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From Behind Bars

By Allwell Uwazuruike (Nigeria)


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By Allwell Uwazuruike

How are you my dear Nkiruka? And the children, Eze and Adaobi? I was
just reminiscing a while ago, about those moments of happiness and
bliss. It always makes me happy thinking about you. It gives me comfort.
How else am I to survive in this world of loneliness and restriction?
Sometimes I wish I could reach out to you—to the kids; wish I could
break out of this cage.

Yes I miss you even more than the sun, Nkiruka, but I have no regrets.
Even if the hands of time were taken back, I would walk the same path.
It is for you I fight, my dear Nkiruka. You and our children. Your love
and perseverance keep me burning like oil. If news reached me that you
were no longer there for me, that you had taken a walk. If I were
informed that some misfortune had befallen you, I would give up. I will
pass a message across to the government that I have given up the fight.
Given up for nothing. I won’t need to accept the oil well or the
ministerial appointment. I won’t need to accept the two hundred and
fifty million naira. I would give up for free. Just walk out of this
cell, my hands in the pockets of these grey pyjamas. I will walk a
straight road taking no bends. I will walk till I get to the end of the
world—to the very cliff. Then I will just let myself drop off the cliff.
I will soar and float and fall and fall till I see you again. Nothing
would matter anymore. Nothing.

Every man has his soft spot, his weakness; his price. You, Nkiruka, are
mine. You and our two kids.

The torments I face here could turn a hundred men mad. The torture. No
not physical assault, my princess. No. Mental torture and anguish. But
just the thought of you. The thought that one day, whenever it may be, I
will see you again. Your pretty face glowing like Pharoah’s gold. Your
endless beauty just like the day we first met. Seeing you in my mind’s
eye dissolves the pains like sugar in water. And suddenly I can feel you
in my arms right here in this cell.

Oh what greater pain is there, than to separate a man from his loved
ones! I wouldn’t mind staying here a hundred years if you were by my
side, if Eze and Adaobi were running after each other and banging on the
steel door. I would be the happiest man in the world.

But I hope you understand. Hope you are not angry at me for deserting
you; for failing to accept a truce and return to you. Ifunanyam, my
love, I want to return to you a hero not a coward or saboteur. No. I’ve
led hundreds to their graves and it would be inconceivably treacherous
to bargain away the deaths of those innocents—heroes that sacrificed
their lives for their convictions. Disregard the stories and rumours. I
have heard some of them. I will not sabotage the struggle. I will not
stab my followers in the back.

See, Obim, my heart, they don’t know what they are doing. They are only
making us great! Look at the Gandhis, the Kings, the Mandelas. These
people were incarcerated on account of their fight against perceived
injustices. Now where are they? Their names are engraved in eternal
sculptures, their birthdays are national holidays, roads and
institutions are named after them. Soon my dear, we shall be like them.

But that is not our priority now. We fight to achieve our goals. The
honour and all—everything will follow in due course.

Ah! You must be itching to know the details right? The details of my
arrest and all. I shall tell. But firstly, you must erase everything you
have heard from the rumour mongers and some of those state owned
propaganda media. Barrister Ken has told me some of the stories.

I will start from when I left you, your eyes filled with fear and
anxiety. Oh, I should have listened to you. You have never been wrong,
that feminine instinct. You knew it was a trap right from day one. You
told me not to go, not to leave you and the kids, but I wouldn’t listen.
We had criticised the government for not listening to us, for shooting
at us during our rallies and arresting our members. We had criticised
their violent approach. Now they were doing the only reasonable thing—
they were proposing a peaceful dialogue. This was one opportunity I
wasn’t going to let slip away. And wasn’t it just nearby? The Federal
Hotel in Lagos. It’s not like I was been invited to the State Security
Headquarters in Abuja.

How wrong I was.

And what of Chike? I expected to see him in court yesterday, but
Barrister Ken said he was detained at Kirikiri prison. You know it was
the two of us that went together to the Federal Hotel in Chike’s black
Toyota. He even had me sit at the back, like I was the oga and he the
driver. Funny man. He thought it necessary that I be chauffeured. That
would give me an air of importance. In the car we talked about so many
things. We wondered what the government was going to propose and how we
were going to respond to their proposals. We had to be diplomatic, we
told ourselves. We were not going to make easy concessions.

The traffic was particularly heavy that afternoon with Chike’s AC
cushioning the blaze of the Lagos heat. We were ten minutes late by the
time we got to the hotel. Chike thought it a good idea. We didn’t want
to appear too eager or excited. So lowered was our guard that we didn’t
suspect the police vans packed just outside the gate, or the way the
gateman let us in, without looking at our faces or asking for a tip.

