
“I was later told that she has gotten married. Even as I count her among the losses I recorded while in prison custody, I still have to wish her well because it is not her fault that I spent this long awaiting trial. I am sure she is mindful of her age and possibly the stigma of marrying a prisoner,” he quipped.
Long legal walk to freedom
Despite the harrowing circumstances he found himself, Nze Junior, as friends, inmates and acquaintances fondly call him, believes that the possibility of regaining his freedom is still very bright.
While lamenting that he has on several instances granted bail by the court, the bail conditions have however crippled the possibility of his regaining his freedom, stressing that poverty is the major contributor to the wasteful years he has spent in the prison custody.
Hear him: “For me, it has been a very long legal walk to freedom. The biggest problem Kuje prison inmates face is the failure of Amnesty International to visit this place. I strongly believe that many of the inmates languishing here would have regained their freedom if Amnesty has visited here even once.
“The blatant truth is that many have no reason been here. We have talents among the inmates. Some are good footballers that have played even outside the shores of this country. Some are good comedians, academically intelligent, and gifted in skills, yet they were abandoned to languish here over very minor offences.
“Our biggest problem is the legal system. There are some inmates that have spent over 10 years because of the slow pace of prosecution by the criminal justice system. There are some others that never had the chance of going to court for flimsy reason as missing case file.
“As for my case, I have been granted bail on several instances but the conditions attached are always very stringent for me or my family to meet up. It has always been such condition of top civil servant with fat bank account and owning property at choice areas in FCT. I don’t have anybody of that calibre and that was the main reason I lasted this long in this Kuje prison. I have always failed to meet the bail condition,” he lamented.
Directors of Federal ministry charge N300,000 to surety
Interacting with many of the Kuje prison inmates, they confirmed the trend of Directors of Federal Ministries and Parastatals demanding from N300,000 and above to surety the awaiting trial inmates.
They also confided in our correspondent that the court staff that equally take custody of the money are the main agents in the transactions, describing it as a trending racket.
Asked to comment on it, Arinze explained that the trend equally contributed to his long stay in prison, confirming: “I have been granted bail severally as I said earlier, but my family could not get any Ministry Director to surety me. It was later that the inmates led me into the secret of paying money to ministry directors to secure the bail of inmates.
“I was told that the transactions are done through members of the court staff that collect the money and get the Ministry Director willing to do the job. I have resolved to take that option but the money involved is just much for my family to raise.
“I was told that they charge as from N300,000 for inmates with minor offences like my own. As I speak with you, I have been granted bail with another tough condition and my family are now seriously running around to raise the N300,000 to pay to the director who will surety and secure my bail,” he said.
Ministry director denies knowledge
Every attempt to confirm the veracity of the claim by the prison inmates concerning the level of involvements of the directors in the thieving business, met a brick wall resistance, as many of them declined comment, while others who spoke on condition of anonymity dismissed such, denying any knowledge of it.
A director in the Ministry of Youth and Sports Development, who agreed to comment confidentially, only quipped: “If there is anything as such, I don’t know, but the truth is that I can only speak for myself because I don’t know about others. Nobody has approached me for such deal and I am just hearing of such from you for the first time.”