Sabella Abidde: Why the Charles Okah letter should worry you

by Sabella Abidde

Several Nigerian-related websites and the social media are awash with what has come to be known as the Charles Okah Prison Letter.The handwritten letter, about five pages in length, was addressed to His Eminence Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie, the Archbishop Emeritus of Lagos. Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Bishop of Abuja Diocese were also copied. How the letter was smuggled out of the Kuje Prison, is gradually becoming the stuff of legends.

Smuggling letters out of prison is not new. From the moment governments and governing authorities began constructing and imprisoning people, detainees and their sympathisers have been smuggling letters and other items in and out of those confinements. Contrary to what the Nigerian government tells the public, prisons are not the place people go to get rehabilitated. In many cases, it has nothing to do with justice.  In fact, many of the underclass of our society who are sent there go there to suffer, to get dehumanised, and or to die (mentally or physically). Often, government sends individuals to jail without a just cause. And they sometimes do so using the cover of the judiciary.

And it is certainly the case today with Mr. Charles Okah (who, along with three, and now two others, have been languishing in the Kuje Prison). The younger Okah is being detained – not because the Jonathan government has a strip of trustworthy evidence against him regarding the 2010 Independence Day bombing or any other criminal or terroristic activity – but because he is Henry Okah’s brother. This, really, is a feud based on philosophical and personal differences. Unfortunately for the Okah Brothers, the President has the instrument of state at his disposal.

In the last 30 months, hundreds of people have wondered: What’s going on between President Jonathan and the Okah Brothers? This is not an easy answer, but let me simplify it. This case is nothing short of vendetta, nothing short of a personal campaign, launched by a group of Ijaw, who see the Okah brothers as hindrances to their covetousness and political calculations. With Henry and Charles out of their ways, who is left – who is left in the entire Niger Delta – to put a stop to the few men and women bent on grand theft and wholesale political iniquities? What was the original Niger Delta struggle all about anyway?

What was the movement all about, and where has it been the last two years? Where are the supposed militants? Where are some of the pseudo-generals? Are they still in the creeks and with the people? Or, have most become commercial militants — concerned mainly with their bank accounts and access to Aso Rock? This is the difference – the difference between the Okah brothers and many of their former compatriots. What’s more, the brothers refused to play ethnic politics. Must all Ijaw support another Ijaw for the Presidency?

Now, what does the Charles Okah Prison Letter say; what does it tell us? It tells us plenty! It tells us that citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, who have yet to be convicted of any crime, are being held in solitary confinement for two traumatic years. And that during the course of its investigation, the Nigerian government used communist and Nazi-era techniques to coerce evidence out of suspects. According to Okah, “They bound me in a chair, took off my trousers and clamped a device to my penis. My legs were then put inside a basin of water. The device when turned on passed a high voltage of electricity to my body and I lost consciousness.”

What Okah described, is part of what is known as Enhanced Interrogation Technique. Other forms of EIT include waterboarding, stress positions and hypothermia – all of which were used at the Guantanamo Bay detention camps and at Abu Ghraib on enemy combatants, detainees and prisoners. Okah also wrote about thegovernment’s contempt for court orders and double standard at Kuje Prison. He and his fellow inmates “are not allowed to exercise or get sunlight outside and are forced to sleep on the floor when bunk beds are available. Even a court order by Justice Gabriel Kolawole to the prison for a change in our confinement style was ignored.” What type of a government ignores a judge’s order?

According to Okah, he and others were also gassed – an action that reminds one of the barbarism at various Concentration camps in Europe duringthe Second World War. This action – this inhumane act – led to the death of Francis Osuwo, in early 2012. The fumigants also had a devastating effect on Okah’s neurological system. Another troubling aspect of their detention is the fact that “While the Boko Haram suspects at Kuje Prison are allowed to worship in the prison mosque, we have never set foot in the prison chapel. They are also enjoying privileges such as cable television, radio, liberty to move within the prison walls, bunk beds to sleep on and phone calls to their families. We are denied all of the above.”

Not only is the executive arm of government being accused of double-standard, the judiciary, according to Okah, is also guilty of same: “While Senator Ali Ndume, accused of being a financier of Boko Haram was given bail by the same Judge presiding over our case, we have been denied bail…this senator was permitted by the same court to travel on his religious obligation to Mecca for the lesser Hajj while we are refused from attending mass in a chapel less than 50 metres from our cell block…I have been denied my application to go on a compulsory medical check-up which in my case is mandatory for a kidney donor, having donated my left kidney to my mother 30 years ago.” Sad, isn’t it?

Mo one is against the rights and privileges members of the Boko Haram sect enjoy while in custody. Detainees and prisoners have rights. But the same rights and privileges must be accorded Charles Okah and his fellow detainees. What’s more, they also deserve bail. But more importantly, why is it taking the Jonathan government this long to have the case prosecuted? Why? Just why?



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