In recent years, the Nigerian government has been accused of indiscriminate arrests, harassment, and prosecution in its fight against crimes and terrorism. There are allegations that many innocent citizens had been killed; while others had been starved, poisoned, brutalised and dehumanised in prisons.
On Friday, January 10, 2014, however, The PUNCH reported that President Goodluck Jonathan ordered the release of 165 terror suspects. A similar directive was given in May 2013, when scores of women and children were released. According to the Director of Defence Information, Maj.-Gen. Chris Olukolade, these and similar moves are “meant to enhance peace efforts in the country.”But beyond the peace efforts, such moves are necessary because a democratic government must not be seen or thought of to be engaged in extraligalities. The innocent must not be falsely accused, prosecuted and or jailed. And those whom the government thinks warrant prosecution must be speedily tried. Keeping the accused, as is the case with Charles Oyintombra Okah, locked up for years and under inhumane condition is not only indecent and cruel, it is against what justice, humanity and democracy call for.
It will be recalled that Okah has been in detention ever since he was suspected, amongst other crimes, of being the elusive Jomo Gbomo of the famed Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. He is also accused of being an accessory to the 2010 Independence Day bombings at the Eagle Square, Abuja. If these allegations are true, where is the supportive evidence? If indeed he is what the Nigerian government alleges, where is the incontrovertible evidence? Mere allegations are not evidence of guilt; and unfounded suspicion should not be the basis for a lengthy confinement.
It is disturbing that without an iota of evidence, the Nigerian government locks up a suspect in jail and where, gradually, physical and mental illness are creeping up on him. All efforts at reaching President Jonathan to intervene in the matter have failed. All efforts at a speedy and impartial trial have also failed. What’s more, entreaties to the Judiciary and the Catholic Church – the Church to which Charles Okah belongs — have also failed.
Okah should never have been arrested in the first place. This is so because there is no evidence linking him to any crime or terrorism. None! In the second place, the civil society – especially those engaged in human and civil rights campaign – should have come to his defence. Third, the President himself knew, and even said so in a televised comment he made shortly after the unfortunate incident that neither MEND nor the Okah brothers were responsible for the 2010 Independence Day bombings. And fourth, the presiding judge should have, at the very least, dismissed the case. But he didn’t! What is he afraid of?
And even Anthony Olubunmi Okogie –formerly Catholic Archbishop of Lagos who is known for truth, justice and human rights and for his defence of the defenceless – has been mute on this matter. He and the Roman Catholic Church have basically abandoned a life-long member of the Catholic faith to rot alone and in silence. Fourteen months after a Save-My-Soul letter to the leadership of the Church, there has been no response.
With nowhere to turn and with no succour in sight, the family of Okah has decided to bring the matter to the public’s notice by releasing a press statement. The entire Okah family expressed concern over the “continued inhuman incarceration and deteriorating man-induced mental health of their son.” Frankly, Okah’s mental condition is so bad that in early December 2013, Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court ordered him to undergo a battery of psychiatric tests.
Other than the long periods of solitary confinement, the Okah family alleged that: “The drug, known as Epilim 200 (sodium valproate or ESV), was prescribed by Prof. Bwala, a consultant Neurologist at the National Hospital Abuja, to treat the damage to Okah’s neurological system caused by exposure to high levels of fumigant chemicals, when he and his cell mates were locked up inside the cell that was being fumigated which led to the subsequent death of Francis Osuwo.”
The family went on to say, “Our research however revealed that sodium valproate, which was administered in 200mg dosage thrice daily to him, is a medication primarily for epilepsy. Charles Okah is not epileptic. A fellow inmate in a single cell block where Charles Okah has been languishing in solitary confinement for three years, confirmed that he had complained to one Dr. Ajayi of the Kuje Prison clinic several times concerning the serious side effects the drug was having on him; listing some of them as hallucinations, memory loss, severe headaches, confusion and bed wetting.”
What we have here – insofar as the treatment of Charles Okah within the confines of the Kuje Prison is concerned — is nothing but gross medical malpractice. A man, who is being abused by the political and judicial systems, is also being abused by the medical profession – a profession whose members took the Hippocratic oath — prescribe medicine for the good of any patient and never do harm to anyone – and the Declaration of Geneva: maintain the utmost respect for human life; not use knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat.
Just because the government says a man is guilty does not mean he is truly guilty. We ought to have the courage and the commonsense to ask: “Where is the evidence?” Here and now, however, Nigerians should be concerned about three things and three things only: First, the truth: Who planned and executed the Independence Day bombings? Second, the need for a speedy, impartial and untainted judge to unearth the truth. And third, if there is no iron-clad evidence, then, Okah should be set free, allowed to rejoin his family and go about his life and private matters.
For the immediate period, however, Charles Okah should be allowed bail and to proceed on medical treatment at home or abroad. We need not forget or be blind to the fact that Justice Gabriel Kolawole granted bail to Senator Ali Ndume (an alleged Boko Haram sponsor and sympathiser). Presidential magnanimity should be brought to bear on this matter, too. Justice shouldn’t be this complicated and expensive.
By Sabella Abidde