What beats me to this day, Nkiru, was the manner of the arrest. At least
they should have waited for us to alight from the car, or better still
lead us to a room, pretend negotiations had broken down and then arrest
us. No. They swarmed on us like bees, even before the car’s engine could
finish its gentle hum. Hundreds of them like they were arresting Osama
Bin Laden. Ha! I, who have never carried a pistol in my life.

We were tossed into a Black Maria which zoomed off at an incredible
speed, zigzagging and cutting bends, the sirens blaring excitedly at my

Looking back now, I feel special the way the government treated me like
a trophy. But I cannot describe the way I felt in that Black Maria.
Fear, anxiety, shock, uncertainty—everything. What were they going to do
to me? Kill me? Lock me up in an underground dungeon? Set up a kangaroo
court and sentence me to death like Ken Saro Wiwa?

Chike was shaking, his lips moving rapidly in silent prayer. I watched
him, saw the sweat break on his forehead, saw the look in his eyes—the
look that asked many questions at the same time.

My mind was too clouded for prayer, my thoughts far away. I thought of
the newspaper headlines the next day, thought of what my members would
do, thought of Eze and Ada waiting at the school gate for me to come and
take them home. I thought of you, my love.

At the time when the news must have reached you, when your anguished
cries rent the silence in your supermarket, I was sitting in the
Protocol Lounge of the Muritala Muhammed Airport. One man in black suit
and tie walked up to us, eyed us with a sarcastic smile and asked Chike,
“And who are you exactly?” The policeman at the door sniggered excitedly
like he was watching Basket Mouth on Night of a Thousand laughs. Chike
looked up meekly, now composed and recovered from his shock.

“Take him to AJ,” the man said to the policeman who scrambled across the
room like an excited kid and led Chike out of the room. That was the
last time I saw him.

The man in suit turned to me.

“You! You are coming with us to Abuja.”

It was then that my life as a special prisoner started. I was wondering
why we had to wait three hours in the lounge before leaving for Abuja.
Flights left for Abuja every twenty minutes. But I had not realised just
how special a prisoner I was. It was only when I was led by five men
towards the runway where a small white jet perched like a giant bird
that I realised I was to be flown on a private jet.

I could easily have been mistaken for a president. The security
presence, the jet, the way some of those airport officials tried to
steal a glance at me. But as I tried climbing the steel stairs to the
plane, the handcuffs reminded me exactly what I was. A prisoner. It’s
funny what things you can’t do when your wrists are joined in a forced
marriage. I must have lost more calories climbing those steps than the
past five years on our treadmill.

Ah! You should have seen the interior decor of the plane. I have never
seen anything so beautiful. Everything was gold crested, from the arms
rests to the window panes—everything. That is how the government spends
our money. When people have no electricity, no water to drink, graduates
have no jobs, schools are on strike because the lecturers have not been
paid—our leaders are busy touring the world in luxury planes.

If you ask me how long that flight lasted, whether twenty minutes or two
hours, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea. Every minute, I half-expected
the man in suit to pull out a pistol and spill my brains over the smooth
leather seat, lift me and toss me out of the plane.

I heaved a sigh of relief when the plane touched ground. A black Toyota
jeep was already waiting on the runway. The man in suit ran down the
stairs ahead of me and opened the back door in mock salute. I got in
awkwardly. Things you cannot do when your hands are chained. The man in
suit spoke on the phone throughout the journey to wherever it was we
were going. He kept on repeating ‘yes sir’, ‘ok sir’, ‘fine sir’ and I
had that eerie feeling one gets when he knows that somebody somewhere
was deciding his fate and he could do nothing about it.

It was when we got out of the car that my heart started beating again.
No, not from fear. Just anxiety. Uncertainty. The house was big. That’s
all that I remember. And yes it was strange. Eerily quiet. Apart from
the man who opened the gate, I didn’t see a soul until I got to my
underground chamber. Ah, don’t gasp. It wasn’t some sort of torture
chamber or remnant of the holocaust. It was just underground. That’s
all. I remember my surprise when we entered the lift and noticed we were
going down instead of up. Ha! Now I totally agree with Chuka when he
says the word ‘lift’ or ‘elevator’ is inappropriate as it also takes you
down. “Isn’t it ironic”, he would ask, “that to get to the ground floor
of a twenty- storey building from the top, you have to take an
‘elevator’”? Ha!

