My Country, 6 Gates Behind: A Prison Memoir.
By: Luka Binniyat.
As about seven of us made our ways to the front, close to the bed of the important man who was puffing thick fumes of marijuana, we were greeted by both cheers and jeers from the older inmates in the manner good and dull actors are welcomed to a stage.
We were made to stand in a single row facing the little man with the deafening voice. Someone came and gave us a thorough search but nothing of note was found.
As the little man loudly coughed to clear his voice to speak, the noise in the cell reduced to the level of murmuring.
“Keep quiet, every bastard!” the booming voice hollered at the cell.
There was pin drop silence.
“Now, you the new comers,” he said facing us, “though some of you may have been to prison before, I still want to welcome you to this great cell,” he said and we responded, “thank you.”
“As you can see, this cell is congested and you may say it is dirty and smelly,” he went on, “but I want to assure you that you are lucky to be brought here,” he said. “Some of you who are very accomplished crooks and have been to various prisons will attest to this fact in this part of northern Nigeria,” he said, scanning our faces as if to identify the person(s) he was referring to. I could not help imagine how bad other cells looked, if we were that lucky.
He praised the big man for the ‘feat’ the way bootlickers inflate the ego of big men.
“He is the master of this cell and everyone must obey him,” he said.
“The day the devil wants to fool you or the Almighty wants to punish you, you will offend this man, and you will understand what I am saying,” he said.
“Folks,”, he said, “by your right is the boss, our master and Inspector General (IG) of this cell,” pointing at the important man puffing weed.
The master didn’t as much as looked in our direction. He merely waved at us uninterestingly. Then as if jolted by a thought, he asked, “Who is the journalist?”
I raised my hand and when he saw it, he said, “Baba, hmmmmmm! anyway, we shall talk, carry on Kakaaki” (trumpeter or announcer).
“As the IG pleases,” the kakaaki responded with an obsequies bow.
“The IG has no Deputy. He only has an AIG as next,” and a tall man by the left side of wall immediately stood up and shouted, “Hey, look at me here,” and sat down immediately.
“We have our Chief Judge,” a man perhaps in his early forties with greying beards stood up by the end of the cell and said, “ welcome” and sat back.
The Pastor, Iman, our two cleaners were introduced to us.
“And finally, the real men!” the kakaaki said, “let me introduced the men that you must do everything while in this cell to avoid getting into their hands.
“These men are the men who enforce the law. They have with full authority to execute the law, 97 of these laws in this cell. I shall read the laws to you before you sleep.
“Police!” he screamed.
One by one they rose to their feet from different points in the cell. They were twelve in numbers. They had truly mean features. Many had scares on their faces, necks and heads, arms and more and one of them was wearing dark glasses that night. I was later to learn that he lost an eye after a gun duel with a rival gang and a bullet graced past his right eye side shattering the bones and leaving him with just a hole in the socket. They left him for death. Then the police got him. He was from River state.
The ‘policemen’ looked huge, muscular and unhappy They were young and carried all the imagine attributes of gangsters.
“This people you are seeing are the real men, not only in this cell, but in the entire prison here,” he announced.
“They may be your friends one day, smoke with you and even pop drugs with you in this cell. They may even share a meal with you and even pray and play with you,” he went on, “but since none of you have wronged me, there is no reason to deceive you by giving you a wrong impression about them,” he said, “I swear by the Almighty God, these men are evil – undiluted evil as pure as it can come.
“Depending on the extend of your ‘sentence’ by the judge with the permission of the boss, these men can kill you, drink your blood, eat your flesh and bones and nothing will be heard of you in and out of this cell,” he said.
Though I had no doubt that the Kakaaki was hyping their wickedness and that no one could so harm any inmate to the extent of death and go scot free, when I once again looked into the cold faces and barrel chests of these men, I thought I felt my kneels shaking. It must have been so, because even in that harmattan, a drop of perspiration dropped from my forehead. A man next to me was uttering a prayer almost inaudibly in Arabic. Yet, these were the men that just had prayed with all the earnestness any religious person. What a place!
