18 June 2008

Nigeria: Suleja Prisons, Where Baby Sins for Mum

Lagos — What offence could a day-old baby have committed to be remanded in prison? Nigeria's First Lady, Hajia Turai Yar'Adua and the Niger State Governor's wife, Hajia Jumai Aliyu resolved this puzzle recently.

Their intervention prevented the sins of the mother from being visited on the child.

The arrival of a child in any family is a thing of joy. Friends, family members and other well wishers gather to rejoice with the parents of the newborn baby. But for a one-day-old boy, baby Mbanifo, his arrival was of a mixed feelings going by the circumstances surrounding not only his birth, but also his place of birth. If infant Mbanifo had a choice of where to be born, he would have preferred a different place of birth under different circumstances.

Nothing would have made infant Mbanifo to choose a stinking cell in the Suleja Prison as his place of birth on Sunday 25th May, 2008. As fate would have it, Little Mbanifo's mother, Elizabeth, was jailed for two years over a strange offence of committing adultery with her husband.

But, Mother luck smiled on the little infant barely 20 hours after his birth, as providence ended not only his sojourn in prison but also that of his mother with the intervention of the Niger State Governor's wife, Hajia Jummai Babangida Aliyu and that of the First Lady Hajia Turai Yar' Adua. Not only did they secure freedom for the infant and the mother, Hajiya Jumai Aliyu also released the sum of N50, 000. 00 for his upkeep.

The story of Elizebeth's sojourn at the Suleja prison having been sentenced for two years for adultery by a Suleja Sharia court was punctuated with pity and sympathy for the baby, which eventually brought freedom to the family. His mother, who cuddled the baby in an ankara clothes was ruminating over the circumstances that warranted her imprisonment when the First Lady and Hajia Aliyu walked into the prison. The sight of the new baby caught their attention and they held discussions with Elizabeth, who narrated the circumstances surrounding her imprisonment and went further to hold consultations with the prison authorities in effecting her release and that of her one-day old baby.

Elizabeth on hearing of her change of status, jumped with joy round the prison singing the praises of the August visitors, the harbingers of the good tidings. Just as Elizabeth was jubilating with her son over her freedom, another female inmate, Oluchi Mbu was singing freedom songs as she walked out of the prison gate. Oluchi, a resident of Tafa town of Niger state was sentenced for six months for stealing N25, 000.00 from her boy friend's apartment. It was learnt that Oluchi, a pepper soup seller, had requested for financial assistance from her man who refused bluntly. In the absence of her lover, Oluchi decided to help herself from the money the man had kept in the room. The police were invited and Oluchi became the prime suspect and on interrogation, admitted to committing the crime. She was charged accordingly to a competent court, which found her guilty of the offence and sentenced her to nine months jail with an option of fine, which she could not pay. But as destiny would have it, she had spent only two months before the wife of the Niger state governor was moved by her story to pay the fine and set her free.

In an interview, Oluchi said she never imagined that her lover boy could go to the extent of arresting her over the money not to talk of sending her to jail. She gave thanks to 'Madam chief servant' for coming to her rescue and promised never to commit such crime again. She described her relationship with the man as being very cordial before the incident, adding that she had learnt her lessons now.

In ensuring the release of these female inmates, the Hajia Aliyu said the gesture was part of her efforts with her non-governmental organisation, 'Life Rehab' to assist women with light offences in order to encourage them in becoming useful to the society. "My frequent visits to prisons have also afforded me the opportunity to assist inmates with options of fine for lighter civil offences, in order to encourage them to change and become useful and meaningful members of our society," she said.

Yar' Adua's wife who did the commissioning of a newly constructed Female Cell at the Suleja Prisons at the occasion described the conditions of Nigerian prisons as being worrisome and pathetic. She added that it has become necessary for her to intervene by constructing female cells in some prisons across the country. She assured of her total support for the ongoing government prison reforms adding that she would ensure that vocational training facilities were provided in the prisons to enable inmates acquire skills that will assist them after their term in prison.

The first lady said several programmes have been executed by her pet project the "Women and Youth Empowerment Foundation (WAYEE) for the uplifting of the women folk including the fight against HIV/AIDs and Cancer. "As a mother I would like to assure you of my readiness and commitment to continue contributing my quota in assisting and supporting women and children and the disadvantaged group in our country," she said.

