AS a young prison officer, Stephen Odigie, served at the Calabar Prison where the sage and elder statesman, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was incarcerated. Odigie, 81 years old and now a prominent lawyer and former Edo State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, recalls the experience he shared with Chief Awolowo while at the prison with HENDRIX OLIOMOGBE and how the late Premier of Western Region won over prison officials with his exemplary conduct, just as he sheds light on the erroneous claims often made by some political interests about Chief Awolowo’s prison experience, among other issues.
YOU are one of the reputable lawyers in the country, did you at the beginning set out to study law or how did you start your career journey?
I joined the Nigerian Prison Services (NPS) as a clerk in 1961. I was 23 years old. At that time, it was the vogue for young people to join the uniform service, either the police, army or prisons. And so, I chose to join the NPS. After my sojourn as s clerk, I later converted to the uniform cadre. That was the beginning of my journey.
When and why did you leave the prison service?
I left the service in 1979 on voluntary retirement. After I qualified as a lawyer in 1978, I felt, I had to drop the prison uniform and go into the world to practise the law profession. Otherwise, I was not ripe for retirement at the time I left.
Looking back at your time in NPS, which place or at which prison did you work and can you still remember some of the other prison staff you worked with?
I served in several prisons and locations. I served in Benin, Ubiaja, Onitsha, Ilesa, Ijebu Ode, Calabar, Enugu, Kirikiri and Ikoyi. In all these places, it was either I served under somebody or I was directly in charge.
You served at the Prisons as officer in Calabar where the late Premier of the Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was incarcerated. Did you by any chance come across him or serve him in any way during that time?
Definitely, I came across him at the Calabar Prisons. There is no way I couldn›t have had interaction with Papa Awo. It was a daily interaction. He was a perfect gentleman, a very disciplined man. He was an inmate who did not give the prison authorities any problem whatsoever. He was always smiling. He shook hands with people irrespective of who they were: small boys, small girls; grown-ups; all sorts of people. He was very unassuming. Above all, he was very religious. He was very clean and neat. He read his books like a book worm. All these fascinated us, the prison officers. He was a very special species of human being. That was the way I saw him.
What kind of relationship did you share with him while in prison?
My relationship with him was very good; it was extremely cordial. We had a father/son relationship. If there was a provision to award any laurel to an inmate for good behaviour, he would have won it. He was very unassuming. With all the lofty heights he attained in public life, he was very simple. He influenced me greatly.
How many of your contemporaries at Calabar prisons are still alive?
As a matter of fact, the only one of my contemporaries still alive who served in Calabar when Papa Awolowo was there is one Chief Gabriel Ohwo who is based in Delta, Warri to be precise. Apart from me, he is the only one that I know who is still alive. If you read his [Chief Awolowo’s prison memoir] book My March Through Prison, on page 275, he mentioned the names of some of us who were with him in Calabar and to whom he was eternally grateful for our compassion and kind treatment while he was with us. Regrettably, the rest appeared to have gone to the great beyond, but I know that Chief Ohwo and myself are still alive. Many of us can tell the story of Chief Awo, any time, any day while he was in prison.
Did you continue the relationship after Papa Awo was released?
I did, absolutely. As fate would have it, I got transferred to Lagos. That is where I was then, because I had to join my wife who was already in Lagos. She had a quarter at Apapa and I joined her there. Chief Awolowo was equally living at Apapa and so it was very easy for me to just stroll there to say hi to him. In the process of interaction, we chatted a lot on all issues. He liked chatting. He gave advice which if you take, things will turn out better for you. His advice has been most useful to me. That is why you see his portrait in my office. Apart from myself, my wife and my children, the only other portrait you see in my office is that of Papa Awo because he was everything to me. He gave me the advice to go and read Law and, today, I have no regrets whatsoever.
There was this claim by Chief Mbazulike Amaechi in an interview that Chief Awolowo while in prison was not sleeping in his cell, that he was sleeping in an apartment rented by the government of the Eastern Region. How possible was that and is that claim correct?
There was absolutely nothing like that. Such a thing would have been a violent breach of rules, a breach against the Prison Act, a breach against the rules, regulations and standing orders of the prison. Such a thing never happened. It could never have happened. No staff of the prison services would have dared such a thing. And if for any reason, by way of omission or commission, anyone attempted it, I can swear on oath that person would not be Chief Awolowo. He would have been the last person that would want to be indulged in such an act. He was a very disciplined man and there was no reason he would have contemplated leaving the prison in the night or daytime. He couldn›t have been out of prison in the night. There is just no way such a thing could have happened. So, if anyone said that, that person was very unfair not only to Chief Awolowo but also to the NPS, particularly, to the officers who were there during his incarceration and I am one of them.
Chief Amaechi also claimed that Chief Awolowo was detained at the Uyo prison. Is that correct sir?