Oh, forgive my digression, Nkiru. I’ve only just started getting my old
self back. You see, I’ve not laughed in the past four weeks. Serious.
All this while I’ve been kept in solitary confinement in this pitch
black dungeon. I only see the guards who bring in my food when they
think I am only a minute away from starving to death, and only taken
upstairs whenever I have ‘guests’. Ah guests. I was excited the first
time I heard I had a guest. I thought it was Obinna, or Victor, or even
you! No. It was some deluded government official who just wanted to let
me know how stupid I was for refusing the many offers made to me.

I was surprised when yesterday, a guard came in and told me to have my
bath and put on clean cloths. I was curious. Was I going to be released?
Things got interesting when I was led out of the building for the first
time. Oh, the things we don’t cherish because we always see them. I
never knew I could be so excited at seeing the sun, that ball of flames
that always makes us curse and swear with its scorching afternoon heat!

We drove in a white van with as many as ten uniformed policemen. Yes.
Special prisoner. It was only when the car came to a halt and I peeped
from the window and saw the blindfolded statue holding a sword in one
hand and scales in the other that I knew where we were. The court. The
Federal High Court. Suddenly, pictures of Ken Saro Wiwa started floating
inside my head. I was brought to court without any prior information of
the charges against me!

You know the story from here, okwaya? Barrister Ken must have told you
everything. How he knew that I would be brought to court that day still
baffles me. I remember the smile when our eyes met, the sudden surge of
hope. It was the first time I was seeing someone familiar; someone I
could trust.

I was happy the way he sprang up when my case was called; the way he
announced his name with confidence, not minding the presence of the
Attorney-General. Ah yes! The Attorney-General appeared in person.
Special prisoner!

I listened as the charges were read out: treason, treasonable felony,
sedition, unlawful assembly—crimes invented by governments to crush
oppositions and campaigns for human rights. Darling, what were those
names I mentioned earlier? Ah yes! Gandhi, King and Mandela. They were
all tried for similar offences. Mandela even had to spend twenty seven
years in prison. Ha! How history keeps repeating itself!

I pleaded not guilty to the charges and Barrister Ken applied for my
bail. I could hear my heart beat—in twos—as the judge bent down to
write. He scribbled and scribbled and scribbled, that at a point I
feared he was already writing the judgment. Finally, he cleared his
throat and read. Ah, Law and its verbosity! He kept on mentioning
strange words like motions, summons, affidavits, blah blah blah. The
bottom line was that he wasn’t going to let me go yet. The bail
application had to be by way of motion. I turned to Barrister Ken
confused. Motion? Like I have to move it? Haha!

There was good news though. The judge directed that I be moved from my
solitary confinement to prison custody after Barrister Ken highlighted
my situation and perhaps even blew it out of proportion by suggesting
that I was physically tortured everyday! Ha! Lawyers! I never told him

I hear I will be moved to Kuje Prison next week. I am a bit excited. At
least I can get to talk to other prisoners. I may even get to see the
sun often. And what more? I can get more paper to write you. I only just
obtained this one from Barrister Ken, from one of his many motion
papers. He says you are fine but worried about me. I quite understand
that, but ask you not to worry too much. I am fine, as long as you are.

He also says that you intend coming to see me when I’m moved to Kuje.
See, Nkem, I could sacrifice a limb to see you, but for the children’s
sake, I think we shouldn’t risk it. Remember last year when you came to
visit me at the Lagos prison and they locked you up too; how we had to
send a distress call to your sister, Ifeoma, to go and take care of the
kids. Besides, Abuja is too far. Just stay home and look after our kids.
It’s all I ask of you.

Barrister Ken is confident that I will be released soon, either through
legal or political means. He says a lot of groups are piling pressure on
the government, even within the Senate.

O my Nkiruka! I cannot believe I am really writing you this, cannot
believe my dreams have come true. See, I have written you a thousand
times since I was put in this cell, but in my head—in my dreams. I had
neither paper nor pen, just my thoughts. But now here I am scribbling
excitedly like a child. O how long has it been! I don’t even remember.
Tell me. Two weeks? Two months? Two years?

I have lost track of time. I have no clock here, no calendars. There is
no window by which I can know when the sun rises or sets. Whenever the
electricity comes on it is day, and when it goes off it is night.

I will come back to you soon, to my plate of pounded yam and steaming
egusi soup. And now that I have a pen and paper, maybe I can start
writing a book. I will write about that day we first met. About our many
dates, when we would run around the green countryside. About that day,
when you looked me in the eyes and said yes. About our wedding, your
white overflowing dress, your angelic face, the way you held the ring
and promised to be mine forever; your hesitance at repeating the words
‘till death do us part’ because you believed, deep down within you, that
nothing could separate us. Nothing. Even death.

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