Chief Bisi Ilaka, a UK-trained legal practitioners and the Oyo Central District senatorial candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), in this interview by DARE ADEKANMBI, speaks on his experience, arising from a recent shooting incident at the palace of the Alaafin of Oyo, the ‘Sabo’ experience at the Agodi Prisons and the judicial system, among others.
What motivated your donation of items to the inmates of Agodi prisons?
Having spent a bit of time in that establishment, I saw that the prison which was probably built in 1894 not much has happened to the facility and its environs since it was built pre-amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914. The people in the prison have been by and large forgotten. They are inmates on remand as well as sent sentenced prisoners who have spent time under lock and key. There are no recreation facilities in the prison. Modern jails would at least have certain kinds of facilities. This goes to the heart of what the prison system is supposed to be. Is prison about rehabilitation, reformation, retribution and so on? I don’t think we have answered those questions as a country. Some of the inmates there committed no crime whatsoever. They have just been locked up. These people are going to be re-introduced into the society and therefore there must be some kinds of facilities for them to interact on a social level, recreational facilities for them to learn about sportsmanship, gamesmanship and so on. We should make them feel they are part of this human race. So, I thought that inasmuch as the regime can be quite inhospitable, the least I could do is to try and put a little bit of human face to it.
What are the items you donated to the inmates?
When I was on my way out, they said they had been clamouring for table tennis facilities. They said they wanted a little bit of sports. The place is a really small place. Even when they play football, they play monkey post, three aside. So, there isn’t anything in terms of sports. So, they did ask me for a table tennis and I gave my word that I would secure one for them and I did.
Whilst you were at Agodi, I believe you interacted with some of the inmates. What did they tell you?
The truth is stranger than fiction, when you listen to their stories. I met people who have been incarcerated for being at the wrong place at the wrong time and were picked up and have been languishing in prison for three or four years. I met people who said they were arrested for selling parts. I asked them what parts? Motor parts? They said no, that they were arrested for selling human parts. I also met some of the bankers that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) charged to court for allegedly converting dirty naira notes to personal use. I met ex-bank managers, chartered accountants and others. It a complete wide range of people. There are people there who have been remanded for close to four years. People who have been arrested by the NDLEA for selling drugs are also there. Everybody there has a story. But the people there are a true reflection of what our society really is. You will read some stories in the newspapers and you will think they are made up and unreal. But such stories are true.
I don’t want to believe you were crammed with the hardened criminals. Would you confirm if there is stratification of prison cells at Agodi?
The first day I got in there, they made certain arrangements. I was in a cell that had 79 people, but I had a bed and a mosquito net. This is as good as you get. But the next day, the Deputy Controller turned up as said I didn’t have to be where I was kept. I said I was okay because I was under the impression that that was as good as you get. In that room, there are a number of people sleeping on the floor. Within that room, there is an area designated as ‘Sabo,’ a place where the offenders and the ‘prosecutors’ stay. There is a rule book, a code of conduct kind of. I was told that the people who misbehave or have transgressed are summoned to go to ‘Sabo,’ which is, for want of a better word, a prison within prison.
Subsequently, I was moved to another cell which was quite different from where I was before. People say there is VIP cells and I was thinking if I would get a room to myself or there will be two of us in a room. But I did get another room where there were about 16 of us, 10 on the bed and six on the floor. That was as good as you get. The toilet and the showering facilities are in the same cubicle. In that room, there are some people who do various little services for a fee. There is no two to a room or a single cell. Even eight to a cell does not exist. Yes, there is some kind of stratification. But majority of the prisoners are in cells that occupy about 80 people in a single cell.
What about the food served there?
About the food, I said to myself: “If you eat it, you will definitely not come out of the prison alive.” So, I refrained from eating their food. I was lucky enough I had food brought in. I am sure you would have seen an American movie where you see cowboys out in the desert who get this kind of beans which you wonder how anybody can eat it. That is what they served there. But you can buy all kinds of stuff: bread, bean cake, puff puff and others. But the people there also improvise a lot.
How many days were you in the Agodi Prisons?
The total number of days I spent being incarcerated was 18 days and I think I probably spent about 14 days in Agodi.
What did those days tell you about the country’s justice system?
It told me that our justice system is broken; it is not working. It needs to be fixed urgently. The Chief Judges need to have reviewing desks that will be looking into the cases of people remanded in prison. If the judges are not diligent in prosecuting the cases, then the cases should be struck out. There are people who have been there for about five or six years who have not been convicted. What if such folks are found not guilty, who pays for those six years they have lost out of their lives while in prison? I know there is the Administration of Justice Act (ACJA) which is aimed at speedier trials, but a lot still has to be done. We live in a country where, on just mere accusation, people can find themselves in prison for two or more years. It is a throwback to the military era where people are locked up and are forgotten in prisons. People who are looking for money, about N20, 000 or N30, 000, for bail are in prisons. Agodi or other prisons in the country are unduly choked up by a lot of people who have no business being there. The penal or judicial system is long due for reform. Nigeria can’t continue to treat its prisoners like this and expect them to have hope and faith in the system and the country. It is a cold face of inhumanity of one to another.
While in Agodi, you won a primary election as Oyo Central Senatorial District candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Some would say that happened because you were the sole aspirant. But did you feel a sense of lost time while in prison such that you now feel you need to hit the ground running?
When I was first taken to Agodi, I thought I would only be there for a day or two. But it quickly dawned on me that I was in for a long stay; I had to quickly adjust my mental thinking. So, I delegated what I had to do. There were certain things that were pretty difficult to do because I had to be physically present to do the stuff. Agodi became a sort of a Mecca while I was there. People were coming all day, all night to see me. So, passing on instruction was not difficult. I didn’t really lose much time. I just felt I have been through the Nigerian boarding school system and this was another institution like that and I had to adjust. The most important thing for me was just another troubled time of my life. I regard my life as a process. So, I have to keep going through the process if I have not got to the destination. It will surely come to pass that I will get to the destination, but when is what I don’t know.
How has politics been since you got out of Agodi?
It has been pretty good. Our politics in Oyo State has always been in a kind of flux. There has been a lot of toing and froing and I am happy that the party in which I am, PDP, is the most settled of all the political parties in Oyo State. The reason for that is not really far-fetched. The clamour for PDP to re-brand and entrench internal democracy has come to pass. Across the state, our primaries have come and gone and have thrown up expected and unexpected results and we have had to deal with that mixed bag. If I thought a certain event would happen in a particular way and it didn’t. If I investigated, the locals will have a story as to why. Our democracy has progressed and inched forward. It has produced results which reflect the wishes of the constituents. So, PDP in Oyo State has done quite well and that is a major thing in the state.