Ganiyu Ishola was asleep on a fateful day in Cairo, Egypt, in 1992 when Egyptian policemen visited him. As he managed to get back to his senses, he was arrested amidst pleas, which fell on deaf ears.
Still unaware of his offence, he was taken to a police station. Thus began his long battle to regain his freedom in a faraway land.
Suddenly, what looked like a childâ€™s play turned into a fight for freedom, which took the Lagos-born man 20 tortuous years to achieve.
Before he knew it, he had been charged with drug-related offences and was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.
â€œI first came to Egypt in 1991 through London, but I returned to Nigeria in 1992. Same year, I returned to Egypt again in March. That was when my problem started,â€ Ishola tells Saturday PUNCH in his Lagos home.
â€œMy motive of returning to Egypt was to study Arabic language and I was staying in a Nigerianâ€™s house â€“ who was studying Arabic and Islamic Law â€“ when I was picked up by the police. I was sleeping when they came. They claimed that they had arrested the Nigerian I was living with, with hard drugs in a hotel.
â€œSo, they came to search his house and they picked me and a little boy, who was later released because of his age. That was how they grouped me with other Nigerians already arrested, in the police station. The problem was that I didnâ€™t understand Arabic; I couldnâ€™t explain myself or ask questions.â€
More anguish awaited Ishola as he was tried under bizarre circumstances before being convicted.
â€œIn my case, there was no proper hearing. I was charged with the others for drug-related offences. We were first kept as Awaiting Trial Men for two years before we were sentenced in 1994,â€ he recalls.
â€œThe judge didnâ€™t tell us the number of years that we would serve. It was inside the prison that we were told that we had been sentenced to 20 years each. After spending 10 years behind bars, we were again told that we no longer had a date of release because of a new law enacted by the Egyptian government. They said we would serve the rest of our lives there.â€
Deadly prison conditions
Ishola said life inside Kanater Prison, where he was incarcerated, was horrible. Egypt is known worldwide for poor living conditions in its prisons, which are often overcrowded, offering poor quality food, little medical care, leading to a high rate of infectious diseases. Prison officials there are also known for their brutality and torture of inmates.
The average width of a cell in most Egyptian prisons is about 4x6m with an average number of prisoners of 15 per cell. A cell in most prisons has 1Ã—0.5m small ventilation window, which does not allow for sufficient sunray or fresh air.
The Kanater Prison is located on the outskirts of Cairo and houses men and women, Egyptians and foreigners alike. The prison authorities just about provide the inmatesâ€™ needs with most of the prisoners having to rely on their families to support them.
It was learnt that the prison sits on about eight plots of land: four plots of land houses two buildings for the prisoners, while the remaining four is used for administrative purposes.
There are about 18 rooms for sentenced prisoners, while the others are for immigrant prisoners and Egyptians.
â€œKanater Prison is like a jungle,â€ he says. â€œI spent 13 years there. When I was there, I was always sick; I was always on medication. I was on injection everyday for five years. Some of us almost lost our eyesight. The place is crowded and not conducive for human habitation. We had about 20 people in a small room. Apart from the poor environment, the security guards turned prisoners to money-making machines.
â€œYou must produce money for them every day. We had to do all sorts of work like cleaning, laundry and cooking to pay them. It was a few months ago that they brought iron beds. The beds are meant for one person, but they insist two people must sleep on it.
â€œThe intimidation and harassment was even more than the torture. Adam Jubril â€“ one of the Nigerian prisoners still languishing behind bars after spending his jail term of 20 years â€“ was sent in November to a prison which is like hell because he had a misunderstanding with a security guard called Hassan. Hassan takes money forcefully from inmates and he is ready to harm you if you donâ€™t give him. He nearly stopped my release.
â€œI was in that prison for 85 days and I nearly died. I lost all my flesh; I wore the same dress for 85 days and I did not have a shower throughout. I only ate bread and beans and a small bottle of water per day. It was a horrible experience, so I know what Jubril will be passing through now.â€
Our correspondent first learnt about the plight of Ishola and 16 other Nigerians in Kanater Prison while he was in Egypt to cover the FIFA U-20 World Championship three years ago.
Seven of these prisoners: Yusuf Okechukwu, Ishola, Fitzgerald Onyekaba, Mumini Rufai, Adam Abubakar, Nosa Osagiede and Owolabi Talabi were serving 20-year jail terms then.
After Sunday PUNCH published the story of the prisoners in 2010, it was learnt that the Egyptian authorities piled more misery on the Nigerians.
But the report brought the issue to the knowledge of the Federal Government and helped in the release of three of the aforementioned seven, namely Ishola, Onyekaba and Osagiede.
Chairman, House Committee on Nigerians in Diaspora, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, went to work with the Foreign Affairs Ministry to try to ensure the release of the Nigerian inmates, whose cry for freedom was earlier ignored.
Freedom at last
Freedom eventually came at a price after 20 years and seven months behind bars, but Ishola was the better for it.
He says, â€œDuring (Hosni) Mubarakâ€™s time, things were okay. When the revolution took place, we were hoping for better tidings but now there is total confusion in Egypt. Iâ€™m just lucky to be free. With the confusion in that country, nobody is thinking of the people behind bars.
â€œMy release was by divine intervention. God stood by us. I learnt that when a man reaches a helpless point, that is when God takes over. Most of us gave our lives completely to God and that is why we were able to pass through the hardship and still remained alive.
â€œWe spent most of our time reading the Bible, praying and helping the helpless prisoners. All this was possible through Godâ€™s help. I kept listening to Godâ€™s voice inside me despite the chaos in Egypt. He told me to continue to press those in administration for my release.
