Mr Abbas Mojeed Akanni left Nigeria for Saudi Arabia in the hope of a greener pasture.
Unfortunately, this was not to be as he got into jail on account of what he claimed he knew nothing about. He miraculously got rescued alongside others in 2017. In this Interview with Babatunde Adeleke, he recounts his experience in the Middle East country, particularly in prison. Now that he is back in the country, he begs Nigerians to come to his aid. Excerpts:
How did you get to Saudi Arabia and how did the development lead you to prison?
On the 10th of August 2001, I left Nigeria for Saudi Arabia. I could not locate the fellow I was supposed to meet up with in Saudi Arabia due to the fact that he had changed his name and the nature of work he was into.
He did not disclose his nature of work to me before I left Nigeria and when I got there, I learnt he could not attend to me or even see me. Upon realising that I was on my own, I met some other Nigerians and inquired from them how I could make a living. They told me that the legal business they were into was washing of cars, I told them I could wash cars as well and we started going to the car wash together.
How then did you land in prison?
The fellow who helped me is named Musbau; he is from Ilorin and we used to go to the car wash together. On the 28th of September, it was only forty-nine days since I got to Saudi Arabia that an incident happened. At that point, I had no understanding of the country’s official language but there were others who understood the language already. Sometimes, the patrons of the car wash and the washer men engaged in heated argument about where to park their cars or how to park the cars for easy cleaning. Most of the patrons detested the manner in which the washer men talked to them.
On that fateful day, the argument got so heated up that the patron had to call the police. No one knew that they were police officers since they were not in uniform. Moreover, some officers did come around, we would give them money and they would just leave. The washer men simply told the officers to leave, at some point it became a physical combat. After about three days, a declaration was made that the Nigerian washer men killed a police officer. We were all perplexed because we all knew that you should not assault a police officer, particularly one in uniform.
We were told that the policeman was not in uniform and that he was not on duty that day, he just came illegally to raid the car wash. As a result, a large number of people were arrested, about five hundred in number. At that point, the different embassies of the nationalities involved began to wade into the situation and a large number of the other people were allowed to go.
The Nigerian Embassy in Saudi Arabia just left us until Nigerians were the only one left in the police net. We pleaded our case, there were thirty-five of us. Along the line, someone was released. They also released another twenty-one people. Amidst the thirteen of us left, someone died. His name is Nurudeen, one person was also picked to stand in on the case, his name is Sulaimon, he is still in Saudi Arabian Prison as we speak.
When you were sentenced, how many years did they say you were going to spend in jail?
The case was decided about four different times, the first judge said five years, then the second judge said seven years. The third time the judge said ten years, when he came around the fourth time, he pronounced that he sentenced us to fifteen years in anger. The legal ramification of this meant that we would be imprisoned and also given a thousand lashes. At that point, before the final trial, the Amnesty International was already involved. I was in constant correspondence with Chim Him before he left the post and handed over to Mrs Ella.
The organisation mounted pressure on Nigerian diplomats and the embassy in Saudi Arabia. As a result, the embassy sent a representative to our final trial. On the 28th of April, 2017, we were released due to the continued pressure that the Amnesty International mounted. We experienced a lot of things in prison and occasionally, the prison officials would frame up people to provoke us and push us to fight.
They did this so that we could have another case but we refrained from such because we knew their intent. The fifteen years I spent there was the equivalent of forty-five years in terms of experience because we saw and experienced a lot of things. We reached out to several high profile Nigerians during the period of our imprisonment but it was all to no avail. The Amnesty International really did a whole lot to ensure that we were safely released. We once witnessed the death of about ninety-two inmates, we knew that if we didn’t get help soon, our lives were hanging in the balance.
You talked about the lone suspect remaining in prison, what means did they use in identifying him as the one who allegedly committed the crime
He didn’t kill the police officer, none of us was involved in the situation. According to their legal tradition, anyone who is found to kill someone will be imprisoned until the child of the murdered becomes of age. If the child is male, the accused will be in prison until he is eighteen, it is seventeen for the female child. It is only after the child becomes an adult that he or she will then decide to either let the culprit go or that he should be killed. Sulaimon was the youngest of us all from Nigeria. Today, he is about forty-one years old, he was only about twenty-one when he got to Saudi Arabia.
For the record, there were so many nationalities that were working in the car wash. There were people from Ghana, Somalia, Jamaica, Chad, Niger and several other countries but their embassies took diplomatic steps to ensure their freedom, leaving only Nigerians behind. I only got to know about the Amnesty International after about four years in prison without trial. We were in court for over fifteen times before our first trial ever took place. There were a lot of times that the judge would not be on seat and several other issues like that. It was in court that Sulaimon was picked to be the one to wait behind, this was based on multitude of fabricated evidence.
We were tortured and forced to give statements against our will that we committed the murder. It was during the torture process that one of us died. If they didn’t find any person to pin the murder on, they would be in trouble before the king. So, they forced Sulaimon to not only to confess but to also act out the scene of the murder under duress. They packaged this as video evidence to show the king and to also present in court.
Myself, I was almost implicated in the situation; a fellow came to bear false evidence against me. He identified me as one of those involved in the atrocity but upon cross examination, his evidence didn’t hold water. His witness was highly faulty and as such I was allowed to go. He was a citizen and so he was not charged for perjury and contempt of court. I think I was allowed to go because they had already nailed Sulaimon and they didn’t want two people to stay back for the case. They would have allowed the faulty witness to remain sustained but God didn’t allow that to happen.
What would you want from Nigerians at the moment
I would want Nigerians to help Sulaimon to get out of prison, for a number of years we have been trying to achieve that. Now, It seems that upon the release of the eleven of us, things have died down. The child of the police officer would soon be of age and Sulaimon life is at stake. They made it clear to us that the opinion of the child won’t be needed as his father was acting on behalf of the government when he died.
I am therefore using this means to appeal to the Nigerian government to use all diplomatic means possible to secure the release of Sulaimon. Personally too, since I returned from Saudi Arabia on the 28th of April, I have had no job. Things are tight and I am using this medium to appeal to well-meaning Nigerians to come to my aid and assist me. I used to be a tyre dealer at Ogunpa Ibadan before I moved to Saudi Arabia because business was not moving.
How were you able to maintain communication with the external world from the prison
We were doing menial tasks in prison and we were able to save up money to buy phones. We also used part of the money to buy recharge vouchers and make calls too. There are several prisoners who are more affluent and would ask us to help them deliver their own food instead of going to queue in the mess hall. They also did not allow people go on hunger strikes, they did not allow anyone die deliberately in the prison too.