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Charles Okah did not die – Heed Charles Okah’s plea

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One of the pluses, minuses, even hazards of being a newspaper columnist is that your name, face, and personal details like email address and telephone number get to stray into the public domain, and remain there, to be accessed by practically anyone-including those you may not ordinarily get to meet or associate with.

Some will call, text or email you from across the globe — even from behind the prison walls. Of course, you would have picked the call or received the message before you could determine the source. Until recently, one didn’t know that prisoners have access to mobile telephones!

Last week, the following text message came in, very likely at the time the drama of Charles Okah’s attempted suicide at an Abuja High Court was unfolding: “Happening Now! Oct 1, 2010 bomb blast suspect, Charles Okah, is hanging out on 4th floor window ledge at Federal High Court Hq. (sic) Abuja. Threatens suicide over 5 year trial delay. Demanding to speak with President Buhari.” One was naturally scared, confused, and wondered what to make of this.

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But the very next day, another text came in: “Breaking News! Okah found dead in prison cell this morning by prison warders at 7am. Suicide note blamed criminal justice system and Goodluck Jonathan. Asked his children to forgive him. Prison doctor was informed by Okah, weeks ahead, of his depression and suicidal intentions. Body removed to unknown mortuary.” That would certainly catch the attention of anyone who has at least a pint of humanism in him.

In addition to the surprise that such a message came unexpectedly, the other worry was that Nigeria’s prison system could be so careless that a suspect could die in less than 24 hours of attempting to kill himself. Shouldn’t the prisons system be paying close attention to him? But reports finally revealed that while the attempted suicide in the court was true, the death alarm was a cruel hoax! Charles Okah did not die.

If you are interested in the story behind the suicide and “death” stories, you will have to read the following that was garnered from trawling the Internet. Two car bombs went off on the morning of Nigeria’s 50th Independence Day Anniversary on October 1, 2010. In all, 12 people died and 17 were injured in the gruesome escapade. Panic took over the land.

ThisDay newspaper reported that British Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and a former British Prime Minster, Gordon Brown, had cancelled attendance at the celebration because British intelligence had earlier warned them of such a plot against the celebrations. Other reports claimed that the militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, had issued a warning about one hour before the bombing, foretelling both the venue, near the Eagle Square at Abuja, and the time, 10:30am.

And sure enough, the first blast occurred at the venue and the time purportedly forewarned. Henry Okah, regarded as one of the leaders of MEND, who also happens to be an elder brother of Charles Okah, was picked up in South Africa. Henry, who denied involvement in the bombing, was in turn, disowned by MEND. He however bagged an extended jail term in South Africa for the bombings. A television mogul who was also picked up in Nigeria for the same offence was later released.

Four other suspects, including Charles, were picked up in Nigeria. One of them, Tiekemfa Francis Osuwo, has reportedly died in Kuje Prisons in Abuja. Edmund Ebuware has already received life sentence for the offence, while both Charles and another co-accused person, Obi Nwabueze, have been toing and froing courtrooms, like doctors on ward round, since 2010. Both the prosecution and defence teams have allegedly been coming up with a series of injunctions.

If you wonder, like the Igbo, “Gini ji nwa nkita onwu,” what’s holding the dog from dying, you will understand the frustration of Charles Okah on his revolving door experience in Nigeria’s legal system. On receiving leave from Justice Gabriel Kolawole to address the court, Okah reportedly said: “I have been incarcerated for about five years now, and I have a family to cater for.”

He continued: “My children would grow up without feeling the warmth of their father, and I am tired of this endless trial. I really do not know what I have done to be treated this way. Is it not better to die than to wait and be messed up this way?”

An unconfirmed report said that a portion of his exact words were: “For the past five years, the equivalent of an eight-year sentence, I have found myself stuck in the quagmire… My life has been put on hold… because our judicial system has failed us… My lord, I am at a crossroads. To either continue on the pathway of perpetual delays, or to put an end to this journey of pain, once and for all.”

After his pathos-laden speech, he reportedly made for the window as if to jump out from the fourth floor, but he was prevented by alert security operatives. True, the rallying cry of law reformer, William Edward Gladstone (or William Penn?), that justice delayed is justice denied, is a good thing. But suicide is not.

The regular dictionary defines suicide as self-murder. And murder, as you know, is a crime. Not even the British 1215 Magna Carta of 1215 that promises “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice,” approves of suicide.

Black’s Law Dictionary says that “suicide is the wilful and voluntary act of a person who understands the physical nature of the act, and intends by it to accomplish the result of self-destruction. (It) is the deliberate termination of one’s existence, while in the possession and enjoyment of his mental faculties. (But) self-killing by an insane person is not suicide.”

In 1775, Patrick Henry, in an emotion-laden pep talk to whip up sentiments against British rule in America, reportedly told the Convention of the State of Virginia in 1775: “Give me liberty, or give me death.” That reportedly swung the balance in convincing the Convention to pass the resolution to provide soldiers for the American Revolutionary War that ended British suzerain in 1784. This is a digression.

Now, justice does not necessarily mean freeing Charles Okah. No! If he speedily went through the process of prosecution, was found guilty, and sentenced accordingly, that would be justice-for the society. But if he was found not guilty, discharged, and acquitted, that would also be justice — for him. On the one hand, society would have got its pound of flesh; and on the other, Okah will not suffer a miscarriage of justice.