â€œI did it by embarking on a week-long hunger strike. I didnâ€™t eat anything. They took me to hospital to check if I was lying but it was confirmed that I had not eaten for a week. The prison officials didnâ€™t want the higher authorities to know because they thought I would expose them, so they agreed to help me.
â€œThey asked me to provide some official documents, which I did through the Nigerian Embassy and I submitted it to them. With the help of a lawyer, my file was forwarded to the prison headquarters in Cairo and within two weeks, my release was approved on Oct. 25. I was released on Oct. 26.
â€œWhen they announced that I was free, I couldnâ€™t sleep. I was imagining if it was a dream or reality. Iâ€™d put in a lot of efforts in the last five years for my freedom but nothing happened. So it was like a dream. I didnâ€™t believe I was free until they called me on Oct. 26 to join the bus that would take me away from the prison.â€
I was first taken to the police headquarters where they checked if I had another case or not. I was taken to the police station in the area I was arrested in 1992. I stayed in the cell there for four days,â€ Ishola adds.
â€œAfter that they took me to the prosecuting office, state security, drug department before I was returned again to the prosecuting office and finally to immigration. This took another three days.
â€œSometimes they release an inmate and then change their mind again. I remember the case of IK, who died from shock after he was released and about to go home before he was informed that he had to serve a life sentence. He didnâ€™t recover from the shock and died. We had to arrange to bury him there.â€
Home at last
Ishola finally made the long trip home to the warm embrace of his family members amidst wild jubilations. He was like a gallant soldier, who had just won a hard-fought battle.
â€œThe most precious thing in life is freedom,â€ he says. â€œTo be in the midst of my family members is like heaven. My last daughter was just a year old when I left Nigeria, but now Iâ€™m back as a grandfather.â€
Hard Egypt life
Ishola adds, â€œTo God be the glory. Without Godâ€™s help, nobody can survive Egypt; even those not in prison. Some of those outside looked up to us for help. Ninety-nine per cent of Nigerians there donâ€™t have jobs and there are thousands of them there.
â€œSome of them are ashamed to come back because they have not made it. The only people who get jobs are the ladies and they are either employed as house cleaners of babysitters to Egyptians. So I donâ€™t see any reason why people run to a place where they canâ€™t enjoy a good life.â€
If you think Ishola is 100 per cent happy after his release, you are mistaken. He is sad that Okechukwu, Rufai, Jubril and Talabi are still behind bars after serving their jail terms.
He says, â€œWe donâ€™t understand why they are still keeping the four behind bars, especially Yusuf, who completed his original sentence of 20 years three years ago. He shouldnâ€™t even be in prison for 20 years because he was on transit in Cairo when he was arrested.
â€œThose arrested with him for same offence were given six-year sentences. They have been released, while he has spent extra 17 years in prison. The other three have also spent their 20 years. Citizens of other countries have been released, why not Nigerians? Weâ€™re treated like people without a country.â€
Ishola sheds light on the plight of other Nigerians, who though not in prison, are stranded in camps across Egypt in a bid to â€˜crossover to Europe.â€™
â€œApart from the prisonersâ€™ cases, there are other issues concerning Nigerians in Egypt that the government must look into,â€ says Ishola.
â€œEgyptians lure our people telling them they will help them cross to Israel from Sinai. You will weep if you see the way they package these Nigerians from Cairo to Sinai. They are laid inside a truck like sardine and they cover the top and sides of the truck with faeces so that the police wonâ€™t know what they are doing.
â€œMany of our girls have been impregnated there, some have given birth and the children donâ€™t have fathers. Sinai is a border town between Egypt and Israel, so you can use an Israel line there. These Egyptians make the Nigerians call their people back home telling them that they are now in Israel and that others can join them.
â€œThe issue is that even if they succeed in crossing, only one out of 10 probably survives because immediately, Israel will pick them and deport them to Nigeria. But if they are not lucky, Egyptian soldiers will fire them. They are sentenced to jail terms of up to two years.
â€œIn international law, it is not right to imprison an immigrant; you either accept them or deport them to their countries. But Egypt flouts this law. Most of the people arrested are between 15 and 20 years. How can you put a 15-year-old in prison?â€
Ishola is still basking in the euphoria of freedom, but hopes to get back on track immediately. After acquiring several certificates in theology while in prison, he hopes to set up a prison gospel ministry soon.
He says, â€œIt has not been easy; a lot has changed since I came back. Iâ€™m hoping to rehabilitate myself and get back to the society. All Iâ€™m doing now is get acquainted with my family and friends and after that get something doing to earn a living.â€
Iâ€™ve the desire to set up a non-governmental organisation, but it might take some time because of the finance involved. Most of my projects will be directed towards the youth and the community,â€ Ishola says.
â€œIâ€™ll also like to go into prison ministry to impact on the lives of Nigerians behind bars. The prison should be a place for correction, not a place to destroy people. The inmates need to realise the need to adjust to their new environment and how to make use of the wasted time while in prison. These are part of the things I want to teach them. I did many courses; I didnâ€™t stay there lamenting or making people have pity on me. I tried to upgrade myself spiritually and mentally; I read a lot. Now Iâ€™m back to play my quota as a Nigerian.â€
Advice to youths
For Ishola, his advice to the youth is â€˜look before you leap.â€™
â€œMost of us travelled out with the intention to look for greener pastures. A majority travelled without having people over there. For anybody young or old who wants to travel for survival, the truth is that they must identify where they are going. The idea that they are going to Egypt to cross to Europe is total nonsense because there is no road there,â€ he says.
â€œThe amount people used in travelling could be used to establish a small-scale business here. Our people spend as much as $10, 000 to travel abroad to wash plates and clean toilets. Since I came back, I observed that a lot of foreigners are working in Nigeria but the Nigerians donâ€™t have jobs. In other countries, the citizens get jobs first before the foreigners.â€