After his sojourn in the world of crime and experience in the prison coupled with his international exposure on prison and crime management, Bishop Kayode Williams, presiding bishop, Christ Vessels of Grace Church Inc. International and director general, Prison Rehabilitation Mission International, is no doubt an authority on issues concerning crime and rehabilitation of criminals.
His passion to help the country win the war against crime and criminality got the supports of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and that of the Nigerian government under former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
In this interview, Bishop Williams, who is also the national coordinator, Pastors for Integrity Initiative, Nigeria, spoke on his experience in the world of crime, his prison experience and why the nation’s prison system only succeeds in hardening criminals rather than reforming them. Excerpt:
It is very common to hear people arrested for robbery to blame it on economic hardship. Would you blame your decision to go into crime on hardship considering the fact that Nigeria was said to be far better than what we have now at the time you took to crime?
The time I was involved in crime was not a time I would blame my decision to go into crime on hardship. Mine was peer pressure. The kind of people I moved with led me into crime. It is not a palatable story because when a mistake is made, it is not always easy to correct. I got into the entanglement of smoking Indian hemp; I was involved with people like Ishola Oyenusi, Babatunde Folorunsho and Lasisi Ajibade a.k.a Dan Blocker, Balewa who was the most notorious Indian hemp seller in the old Western Region. These were the type of people that unfortunately remolded my life. I was a decent student in school with good parents particularly my mother and my elder sister.
How easy was it for the gang to co-opt you into their group considering the fact that you were very young then?
It was not that they really co-opted me. My prayer for the youths and every family today is that their children will not become delinquent and miss God’s purpose for their lives. The gang did not deliberately lure me into crime. I went there myself. I met them during the holidays. These things happened when I was in secondary school. I saw them and they beckoned on me to help them buy a packet of cigarette, which I did. I was given one Pound note and I bought the cigarette for two Shillings six pence and I gave them the balance of 17 and six pence. But they told me to go with the balance. That was more than the salary of my teacher then, which was 17 shillings. The whole thing started with somebody giving me a gift and I decided to go and say thank you the following day and from there, I started. They did not say take this Indian hemp and smoke, no. They were smoking in a circle and were passing it round. When it got to my turn where I sat, the person gave it to me. He was not there when I was given the money the previous day. He gave it to me and because I didn’t want to look odd, I took it and I drew it. I left them that day, but I wasn’t myself.
Can you recall your first outing with the gang?
They did not allow me to be member of their gang because of my age. These people are not like the types of young armed robbers of today who behave anyhow. Some of them had the looks of being responsible unlike what we have now. When you see them you can’t just say these are criminals. So, they refused me the knowledge of going into crime with them, but they wanted me to be coming around for the purpose of going on errands for them. And they did that very well. They tried to train me to understand the implication of what they were doing, but not by force. So, one day I ran into them when they were cleaning their rifles and their blood stained UTC axes and cutlasses. That was my first experience of seeing such weapons. When they finished they called me and gave me some money to change for them. I think they gave me about 10,000 or 15,000 Pounds. I think during their operation, they attempted to force the safe open with bullets and that affected some of the notes, which was why they wanted me to change the money. I met a banker who was living in our house at the time and he changed the money with a claim that I might have to part with some of the money if his superiors would allow him to change it for me at the bank after initial hesitation. He questioned me on why the notes were damaged, but may be it did not occur to him that it was bullet penetration. He went and returned with 10,000, I think; he told me they took part of the money just as he had earlier said. But when I returned the money to the gang, they told me to go with it, saying they only used it to test me. That was when the whole picture of who they were became clear to me. The major mistake I made which I will ever regret was that I did not tell my mother. I went back to school and showed the housemaster, who was a drunkard then some of the money and both of us became friends and went on spending spree. He requested that he would like to become friend with the people that gave me the money. I eventually linked him up with the gang and they used him as informant afterward.
How did you escape being executed with Oyenusi and co after your arrest?
I was not arrested with them. I was arrested for a different robbery case. In those days trials were not unnecessarily delayed. Oyenusi was tried in Lagos and executed at Bar Beach with Babatunde Folorunsho and some others. Already before their execution they had spread their tentacles to different parts of the old Western Region. I worked with people that were trained by the Oyenusi’s gang. Unlike Oyenusi’s gang that would not go for operations without killing, we were more organised. We often used the banker I gave money to as an informant. He was feeding us with information on companies that would be coming to withdraw money for their workers’ salaries and how we would carry out the operations. But when the bubble burst he escaped, even though his name was mentioned. The entire gang members were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
What was your prison experience like?
