A twist of hard luck and misfortune hit Charles Umukoro, a businessman and politician when he losts his dear wife and was accused of having a hand in her death. However, fate took him to prison as an awaiting trial inmate during which he witnessed the terrorist’s attack on Kuje Prison. He narrates his experience to ONWUKA NZESHI after a court discharged and acquitted him of the allegations….CONTINUE READING
When did you get to Kuje Prison?
I was sent to be remanded in the prison on May 9, 2017. When I took my plea in the court that I was not guilty of the charge proffered against me.
What was your reaction to the decision of the court?
Well, I immediately took it as one of the contradictions of life. You see it is because what took me to prison had to do with my personal life, otherwise any businessman and politician in any society should expect that one day he will go to prison either by his own error or the error of others; either by design or by accident; either by acts of commission or commission because our rules can be changed at any time. You may have done a business with someone only for him to turn around to say it was not a genuine business.
So, we should expect that things may go wrong any time but not from this harsh and terrible aspect that I could be accused of having a hand in the death of my wife. A woman I loved so much and had never had issues with her. We traveled together most of the time wearing the same colour of dress. Even my little son, any time I buy him a dress, I made sure I and the mum wore the same dress. So, I had such a lovely home.
What was your mood the day you stepped into the prison?
When I got to the prison, I was thinking that I was going into a hole. A dark hole where there would be no light and I was thinking how I will survive for whatever period that I didn’t know. But when I got there, I saw that there were different sections and different activities inside the place. I discovered that the prison is different from the life outside. It is a different society and had its own systems. At first, I was thinking that I was going to be granted bail so I was trying to manage my life within the period I would be granted bail.
I knew that I was being remanded for a capital offence, by the police report, I was expecting bail. So, I was just trying to manage myself within the system pending when I will be granted bail but it didn’t work out that way. I had to actually key into the system One thing that actually helped me there was that I became committed to the work of God. I became an evangelist; I later became one of the pastors and we were receiving visitors from all over the world. Some came from America, Asia and many of them from Nigeria.
Missionaries from different churches were coming to see us weekly. When COVID-19 came, there was a reduction in these visits. After the global pandemic had subsided, the doors were thrown open again for visitors and we had people coming from ECWA, Living Faith Church, Good Tidings, some branches of Redeemed and Mountain of Fire. So, the prison life is not what you wish anybody but when you get there you just have to get involved in the various activities including sports to keep life going.
Where were you on the day the prison facility was attacked by terrorists?
It was a Tuesday; I was in the cell and I think we had just finished the Muslim and Christian prayers. It was about 10:00 pm, one hour after our evening prayers. We were all sitting and watching television.
Do you mean that as inmates you watch the news and follow developments in the outside world?
Yes, we watch news. So, we were just watching the news on television, gisting and also taking what we call “curing”.
What is curing?
After you’ve eaten your normal dinner, you need to be chewing some snacks like groundnuts, chin chin or if you have sweets, you can be licking them. You know, these are to keep your mouth and mind busy. So, all of a sudden, I was upstairs, then I had some gun shots. We thought that maybe the armed squad or armed wing of the warders in the prison were testing their weapons.
All of a sudden, the next thing we heard was rapid shootings again. Kpo-kpo-kpo-kpo-kpo-kpo! Gbim! Gbim! Gbim! Everybody now stood up and said there’s trouble o. These are not ordinary gunshots o. Before we knew it, there was fire in the sky. Fire everywhere.
The shooting became intensified. The next thing we heard again, was that people were already in the premises shouting Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! So, everybody in all the cells joined and were now shouting Allahu Akbar! Alla- hu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! It was then we knew that Kuje Prison had been invaded by terrorists.
How did you know they were external forces?
They were shooting at the doors and breaking the keys. We heard the rapid gunshot – kpa-kpa-kpa-kpa! Even one of the shots injured one of the inmates. So, they came to the doors of the cells and ordered us to come out; that they have come to set us free. They said that there is injustice in the system; that some people have been in prison for five, six or ten years in prison on awaiting trial.
Truly, there was someone who at that time, had been in that prison for 15 years on awaiting trial. So, they said those were the things that motivated them to come. But they came for their own people.
How did you know they came for their own people?
It was their own people who were even assisting them to open the gates and to open the other doors. So, when they came to my own room, I was kneeling down, praying to God to intervene. I was wearing a white jalabilah. They now said: ‘Elder, what are you doing there? We came to help you people escape; you’re praying.
Come out!’ At that time, they had already broken the keys to my door and I was now coming out when they said I should go back and wear a black shirt because the white I was wearing would expose me. So, I went back and changed into a dark-coloured wear. Before I knew what was happening, one of them came and dragged me out of the cell and asked me to run.
I ran downstairs and I found out that a lot of people were already gathered downstairs. So, we were now thinking what to do. But it got to a point where you cannot determine what to do. It was them that were directing us on what to do. We were all afraid because we thought they were going to kill us. Shortly after I came down, they took us out and started another round of shooting and bombing everywhere.
You mean they took you the inmates out of the prison and started shooting?
Yes. They took everybody out. All of us were taken out except for some people whose doors they found difficult to break. They were not more than 80/90 persons left inside. They couldn’t open their own cells. So, some of the boys, while they were go- ing, passed through the broken doors and the gates but some of us passed through the side of the wall that had been broken.
When we got outside, they said some of us should sit down on the ground. We all sat down. Shortly after that they showed us a direction to run to and escape.
So, they didn’t open fire on you as you expected?
