By Dominic Ayegba Okoliko
I called it an unusual day, a day of rare privilege. That was what the new day seemed to promise. So I must look different – not in my usual jeans and polo shirt flying down my loins. I searched my box and found a well-starched and a long-sleeved white shirt ironed into crisps. I picked it up and laid it on my bed, and brought down a pair of plain cream-colored trousers from the hanger to join the shirt. When I paired the two to match, they were an appealing choice; and so, I set about preparing for the day.
I realised now that I would have to knot a tie.
I’d never succeeded in knotting one before. Never. I immediately wished my brother was around, or a friend. For the few occasions I had had to do a tie, it was one of them who helped me put it right. Until that day, knotting a tie was a no case for me as I could count the number of times I’d had to use tie anyways. I looked through the mirror in the guest inn where I was booked. I sighed.
“This is really silly!”
Almost at a flash, I discovered I had an oracle that I could consult. She had rarely disappointed me on a day like the one I was having. Gently, I knocked at her temple, pressing on the right combination of keys. Boom! She opened and I threw at her my puzzle. With a little divination, she popped me a slide.
“Ever want a perfect knot? This is it”; the oracle proclaimed.
I sat expectantly before my new teacher. One stroll, two, three, and I was at the sixth.
“What’s the offence counsel?”
“My Lord, it’s stealing. And he’s been in the prison custody for eleven months. I’m applying for his bail, and if possible, a discharge”.
That was Barrister Jude Ogbunkwu of Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Centre (HRCRC). His voice, a gentle sound, was raised from among a host of colleagues who had gathered for the occasion. Barrister Jude and I had travelled down from Abakaliki that morning in the company of Chief Richard Unigwe and Mr. Ipa Oyene, the baba who steered our wheels. We were a team from HRCRC, a civil organisation that champions the cause of justice, peace and development with a preference for the vulnerable in Ebonyi State of Nigeria. We had come to offer our spontaneous services for some prisoners who had spent lengthy days in prison without trial. On my part, it was my first time being out in the field with them.
The court session was holding in a relatively small hall within Nigerian Prison yard in Afikpo, Afikpo North Local Government Area of Ebonyi State. The hall was about fifteen by twenty metres. Its walls were painted in what looked like creamy green but appeared to be worn-out with some hoary look here and there. The celling looked as if it had been designed to bear some inundated maps. From the faded whited ceiling hung fans having their coordinated dance to the entertainment of the guests. The breeze dusting from their waves provided coolant to the rather tensed ambience of the makeshift courtroom. The walls of the hall were adorned with pictures of the suffering Jesus; what Catholics regarded as Stations of the Cross. They were pasted in sequence following the fourteen steps of Jesus’ journey from the place of his prosecution to the place he was buried. The presence of the pictures suggested that the hall was equally used as a worship centre for inmates. And for some reasons, I could relate what was depicted in the pictures, especially in the first station where judgement was passed on Jesus, with what was transpiring in the hall.
In the hall, the prisoner, a very young man, about 27 years old was stationed right at the centre of the room with his hands crossed behind his back. There was no ceremonial look about him. He wore a buttoned long-sleeved safari shirt with arms loosed. He looked quite worn-out with weary face that seemed to say, life behind bars had not been well. On his legs were a pair of shorts very squeezed from a fresh wash that gave the impression that ironing in the cloister was a luxury. It was worn on a pair of bathroom slippers. No other form of indulgent appearance could be noticed of him. As I processed his image before me, I considered it a parallel to the common trial scenes I used to see in movies. The prisoner stood right there, in the centre, under full view of everyone in the hall. He was inexpressive and appeared anxious, not knowing what to expect of the proceedings.
Right behind him stood a prison warder. He was the opposite of the young man. He was neatly dressed on a khaki Nigerian Prison Warden uniform. His trousers were ironed to wear sharp edges that seemed capable of tearing through any surface. They were adorned on a pair of black force shoes, deftly polished to scare a fly. He stood also, with his hands crossed behind and had to his back a congregation of lawyers, activists and senior prison warders.
About two metres from the makeshift prisoner’s stand was a table for the court registrars. Two men and a lady sat around it. They took turns to read out files of prisoners to be attended to. The state prosecutor; he was called the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), from the Ministry of Justice, Ebonyi State, and his colleagues, were seated to the left-hand side of the registrar’s table. Their bench had about four lawyers. The leading counsel there was a fair averagely old man who seemed to run out of words each time he had to respond to inquiries. Directly opposite them belonged the sits for the different magistrates from the Afikpo axis of the State.
And right on the stage was the Chief Justice (CJ) of the State. He was flanked left and right with judges from different high courts within the State, about four of them. He presided over the court proceeding. It was a Gaol Delivery service and no one wore any ceremonial outfit except a show of legal suits and other formal wears.
“Has there been any information filed on his case?”
“None my Lord”, Barrister Jude responded.
“And has the Prosecutor anything to say?”
“Eehm, my Lord.”
The DPP turned towards the man seated on his left-hand side and made face to him as if to beckon on him to say something. The man shrugged, indicating he had nothing to say.
“My Lord”, the DPP continued.
