NIGERIA ’S PRISON HORROR: THE STORY OF A DEATH ROW INMATE
Mr. Arthur Judah Angel, who was a death row inmate for close to ten years for an offense he said he knew nothing about before he was released. Mr. Angel is now an anti-capital punishment campaigner amongst other things. Photos by Kwapan Chijoke
May we meet you?
My name is Arthur Judah Angel.
You said you were a death row inmate, between when and when?
I was actually sentenced to death on February 6, 1986 and my sentence was commuted in the year 1995. I came out of death row in 1996 and served for another four years in various prisons until I left Prisons in the year 2000. On the whole I spent Nine years and six months on the death row.
What was the crime that took you there?
I was charged with the offence of murder that I never actually committed. If I should go a little detail, I was in the Police station to see a friend of mine who was arrested and I was arrested as well and charged with armed robbery and murder. I was first taken to Armed Tribunal, but there was no armed robbery. I had no complainant and I had no witness. I was then taken back and finally charged with murder at a Miscellaneous Offences Tribunal, High Court 5, which was in Onitsha then. I was given seven days trial, six days and the seventh day, I was sentenced to death. To me, it was not a fair trial. But, who would speak for me, nobody. I was lifted of Onitsha and taken to Enugu prisons. There I became a death row inmate in Enugu for Nine years and six months.
So, you were locked up or detained in Enugu Prisons?
Yes, I spent Nine years, in fact, I spent 13 good years in Enugu Prisons.
During you days on death row, how was it like, how was your daily activities like?
Oh my God, it was days spent in hell. Or should I call it days spent in purgatory. From the very first day I walked into the death row cell of Enugu Prisons, it was like walking into hell. I walked into in there like every other person sentenced today, but the moment I walked in there I knew that I was taken out of this world. If you have gone into Enugu prisons death row, my God, you would know that the place is not a place where human beings should be kept. It is still like that till today and they are keeping people there. We have 18 window-less rooms there. I could remember, I was kept in first time, in cell 11, a room of about 7x 8 feet. We were 13 inmates.
The toilet bucket was there and we bath in there, we ate there, we slept there, we defecated there. We did everything there. It was our world. I have the setting in a postcard that Amnesty International has sent to the members of the National Assembly. I did this while I was there. It was not imagined, but exactly the situation in there. We slept in there like you said in your story, live in death and everything about the situation is about death. There was death constantly in the air. Not like now that we do not have executions, in one day, I witnessed the execution of 38 inmates. I was at a time prepared for an execution. I was chained; I was given my last meal that was August 2, 1994. 38 others were executed that very day. Only God knew how I was spared. He was the one that made my name disappeared in the book. I did not know how it happened. But it happened. I died, in fact, every person on the death row dies every day.
How did they prepare you for execution?
I was chained four days before the execution day. The fact of the matter is that while I was there, if you would be chained, if you would be allowed to sleep in leg iron for one day inside your cell, you do not need to be told that you would be executed the next day because the warders do not allow condemned inmates to sleep with leg iron. But if the warders want to punish you before you die, or maybe, you are violent, they would just come to take you on the pretext that you have a visitor and chain you. Every death row inmate must be chained before he comes out of death row compound.
The death row inmates have their compound different from other inmates. Before you are allowed to come out of that area even if you are going for medical treatment, you must be on leg iron. So, I was leg ironed. They did a match pass for me. Warders do not do a match pass for a prisoners unless the prisoner is going for execution just like they do not use siren for you unless you are going for firing squad. All those things were done for me . That very execution day, that was August 2nd, 1994, after I might have slept in leg iron for four days, I was given my last meal. My last meal was very different from the usual meal, just like half tin of Bornvita inside a cup and one tin of milk.
It was a kind of thing a prisoner would never enjoy unless he is going to the gallows. That was given to me that morning with the costliest Bread in Enugu then. So, they prepared me for execution and the warders brought in their riot batons and helmets. I was actually prepared for execution. I knew it and other prisoners left me. For that four days that I was on leg iron, the warders were afraid of coming near me. So, in that four days, I died and died, and died and died again. I had over hundred dreams, countless dreams in that four days. At a time, I was even afraid of lying down my head to sleep.
But on that very day, 2nd August 1994, I cannot forget it, they removed 38 inmates for execution. So, I can tell you that my time spent on death row was like time spent in hell. Somebody on death row, lives not up to four hours every day because from 8 o’clock in the morning to 12 o’clock in the afternoon anything can happen. Once you wake in the morning, you do not bath, you just wash your face, if you are allowed to have a cup of water. Those that pray would begin to pray.
