27 years in the hangman’s noose

[file] Man in prison cell

One of the enduring tropes of human comeback and survival is associated with Fyodor Dostoevsky who gained reprieve from execution at the last minute.

Yet, the glistering success of the Russian writer in his post-near-death epoch would not have effectively obviated the ordeal of the pall of an imminent death that hung over him before his sudden freedom.

But quite unlike Dostoevsky, that tragic hiatus was not short-lived in the case of a Nigerian citizen Clinton Kanu.

In 1992, at the age of 29 when he brimmed with the hope of conquering the world, Kanu was sentenced to death for murder.

Kanu’s ordeal began when his in-laws were accused of stealing a generator and fluorescent tubes.

Shortly after the case was decided in a court, Kanu was accused of murder. He claimed those behind his ordeal later added robbery to his crimes. He traced his predicament to those who were bent on silencing him because they were afraid that he would favour their adversaries in a land dispute.

In his incarceration, he insisted on his innocence to no avail. He resolved to go the whole judicial hog. It was only at the Supreme Court that he was vindicated on April 5 after 27 years of waiting for his death sentence to be confirmed or nullified.

As long as we are devoid of this grim fate of Kanu, we cannot by any stretch of vicariousness feel the frustration of waiting for almost three decades for the hangman to finish job. It was in that state of hopelessness that Kanu, a consultant criminologist, lost his mother and the business he was doing before his incarceration.

That the prevarication on whether to execute Kanu or not lasted decades is an indictment of the nation’s justice system.

Thus, reforming the judiciary as President Muhammadu Buhari claims to be doing through his so-called anti-corruption campaign should not just be about searching for judges who are branded as denuded of the moral lustre that renders them qualified for their high offices.

The government must go beyond this. There is the need to reform the justice system for cases to be expeditiously treated. The government should improve the welfare of judges so that the bench could be more attractive to brilliant and hardworking lawyers.

The ordeal of Kanu has also thrown up the need for the death sentence to be abolished.

Clearly, with the bourgeoning business of kidnapping with its practitioners killing those whose families refuse to pay ransom while gleefully chopping off the fingers of those whose relatives dither, the temptation is strong to argue that once anybody is linked to this menace, he or she should be summarily killed.

Yet, we must not be oblivious that the innocent can be falsely accused of complicity in kidnapping in order to eliminate them. And when that happens, their exoneration in the future cannot bring them to life.

In a sense, the death sentence frees a criminal from the opprobrium he or she would deservedly be subjected to if he or she were only to serve a sentence and return home.

Again, it is only the poor who suffer the death sentence. The rich and the highly connected have ways of circumventing the death sentence. They have ways of gaming the system. They are the ones who use plea bargain to escape from justice. Even if they get sentences at all, they spend their time in swanky hotels where they still wield their influence in the outside world.

From their so-called imprisonment, they remain godfathers who decide who should be elected as senators or governors. And if we must retain the death sentence, it should be reviewed to cover economic and financial crimes.

A man who has stolen billions from the state treasury should be given the death sentence if found guilty. For, through his heist, he has provoked poverty that would cause hundreds to kill in the course of robbing others in order to stave off hunger.

If Kanu were Dostoevsky, he would enrich his oeuvre with the material from his prison life. That tragic phase of his life would have furnished Kanu the replications of Dostovoevsky’s The House of the Dead and other writings that capture his prison experience.

As in the case of Kanu, it is not all prison experiences that vitalise the imagination. A prison experience like Kanu’s rather dulls the imagination.

Thus, Kanu may not be like Wole Soyinka who wrote his The Man Died after incarceration, Obafemi Awolowo whose prison diary is My March Through Prison, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf in which he forewarns the world of his racial bigotry and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. We should not underestimate the inertia that could result from the grim prospect of death anytime.

Why should he nourish the mind by reading when death would soon come? And even if the prison authorities offered him the opportunities to learn some skills, why should him wholeheartedly embrace them knowing that the end might soon come?

Thus, Kanu has so much to do to regain his life. Before he was jailed, he was not married. He would need to marry now and build his own family. But here the society may also not be fair to him. Who would marry an ex-prisoner? There are all kinds of strictures against a person who has gone and returned from prison. Whether he has been exonerated or found guilty is immaterial.

The society does not want to have anything to do with him. This ostracism is another prison that Kanu may be consigned to in the remaining part of his life.

But still smarting from his ill treatment, Kanu has resolved to seek justice . He is set to sue the Federal Government and Imo State Government and ask for N20 billion as a compensation for his unjust incarceration. But the state should not wait until Kanu goes to court and wins his case before he finds his feet. There should be a way of compensating people like Kanu who have been wrongly treated. There are thousands of citizens who are languishing in overcrowded and disease-infested prisons when they have not broken any known law in the country.

Of course, the cases of unjust imprisonment are not peculiar to Nigeria. Even in the most advanced societies with seemingly unimpeachable justice systems, their citizens are also wrongly jailed sometimes.

In February this year, there was the case of a California man who spent 39 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murder. But the authorities acknowledged their wrongdoing by offering to pay him $21 million compensation.

Before then, there was the case of Lawrence Mckinney of Tennessee who spent 31 years in prison after he was wrongly convicted of raping a woman and stealing her television. He was sentenced to 115 years in prison – 100 years for the rape and 15 years for the theft. But in Mckinney’s case, the wrong treatment by the authorities continued after leaving prison since they offered him only $75 compensation. However, his lawyer insisted on being paid $1 million compensation.

If there were a huge price to be paid by the Nigerian government for wrongful imprisonment, it would help to check the impunities of its justice system and officials such as security operatives, especially police officers, who consider infringing the rights of the citizens part of their sacred responsibilities that they must not violate.

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