“Police!” the little man roared, “sit!,” he commanded and they started dropping down one after the other just as they had stood up.
Turning at us, he said, “now, people, who are you and what are your offences?” the little man who was now Kakaaki, asked , “starting from you”, he pointed at the first man in the row. “Tell us your name, your state of origin, your offence and tell us if you are convicted or you are ATM” (Awaiting Trails Inmate) in prison parlance.
In a quavering voice, the man said his name, which I cannot remember now. He was from Taraba state and was accused of raping a girl at a party. He was brought to prison for failing to meet his bail conditions, he told the cell. The incident took place in Zaria a week earlier.
“How old is she?”
“She about 25 years. And I am 32.”
“Bastard! . . . that’s not too bad,” the announcer said, grinning, “you will have a place to sleep here. Get to that side and sit before the sleeping arrangement later,” he said and the cell clapped happily for the rapist.
The next guy said his offence was ‘Jack and Booth” which in the crime world, as I later learnt, was burgling the booth of carsful. He was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment with an option of fine. He was from Bauchi State. His crime excited the inmates and they clapped for him too. The Kakaaki assured him of a place to sleep.
The next guy was from Kaduna state and was in his thirties. He was dark, had full hair which was well barbed and he looked neat in jeans and sweater. He could pass for any harmless person. He said that his gang was ambushed by soldiers after they went to rob a retired General’s house in Unguwan Rimmi GRA area of Kaduna where some of the richest men in Nigeria have homes. According to him, after they had successfully disarmed a soldiers at the gate, some of his gang members broke into the house but could not enter the master bedroom. Soldiers from outside in way he could not explained stealthily came and surrounded the house. After exchange of fire three of the thieves were killed, and four surrendered. Two of them managed to escape, but were later caught in Lagos a month later. He said he was charged to court just that afternoon and sounded confident he was going to get bail through his lawyers, as that was not his first time to be brought before the law for the same crime.
The inmates came shot of giving him a standing ovation. There was jubilation.
The story seemed to excite the important man too. This time he had finished smoking. He was sitting on his bed and watching us.
“What kind of gun do you handle,” he asked the robber.
“Kala, Pump Action, and all kinds of pistols, boss,” the robber said.
“That’s good. I though you have handled Uzi, G3, or AR1 and . . . “or words that sounded like that if I remember clearly.
“Yes, boss. I have handled even RPGs when we did jobs in the Niger Delta” the guy said.
“If you are from Kaduna and have been to Niger Delta then you must know Stoney. Stoney the Jumper!”
“The devil!” the robber exclaimed and beamed a smile at the IG, then he shake his head regretfully, “I know him”, he said. “They killed him last year. Those rogues – SARS” – Special Anti-Robbery Squad – he said with sadness. “We did a few jobs together around Warri with some boys back then. He made money, got Yar’adua’s amnesty with the militants, came back, got married . . . “
“You know him, guy!”, the IG said, “we started this work together. . . come over and get a cigarette. You are my man tonight,” he said.
The cell clapped and whistled and cheered and called the robber the names of dangerous animals in his praise as walked to the boss, shook hands and hugged. Then he got a cigarette from the IG, lit it and was told to move and relax close to the bed of the big man.
Then it was my turn.
“I am from Kaduna state. I wrote a story in Vanguard newspaper and government is not happy with the story so they took me to court and brought me here,” I told them.
“Is that all?” the kakaaki asked.
“And they brought you here!”
There was loud murmuring in the cell.
Again, the big man indicated interest and started raining unprintable abuses and curses against government.
“Baba, this is not the place for you. We are sorry. I will make the AIG to vacate his bed for you. They should have taken you to the Special Class cell. Habba! “ he yelled.
I was not ready to discomfort an important man and court enmity of a powerful man, so I politely declined the offer and pleaded that I should be allowed to sleep on the smelly floor like any other person. My wish was granted.
