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?
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.