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Police sent Lanre to prison for 8 years to await trial for a case that didn't exist

Why did Lanre have to suffer for eight years awaiting trial behind bars?

Lanre was stuck in prison awaiting a trial no one was serious about prosecuting because he was the wrong suspect [Ejiro Eyanohonre]

One minute, the 41-year-old was going about his business, the next, a mob was accusing him of being an armed robber with zero evidence.

Data compiled by the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) shows that 69% of people in prisons across the country are awaiting trial, praying for the chance to prove their innocence — many times for minor crimes or alleged crimes police officers are unable to prove in court.

Olanrewaju Oladejo was one of them. This is his story.

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My parents are from Ogun State but I was born in Ajegunle. I dropped out of school when I was in JSS 2 because my parents couldn't continue to sponsor me. But they said I had to learn a trade instead and I became an apprentice to a panel beater three months later. This was 1999 and I was 17 years old.

I was a trainee for two years and some months, but I found something else while I was there. My boss always had cars in the shop to test, so he would put me in the seat next to the driver and say, "Watch as I drive, and change the gear," and I started picking up driving tips until I became a professional.

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I started planning how to find money to buy equipment to set up my shop, but again, I had no helper. I needed many things to set up but I couldn't pay for them so I started doing joinman with my former boss on the jobs he got. I was doing a lot of the bodywork and would expect to be paid ₦20k or ₦30k, but he would usually give me like ₦7k or ₦5k. It forced me to face driving more.

A guy regularly repaired his bus at my boss' place, so one day I connected with him and became his conductor. After a while, he allowed me to start driving the bus for three or four trips at a time.

Years later, one of my dad's friends needed someone to help him drive a bus and deliver money to him. I introduced him to my friend, but I also told him we would be sharing it — if he worked in the morning, I worked the evening, like that. All I had to deliver daily was ₦7k, anything outside that was mine and the conductor's.

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It was decent money, but it's what eventually got me in trouble.

I worked the morning shift on this particular day and parked the bus close to Signal Barracks around Mile 2 to hand over to my partner to work the evening shift. I had forgotten to top the fuel tank so I gave him money to go buy fuel first. I waited for him to come back so I could check the gauge and be sure he bought as much as he needed. Big mistake, I should have just gone home.

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While I was waiting, three men ran past me, and it was none of my business so I didn't pay attention. But then national union people came running too and challenged me that I should have stopped the runners. What's my own? Am I a police officer? They started dragging it with me, it almost felt like a set-up, and I kept telling them I was a driver minding my business.

Very soon, soldiers came and packed all of us inside the barracks. A senior officer was there so I showed him my driver's licence and he believed me and told everyone to leave me alone. But the white man those three men robbed came to the barracks because the agberos told him they had arrested one of his robbers.

I was about to leave the barracks when he arrived, so they dragged me back inside. When they asked him if he knew me, he said I wasn't one of the robbers. The senior officer was angry that his soldiers even brought the issue into the barracks, so he told the white man and the union people to take me to the police station to resolve the issue. That's when problem started.

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When they took me to Layeni Police Station, the union guys told the officers that I robbed the white man and collected his bag and phone. There was no evidence to show.

The next day, the officers transferred me to Orile Police Station, where they also accused me of robbing a policewoman who worked there. At night, they tortured me to confess to the whereabouts of my fellow robbers. They said there were 20 people in my gang. They were banging that their big stick on my handcuffs and almost damaged my wrists. I couldn't believe what was going on. They said if I didn't confess, I would end up at SARS.

The next day, yes. There, they didn't allow me to write the statement myself even though I wanted to. They said an officer would write for me and I'm sure he didn't write the things I was saying. They also tortured me by hanging me upside down from the roof and asking me to confess. This torture happened twice but I didn't change my story. The OC SARS then told them to stop torturing me, and that they should feed me well, but it was my family bringing me food every day.

When the OC SARS saw me in the cell four months and two weeks later, he was shocked that I was still there. He told his officers to either release me or take me to court. The officers asked my family to pay ₦900k for my bail, but they could only gather ₦320k. The day after my family paid the money, they took me to court.