In the prison, it was not easy. Prison is a very bad place. Prison is a breeding ground for hardened criminals. And I have been trying to make sure that the narrative about prison in Nigeria is changed. The majority of the prisoners we have today, I am telling you authoritatively and by research, that 85 per cent of them are people that have been there before. Our prison system is a type that recycles. You release somebody today without shelter, no provision for his aftercare and no resettlement. You don’t expect a man that is almost dead to live without oxygen. You must put back something into their lives. Ex-convicts are supposed to be properly taken care of. During the period of their incarceration they are always ready to change because that place is not a place of comfort. But the story changes when they come out because nobody cares for them. It is not like that in advanced countries. In our country here we believe that when a prisoner goes out he should go and look for his family. But which family will embrace an ex-convict when he returns? Nobody. Oba Adedapo Adewale Tejuosho and I traveled to London, we visited Brison Prison and we were able to study their rehabilitation programmes. There, when a man is in prison, the children and his house rent will be taken care of by the government such that when he comes out the issue of accommodation will not be a problem. Then the children, because they are not the ones who committed the crime their father is being held for, will be catered for by the government. Welfare officers from the prison will have to visit them to see how they are doing together with their mother. But here, when somebody is sentenced to 10 years prison term, till he finishes his jail term nobody knows where he is and nobody cares about his family. And on the day he will be released, there is no record about where he is going. In Britain, they must know the area a prisoner is going to stay and monitor him. But here, nobody cares about them once they leave the prison. During our time, they took fingerprints of prisoners to be discharged and they will inform the state CID, but today who is monitoring convicts?
With you experience, one would expect that you are in position to help the country in the fight against criminality. What efforts have you made in this direction?
The first step I took when I left the prison was to visit the Dodan Barracks to look for Alhaji Shehu Shagari who was the President then. I came out on 2nd of June, 1980. But that effort was frustrated. What I needed then was one, accommodation, two, was proper rehabilitation. I later looked for people who could assist me and I met Chief Afe Babalola. When I met him I identified myself and explained what I wanted from him. I told him I needed his help not for myself, but for the generality of people who had been to prisons and those who are still in prison. He asked me what I wanted and I told him what I wanted was not money. I told him I have an idea of how we can resolve the problem of crime and help the prisons in Nigeria. I told him the first solution is to address the prison’s 4Rs. He asked me what I meant and I said reformation must take place in the prison. Rehabilitation must take place immediately after prisoners are released. Re-integration which is the bridge and then resettlement, then he agreed to work with me. I later wrote a letter of request to see Baba, Obasanjo when he was the President in 1999. When I introduced myself that I was from the prison, he welcomed me because he understood my language. So, I told him about my idea and Obasanjo accepted me and pledged to work with me too. He also granted me presidential pardon. I enlisted the support of Oba Adedapo. I was looking for people that matter in order to jointly help the nation in tackling the problem of crime. Everybody supported me when we started, but later we ran into the bottleneck of the Ministry of Interior because most the idea, to them, maybe they didn’t see it viable, or the minister in charge was not disposed to the issue of prisoners. But look at what we are witnessing now in terms of banditry and insurgency. Look at what the government spends in fighting these crimes including militancy. But these are things I can handle. It is not by the power of force. We can get them radicalized. I was a criminal, but God has turned me round to become a useful instrument. I have travelled far and wide and I have been taught by the British. I was in London on several occasions where I have been taught on prison reforms.
Have you made any attempt to get the attention of President Buhari on how his government can key into the vision you have?
I have written and I am still trying to take the opportunity of his re-election to seek audience with him. I wrote, but there has been no response. In fact, there was an invitation given to Oba Adedapo to see the president and I gave him some documents to give to Mr President and it was acknowledged, but I have not been able to sit down with Mr President. I believe President Buhari will understand my language very well when I meet to discuss this issue with him. This is the vision I have for this country. I have been able to secure the support of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. During the time of Baba Obasanjo, they wrote him concerning my vision and that was when Obasanjo appointed me as a member of Presidential Committee on Prison Reforms and Rehabilitation. The United Nations Office on Drug and Crime under the leadership of Paul Sally agreed to pay a counterpart funding of N4 billion while the Nigerian government was to pay N3 billion which former President Obasanjo approved and asked the then Minister of Finance, Okonjo-Iweala to release the money. I still have a copy of the letter with me. But because the money was approved towards the tail end of Obasanjo administration, it became very difficult to proceed with the programme. And efforts to get successive administrations key into it failed. We are seriously trying now to renew our working relationship with the current country representative of UNODC. This is why I am seeking the attention of President Buhari, who I believe like for President Obasanjo, will welcome the idea.