DETAINED FOR 15 YEARS WITHOUT TRIAL
Detained without trial for 15 years for allegedly killing his boss, Pa Rilwane, a NADECO chieftain , Elvis Irenua, 42, who was curiously released recently, for the first time recounts his experience . Speaking exclusively to Sunday Sun, he zeroed down on his life behind bars ,his projections ahead and how he is picking the bits and pieces of his life .Excerpts:
So, as you were growing up which of your birthdays do you remember most?
Well, I grew up in family where birthdays weren't really an issue so I can't really remember any particular birthday celebrations. My parents were more interested in what you would make out of your life rather than celebrations.
As an adult, did your friends celebrate your your birthdays with you?
I think the one I would remember most was the last one I celebrated in there. That was this year.
How did it go?
Well, it wasn't really a celebration though but in the course of talking in the church, I made mention that I was given a date at the court which fell on January 13th ,my birthday and a lot of people got to know. So, a lot of people got to know.
A friend of mine named Hillary bought me a card and a can of malt. I was really shocked, even though he was in there with me but he is free now. I really appreciated it, even though it was little but I really appreciated because he was just a stranger I met during the cause of my ordeal.
Was it collectively signed or just from someone?
Just one person and also I think the prison ministry of house on the rock, they also sent me card, gift and a Bible .My sister here also got me a book. I think those
So, how did you feel then?
I think a prophecy had gone ahead that before then that was July last year. We had a seven days annual programme, I think it was a Saturday or Sunday of it and my elder brother came into the church while I was on the pulpit. So I had to talk to the people in charge to let him in since I couldn't leave the pulpit then. So when they asked him when do you want your brother home and he said I want my brother now, now. Then a prophecy was released that definitely I won't be here and so when I was celebrating my birthday this year. I knew it was going to be the last in the prison.
Who gave the prophecy, was it you?
The chaplain general, prison fellowship Nigeria gave the prophecy. Of course there have been several prophecies before then. Several, somebody told me first of January that was last year, that God told him that I won't be in prisons at the end of June. I think the person interpreted it his own way. Probably he didn't know whether it was June 2010 or 2009 God meant. But I still left before the end of June. So you see God does speak to people.
You are a now a pastor?
I guess am one now because I was the head of the bible research institute then. I was the head for about 12 years and my duty was to train other pastors.
Are you thinking of going into full ministry?
At the moment ,that will be part time and not full time.
Aside from the ministry, what have you been doing?
Well, I just got out- 21 days ago that is about three weeks now. Am still trying to get a place of my own, and I also spoke with a friend lately that I was interested in doing transport business and laundry. I want to sit down and go about it quietly. I already know what I want to do. But I have to raise funds and get clientele too.
What type of transport business?
It's commuter- taxi, but I also want to get into laundry business. Although I have other great business ideas but those ones involve big money but since I don't have such money now, I will have to wait.
While you were in prisons did you go to school?
Yes, presently am in 200 level at National Open University. I am studying Criminology and Security Studies. I'm also doing another programme in the US, a bachelors degree programme in Religious Studies. You know that you can conclude anytime you like but I pray I will be able to conclude it this year.
Was your choice of study influenced by your past experience?
Not really. But to an extent,yes . But actually I wanted to read Law before I got into the prison.
Are going to continue with it?
Yes. By the way, I had also asked my friend if I'll be able to do part time in English at Unilag.
So , you 're going to have your hands full?
Yes, I don't have time anymore. I guess I want to catch up on lost times.
What was on your mind when the Judge released you?
Well, I was really tired of the place-very, very tired. I needed to get out. You know, sometimes the whole thing gets to you to a point that you ask that this thing should just stop. But the night before, I just packed the few books I had, the clothes that were fairly new. Like this one now(T-shirt), a friend who traveled abroad bought it for me. I only wore it once and I felt it would still be nice wearing it out there. I just put a few of them in the box and I was acting on faith and there were assurances in my spirit. I knew I wasn't going back there.
Didn't you feel it was one of the routines?
Yeah, sometimes while you are hoping, you prepare for the worst too. And God has helped me to develop a resilient spirit over the years. I was sure I was going to go out. But if it had gone otherwise, I wouldn't have killed myself. I would just have just waited.
Have you always been a patient person or you learnt it in prison?
Well, I'll say I learnt it there. But usually I will say am that kind of person that can't stay in a place for too long doing nothing. I wasn't patient as far that is concerned. But when am attacking a problem and I need to sit down and confront it, I can be patient.
How did you come to terms or did you accept it as bad fate?
