Goni Ali Shettima is an 11-year-old boy living with a mental condition akin to autism. Since the age of eight, he has also been living in bondage – held captive within the confines of Maiduguri Maximum Security Prison, Borno State, in North-East Nigeria. More specifically, he is in Cell Number 16, Unit 3, Cluster 2.
He is yet another hapless victim of the gross violation of human rights, sexual abuses and prostitution of women and children inside a federal prison in Nigeria.
The concentration camp
There are four separate compounds within the MMSP yard accommodating over 1,550 inmates. They are clusters 1, 2 and 3 for men and a much smaller compound, ‘Gidan Mata’, the female section.
The men awaiting or standing trial are confined in cluster 1, and already convicted men serve their time in cluster 3. The Boko Haram insurgency altered this arrangement with the influx of detainees, who were squeezed into every available space.
‘Gidan Mata’, which lumps every category of female inmates together, was originally purpose-built to incarcerate only “very important persons”. It was converted later to the female custody after remaining empty for many years in spite of the high rate of corruption and vice involving the elite.
The compound for women is a stifling prison within a prison and that has been responsible for the depressive bipolar behaviour of most of its inhabitants, which is erroneously attributed to evil spirits.
A peaceful but noisy protest by the women on Saturday, October 13, 2018, over their harsh living conditions was brutally suppressed by the prison’s armed squad with severe beatings; freshly cut branches were used to flog them all over their bodies, and batons on the joints of the ring leaders, leaving several of the protesters with broken bones. The scream of women on that day was terrible. It was an awful spectacle.
The last bus stop
Cluster 2, also known as ‘the last bus stop’, is an insalubrious, octagon-shaped, reinforced concrete structure built on one level with a capacious central courtyard. It is divided into six identical units, with each unit comprised of 16 cells, except that of unit 1 with 15.
The 95 death row cells, aptly to be described as cages, are reserved for condemned men awaiting the hangman’s noose in a currently disused and rusty gallows. A total of 71 persons are on death row in MMSP. They are made up of 65 men, three women, and one confused 13-year-old boy, who committed patricide.
The defiant teenager, Suleiman Salisu, bludgeoned his father to death with repeated blows of a club to his head for sexually defiling him since he was five years old. He said the abuses always occurred whenever his father, who doubted his paternity, reached a state of excitement after sniffing glue. Then in 2017, one fateful night in February, Suleiman did the contrary. He said “no more” and snapped.
During his short trial, following the selfish advice of his maternal uncle, Usman Durkwa (Deputy Governor of Borno State), to hide the family’s embarrassing secret, Suleiman then testified in court that his only motive for murder was “anger” at the glue-sniffing addiction of his father. Without even considering a psychiatric evaluation, the judge, Justice Umar Zanna Fadau, living up to his reputation as “the hanging judge”, sentenced the then 12-year-old child to death by hanging.
Anger, avarice, covetousness, envy, hatred, jealousy, psychopathic disorder, an unforgiving spirit; all these are the negative emotions and thought-cankers, the evil spirits, tempestuous passions and mind-diseases behind the homicides that landed these men, women and unfortunate boy in the last bus stop of sorrow, and remorse, and unbounded impenitence.
The haunted passage
The corridor in Cluster 2 with a two feet elevated base is adjacent to the courtyard. It covers the entire length of the octagon outline of the place, encircling the courtyard and taking the form of a zigzag track ideal for walking exercises.
Crevices have been created where the concrete slabs over the corridor failed to connect properly. This building defect in several places, have been taken advantage of by a miniature species of bats that have made it their abode. They forage for nocturnal insects found in their abundance, gorge themselves full like gluttons and then return by daybreak to relieve themselves. Their droppings, which resembles black grains of rice in appearance, rains down intermittently throughout the early morning. The outer walls of the corridor facing the courtyard are built with perforated blocks to allow in as much natural light into the passage from the outside. The lower parts of the walls on both sides and floor are splattered with phlegm, indiscriminately spat out with complete disregard to hygiene, while upper walls are littered with hundreds of old and new mud nests built by wasps. Small neat holes indicate nests discharged of the next generation of wasps.
A dark curve in the corridor between Unit 4 and 5 is where cannabis is smoked and trysts are arranged for quick sex; especially with minors. It was here that Suleiman Salisu was lured to and raped by an older condemned convict. Bats peep from above through the crevices, involuntary witnesses to the strange happenings going on beneath them. An eerie atmosphere created by the dimly-lit corridor, the echo and squeaky-sounding bats have given rise to the claims that the corridor is haunted, visited by ghosts of victims murdered by the condemned killers inhabiting Cluster 2.
From the corridor, two gates in each of the units, lead into their atrium where a gallery of death row cells are lined up. The 10ft x 6ft cells do not offer much protection from the elements. Sand storms dump inches of sand and fine dust through the open window bars, requiring constant cleaning up. The hexagon-shaped iron door bars are arranged like honeycombs, just as the windows. Because they extend right down to the floor level, it makes easy access for large snakes and rodents. The clever rats though, have an uncanny ability to discern which cells to avoid, such as the ones occupied by Koji Gambo and his fellow rat eaters, or else by morning they would become roasted barbeque. Except for the entrails and teeth, every other part, from the head down to the tail is consumed with relish.
