By: Boniface Ocheje
Life is full of ironies, many unintended and unanticipated consequences – good and bad consequences alike. When on the 5th of December, 2019 the Federal High Court sitting in Lagos convicted Orji Uzor Kalu (OUK) for fraud, and sentenced him to 12 years in prison, many, including me, saw what happened just as another instance of the falling of the mighty, with the emphasis on the falling. But there has been some unintended consequence to it all.
OUK was moved to Ikoyi prison in Lagos the same day. Two days after, on the 7th of December, he was transfered to Kuje prison in Abuja..
In normal circumstances and for an ordinary person, one would expect OUK to be shocked and depressed by life in prison. But that was not what happened. Within days of his settling down in prison, OUK took notice of the conditions of the Nigerian prisons. As a premium inmate, OUK was largely immuned to the basic grind of prison life. But he was able to grasp the grinding conditions inmates and even the warders face on daily basis.
I got to know about OUK in prison through my elder brother, who was convicted of robbery that he did not commit. We believe that the judge was bribed to convict him. My brother’s case has been on appeal. For two years, we have not been able to get a date for the appeal to progress. Two lawyers we hired have withdrawn as my family could not pay them. As a lecturer, I could not afford to pay in a timely fashion the amount of money the lawyers were calling. I visit my brother in Kuje Prison twice a month, until recently when they suspended visits due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
It was through my brother I first heard about OUK’s activities in Kuje prison and I went to research more about his case and conviction. Before now all I knew about OUK was what I read in newspapers or things I heard people say about him, just as we generally hear about politicians and public figures. But when I went to visit my brother in January of this year, he told me about OUK. Apparently, they met in the church. Kuje Prison has a 1000-seated church run by a catholic priest as the Chaplain. My brother is a member of the church choir.
I understand that OUK is a good and devoted catholic and he worships regularly at the church. It was there he noticed my brother in the choir. OUK will routinely show interest in the cases of inmates he comes across. Upon heating about my brother’s situation, he sent for a new lawyer to take over my brother’s appeal. The lawyer is a big lawyer, one of the best in Abuja. OUK paid the lawyer on the spot and within a week, the Court of Appeal fixed a date for the appeal to be heard. The hearing was only delayed by the lockdown.
I became interested in OUK and I began to ask more questions. I was totally shocked by what I discovered. My brother was not the only one to benefit from this man’s large heart. OUK has embarked on changing the lives of inmates in Kuje prison – requesting the authority to improve feeding, water supply, electricity, paying for bail conditions, hiring lawyers for them, giving out money for medicine for the sick, paying the fines for many, giving money to those who completed their sentence so they could start life again. OUK is the benevolent revolution in prison.
I have not had the opportunity of meeting him one on one, even though I began to visit the prison more frequently hoping I might get an opportunity to thank him on behalf of our family. But I have heard interesting things about the man from other inmates and warders I have met, as well. I learnt that apart from the various assistance he has been giving to inmates, OUK is planning something bigger. He is planning to use his position, influence and contact to transform the Nigerian criminal justice system. He will be building a coalition of other groups and foundations toward this goal. I heard he is already working closely with one Foundation that focuses due process.
From all I can see, OUK’s time in prison has been an epiphany. God is using him to turn things around. He is turning into the rejected stone that became the head of the corner. And may become that critical factor that will turn around the Nigerian failing justice system.