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Inside the courtroom, there was a lawyer who stood for me, I didn't know him. When I told him my story, he challenged the investigating police officer (IPO) and the two of them argued. I thought I finally found someone to fight for me, but that was the last time I ever saw him.

After they read my charges in court, the judge adjourned my case by one month and two weeks and remanded me to Kirikiri. But I never returned to court for eight years.

It sounds like a joke, right? When I got to prison, I knew I was in trouble. It was the first time I clearly heard that my case was an armed robbery one — I know that's usually a more serious charge.

I first stayed inside a welcome cell for the first week — 20 of us in the room but it was a bit comfortable. I later moved to the regular cell where there were like 100 cell mates but 10 bed bunks. To get a space on the beds, you'd have to pay around ₦35k, or you could pay lower to sleep on the floor space between the bunks.

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It’s a whole different thing. When you enter a cell, there's a leader there, we call him Marshall, who will read you the law. The first rule is that his order is final. Other officers control the affairs of each cell. If you disobey orders, you'll do general duty for four months — you carry out whatever punishment you get.

No stealing, fighting, abusive language, or verbal assault, don't occupy another man's space uninvited. It's a school.

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See. When I first landed in prison, the cells were in lockdown for the first two years. They used to lock us up inside the cells from morning till night, round the clock. This was how I started reading my Bible regularly. We used to have praise and worship in the cell every day — Muslims had their hour and Christians had theirs.

When some prison officials came from Abuja and asked us what we wanted, we begged them to allow us freedom within the prison. One of the first things I did when they let us out was my baptism — it was the first time I felt like a genuine Christian.

Yes, but I only went to church now and then, this one was a different level. I prayed a lot and even fasted for 70 days one time because I knew only God could deliver me from my situation, I was going to pray my way out.

But I also knew God put me there for a reason. I could have been outside and died in an accident or many other bad things that could happen. He was saving my life by sending me there. There are many others in prison for 20 years or more who didn't do anything.

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I even joined the choir in prison and became a choirmaster, I led Bible studies and everything — it's why my voice is permanently hoarse now.

I used to disturb the Records department at the prison like crazy. I went there all the time to tell them to take me to court. They grew so sick of me that they threatened to lock me up in isolation. They said I was disturbing them, and should go and find a better lawyer to help me.

Inmates used to ginger me to disturb them so they'd know I was serious. I can't even count how many times I went there hoping they would be irritated enough to take me to court.

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I didn't have a lawyer after that one in court disappeared. After almost two years, a lawyer my family hired came to see me in court and I told him my story. He said it was a minor case that would be dismissed after two or three court appearances but he disappeared after the second time I saw him.

I was angry with my family for giving ₦130k to an anyhow lawyer and told them to consult me next time so I could talk to the criminal lawyers who came to the prison and were traceable.

They didn't learn from that first one and got a second lawyer when I was already inside for over six years. That one looked like a criminal when we met, so I didn't like him. He also disappeared after our first meeting.

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I paid for a bed space after five years and my stay in the cell became a bit more bearable. I didn't know I was going to stay long in prison at all, else I'd have bought one immediately. My family was chasing how to get me out, so it felt wasteful to pay for a bed. If you told me then I'd be there for eight years, I would have called you a liar.

Remember those cell officers I told you about? Well, I became the Chief Justice of my cell after I had been there for five years. They noticed I was very easygoing and had this theory that being gentle meant you'd have action, so they made me the CJ. The Marshall swore me in and no one could call me by my name anymore — I was CJ.

All the menial jobs I used to do around the place stopped, I was now the one assigning tasks, ''Wash my clothes, wash the bathroom, wash the toilet, do this, do that." I felt powerful, and I even had fellow officers whom I outranked to supervise tasks. I did all these things for other people so they had to do it for me too.

The only thing I didn't do there was pack shit from the soakaway, which is what every new entrant does. And that's because I paid the Marshall ₦10k to be spared that.

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My family. My aunts never stopped looking for ways to get me out of prison and that's how one of them sent me the phone number of a lawyer in January 2022. I spoke to her and told her everything about my case and she called me back a few weeks later to say I got a court date. It felt like magic. I'd not seen outside the prison for eight years. The fresh breeze was turning my eyes, it was different.

