Chief Gabriel .O. Ohwo is a retired Superintendent of Calabar Prisons under the Eastern Nigeria Government when the sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was serving a prison term over trumped up sedition charges. Chief Ohwo, a close but silent disciple of Awo, though under the weather in his Warri home, enthusiastically shared the story of his closeness with Papa Awolowo and how some political interests planned to kill him while in prison, among other issues with EBENEZER ADUROKIYA. Excerpts:
Which of the Nigerian prisons did you work, sir?
I worked in the Main Prisons of Nigeria and I was a problem solver. Where there’s any problem, I was sent there.
Were you in charge of Calabar Prisons when Chief Obafemi Awolowo was serving his jail terms?
All these things they are talking about Awolowo (laughs and coughing intermittent), Awolowo was alleged to have taken some people to Ghana to train to overthrow the government of Aguiyi Ironsi, that was a cooked up story against him. They deliberately preferred charges against him and sent him to prison. That time, I was in charge of Ikoyi Prisons in Lagos. It was called Broad Prison then. Later Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison replaced Broad Prison.
Awolowo was in Broad Prison and was awaiting trial. When he was sentenced after trial, his first son, Segun died. At that time, Awolowo was in Calabar Prison.
Were you also in Calabar Prison at that time?
No. I was at Ilesha then. It was when nobody… (digresses) Awolowo was strong and tough. He was a global person, very well respected and feared because of his strong personality and philosophy. That was why they didn’t want him to head the government of Nigeria. He was a no-nonsense, forthright leader too good to be Nigeria’s president. He always saw the truth and he wanted to sell the truth to everybody, but we didn’t like truth.
We were in Calabar. Awolowo had been convicted and sent to Calabar Prison. That time, Calabar Prison was not just an ordinary prison. People feared to be posted there. You know he was the leader of the Yoruba and they [his people] loved him. They would not like it if the evil plan [against Awolowo] had succeeded. Anyway, that time Calabar prison was not just an ordinary prison. If you were sent you to Calabar Prison, it would appear as if you were finished – you are forgotten! Because there, they arranged to finish them, the prisoners.
So, as a prisoner, anything can happen to you in Calabar prison at that time?
Yes oo anything can happen to you. So, even officers that were too boastful, outspoken or bold whenever they were sent there, they would refuse to go. All those of our ranks refused to go. I was in charge of Ilesa Prison then. All those officers that were posted refused to go to Calabar. When they sent Awolowo to Calabar, those who knew the story of the prison began to weep.
But why were these prison officers refusing to go to Calabar?
That’s what I’m telling you. If you were sent to Calabar prison, you were the one the authorities would use to carry out their evil. Without you, how can they succeed? Do you think that government can just go to any prison to carry out any evil without you? It would be exposed. What I’m telling you now, is it exposed? If it is, will you have come to me? Was Jaja of Opobo, the late Oba Overanmwen of Benin, were they not sent there? All those troublesome warriors or leaders, that’s where they sent them in those days. So, when they sent Awolowo to Calabar, those who knew history started weeping that he had been sent there to be killed. And something like that cannot happen without the officer in charge of the prison. He [the officer] would be in a terrible danger if he is not in favour of their plans. That is why all the officers refused to go. There in Calabar Prison, as an officer, if you were not in support of their evil plots, they would eliminate you. A Benin man, named Giwa Osagie, was in charge of Nigeria Prisons then. I disagreed several times with Giwa Osagie because of his ways, because I always disagreed with him on some issues.
So, in spite of this, you agreed to be redeployed to Calabar Prison?
Yes, why not. He [Osagie] didn’t like me, so he decided to send me to Calabar Prison. But my friends, wife and those who knew me started crying. My wife was crying because she thought (as she was brainwashed by some friends) that I would be taken away from her by Calabar women (laughs). But I had made up my mind to go, so, I didn’t protest. The day they said I should go, I went. I know the prison system; I know the rules, the laws and the ordinances. So I was not afraid. In those days, too, only troublesome offenders were sent to Calabar Prison, but Awolowo was not troublesome. They only feared him. He was tough. He would not be swayed to play any hanky-panky game. Awolowo wanted the right thing to be done in Nigeria.