These people are humans, my brother. They said they were not after us. These people were in full control. I’m sure they had their leaders who were directing them. We tried to run towards a particular direction, but they said: No, don’t go there. They said that side was dangerous and that if we go there, we would be killed.
So we came back and they asked us to sit down again. One of them came and announced to us: Those of you who want to join us, come to this side. Those of you who are already our members come here. Those who don’t want to join us should be here. So, some of us went to the side of those who don’t want to join.
I wasn’t part of them before, so I now went to the side they said we should stay. Incidentally, we were many who were not members and didn’t want to join them. They now brought out a bag of money and said they want to share it for us for transport. As that was going on, I saw many of them coming towards where we were gathered.
You mean people coming to join your group?
No. I saw many of the terrorists coming with more dangerous weapons. Some of them had rocket launchers while others had heavy guns and the chain of bullets (magazine) wrapped round their shoulders stretched down to their toes. They were shooting and those of us who said we don’t want to join; thought we were finished.
All of a sudden, maybe God intervened and they said come and take money and run. But in that situation, money was not my problem, so I had to run into the bush very close to the prison. It was dark but we managed to run. We crossed a water and after that I and another elderly man ran into a farm.
Everybody was running and some of the younger inmates were running faster and I saw that if one was not careful, they will even knock one down in the stampede. So, I just went to a less busy side and sat down on the ground in a farmland beside the water. But I discovered that the mosquito bites were too much. My body was hurting because while we were running through the bush, the grasses and other shrubs were slicing my skin.
About what time did you cross the stream into the farmland?
It was about midnight. I stayed inside the farm until about an hour later, then I moved and discovered I was close to a road. It was an earth road and I moved to the road and sat down again. It was there that I and one other elderly man slept. We didn’t even sleep because there’s no way you can sleep in that situation. Before we knew it, it was 6:00 am.
I now told the elderly man, let’s go back. He said he wanted to run further. I said, I don’t want to run because I have a family, I have a name and I believe that I’m innocent in the case that brought me to the prison. So, what am I running for? I have nothing to fear. So, the old man agreed to follow me back to the prison.
How did you cope with life in the prison after your return?
It was traumatic. Some days after we returned, any time I hear gun shots from the soldiers at the nearby security post, I used to be afraid; I’ll be wondering if they (terrorists) have come again. It took us some time to adjust especially when we were told that the police had come to secure the prison. I later learnt that that place they asked us not to run to there were mines there that night.
If we had ran to that place, we would have stepped on those land mines and it would have been a disaster. It was three days after that the Police came to remove the mines planted around the prison. Even that process was traumatising because we used to hear the sounds of what appeared like bombs be- ing detonated by the anti- bomb squad of the police.
The following day, we will hear that the sound we heard was the police detonating bombs or removing mines from the place. So, we were now asking: At what point did these terrorists lay the mines or plant the bombs? It couldn’t have been that very night they struck. It must have been done before then. So, it raises some questions about the nature of the security around the prison facility.
Talking about the apparent security lapses, what was the response of our security forces on the night the terrorists struck?
There were no security personnel in sight while the invasion lasted. Every place was silent like a grave yard. You know there are security check points on you way to the facility and there is a small military base opposite the gate. But on that fateful day, nobody was there to resist the attackers.
In the morning when we were returning to the prison, It was only one dead body of a Civil Defence man that I saw on the ground. Apparently, he was the only one who tried to resist the invaders and he was shot to pieces. The man was shot to pieces. We didn’t see any Army outside. We didn’t see the Armed Squad outside that night. We were just alone. These people were shouting Allahu Akbar and videoing us.
What about the warders in the prison?
No one was found while the raid was going on. They may not have run away. I believe they might have taken cover inside the prison.
What does this suggest? Could there have been a conspiracy?
If you say there was a conspiracy, you might not be far from the truth because ordinarily when you are approaching the prison gates, there are heavy barriers and multiple security checks. There are about three or four check points before you get to where you’ll be cleared and documented if you’re going to visit somebody there.
Aside from that incident, there is something curious about the prison of today and that is the access to phones by inmates. Did you have access to phones while there?
Really, the Welfare Department has a phone and an inmate who has a need to communicate with his or her family while in prison could approach them to connect with the outside world.
You were there at a time when the government said the prisons were undergoing reforms to make them correctional centres. Did you notice anything correctional about the prison?
Yes. There are actually correctional facilities inside the prison. But they also need to improve on the behaviour of the staff towards those they want to correct. If you want to correct a slave or you want to assimilate a slave, don’t remind him that you’re a slave. You don’t treat them like slaves because you have said that you want to assimilate them.
That is the difference between the British and French systems when they cane to colonise us. In the prison, you’ll still see some warders treating inmates like slaves. Sometimes in the evening, you’ll see a warder holding horse whips and driving inmates into their cells. I tried to preach to them informally, telling them to relate with these people because it is now a correctional centre.
I tried to tell them, not to be punitive, especially on those who were awaiting trial like me. I was not sentenced, I went to prison for an allegation brought against me, but I’m not a convict. So, the way they treat people, respond to people, the mentality has still not changed and I think that that is what we need to do.
Although there are some inmates that are very stubborn, most of them in that class are illiterates. I discovered that about 80 percent of the inmates I met in the prison were barely literate. You see, because you can read and write does not make you educated. Some of them can barely read and write. Many are school certificate holders or dropouts.
So, it is actually an opportunity for them to be corrected. But by the time you treat them like slaves, you know they are very stubborn, they become even more hardened. They are already disobedient children, so when you are treating them harshly, you’re also given them room to become more stubborn….CONTINUE READING