"Let me at this junction enjoin women to shun all forms of behaviour that would tarnish and cause embarrassment to the dignity of womanhood in Nigeria and the world at large. Let me assure you of my intention to continue with similar visits to prisons, remand homes as well as destitute and less privileged groups in order to assist them with hope and compassion," she added.

However, the first lady is not alone in the efforts to reform the prisons across the country. While the Federal Government is working out reformation programmes in the prisons as a national policy, in Niger State, Hajia Aliyu is also leading a strong campaign with comprehensive reform packages aimed at making positive impact on the lives of the inmates in prisons across the state. Her efforts which are no doubt complementary to those of the first lady had also prompted her visit to prison formations in the state during which over 15 inmates gained their freedom.

THISLIFE gathered that the governor's wife has since established a computer-training centre at the old Minna Prison from where inmates and warders now acquire computer skills. With this package, inmates are expected to get basic computer knowledge that would be of immense benefit to them outside the prison walls.

Welcoming the First Lady to the Suleja Prisons and the state in general, Mrs. Aliyu said that she has also ensured the provision of vocational training facilities such as tailoring, hairdressing, barbing, carpentry, etc in the prisons in Minna. She assured the First Lady that her pet project, Life Rehabilitation Foundation, (REHAB) would soon be launched to take care of the less privileged members of the society including prison inmates and handicapped children.

Mrs. Aliyu commended the first lady for the construction of the blocks of female cells at the Suleja Prison and appealed to her to extend similar gesture to other prison formations in the state. "My visit to other prisons in the state has revealed that their infrastructure are in very bad shape while inmates are often subjected to lots of hardship. I am proud that my pet project Life Rehab is similar to that of the first lady. However, I would want to appeal to the first lady to come to the rescue of other prisons in the state with the provision of standard infrastructures.

However, Mrs. Aliyu's fears over dilapidated structures in the prisons were allayed by the Minister of Interior, Maj. Gen. Godwin Abbe, who was also on the entourage of the First Lady to the event at the Suleja Prisons. The minister explained that under the reformation plan, government was embarking on massive rehabilitation and renovation of prisons across the country. He said that the prisons were not punitive but reformation places for inmates. He said that government has increased daily feeding allowance of inmates to N200 as part of efforts to ensure their maximum comfort.

Abbe stressed the need for parents to pay adequate attention and closely monitor the activities of their children. He said that parents must inculcate good moral values in their wards in order to avoid violence and other societal ills that could land them in jail. He called on parents to give preference to the education of their children in ensuring their brighter future, adding that education is the best legacy parents could give their children. The minister said that government would not compromise its responsibility to the citizens especially in the areas of security of lives and property, peace and order in the society.

The Niger State governor, Dr Muazu Babangida Aliyu who led members of the state executive council and traditional rulers from the state to the welcome formalities for the First Lady at the palace of the Emir of Suleja, Alhaji Awwal Ibrahim, noted with dismay that the ancient city of Suleja only bears the brunt of the social vices and criminalities of Abuja after donating its name and land to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT)

"Today, the people of Suleja live in squalor and degradation caused principally by population explosion, congestion and overstretched facilities with the attendant environmental and health hazards. This should not have been the fate of a good host city to the nation's federal capital," he argued.

The governor expressed appreciation to the first lady for intervention efforts at the Suleja Prison and appealed for further assistance in the provision of basic amenities to the people of the area. He called on the Federal Government to consider making Suleja a twin city to the capital since over 70 per cent of public servants working in Abuja reside in the ancient city. He stated the determination of the state government to provide necessary incentives for the accelerated development of Suleja.

"In view of the role of the prison in reforming, rehabilitating and reintegrating the defiant characters in the society, the Federal Government is also requested to construct a bigger prison in Suleja to stem the tide of rising crime in the community. Indeed, we wish to call on the Federal Government to pay more attention to Suleja and to implement a charter of the take-over agreement, which requires it to provide social amenities and other infrastructure to the city. This is very important as it will be in keeping with the discharge of Federal Government responsibility for taking Suleja over 30 years ago," he said.

However, as the Niger State governor locks horns with the Federal Government over the poor status and underdevelopment of Suleja, Oluchi, Elizebeth and her day-old baby, Mbanifo walked out of the prison premises to their freedom facilitated by the first lady apparently not wishing to be caught again on the wrong side of the law after the presidential pardon.

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