Kuje prison attack: I have to say my last prayer because the sound of AK – 47 and Small pistol make me scared. I couldn’t believe I would be alive to see the following morning, Former governor of Taraba State, Jolly Nyame, shares his prison experience and the 2023 elections, among other issues. EMMANUEL AWARI captured the Interview for SUMMIT Post. Excerpts:
During a reception for you after your release from prison at the stadium, you told the people of Taraba State that you would like to play the role of a pathfinder. What do you really mean by this especially as the nation approaches the 2023 elections?
What I mean is simple; a pathfinder is someone who shows people the way or who leads people to a right direction where there is a source of wealth, water and everything good. So, that is the role I will play. I want a situation where the people of Taraba State will come together irrespective of their shades of opinion and choose the right leader. I am not going to impose any leader on them. In each local government area, I will sit down with the people and guide them and lead them based on the choice of the leader they want.
Does that mean you still have structures in case you choose to return to partisan politics?
Definitely, I have structures all over the state as long as I live. Even when I am done, there are people who will continue with the structures I have built over the years. Recently, before I left for the airport, I met with members of the House of Assembly, commissioners and special advisers, who worked with me and all of them were yearning for a situation where all of us would come together to lead the state.
Let’s talk about your prison experience. How did you feel when you received the news that you were granted a presidential pardon?
I was so excited. I thank President Muhammadu Buhari, the governors and the Council of State for the role they played in granting me pardon. But to be honest with you, when the judge slammed me with a 14-year jail sentence, something told me that I would not spend 14 years in jail. So, I was not surprised when I was granted pardon. However, to be frank, I was excited. In all, I knew that it was an act of God and I am happy that I can now socialise with my people. For the people of Taraba State, it is time to work together, unite and ensure that we do our best in realising a new Taraba State.
Do you consider the presidential pardon an indication that you are not guilty of the offences for which you were convicted or a lesson in strategic relationship?
Yes, I believe I have been vindicated because the President and the Council of State cannot just grant me pardon just like that. There must be a reason for them to be convinced that I deserved the pardon. I want you to also understand that there are people who came while I was in prison to ask for forgiveness and I have forgiven all of them. For them to come and seek forgiveness, it means some people played roles that led to my incarceration and that is why I feel so okay now that I know I did nothing wrong. If I had done something wrong, why would people come to me seeking forgiveness over their roles in my ordeal?
Do you have any regrets?
I have seen my incarceration as a divine project designed by God. I hold no grudge against anybody; I consider all that happened as an act of God. It has happened and it is now a thing of the past. I don’t want to think about it again. I want to forget about the past and forge ahead and put Taraba State on the best political footing in the politics of Nigeria.
Can you share your experience in prison?
Yes, when I met with the incumbent Governor of Taraba State, Darius Ishaku, I told him that this was one experience I would not like even my enemy to pass through. Imagine you being a chief executive of a state and you enjoyed that for eight years and from nowhere, you just came to the level of less than a servant. You are confined to a particular room, a particular space and you can’t go out. Even to go to the hospital for medical treatment, you have to take a special permission. So, it was that bad for four years. Even physically, if you sit down in one place for long depending on your age, it is not easy. If you are aged, it’s not good to sit down in one place for too long. So, like I said, I don’t wish even my enemy to go through that kind of horrible experience.
While you were in the prison in Kuje, there was an attack on the facility by terrorists; can you recall your experience during the incident?
I had only heard the sound of an AK-47 and a small pistol in my life until that day. On that day, the gunshots I heard were terrible. To be honest with you, I had to say my last prayers that day, because the sound and what we were passing through emotionally made me so scared. I couldn’t believe I would be alive to see the following morning; so, I had to say my last prayers, but God in His infinite mercy saw me and others through that life-threatening experience.
Given your experience, what kind of reforms will you advocate for prisons in the country?
If I should suggest to the Federal Government to consider reform in the prison, I will start with justice delivery. But let us talk about the disposition of some of the inmates. First of all, I would like to appeal to the Federal Government to consider those who voluntarily refused to go when the attack happened to be granted pardon. That place is not a place that one would like to stay if he has the opportunity to escape. So, how I wish that the Federal Government will grant pardon to those who refused to escape during the attack. That apart, during my years in prison, I interacted with a lot of inmates and I realised that there is something wrong with prosecution in this country. In the course of my interactions with the inmates, I discovered that some of them were wrongly accused and the prosecution would tell them, ‘Look, if you are able to pay so and so amount of money, you will be freed and not taken to prison’. So, you will discover that sometimes, people go to court and later prison because they don’t have the money to pay. I also realised that if there is due diligence in prosecution, not many people will go to prison.
