By Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf
A chance encounter with three victims of police brutality under the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) captures their harrowing experiences in prison custody in Agodi, Ibadan, and Ibara, Abeokuta respectively for a cumulative period of 78 years until they regained their freedom with the help of some public-spirited Nigerians in April of 2020
To parody the words of Sir William Blackstone, an English jurist and Tory politician of the eighteenth century, “it is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than allow one innocent person to be convicted”. Unfortunately, Blackstone’s doctrine was observed in breach in the case of three individuals, namely: Adedeji Taiwo, Abass Owonikoko and Samuel Opabi, who spent the prime of their lives serving various jail terms for offenses they may not have been convicted for, given the right judicial hearing.
Some 30 years ago, the trio of Adedeji Taiwo, Abass Owonikoko and Samuel Opabi were total strangers living their separate lives and leading their own destinies. Yet by a twist of fate, these individuals came to live among each other and in fact have kept the same company for almost 30 years in circumstances that were not in any way pleasant. The trio met in prison, no thanks to failure of the justice system.
Adedeji Taiwo, who turns 57 in August, earned the sobriquet, ‘General’, while in prison. He was imprisoned in 1995 and set free on 9 April 2020, spending 25 uninterrupted years in jail. He tells his story: “I was dealing in foodstuffs at the popular Bodija market in Ibadan. I sold food stuff and farm produce precisely. Most times, I usually bought from farmers directly and at other times I get suppliers who sell to us directly in the market. It so happened that some men who dealt in farm produce introduced themselves to us in the market and started selling produce to us. Scarcely did we know that they were selling farm produce meant for supply to certain buyers in Ogbomosho. Most times, they came with Mercedes Benz 911 loaded with produce including rice, beans, maize and all sorts. They sold to us randomly and a lot of market women and men patronized them even after we discovered that they were stolen goods.
“So when the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) operatives apprehended them, they led them to the market where they identified some of their customers. That was how I was picked up. The SARS men asked me to bribe them with N200, 000, so that I would not be charged to court. But my family was only able to raise the sum of N50, 000. We pleaded for time to raise the balance but it was futile. I was kept in awaiting prison in Agodi for four years and later transferred to Abeokuta Prisons, where I spent another 21 years before my release in 2020.
“Life in prison is not a tea party at all. But I can only thank God for His mercies. I obtained an NCE Diploma from Yewa Central College of Education and another one at Theological School at the Gospel Minister’s College. I later became a Pastor in my cell. My wife stayed the course for 10 years but later left when she wasn’t sure I was going to survive the ordeal. I also lost a daughter within the period. My wife left with my four kids. I don’t know where they are as we speak. I lost my parents too. All I want is to go back to my foodstuffs business. It is one of the areas I have passion for.”
If General’s experience was bad, Abass Owonikoko’s case was even more pathetic. Owonikoko, who got arrested in 1993, spent almost 29 years in detention in Ibadan. He is 56 years old.
According to him, he was a dealer in livestock in Ibadan. Hear him: “One fateful day, two masquerades, Egugun New System and Egugun Oyin had a clash which caused a total breakdown of law and order in Ibadan town. In reaction, SARS made some random arrests at the scene of the crime and I was among the unlucky victims. About six of us were arrested for wandering, out of which four died in SARS’ custody. My family tried all they could to prove my innocence to no avail, as the SARS men insisted on being bribed. They later took undisclosed sums of money from my family but on 14 April 1994, I was remanded in prison custody. I got a lawyer, one Barrister Isiaka Adeniji, who died even before the case was heard at the Tribunal in Ibadan. I was sentenced to death on 3 May 1999 but the then Governor Alao Akala commuted it to life imprison in 2011.
“I spent four years and eight months in Agodi and an additional 24 years in Abeokuta. I also lost two kids, a male and female aged nine and seven years respectively. My wife left me. I lost both parents and even our family house in Ibadan collapsed. I studied Islamic studies at Dawah Voice of Nigeria, Abeokuta, where I qualified as an Imam. I was Imam at the condemned prison in Ibara from 2010-2020. Under my tutelage, I organized Walimot for 42 inmates who also learnt the fundamentals of Islamic teaching and are today Islamic scholars themselves. I currently squat with a family member in Ibadan.” Samuel Opabi, yet another victim of police brutality at the hands of the infamous SARS, hails from Igede in Benue State. He suffered for an offense he knew nothing about, a pure case of mistaken identity.