I never wanted to accept it as fate because, number one, I knew I didn't do it. So, I told God if you will vindicate me, I will serve you. So, I was always looking out for freedom. I knew it would end one day but how long, I didn't know. Even though God showed me it was going to be a very long journey, I didn't bargain it. I didn't know it will be this long. But as each day came, I developed the spirit to survive. Now I didn't want to be just a survivor because there were a lot of people in there who survived indeed but they were broken mentally and emotionally. Some even lost their mind, I had seen those things and I didn't want that to happen to me. So,I made up my mind that I wasn't only going to survive but that I wills also come out as a victor.
How did you cope all through?
I learnt something in life- the stronger your spirit is in the midst of a crisis or a problem- the easier that problem is- the quicker you get out. I learnt that very early in life. So, I needed to feed my spirit with positive thinking. A situation was described in the Bible: I think somewhere in Isaiah 57 verse 10. The people refused to say there is no hope, even though they were weary…Like I told you, I read a lot of books. I borrowed a lot and have returned several.
Do they have library there?
No, I had my own books and some people brought books for us. The library we have there was … there are quite a few books like the Encyclopedia Britanica. I think another book by Olisa Abgakoba. And there are really very old books in there.
Did the authorities allow people to bring in books?
Yes, and I was feeding my spirit with those books.
The only thing I won't read is pornography, I kept telling every one in the church. I read a whole lot of books, in as much as it was written with ink .There was day I saw a book from the Grail Message .It had to do with Christ's second coming. I just flipped through and I saw Christ second coming in the content, and I told the man I like to read the book and he said you are a pastor you can't read this book. I asked him why not and he eventually gave it to me .The books helped me create my own world.
I read John Gresham, Cater Ray, Daniel Steel and others.
Tell us about the routine of everyday life in prison?
Well, before I got fully involved in managing the affairs of the inmates and relating with the warders more,just two things took my time, and they were Church activities and my books. I also spent my time reading the Bible too. I remember a day I spent eight hours reading the Bible-from nine in the morning to five .By the time I stood up, my neck and back were aching me.
Now that you are out, your faith will be tested. Do you think you will still be standing strong?
It has already been tested. I'm not a religious person, I just love God. In the area of faith being tested, maybe financial limitations, meeting with opposition and maybe the stigma of going to prison. For me, I won't let those things pull me down. I will never.
You mentioned stigma, have you been faced with it?
I wouldn't say I have been stigmatized because the truth is,except I tell you I came from prison ,you won't know. I just go about my thing. I love appearing neat and being myself. And I don't say more than I should. When I have to teach in church, preach or counsel somebody, I love being underestimated. It brings out the best with me.
You went to Benin recently, who did you meet?
Yes, I went home. I met virtually everybody. I still met my grand mum. She is still alive. Funny enough, I was told the day I was released, nobody knew because at a point I wasn't telling anyone back home what I was going through anymore. I bore it all alone. So, I was told that the day I was released, my grand mum just woke up in the morning and said 'Oh! God,does it mean I will not see my son before I die? I think maybe the spirit must have whispered to her and everyone was like don't worry he would come out soon.
She said she knew I would come but she was asking how long?
But later when I was released and she was told, as frail as she was she rolled on the floor. When she saw me she was overjoyed.
What about Your mum?
She is fine. I also saw her she held me, embraced me, she looked at me again. At about three, four, five times, she just kept doing it. Even my sisters, they were very small when I left but they are now big. In fact, all of them are married now. Some of them don't even know my face because it was a long time.
You never said anything about your father?
Well, my dad died before the whole thing. But I guess if he was alive, this wouldn't have happened to me. My father had so many plans for my elder brother and myself. Although he had several other children but my elder brother and I were very close to his heart. It was from him that I learnt that a parent could plan for his kids' education before his death. But he died
He had an accident in 3rd of February 1983.
The only time I remembered him while in there was when I felt that I probably I wouldn't have been working for somebody because I would probably have gone to school and then get into the family business. At a time he was a major distributor to most of the bottling companies we had at that time. I'm not a silver spoon kid but I had a comfortable upbringing but his death distorted everything. We had to struggle and earn money. Going in there really taught me that there is another side of life.
What about your girlfriends?
I think that plural is wrong. But naturally one may have had a lot of friend's -male and female. But one of them will be very special. I actually had one before I had this problem and we were planning marriage. December of 1995 was supposed to be the introduction but it was never to be. I was picked up on 4th of December. I told her to move on and that she would meet somebody better than I am.
What' s her name?
She is Uromo.
Does she know you are out now?
I have not heard from her. My prayer for her is to move on, to be alive and happy.
Since you want to catch up on lost times, are you thinking of women, settling down?
I can rush ever other thing but not marriage. I will take my time. I went for a prayer programme and somebody told my friend, I like this guy but I told my friend. 'I beg, that's not my priority now'. I believe other things will have to come first before women because I'm one of those who strongly believe that women are not meant to suffer. Naturally, I have a picture of what I want my family to be, the kind structure and the way I want to run it. I already have a mental picture of it.
What food did you miss?