I didn't see the new lawyer in court that day, but they asked me and my case mate again if we were guilty, and we said no.

Oh yeah, Ibrahim. When I was in SARS custody, they brought one random person I'd never met before and said we did the robbery together. The police do this thing where they join people together to make a robbery case stronger, because it's usually a group activity, but I didn't know this man. He told me he slept inside someone's car in his area and OPC arrested him and took him to SARS.

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We went to court together, but we were never guys in prison. I used to tell him to call his family to get a lawyer so we could get out.

After we told the court we were not guilty, the judge gave us a five-month adjournment but the lawyer arranged to shorten it to three months. When we returned to court for that date, nothing happened because the building was undergoing renovations — painting, wiring and the like. But I finally met my lawyer that day and we got another adjournment date — two months. I was sick of everything.

I was buzzing. I used to remind my case mate to always be ready to go to court because I didn't want any delays. I would bathe very early and hang my pressed clothes in a way everyone would know I was going to court. I was confident I was going to get out now because I had a lawyer who cared.

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Before I went for the next court date, I went to the mercy ground and prayed to God for his grace and mercy. "Something must happen in that court today," I told him.

I was actually feeling good about that day. My mind was at home and not that court at all. In the case before ours, the judge freed two people and I started feeling great about my case and prayed in my mind for my lawyer.

When the judge finally called our case, he was shocked we'd been in prison for eight years. When she asked the prosecutor to state his case, the craziest thing happened: the prosecutor started defending us. He said the case was not genuine and there were no complainants and no evidence to hold us down.

After my lawyer did her own thing, the judge asked me, "If you leave here, where will you go?" My chest wanted to explode with joy. I told her my family was outside waiting for me. Ibrahim said he was going back to his family in Ijebu. It was crazy to me I was about to be released after only four court dates, even though some people remained in prison even after 20 appearances — I've seen someone get a one-year adjournment before. I was thinking in my mind that my lawyer must belong to a strong church to have pulled it off. Other people in my shoes have gone to prison for life or even sentenced to death.

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The minute the judge said, "You're hereby discharged and acquitted," I was numb and kept waiting for her to tell me to step down but she didn't so I kept standing until someone told me I had been let go. The person thought I didn't hear the judge but I just wasn't going to mess up anything that day.

I had my own apartment before I went to prison, but I'm back living in my family house in Ajegunle. They gave me a free room to manage and pick myself back up. I don't currently have a job, but I'm open to doing anything.

While searching for help, someone introduced me to a pastor who has been nice to me. We do a lot of church programmes together. He even wants me to become a pastor like him, but I need a job to sustain myself. He gives me money a lot, even bought the clothes I'm currently wearing, but I don't want to be a burden to him.

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I don't want to drive the bus anymore. That job is not for me, because it exposes you to many things that aren't nice. I want to go back to my panel-beater job, but I need money to buy equipment and set up a shop. I probably need around ₦500,000, so I need to do some other jobs to get there.

I went back to my old boss and told him I would return to be his joinman again, but I'm in church like five days a week, so it's been impossible to find time. When I find a proper job, I can reduce the church commitment to like two days. Any work I get now, I don't have a choice.

I've learned to be less temperamental, I used to be annoyed by little things. When my aunts tease me now that I'm a much calmer person since I came out, I tell them they can't understand I went to school. I'm the only one who knows what I passed through.

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Prison can actually be good for you, but you should not be there for longer than one or two months. That's another level. You've not seen life if you've not been there. Some learn in prison, but it's not everybody — others come out worse.

If I wasn't in prison, I wouldn't be where I am today. I'm 41 years old now and I know I'd have done the things my mates are doing, but I have a plan. I'll never use another person's sweat to succeed — I'll use my own strength. I can go from panel beating in my small shop to getting a connection to work on the cars of big companies and blow from there.

Tomorrow, Kazim talks about how his life took a surprising turn after an unfortunate night raid by police officers who damaged his eye and sent him to prison for nearly two years.

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