The next guy was a light skinned fellow of probably 22. He was averagely build and wore an ash colour captan and a skull cap. The fellow had been unusually nervous since he came up, visibly trembling at a time.
“I am from Kano state. I was brought here because of a fight between, eh, eh. . . eh, eh”, he stammered, “and one person died”
“Please can you upon your mouth?” the Kakaaki shouted, “who did you kill? Speak!!!!”
“A thief” he said.
There was an eerie silence in the cell.
“Are you . . . a thief, kidnapper, soldier, police, security guard, vigilante. . . ?”, the kakaaki asked in a cold voice that sent a chilling filling down my soul, and I saw the murderers kneels wobbling very badly.
“Vigilante,” the man answered very nervously.
What happened was the most unexpected occurrence I have ever witnessed in my life: All hell broke loose at once. The boss, the Kakaaki, the AIG, the police and what look like the half of cell yelled murderously, “Vigillante!!!!!!!!!!!!”
At once, as if by instinct, they rushed at him from all corners, trampling over us.
“Kill him! . . . slaughter him!!!. . . Strangle him!!! . . . No! lets hang him . . . lets feed him with our faeces first!!!” they suggested as they eclipsed him in total beating, kicking, tearing at him and pounding him in the worse possible way you could treat a most hated and most wanted enemy who happened to just walked into your hands helpless.
I jumped to one side and watched in total trepidation what they were doing to the man. I saw blood on the floor and they were still covering him in beating as he pleaded for mercy. Those who had not reached him, were pulling away those who had the ‘luck’ they could also partake. At a point I did not hear his plea again, but he was still moving, he was still alive.
What kinds of beasts were these? The more the hapless man was groaning, the more it stabs my heart. The more they seemed determined to kill him.
I then decided I was not going to watch a man get killed right in my front and not do something about it. No matter the risk.
There was no sign of a single prison official despite the loud uproar. The Prison authority seemed to have just handed us over to a more diabolical authority and left us to our device. The warning of the kakaaki then became clear to me. I however, managed to force my way into the fray and grabbed the armed of the IG and then put my arms round his waist and began to pull him out. He was now sweating from the macabre exercise.
Irritated at the obstruction, he turned sharply to land the person dragging him away a slap, then saw it was me.
“Ohhhh!! Baba Journalist, leave me alone. And leave here. These guys will injure you”, he barked at me, trying to pull away back into the killer mob. The whole cell was now on its feet making all kinds of exclamations.
“In the name of your loving and caring mother, please tell them to stop. . . If you respect her, put me in her position and please tell them to stop,” I shouted and stuck to him as if it was my son that was being lynched.
As a man, I know that mothers occupy a soft place in heart of even the most hardened criminal – even if she was bad mother, and thankfully there are few of bad mothers.
I saw some calm return to him. I kept my arms over him firmly.
He sighed heavily , then told me, “It is ok sir. . . it is ok,” he assured me. Turning to the mad hyenas, he thundered, “enough!!!. . . I say, enough!!!” he decreed as I loosen my grip on him.
The mob stopped and moved from their victim. His dress was in shreds and soaked in blood. He crawled and attempted to stand up, but fell prostrate to the ground. He gathered himself and tried standing but landed back and he remained that way. He was bleeding from his head, eyes, nose and ears and his face looked so damaged you would think he survived fatal fall from, say Kufena hills.
“Get back to your spots and leave the police here,” the boss commanded, and they dispersed to their corners, mumbling menacingly that the vigilante must be killed that night no matter what the Journalist saw.
I was to later learn the reason for the morbid hate bandits and thieves have for vigilante even far above their hate for police – their eternal foes, though at times, facilitators.
But could I have not also created trouble for myself too?
Could there also not be a conspiracy to eliminate me should this man die? Will the man truly survive the night as he bled that way and with more threats?
Can people really be killed in prison cells and nothing happens?
Is it true that other weird things happen in prison cells such as forceful sodomy of new comers?
Yet, it was just around 9:30 pm; and it was my first night in Kaduna Central Prison
. . . . . . to be continued. . . .