Do you mean that prison decongestion should start with due diligence in prosecution?
Yes. That is where the problem starts from. So, that aspect of the reform should be taken seriously.
What is your take on the increasing level of insecurity in Nigeria and the prospects for the 2023 elections?
Nigerians are resilient people and God is always by our side. We are prayerful people. Sometimes, we feel things are getting out of hand and God will then step in to solve our problems. Many people did not believe that Nigeria will survive as one indivisible nation today, but here we are, Nigeria is still surviving. So, with prayers, Nigeria will survive and there will be elections in 2023.
Taraba State has had its share of the herders, farmers’ conflict and banditry. Is this the Taraba State you dreamt of? What then will you do to help address the security challenge?
Now that I am home, I have access to the governor, who is the chief executive of the state. My advice and role will be to see that we bring all the security agencies together and assist them to promote peace in the state so that bandits will be flushed out before the elections. That is the only way we can have a peaceful Taraba State and conduct elections to choose another set of leaders.
What is your assessment of the Darius Ishaku administration in the state?
Governor Darius Ishaku has done his best as any other elected person will do. I think he will continue to do his best until he leaves office. I believe that what he has done and what he will do in the remaining months of his administration is the best, and now that I am back home, I will assist him to do his best until he hands over.
What were the major lessons you learnt while in prison?
To be honest, being a chief executive is being next to God because with your red pen, you can approve a death sentence. So, you can imagine that immediately after leaving office, you are subjected to trial, and in my case, for a period of 10 years. So, it was like I was broken down during those years before I was finally convicted. When I went there, for the first one or two weeks, I was living in self-denial. I could not believe it because when I went into prison, there was nothing in the room allocated to me. They had to provide a mattress, and when they brought the first food, it wasn’t like food to be honest. It was like I was eating toilet paper garnished with sauce. So, the first lesson I learnt was humility. No matter who you are, if you are convicted, you have to know that you are under someone’s authority.
Secondly, I also learnt that as a former chief executive, I was a pal to every inmate there and with time, I started interacting with them. It was when I was able to interact with them that I was able to appreciate the degree of problems I passed through. I realised that we have problems with the judicial system in this country. I came to understand after interacting with them that some came in without even knowing why they were there. One of them said they just found him roaming and they just picked him and said he was a Boko Haram member. The inmate has been there for a couple of years. Someone said he was hungry; so, he went to the field where they planted ugu (fluted pumpkin leaves), and that was how he was arrested and taken to prison.
In the course of my interaction with them, I met a police officer, who was given a pass to escort a VIP and something went wrong between Abuja and Sokoto. So, they brought him back in chains and he found himself in a police cell. He told me that one night, they brought him out of the police cell and he saw a corpse on the ground and was asked to kneel by the corpse and they took his picture. That was the conviction that he killed somebody. There was no link at all, according to him, and there are a couple of those things.
You see, the problem starts with the investigation; if the police will do their jobs well, less people will be convicted. Sometimes, they even ask for a certain amount of money to let someone go free and if you don’t give, they will charge you to court. Before you know it, you will have four or more counts against you and you will end up in prison. If the police do their jobs well, they won’t have to go to court. And if they do, it is the judges’ duty to pass a verdict. What I have also realised is that if one big person doesn’t like you, he will influence the conviction and before you know it, you go to court and before you say Jack Robinson, you have been convicted. My case is clear evidence.
Well, let me say I am not an angel, but there are witnesses that gave their own statements that do not add up. I shared a story with the Christian lawyers recently. One of the witnesses said he took N110m to my office. So, my lawyer asked, ‘How many people helped you?’ and he said he carried it alone and at that time, there was no N1,000 note. So, what kind of bag would carry N110m, because no ‘Ghana must go bag’ can even carry N50m even if you get them in N500 notes. So, my lawyer went further to ask, between your office and the governor’s office, who did you meet on the way and he said nobody. So, it was during my time that the governor would be in the office alone and between the cashier’s office and the governor’s office, you would not meet anybody on the way. Thank God, at the end of the day, some of the witnesses came to me and asked for forgiveness, and I have forgiven them. I know these things were orchestrated for a reason and I have taken the reason for my incarceration for good.
Did you get any preferential treatment while in the correctional facility?
To be honest with you, yes. That was done largely because of my former status, but the preferential treatment was not that big, but maybe because in my own cell, I had a separate bathroom. I had to share along the line with former Plateau State governor, Joshua Dariye, and one other person, but in the end, I stayed there alone. But even that treatment came at a price because if for any reason you are in a correctional centre and they know that you are a big man, virtually all other inmates will come to you with one problem or the other. I cannot say exactly, but I believe the people I assisted to pay fines and go home should be more than 50. Some of the charges were as little as N10,000, N20,000 and N50,000. Sometimes, some inmates would have to serve and then pay the fine, but some served and couldn’t go because they had to pay. So, that preferential treatment came at a cost, not just to me, but to some of the other VIPs there.