A plague of pesky flies harass persistently from dawn to dusk. From irritating the ears, they even try entering sensitive nostrils. By dusk, they hand over the baton of harassment to blood sucking mosquitoes who run their lap from dusk to dawn with relentless waves of attack. With no provision for fans, temperatures inside the cells can soar as high as over 45 degrees Celsius during the dry season and bitterly cold when the Harmattan arrives. Light bulbs, which are part of the original fixtures in the cell ceilings, have all been deliberately removed and disconnected, resulting in pitch-black darkness at night, except on those nights when the full moonlight comes to the rescue.
The holes inside the cages
At the opposite end of the cell threshold, a hole levels out with the floor that serves a dual purpose as a bath drain and a squat latrine. The opening at the hole in the ground is four inches in diameter, and it’s actually one end of a PVC elbow drain pipe fitting. The other end, connected to a subterranean pipe, runs straight into a septic tank. Like an archer, you learn very quickly how to align your bow and aim your arrows to hit the bulls’ eye of the four-inch target. Even with diarrhoea, you do not want to risk using that contraception at night just in case something lurking behind the pipe curve with very sharp teeth or venomous fangs mistaken your dangling genitals for a potential meal and bites.
When everything is quiet at night you can even hear a pin drop a mile away. For those who must take the risk to relieve themselves, they would usually “break wind” in short, short bursts. They have a good reason for doing this. Not only does the hole amplify sounds, but depending on wind direction and velocity, it mimics various brass instruments. Amazingly, this can be intimidating and highly embarrassing even for the most hardened criminal when confronted with such a cacophony under an awkward and undignified squat posture in the silent night.
Titi and Asina
The West Side of Cluster 2 has been spared of rats because of the presence of Titi and Asina, two female cats raised by Yaya in cell 2, unit 1. Yaya Jibrin, a condemned man from Gombe State has been on death row in MMSP for 23 years and loves his cats passionately. Titi and her mother, Asina, recently gave birth between them to seven adorable and playful kittens. Those, who eat cats or can’t stand them know better than to mess with the Fulani’s cats. He takes each one of them as the family he completely lost touch with.
One fine morning, the prison authorities decided to get rid of all the cats without finding a solution to the rat menace. Yaya was devastated. He wept inconsolably, begging that at least they shouldn’t be killed. Titi, Asina, and the seven kittens were put inside a cardboard box, taken to a bush far away from the prison and released. Three nights later, to the surprise of everyone, Asina had managed to lead her family back home to Yaya’s cell with the exception of two kittens.
For the three days the cats were away, it gave some respite to the rats as well as the lizards, who could bask leisurely in the sun without looking across their shoulders – so to speak. Yaya was overjoyed to see his ‘family’ back home. He was as excited as any parent whose missing child had been found. But for those who could not stand the cats, they were disappointed. It further confirmed their conviction that Asina is a witch in the form of a cat, the same superstitious belief they have of an owl that was rescued from being lynched.
In the middle of the courtyard is an open sided building that resembles a gazebo. It has a concrete pyramid-shaped roof supported by nine pillars. The building serves as a praying area for Moslems, and the ironing section for the laundry. Migratory swallow birds have made their home there with well-crafted nests glued to angles on the concrete ceiling around the central pillar. They let out high pitch shrieks when flying in and out with swift elegant grace; manoeuvring even better than the jet fighter planes of the air force roaring past the prison skies on an almost daily basis to harass or make sorties in their protracted battle against a yet unvanquished insurgency.
The elevated base of the structure which is two and a half feet high, serves as a convenient charcoal –box ironing platform for the exploited laundry boys to stand beside to iron the washed and starched uniforms of prison warders, and clothing of their families. Nigeria is perhaps the only country in the world where full uniforms of junior and senior prison officers, compete with ranks, name tags, badges and epaulette can be found inside the cells of prisoners for washing or pending collection in a maximum security prison. Instead of seeing this folly as a major security lapse, these agents of persecution, who still operate on the colonial prison system and punitive template, take the denial of prisoner’s access to information and current affairs news as more of a security measure. The donated television sets in the mosque and church are restricted to only religious programmes, and it is an offence to tune into a drama, sports or news channel. Radio, newspapers, magazines and a wide range of books are considered ‘haram.’ MMSP cannot boast of a bookshelf, let alone a library.
All around the courtyard, trees such as paw-paw, date palm, mango, citrus and dogoyaro have been planted. Some inmates use the land in the fringes to cultivate vegetables gardens using human waste for manure. They must constantly bribe the warders with the produce in order to retain the gardens whenever they are subtly hinted that gardening is a privilege that can be withdrawn. Meanwhile, these same warders use prisoners as serfs to toil for free on their self-allotted farm plots inside the prison yard. Even during official hours, they abandon their duty posts to spend time on their farms as overseers, to ensure that the prisoners do not steal some of the crops for themselves. All 16 cells in unit 5 have been converted for the sole purposes of storage for the farm produce of warders.
The presence of shrubs and trees has attracted different species of birds making stopovers to quench their taste and assuage their hunger. They drink from the pool of stagnant water by the underground water reservoir used as a well, and feed on the coarse corn meal remnants left to dry out in the sun to be later sold as animal feed by the chief warder. Large Grasshoppers, who feast on tender leaves in the courtyard have become prey themselves to the inmates, who compete with birds and chameleons for this protein-rich food source.
The trees, birds, and their falling melody give the courtyard the semblance of a tranquil oasis in this semi-arid region of Nigeria. Even the white doves, the symbol of peace, visit the courtyard of cluster 2. But behind this façade of natural harmony and normalcy, is a dark, terrible, sinister and repulsive secret; an infamy that has been well hidden from the public and visitors to the prison for long, until now.