Some pray through till 12 noon. After 12, we know that the warders would not be coming to pick anybody again. So, from 8 in the morning to 12 noon, anything can happen. You can be picked. So, then we lived from 8 to 12 in fear. Every day from Monday to Friday, most especially in the days of Babangida, Abacha and others, my God, it was hell. So, if you survive till Friday, my God, the Weekend was always our holidays until Monday again. At a time, the Weekend became too short because it would soon give way to early hours of Monday. Some times, most people do not want to live up til Friday.
I had a lot of my fellow inmates who went into melancholy, depression and they began to vegetate and within time, they expired. The sad thing about it is that some of them had their cases discharged and acquitted at the Federal Court of Appeal. But they had died in there. Frankly I must tell you, most of those people were innocent. The Police can frame you . Even as a Journalist, you can be picked where an offence was committed two days ago and if care is not taken, the police would frame you and you may end up a condemned inmate. We have a very shaky and ineffective criminal investigative mechanism.
So, the police can pick you, take you to court and brand you an armed robber. The police can even change a case of stealing to armed robbery. They can change a case of fighting into armed robbery. I saw several cases like that and those people died in there. I witnessed the warders battered somebody to death with their batons. I witnessed warders poisoned a condemned convict. These things happened in my very eyes. I witnessed warders framed up an inmate and batoning him to death.
In your time, how many of you were in the cell?
At a time we were 13 in a room of 7feet by 8 and we had our toilet bucket in there. In that place, you do not have all the room to yourself because we had our toilet bucket there as well. There was also this very pillar of about 2x3 inside. So, we slept like slaves. You put your head this way, I put my head this way.
If you want to turn in the night, you have to get up and squeeze yourself into that very space. Most of us slept on bare floor then. If you sell your food rations for one week and give a kitchen warder to give you iced fish cartons, then you have a Vono bed. Otherwise, if you do not have your people coming to visit you, you might not have access to a blanket. Some times, even when the Prisons authorities give an inmate blanket, the warders would certainly entice the inmate with money and take the blanket from him. Most of the warders use prisoners blankets.
I tell you frankly, until date, I still shear tears when I remember my days in on the death row. Those in death row have no rights. The warders do not see them as human beings. They are just like firewood waiting for the cock to come and use them. If a death row inmate commits an offence, my God, if you see the way the warders would treat him. The death row inmate is seen as somebody who is not supposed to get back to the society. You cannot believe it, you have wonderful talents in there, people that were not supposed to be there in the first place. My God, that place is hell.
Investigation revealed that these days, they are allowed to do a sort of physical exercise, what would you say to that?
Well, I want to tell you of one thing. When you say they allow death row inmates to do physical exercise, it varies. I was in prisons for 13 calendar years. When I got into Enugu Prisons, we had one Assistant Comptroller of Prisons, one Mr. Nweke. A very wicked man. In his days condemned Convicts were not allowed to come out to take their bath outside. You know they have their compound different from others. The issue is that it depends on who is in-charge. When one Mr. Uche Kalu came into Enugu prisons, I think he still in the Prisons, he knew me one on one.
When he came into Enugu Prisons things changed. Before he came in, Condemned inmates did not have rights to go to the hospitals for drugs. But when he came in, drugs were brought to the door steps of inmates and then, we were opened like normal inmates. The warders were even telling him do not open us for bath. But Uche Kalu said look, these people are human beings. At least open three cells at a time or use more warders to keep watch. But when he left, and another person came in, my God, the devil came back. So it is like that.
So, what you are saying is that it is a function of leadership, who is in-charge?
Yes, we should not be deceived. It depends on who is in-charge. Just like when I was in Enugu prisons, it was in the days of Ignatius Abiakam, a Deputy Comptroller then, I was allowed to use my pencils, inks and other things to draw and paints. That was where I was able to drew all these paintings that I am using for my campaigns today. Even at the time I took ill and it was serious, he ordered that I should be taken to the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital.
Under Mr Nweke or the man that came after Uche Kalu, it would not have happened. When Subairu came in after Abiakam, he ordered that every Prisoner in the Teaching hospital should be brought back to prisons. So this thing varies. It depends on who is in-charge. I do not want it to be seen that things are changing in the prisons. It depends on who is in-charge. In the prisons, you have the welfare staff, when a man who does not have regards for inmates is in-charge of welfare, it becomes a slave camp.
During your stay, how was your feeding?