I would say I missed pounded yam and Starch. I missed Banga soup. `Immediately I got to Benin and I spoke to my brother's wife that I have not eaten Banga and Starch in a long time and I told her I don't mind eating it every day till I go back to Lagos. And God bless her, and she did that.
Looking at your biceps, you must have worked out a lot in prison?
I think it was God. Hygienically, I can say I did because you won't know when you pick up things. Imagine an environment where you are crammed up with a lot of people, you pick diseases there. But as things later improved, the hygiene got better. Throughout, I had a room to myself. You know, a woman in the house is considered a witch, not that she flies but because she had stayed long and knows everything. They call her that. You know, when you stay long in a place, you develop an adaptive intelligence.
But at first, how many were you in a room?
When I first got in there ,we were packed in a small cubicle .It was in the days when drugs peddlers were put behind bars ,and even when they finished their sentence, they were not allowed to go. They said the PRC had to sign. So we could be about eighteen or nineteen in a room. But when Abacha died and Abdulsalam came in, the place was decongested, and so we had little space. And , of course, the police were also bringing in people everyday .
We were told that some people took ill and died while in prison, did they notify their relatives?
Well, all kind of characters are in prison. God forbid, if I had died there ,my family would have asked. You must notify them before doing things. But some young men just walked away from home. Nobody knows where they are and when the police arrested them. Probably they were sleeping under the bridge or shops and then the police came to raid them. That would be difficult for the prisons authorities to locate their relations. Even when I got back to Benin,it took a while for me to recognize the place because the place had changed.
So, how was the Benin you used to know?
Of course, it is changed. Even when you travel and you leave home for sometime, there will be a lot of changes here and there. It looked strange when I go there. The roads are bad and some are still being construction.
What about those people picked up by the police, did they allow them reach out to their relations?
Like I said, some have lost contact with their families. Not too long ago, they raided some people at the ports. And those who were raided were conductors who plied the area. Others had been released but it remained just one guy there and he walked to me .I asked him were are you people. And he said he had been away from home for so long and he doesn't know where his relations are. He was such a young boy. The money was not the bail because we could get some churches or NGO's to do that but who will sign for him.
But isn't it the responsibilities of the prisons to find out where they are from?
Even if I give you address of my father's house in Benin and they went there and know one remembers me. Everybody in that house now are tenants. You won't meet any of my blood brothers there. So a lot of things are really working against them.
Did you have access to television, radio, and papers?
Those are contrabands.
But outside Nigeria they have a common room where they watch television?
Yes when we first go there they showed films to once a week and that was on Friday. Before now we were always in permanent lock up and released maybe for fifteen minutes a day. And when the weather changes then they lock us up for the rest of the day. If it rained for seven days you won't move an inch. But as things began to improve they began to treat people like human beings. An NGO was bringing in their projector then, and then television. When that got bad, we had to approach people to buy us a TV. But what we watched then was films because the television was not censored. The only time they released the area was maybe during world cup like this and after that they take it back.
So, you don't listen to news too?
What if you are watching the television and they announce on television that there is tsunami in your town and then the person collapse or dies. So they don't want any dead body on their neck. For instance there was a time they said my mum appeared in the newspaper and I begged the warders to help me buy it but they said no and that even if they would they would only cut out the place for me.
So how did you cope with studying in prisons?
I depended on God and the course materials form school. I also used Encarta it helped me a lot especially in definitions and likes. I read and pray and I expect God to help me through.
During that time 15 minutes what do you do?
We just take a shower and go back. But that has improved especially in maximum. You are opened in the morning till about 1.30 and go back and take your siesta and later you are at 4.00 you are opened again.
The place is now liberalized?
Of course, but prison is prison. But then they were having more death on their hands. If you want to play ball you do that when it is quarter to six you have to go back to your block.
Did they allow visits?
Sure, they do.
What was the frequency?
When we first came in it was just once in a month, now it is three times a week. Then one controller came and realized the rush for those days was too much and he just said lets do it everyday.
Do they monitor your discussion?
They do to an extent but if they know that you are not someone who is problematic they might decide to live you.
What is the duration of the visit?
Its about fifteen minutes
What do you feel about this country after all what happened to you?
I do not love this country but I don't hate this country too because I believe there is hope for this country. If we do what is right. Like I told you the police stopped me, he had to go into my wallet and he checked everything I had on and he went through my phone. He shouldn't have done that but I also know that if I had protested he might as well conclude am an armed robber and shoot.
Before I try to explain myself, it is either am dead or back in prison. He invaded my privacy but in civilized society you don't do that. Until we allow law to prevail in this country then we can't move forward. In a movie I watched recently somebody quoted and said 'when we care for each other we loose our humanity'. Now you would discover as far as that man is concerned he is doing his job but when it gets to point that you start scrolling through my messages then there is a problem.