He shares his story: “I was staying with my elder brother in Ibadan, whom I had joined to learn about trading in clothes. He ran a boutique somewhere in Ibadan. I was doing that as well as playing football on the side. There was this teenage boy who used to visit me at my brother’s house. He was interested in playing football, so he saw me as a role model of sorts. But his dad was not happy about it and warned me from associating with his son, whom he accused of playing truancy. Of course, I asked the boy not to visit me again because his father resented me.
“Everything went well, as the boy indeed stopped coming around. However, one fateful morning, the boy’s father paid an unscheduled visit to my house. I had just returned home from the shop to prepare breakfast for me and my elder brother. He came asking for the whereabouts of his son. I had to call my landlady as a witness to say if she had been seeing the boy in my place since the father raised his objection to our friendship, to which she answered in the negative. We ended up having a shouting match with the father, who threatened to deal with me. About two hours or so later, he came in with some plain clothes policemen, accusing me of being part of a robbery gang.
“It was like drama straight from a Nollywood scene. The men in black bundled me into their waiting van and that was it. The SARS team requested for a bribe of N150, 000 but my family was only able to raise N35, 000, which they paid to one Sergeant Leo. We got a lawyer, Pade Obisesan to help with the case but unfortunately the lawyer died along the way, precisely in 2006. In May 10, 1999, I was condemned but I was also a member of the Ibara Football Club in the prisons. I spent 19 years in prison and have been surviving on donations ever since my release last year. Of my parent’s nine children – five male and four females – only three of us are alive today. I’m the only male among the three surviving siblings.”
“I got in when I was 23 years and I’m 51 years now. What else can I say than to plead for assistance from Nigerians? I spent the prime of life in prison for a crime I did not commit. I’m not bitter anymore. But I need help.”
So far all accusing fingers point to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a Nigerian Police Force unit created in late 1992 to deal with crimes associated with robbery, motor vehicle theft, kidnapping, cattle rustling and firearms. It was part of the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (FCIID), headed by the then Deputy Inspector General of Police Anthony Ogbizi.
SARS was controversial for its links to extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, extortion, torture, framing, blackmail, kidnapping, illegal organ trade, armed robbery, home invasions, rape of men and women, child arrests, the invasion of privacy, and polluting bodies of water with the illegal disposal of human remains. SARS was investigated several times in response to protests, but without results; reforms were promised in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. The unit was disbanded on 11 October 2020 after a worldwide showdown in the now historic “End SARS” protests. But how did help come to the presumed ex-offenders?
Thanks to the concerted efforts by the Prison Rehabilitation Mission International PREMI, including Bishop Kayode Williams, Oba Adedapo Adewale Tejuoso, the Osile Oke-Ona Egba, one of the four autonomous constituent kingdoms making up Egba land; Aare Afe Babalola, the famous legal luminary; Hon. Justice Oluseun Shogboola, who presided over the Integrity Ministers International Incorporated, the men were now free. They all played very important roles in ensuring that some of the awaiting trial inmates were set free after some legal fireworks.
Narrating how help came to them, General said, “PREMI, headed by Bishop Kayode Williams, who himself was an ex-convict, who served a 10 year jail term until 1981 and was later granted a presidential pardon in 2001, used to minister to us at the prison. When he visited the prison ahead of the 2019 December and Christmas festivities, he came with his team to donate cow and other items to us. But we the inmates rose in unison and said we wanted freedom instead of being fed in prison and kept in awaiting trial. We told him we wanted to lead normal lives. It was not easy at all. But through fervent prayers, and the commitment of Bishop Kayode Williams’ team, we regained our freedom.”
Established in 1982 as a non-governmental organization, Prison Rehabilitation Mission International Inc., PREMI has been consistent in advocating for the overhaul the prison system and the reform of the penal system in Nigeria and Africa. Its goal is to assist in the realization of the national objectives of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy. The most important of these is the replacement of scolding with schooling, and punishment with prospect. This, PREMI believes, will reduce re-incarceration and assist in the reintegration process of released offenders. The four Rs of this organization are Reformation, Reintegration, Rehabilitation, and Resettlement.
PREMI has successfully operated in Nigeria for over 38 years, providing the required assistance and helping to secure the release of hundreds of prisoners and detainees. Presently, PREMI has branches in Texas where the Osun State-born Dr. Silas Olayiwola Falokun volunteers as coordinator, supervising North and South America.