Feeding as well depends on who is in-charge. In the days that I was on death row, like the days of Abiakam, the feeding was fairly alright. Then inmates were fed with beans from Monday to Saturday every morning. Then Eba afternoon and night. It is like that. But the soup was damned too bad that most inmates would prefer accepting dried garri without the soup, so they get water and just drink it like that. The soup inmates were given that time, my God, even dog would not accept it, it was bad. When Abiakam was there, they were better.
At time, one food contractor, a female food contractor came in and made the inmates understood that the federal government had not approved that inmates eat Eba, Eba every day, and she brought in yams. Even to the extent that she brought in egusi. Some of the warders went against her and even the principal chief. They said look, you want to spoil these inmates, after you leave now, they would riot. The woman served her four months and left, they did not allow her to come back again. The different between the man on the death row and ordinary inmate is that the food given to a death row inmate is slightly bigger than that of ordinary inmate. This thing like you said, is a leadership thing.
If they are given them fried plantain now, my God, God bless the person in-charge. But when he leaves it might not be so. I noticed while I was there. I was in Enugu prisons and Enugu prisons is a maximum prisons and the gallows are there. I witnessed execution of not less than 200 people, I can still remember. All together, I saw the death of not less than 450 inmates, I can still mention their names. I was in Uyo prisons, there are death rows in Uyo Prisons.
From what I can gather from you you were not kept in one prisons.
How many prisons were you taken to before you regained your freedom?
I was in four prisons in four states. Anambra, Enugu Abia and Akwa Ibom
Did you get any inclination why you were being moved around?
Yes, I knew why I was being moved from Prisons to prisons. I turned a human activist in Enugu prisons when Victor Mentor was killed, I singlehandedly took it upon myself. He was lynched to death.
I wrote to the Minister of Internal Affairs then, we had people like Fred Enoden, they supported me . I was the first prisoner in Enugu prisons to write a petition putting my name. When the law enforcement officer came, we spoke openly. When others discovered that since Arthur could write this petition and the warders did not kill him, let us join him. So, after the arrest of those warders that lynched Mentor , it brought in Olisa Agbokoba now SAN. From then, I refused to shut my mouth because I have gotten outside contact. I did a solo art exhibition from the death row, first time ever in Nigeria, at the British Council Enugu. After that exhibition, I had support from outside, I had people who were kind of asking for me every time.
So, when Olisa Agbakoba came, I led the group that said, look this man was fighting for us, we opposed every evil moves by the warders. That was why I was transferred from Enugu prisons to Abia. When I got into Abia, I witnessed the poisoning of two inmates. When I was taken to Umuahia Prisons, I was the only person brought from Enugu prisons. When a single inmate should be transferred out of a maximum prison, my God, something is amiss. Umuahia prisons is one prison I still pray that the federal government should visit till tomorrow.
In the whole of the east, if the warders want to finish you, if the warders want you death, they send you to Umuahia prisons. Like I said, I witnessed the poisoning of two inmates in Umuahia prisons. Umuahia prisons is one prison you get into, you do not expect amnesty. At a time, I was the oldest prisoner in the whole of Abia state and they federal government wanted to grant amnesty to those who must have spent 10 years.
I was left out in the end and some others were granted amnesty in Aba prisons. I wrote to the Minister of Internal Affairs, I wrote to Mr. Clement Nwankwo of Constitutional Rights Projects (CRP). Somebody Ogbonnaya who was running a newspaper, I think Sunrise or so and some members of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), like Sam Kalu wanted to bring in some human rights activists to come and see me.
Unfortunately the warder that they wanted to use as an insider to get information to me, sold the information to Chief Superintendent of Prisons (CSP) who was in-charge. They were to come on a Monday, I was transferred out on Friday to Uyo Prisons. Uyo prisons is another little hell, but better than Umuahia prisons. In fact, before I was released from Uyo prisons, my transfer to Markudi prisons was on the pipeline. But I won my case at the federal high court there. So, they could not do anything other than to release me. Even after the papers for release came, I was detained for another 10 days.
When the papers came from the Federal High Court Judge that I should be released, could you imagine that? I was detained for another 10 days. That was another 10 days in another kind of hell because anything could have happened to me in that place. Not until they realised that there was nothing they could do again and my people were coming everyday and Olisa Agbokaba mounted persistent pressures. He was telling them that if you do not want to release him, let the world know why. The Chief Justice of Akwa Ibom then, when the papers were taken to him, he said, look the court has ordered his release, let him go. That was how I got my freedom.
From your experience in the death row, how would you contribute to the debate on removal or otherwise of capital punishment in the nation’s judicial system?
Let me tell you frankly, I will give you about three or four reasons against capital punishment. Capital punishment is too final for whatever offence.