“If the misery of the poor be caused, not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin,” says Charles Darwin, the world-acclaimed evolutionist in his book, Voyage of the Beagle.
Of such is the misery that the 57-year-old Olaide Olatunji, livestock trader from Ogun State, went through, starting from May 30, 1988 to June 5, 2012 when he miraculously regained his freedom, practically snatched from the jaws of death by the concerted efforts of human rights lawyers, after being unjustly sentenced to death. His ordeal however was not caused by the laws of nature, but by the police.
With what Olatunji passed through leading to, not only the loss of his dear wife to another man, of his parents to heartbreak, of his health and dignity, of one of his eyes to infection, but also to a near-loss of his precious life, it will be difficult to convince him that with a ‘friend’ like the police, he needs to look far to locate an enemy. If what transpired between him and the institution within those years of suffering and agony is anything to go by, then what they did to him, the sufferings and anguish they made him go through, qualifies to be described as the greatest of all injustices.
A photographer by training, he however decided to follow his father’s footstep as a trader in livestock when nothing much was coming in from his business of camera manipulation. He was a good apprentice to his father and at the same time a good husband to his ex-wife and a wonderful father to his children who were barely old enough to pronounce their own names at the time police railroaded him into condemned people cell at Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison.
His sin: he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He shared his story for the first time, after the incident, with Saturday Sun. Please, read below his sad narrative.
My journey to detention, torture, imprisonment and death sentence
“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.
“It all started on May 30, 1988. As the Ileya Festival was approaching we decided to supply some companies with cattle, which meant that I had to go and buy them from Niger State. My father listed all the things that I was to buy – cows, rams, and goats. I left Lagos to Gwari in Niger State. I had to go inside the bush to select the animals I wanted and get a trailer to convey them to Lagos.
“But because of the language barrier, I usually use an interpreter to do the business negotiations. As were doing that in the bush, some policemen came and asked me if I was a visitor. I said yes, but added that I had been coming to the village for many years. The interpreter said they were looking for people who ran into the bush. I told them that I didn’t know anything about it, that I was selecting rams and goats there. But all the same 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.
“Two days after, on June 1, they said the case could not be handled at that station and it was transferred to the State CID at Minna. 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-Terrorism Squad and they conveyed me and some people that were arrested with me to Lagos.
“I was with N325, 000 cash. The money followed me up to Ilorin but when we got to Lagos, I didn’t hear anything about the money any more. The policemen did not give it to me or to my family members. Instead, they took me to Adeniji Adele Police Station, Lagos. That was when they started giving me hell. They hung me upside down, 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 was 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 nine 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. Four months later, they said we had a case to answer at Apapa Court. After reading the charges, they took us back to Ikoyi Prisons. The trial started in 1989 and ran for six years. On February 15, 1995, Justice Da Silva sentenced me to death. In tears, I told him that day: ‘You have condemned me, but God did not condemn me.’ My mum, dad, children and family members were in the court that day.”
Life while awaiting execution
“From there, I was transferred to the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison. They put me in a condemned cell. It was hell on earth. They kept nine of us in a very small room. That was where we took our bath, ate, slept, and defecated. 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 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 actual date now we were nine in the cell. They took eight of us out, they never brought them back. Whenever they call your name like that, you know what will happen. They executed all of them.
“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 would put handcuffs and chains on our legs. Any time we wanted to come out to Welfare, or Clinic or for visitation, they would put the handcuffs on us. That was until 2002 when we protested and they stopped it. While in there, I used to hear about what has been happening in Nigeria. I heard about Boko Haram, Obasanjo, Goodluck Jonathan. All the information we had was second-hand; you can’t get the exact information. My brothers used to visit me. My parents died from heartbreak while I was in prison and they told me about it. I felt bad but I could not do anything. I just prayed to God not to let me die in prison.
“One day, something flew into my eye, maybe an insect or something. In the prison, there is 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 remarries after waiting in vain
“In the course of it all, my wife, having lost hope of seeing me alive again after being sentenced to death, decided to remarry. I don’t blame her. If my wife were my sister, I would have advised her to marry someone else because no one knew I would come out alive. Even myself, I lost all hope after the death sentence. I won’t advise my sister to wait for a man who doesn’t have any hope of coming out alive. She remarried 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 know me better.”
Encouragement and hope reawakened
“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 just embrace you. I’m very close to the church now. When God does something for you, you just have to give thanks to Him. 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 up my case. I said: ‘Is it by force? I won’t give my case to you.’ But somebody encouraged me telling me that after all, he was not asking me for money or anything like that. Thereafter, he introduced me to Chino Obiagwu, the Executive Director of LEDAP (Legal Defence and Assistance Project) and Kingsley Ughe, the Chief Lawyer of JLAA (Joint Legal Action Aid).
“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 a biro. I will use thumbprint. Then they said: ‘We 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?’ I didn’t 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 would happen.”
Freedom at last
“On June 5, 2012, they called me to come to the Welfare Unit to update me on the progress of my case. I said I would not go there. Some people that were sitting with me said I should go but I said I wasn’t going, insisting that they were 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 ordered my released. I just started shouting. I didn’t know what to do, how to thank him. I was just very happy.
“Now that I have regained my freedom, I will still go back to my job. If government wants to help me, fine, but I believe my family and my children will take up my case. I’m very hopeful. The rest of my life is going to be a very good one because I am going to take everything easy. If the government help comes, I give thanks to God. If it doesn’t come, I give thanks to God Almighty.”