You talked about sharing your bathroom with a former governor of Plateau State, Dariye. Can you tell us more about how the two of you related while in the correctional centre?
Yes, there were times we sat and deliberated on many issues. We came to a conclusion at one of the sittings that we all did well for our states, but we asked ourselves, ‘Why us?’ We heard about other people being charged with offences involving N10bn, N20bn and so on, but at the end of the day, their case gets missing or withdrawn. There are instances too where they say instead of convicting you, let’s do a plea bargain. So, we asked this question: why us? Why is ours different? At the end of the day, we came to the fact that what President Muhammadu Buhari did was to show an example of good leadership. I’m sure that he must have seen that these people (Dariye and myself) are the birds of the same plumage, so why them alone? Getting us off the hook is a plus to the government and the judiciary because if you compare what’s happening now, ours is just a child’s play. We didn’t even agree with all the charges. So, we reflected on this and we felt so bad for this country, because there seems to be justice meant for some people. You don’t even talk about poor people when you are talking about justice because they are just there and you can convict them anytime. But even as a former governor, there are some selections; there is preferential treatment given to some former governors who belong, while some are just there and can be locked up anytime.
Some of your landmark projects are in a dilapidated state. How do you feel seeing them in such a bad condition?
Mr Maigari, the member representing Yorro/Zing and Jalingo in the House of Representatives, has catalogued all the projects I did during my time as governor, which will be ready during my birthday at Christmas and you will see them. People will be able to see what I did during my eight years. In fact, I have heard people say the current state of the specialist hospital is not its nature. I have seen the state of the stadium too. Generally, we don’t have a maintenance culture here in this part of the world. We erect edifices without minding what comes later. When you talk about that hotel in the stadium; if you were there during the inauguration, you will cry seeing it now. At the opening, you could go there and whatever you needed was there. In the kitchen, you could roast a whole goat, we had those facilities.
We had generators, fire fighting trucks, vehicles for utility and so on. I don’t want to blame anyone, I just hope that anyone coming in 2023 that I will have a say in his coming and I will insist that the first four years is to rehabilitate the dilapidated structures and reposition the state. If you go to the specialist hospital, most of the equipment we procured, we ensured we bought extra. I understand that some of the equipment were not utilised because the people trained to use them are not there any longer and some were even stolen. So, for anybody coming in, we will insist that he takes a chunk of the money to rehabilitate the infrastructure; otherwise it will be a waste. If you go to the stadium, the rooms there have been reduced to shops and the stadium has been reduced to reception centres. I don’t want to blame anyone, but I am praying that the person coming in will be someone we can talk to.
Apart from rehabilitating the dilapidated infrastructure, what will be your development expectations when the next administration takes over next year?
I will ask the new administration to emphasise on the creation of industries because there is no way you can generate revenue if you don’t have industries. Our state is blessed with fertile land. Whatever we want to produce, we can do it here in Taraba State. We can have an agro industry; we can have the raw materials and set the industry here. Also, in every local government area, if you dig the soil, there’s solid minerals there. I realised it during this short time that I came out of Kuje. Almost every local government area has mineral resources that can be tapped for the good of the state. If the companies cannot establish here, we will insist they process it here, so that our people can get jobs.
Taraba State has had its fair share of insecurity in recent times. What do you think is the best way out of the herders/farmers’ conflict, communal clashes and banditry in the state?
When the Federal Government created the National Orientation Agency, it was for a reason, but we don’t utilise it. What I am trying to say is that we have our media organisations (TV and radio stations). The state government should as a matter of deliberate policy make use of these stations to promote peace. There is a need for the leadership to have a direct link with the communities. In those days, we had the Tiv/Jukun, Jukun/Kuteb and so on; we tried to establish our presence there. I think there are pictures in the archives to attest to our efforts. Once the people see a leader immediately after a crisis, it gives relief to those affected. The leader will tell them the effect of the crisis and you will discover that the people will work towards peace themselves.
As a cleric, do you still have time to preach to your congregation?
I was supposed to speak last Sunday, but because of the nature of my legs when I left prison, I can hardly stand for long. It is only now that I am getting rehabilitated with my legs. When I came out, standing for too long or walking was a problem because while there, I was used to sitting in one place or walking only a short distance. As days go by, I can walk some distance and stand but instead of preaching, I went there with a preacher who sat next to me to relate my message.