Executive Director of Centre for Justice, Mercy and Reconciliation, Hezekiah Olujobi, who spent six years behind bars for alleged armed robbery but was later released, tells ALEXANDER OKERE why he helps Nigerians wrongfully arrested, detained or convicted to regain their freedom
As someone who lost his freedom albeit wrongfully, what does being free mean to you?
My name is Pastor Hezekiah Olujobi. I am from Efon Alaaye in Ekiti State, but I am based in Ibadan (Oyo State). I am a self-developed person. By the grace of God, I am blessed with four children – four girls; I am happily married. Currently, I am a full-time activist. I will be 60 in August (2023).
Freedom means a lot to me. It means the ability to express myself. It means the ability to help others to express themselves. It means the ability to help those who cannot speak to speak out. I want others to enjoy freedom.
Can you recall the events that led to your incarceration?
On December 7, 1986, I was wrongfully detained along with some armed robbers and that journey lasted for six years. Out of the seven of us that were arrested, only three survived. Four died in the prison.
How did they die?
They died as a result of the condition of the prison then. When I was arrested, I was remanded in Agodi prison (now Agodi Custodial Centre) on January 27, 1987. I gained freedom on March 4, 1993. So, March 4, 2023, marked my 30 years of freedom.
Did you try to convince the policemen who arrested you that you were not involved in the crime?
The police knew that I was not involved. It was a long story. They just wanted to detain me as a crime witness. I was also a victim in that particular case (of armed robbery). The bad guys (suspects) took my belongings and money. Someone who knew them advised me to report to the police, and that some innocent people were arrested for the crime they (suspects) committed. When I got to the police station, I lodged my complaint and led the police to arrest them. In the process, I told the police I had information that those who robbed me were responsible for an armed robbery incident in Ede where innocent people were arrested for the crime. One of the policemen asked me how I knew and who told me. I revealed the identity of the people who told me, but we were detained. The armed robbers made confessional statements, leading to the arrest of others. All these happened in Osun State. At that time, I think I was about 34 years old.
Were you properly arraigned before a court?
No. It was because the case dragged on for too long, I was granted bail and that was the end. I was released on bail; my parents bailed me after six years. The case (against me) was struck out for lack of seriousness. That was when I left prison.
You currently have the photo of a young lady as your profile picture on your Facebook page. Who is she to you?
That is one of my daughters. She is in the university. I have three of them in the university today. I got married in 1997.
Can you paint a picture of the state of the cell where you were locked up?
It was hell! Hell! It was the congestion that led to the outbreak of many diseases and a lot of inmates died.
What categories of inmates did you share a cell with while in prison?
There were different categories of people. There were educated people. When Osun State was created, we were moved to the state, which was where the incident occurred. But then, in Ilesa (where we were taken to), it was hell.
You mentioned earlier that some other Nigerians were also wrongfully imprisoned. Which of them had the most pathetic case?
Among them was a man called Martins Ada from Benue. State He was arrested for boarding a train without a ticket and was locked up for armed robbery. There was another man identified as Waheed who was arrested for armed robbery.
While you were in the custodial centre, did the warders and your cell mates believe you were innocent?
No. I was maltreated because I was the one who reported the armed robbery incident to the police. The masterminds said I and the man who advised me to inform the police were informants. So, we were not treated fairly at all, but the man who advised me to inform the police was later released when his parent bailed him. However, by the grace of God, on August 18, 1989, I had an encounter with Jesus Christ and gave my life to Christ while I was in prison.
How did your parents cope while you were in prison?
My parents were aware that I was arrested and taken to prison. It took the intervention of my younger brother before my parents knew my whereabouts.
How long did that take?
I had spent about four years in prison before they got to know where I was. My younger brother had to visit many prisons in search of me. He said one day, he was just passing by when he saw Agodi prison (custodial centre) and moved to go in and enquire about me. When he got there, he called out my name and I heard it while I was sleeping. As soon as we saw each other, we started crying. I had lost a lot of weight.
Did he recognise you?
I recognised him but he did not recognise me.
Did your parents think you were dead, having not seen you for four years?