“The state has not been able to file any information…”
Haba! For 11 months? I virtually said those words beyond my breath but had to choke it half-way through. However, almost in congruence with my thoughts, the court was thrown into a thunderous murmur with different clicks discussing what the DPP’s response could mean. Then, one of the clerks shouted: “Order!”, and quietness was restored.
Meanwhile, the CJ had become busy with his pen scripting on his pad. When he eventually returned his attention to the court, he pronounced:
“I hereby order the discharge of the prisoner …”
The young man stood up, and in a fleeting moment he looked entranced, perhaps he was confused. Perhaps it felt surreal for him. For the past 11 months, days had circled out on him in the closure. During that period of 11 months, no attempt had been made to present him before a judge. And there he was, on a first chance, he could hear the sound of freedom. As if oblivious of the environment, he made out for the door and started jumping with a loud yell that jolted even the prison walls from their slumber.
“Be quite and go back to your cell!”
That was an order from a warder standing outside the hall where a verdict had been passed. The hall was the last building leading from the entrance to the prison yard. It stood in perpendicular direction to the two rows of prison cells. One of them, the building to the left as from the entrance to the yard, stood nose-to-nose with the hall. It was made of pure zinc materials with no brick walls, safe for the foundation.
The freed prisoner was led back into his cell located in that zinc building pending when the judgement of the CJ would be effected. Not deterred by this momentary constraint, the man allowed himself to be led away while his spirit visibly celebrated his freedom. I could imagine him say, “just a matter of time. I will be free again”.
“Call the next case”, the CJ ordered.
“Ejim Uli…”, came the voice of the clerk woman.
The case was about theft. Ejim was led in by a prison warder and made to take his position at the centre of the room. Like the previous man, his arms were crossed behind. His own short was ostensibly tattered. It was a faded blue jean whose colour had become tainted by years of use. It was worn on a pair of bathroom slippers with a somewhat round-neck creamy polo shirt. He stood with his head bowed and hardly could look up while the case was opened.
“My Lord.” It was Barrister Jude again, from HRCRC.
“This man was charged for theft and had been reminded in prison for 2 years without trial. I’m asking for his bail.”
“What’s his offence?” The CJ inquired.
“What did he steal?”
“Yes my Lord. Just a fowl!”
Laughter rippled across the room with many mooning the charge. For stealing a fowl, an individual had spent 2 years in jail and without trail.
“But stealing is stealing, whether fowl or cow or towel”.
One young man seated directly behind me whispered those words. He must have been one of such fellows who proudly arrogated to themselves, the title of ‘learned colleague’. Gosh! I had always wondered what fate the rest of us who studied under different disciplines had if they and their colleagues remained the only learned ones.
“Order!” the Clerk ordered again. As usual, his Lordship was busy scripting.
“Young man. If you’re released, will you go about stealing fowl or anything again?” The CJ spoke, looking up from his pad. In response, the prisoner mumbled out a word that sounded like no.
“Eh?” the Judge quipped. Perhaps, he had not heard very well the prisoner’s response.
It came rather too quick and strong. But it was genuinely remorseful.
“…you are hereby discharged”.
“And don’t go out there making troubles because if I hear anything; I’d make sure you rot in jail.”
“Thanku sah”, “thanku sah”.
The man’s head, hands and lips were raining the words as he made his way out of the courtroom into the prison yard.
Then, the court had had another fun again. A fowl must have been a really funny item to shoplift in any stall or market!
It was the Chief Welfare Officer of the prison who spoke this time.
“If you will permit me, I would like to mention a case please”.
The CJ consented and the warder went on.
“It is about one prisoner, Onyeka Uche”.
One of the clerk immediately rose and scrolling through the list, he provided the full information of the prisoner. Onyeka was then led into the court and positioned at the prisoner’s stand.
This time, it was one of the lawyers, from the other corner of the room that spoke up.
“I’m Barr. Benson Obi, ESQ. I’m asking for the prisoner’s discharge given the nature of his offence and the terms he has spent in the prison.”
“What’s the offence counsel?”
“It’s court contempt my Lord, and he’s spent 7 months”.
“Yes my Lord.”
The Chief Justice became furious. It shocked him that one of his magistrates could retain an individual in jail beyond the legal term allowed for such a case. As if to douse any doubt about the maximum sentence for such a case, he took his time to read out the section of the law which stipulates that an individual convicted of court contempt cannot be retained beyond three months. In this particular case however, the man was rather thrown in the prison without a clear pronouncement of sentence and thus, left in the prison for 7 good months.
“Tell his magistrate that he must see me and explain why he would do such a thing”, the CJ ordered.
We all had our time nodding our head. I wondered what sort of explanations the concerned magistrate would give for such obvious abuse of office.
“Having served beyond the term permitted for this crime, you are hereby discharged”.
Unlike the others, the man in question walked out unceremoniously and went his way while being followed closely by the prison warder attaché.
Dominic is a nascent Nigerian writer with interests in poem, prose and essays. Some of his works have appeared in Afreecan Read, Pulse.ng, Words Rhymes and Rhythm, myNews24.com, and Poemhunters. Dominic works with Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Centre in Abakaliki and can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @Ayedom1