Absolutely incorrect. The claim is absolutely incorrect. All through the period of Chief Awolowo’s arrest, conviction in Lagos, transfer to us in Calabar, there was no time that Uyo was part of it at all. So categorically I say that Papa was never in Uyo prison, let alone any arrangement being made for him as claimed. So Chief Amaechi was certainly not correct. I want to believe that he was misquoted but whatever it is, there was no such time Papa was ever in Uyo prison and at no time was any such special arrangement made for him. I can swear on oath, because I was there; I was involved.
How did you feel when you heard the news of his release?
I left just a month before he was released. I was transferred from Calabar straight to Ijebu-Ode. I felt very happy when he was released. It was a great joy for everybody when he was released. When you listened to him, you feel very sorry for him and also see him as a very courageous individual. With all that he went through, he was still very relaxed. He smiled all the time. And all through the period, he didn›t develop hypertension or anything. He was just himself and everyone of us saw him as a man we should emulate.
Did Papa Awo confide in you the reason for his ordeal?
It wasn’t me alone. He told the story to any prison officer that came his way. He was too glad to tell the story of his ordeal, that it was his political opponents who wanted to destroy him completely. This he reflected appropriately in his book, My March Through Prison. You will see it all written there, that it was his political opponents at work. What he told us, he confirmed in his book. As of that time, he had not written his book. He deserved the pity of any right-thinking person that such a thing happened to him but, in life, we don’t know what providence has for us at birth.
Looking at your law career that has blossomed, at what point did you decide you would love to be a lawyer and not other professional callings like Accounting, Engineering?
I went into law by accident and at the instance of Papa, Chief Obafemi Awolowo of blessed memory. He was the one who called me one day after his release from Calabar Prisons. When I went to visit him in his home at Park Lane, Apapa, [Lagos], he said he remembered that I told him that I already had my Advanced Level results. He then said that I would be a good material for the law profession. He said: «Why don›t you go and read law at the University of Lagos, Akoka? The next day, I went to UNILAG to collect my form and was offered admission to study Law. I was already a senior prison officer and it didn›t cross my mind to read Law, Accounting or any other profession. But from what Papa said, it dawned on me then that I could actually study Law. [And studying Law] has been absolutely rewarding. When I voluntarily retired in 1979, I came to Benin to establish a Law Chamber. Not long after, the late Professor Ambrose Alli, who was governor then, appointed me as a state electoral officer in the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) government which he was leading at the time. It was after that Dr. Sam Ogbemudia of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) took over as governor before the government was toppled in December 1983. Then, of course, I went back to my law chamber. When the late General Sani Abacha came up and appointed Col. Bassey Asuquo, also of blessed memory as governor, he appointed me as the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice. As of today, I am a commissioner in the Edo State Judicial Service Commission. I was appointed by former Governor Adams Oshiomhole. It is for two terms as provided by the constitution . I served one term but when Oshiomhole was about leaving, he re-appointed me and was confirmed by incumbent Governor Godwin Obaseki. As of today, I am still a commissioner in the Edo State Judicial Service Commission.
Only recently the Federal Government changed the name of the Nigerian Prisons Services to Nigerian Correctional Services. Do you think the name change will make any difference?
Like it is with all other organisations, things are not what they ought to be at the Nigerian Prison Services. In those days, there were sufficient money and equipment to do this and that. Unfortunately, now, when you call a prison officer to do this or that, he will tell you that there is no money and equipment. I will say that we had better days. The change from NPS to Nigeria Correctional Services will only have meaning if the federal government releases enough money to train the warders and officers. They have to be trained and re-oriented to reflect what it is now being called. When it was NPS, everybody was crowded together, but this time round, you have those in custody and those who are not. The staff have to be retrained and facilities made available for the training and money provided to run the institutions.
Why didn›t you join politics like your hero, Papa Awo?
I wish he were alive. If he were alive, I would have been a partisan politician, heavily involved, but since his demise, I am yet to see any politician like Papa Awo. When Papa Awo tells you this thing is white, believe him, it is white. If he tells you it is black, believe him, it is black. If you try to convince him and say: «Papa, this thing is not black but white», he would say ride on, carry on; then he starts an argument. When you are able to convince him, he would take your own. That is Papa Awolowo for you. He takes your argument as superior to his own once you can convince. But if you are not able to convince him, he believes that his own is superior. In this present crop of politicians, I am yet to come across those who say yes, when it is yes and no when it is no. In this present circumstances, I don›t have a heart that will not trouble me when I see black and say it is white and when I see white, I say it is black. It means I just have to swim along whether I like it or not because it has been so said.
What is your advice to young and upcoming lawyers?
My advice to young and upcoming lawyer is that they should tread softly. They should remember that Rome was not built in a day and so should understand and take it easy.
At 81, what is the secret of your youthful look?
Many people say that I don’t look my age at all, but that is the Grace of God. I don’t allow things to worry me. My wife is very instrumental in what I am. She gives me my food at the appropriate time; she tells me what to eat and what not to eat. My children are all doing well in their various locations and I have a roof over my head. None of my children are in school. They are all gainfully employed wherever they are. I have nothing really worrying me. I have a settled mind and I think that is why I have this youthful look.