Of course! You know how parents think. But I had the hope that I would leave the prison alive. On my first night in prison, I had a dream wherein seven of us who were arrested for armed robbery were crossing a river. Four, out of the seven of us, fell into the river. That was when I knew I would leave the prison. I shared the dream with someone, and the person interpreted it correctly. I had another dream; in that dream, I saw a tree with six branches in front of my father’s house, but the tree was full of cobwebs. I saw myself in the tree. It was when the tree was being cut down and was about to fall that I woke up. I shared the dream with a friend who told me to prepare for a long journey. He said the six branches of the tree meant the journey might last for six years but that I would survive it.
What were the strangest things you had to do to stay mentally fit while in incarceration?
Oh, I kept reading the Bible and singing hymns. I am from a Christian home. My mother brought me a hymn book each time she visited me (after the fourth year). The Bible and the hymn book kept me strong.
How did you feel when you stepped out of the custodial centre after six years?
(Laughs) I felt happy that I came out alive. The air I breathed in was completely different. Once you step into a prison, you will perceive an odour. The first time I entered the prison, the odour that came upon me was serious, but when I came out, it was a breath of fresh air.
Did you find it easy to reintegrate back into society?
That was a tough one because when I went to prison, I did not have a senior school certificate. When I came out at the age of 30, I could not learn any trade. I could not return to school. When I wanted to attend a Bible school, I was told that a senior school certificate was the minimum requirement. But a Bible school in Ilesa gave me the opportunity. Once one was called by God, one was offered admission and taught the basic things about God. When I left the prison, I attended that school for one year and in 1995, I was ordained as a pastor in Christ Apostolic Church.
One of my elder sisters had said she would have poisoned me in prison if she had her way. But when I came out of prison, she could not believe that I had changed and that it would take her two years for her to believe that I had changed. I did not tell you that I have been in and out of the prison system six times for minor offences.
What offences did you commit?
Don’t let us go into that area.
A caller identity app showed that you probably run a non-governmental organisation. Is that true?
Yes. My experience (in prison) inspired me to create an NGO. After my ordination, I had a lot of ups and downs. People did not believe my story and people wanted to stigmatise me, but I did not allow all that to move me. God told me to go back there (prison) to release others. He told me that he is the God of justice. That was why I established the ministry. I also go there (prisons) to preach.
You cannot just go to prison and say that a prisoner is innocent because many prisoners are liars and manipulators. How do we ascertain that a prisoner is innocent? We listen to their stories. We investigate and apply for their case files to be reviewed. We are open to partnership.
How many people wrongfully detained for years have regained freedom through your advocacy?
By the grace of God, we have helped to set 18 people free from the death row. We reviewed their case files and discovered that they were truly innocent. There were three major cases. One of them, one Olusola Adepetu, was sentenced to death for murder and he cried, saying that he did not commit the offence. In the course of reading the judgement of the Supreme Court, I saw a dissenting judgement that condemned the ruling of the lower court. I held onto that dissenting judgement and let the public know that the man did not commit the offence. A daughter of the late (Chief Obafemi) Awolowo, who is also deceased, Mrs (Omotola) Oyediran, read about the story in the Tribune newspaper and called me. I told her everything and she lent her voice to the freedom of that man. Through her influential support, we have secured the freedom of many other inmates who were wrongfully sentenced to death, detained, or serving life imprisonment. Over 400 detainees regained their freedom.
We also have a place called Jubilee House where former prisoners stay for rehabilitation. We have over 300 beneficiaries and none of them returned to prison.
It seems your imprisonment for six years and eventual release served a purpose. What do you think of that?
My imprisonment was part of God’s plan to fulfill the purpose of my existence.
In a Facebook post you made, you said a lawyer claimed to be a legal representative of a suspect but never had the suspect’s file. What do you mean?
This is part of what we experience in our casework intervention. In the course of that, we have seen a lot of lawyers manipulating the relations of a suspect. We had a case in Osun State where a lawyer represented someone in court without a case file. It was through the intervention of the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, that the suspect was able to get a good lawyer. Most cases of wrongful conviction can be traced to poor legal representation. I would like to add that the cold attitude toward ex-convicts should be discouraged. People should have the grace to grant them (ex-convicts) a second chance and give them the benefit of the doubt.
What do you think is responsible for that?
It is a general phenomenon. But I have conquered that. Nobody can stigmatise me.
How can others deal with social hostility?
We need more awareness for people to see the need to encourage ex-inmates, though some of them cause havoc because they lack a soft landing in the society. What ex-inmates need to overcome stigmatisation is honesty. They should let their story be true when they deal with people because they may be investigated. When they do not tell stories in honesty, they may cause more havoc for themselves.