So you met Papa Awo in Calabar prison; how did he conduct himself?
Awolowo was very co-operative and friendly. As a lawyer who knew the laws, he knew how to keep to the laws. He wouldn’t break any. He was very law-abiding. If you spoke with Awolowo, there must be something to learn and hold onto forever. He never broke any rules. When he was in the prison, no warder was looking after him, because he would not misbehave. He was on his own, writing and reading inside the small library he created in his cell.
Who was bringing the books that he was reading?
Anybody. But I will censor the books before they were given to him. During that time, he was trying to do his Doctorate and he had some professors outside who were coming to the prison to attend to him. He was preparing for his PhD while he was in the prison and professors were coming to lecture him. They won’t just come and go, they would pass through me. That time too, I was doing Law as an external student.
When you were in Ilesa, you said people rejected going to Calabar because of fear. So when you were in the prison watching over Awolowo, was there anytime someone or some authorities suggested to you to help them take him out?
It could be possible, but I did not discuss with anybody. Perhaps they also knew the kind of person I was. If anyone came to visit Awolowo, I was always allowing them to see him, especially his wife, because she was always coming to visit him. I had a diary where I kept records of people who visited him then. I had seen the kind of person he was, a global, larger-than-life sage who intently meant well for Nigeria. So I wouldn’t have allowed such. Besides, as a careful officer, you can’t give anything to a prisoner to eat without tasting it. I was tasting Awolowo’s food, personally, before giving it to him for his safety, so that any plan to poison him would fail. In fact, when I got there, I had to appoint a fresh cook and warder for him.
Was there any attempt in the prison that could have been meant for Papa Awo or on his life?
Yes there was a riot in the prison by inmates. It was one of the secrets behind sending Awolowo to Calabar prison. It was that riot and my activity that stopped the government from sending people there. That riot would have been used to eliminate Awo. You know, when there is riot in the prison, both government property and prisoners could be destroyed. So, that was the aim. And I think those who plotted it like one Eze, who was an officer under me was asking me “oga, you no go go?”, saying that a riot was about to be executed. So, I refused and was just looking at them because there was nothing they could do to me as their ‘governor’ in the prison. Eze was using Okotie , the only Urhobo man among them.
You mean a fellow Urhobo was joining them to destabilise your command?
Yes. You know money is everything in Nigeria. However, one evening, one Igbo officer, Gabriel, came to me (and I’ve not seen him again. After leaving Calabar, the war started and Biafra took over that area). He helped me. He told me he knew about the riot and that he knew what to do. I asked what he wanted me to do. He said we should not let the inmates out, which, to me, was sensible. He said we would feed them in their cells by opening the door and passing their food under the door to them, instead of the usual way of allowing them to come out to go and eat. And that we would tell them, because when they (inmates) heard that someone from outside was coming to hear their plights, they would be happy. They would doubt it if it was coming from the prison people.
The boy told me that I should contact the Chief Superintendent of Police and the resident of Calabar. That he would tell the inmates that the two were holding a meeting with me in my office, that they wanted to hear their grievances. The boy said he would get the ring leaders handcuffed and leg ironed to see us at the meeting and this won’t annoy them. That was done. I had formed a riot squad before then. There’s a place we called Exercise Yard in the prison where inmates come out to play. So, these ring leaders were led into the yard. I had educated the riot squad that I formed on what to do. I told myself that I would not delegate command to anybody on the proposed riot. That I would take charge personally because those people can put you in trouble. If I told them to only break the hands and the legs of the ring leaders and shouldn’t touch their heads and chests, they might eventually break their chests and heads to put me in trouble.
So, I took over the command myself. We used riot baton to charge to the right, to the left and to the right, and not like women pounding yam. That was what happened. I got a Black Maria from the police to stand by. When the riot was on, I took over the command. I told my boys not to kill, but that the law allowed us to break the hand and the leg, but not head or chest. So it was. Nothing happened. After that incident, all of the ring leaders were put in the Black Maria and taken to Enugu. I learnt that on the way to Enugu or at Enugu, five of them died. One day, I was told that police people came from Enugu to see me on the death of the inmates. I told them that as policemen who should know the law and a bit of prison rules and ordinances, l would give them my statement on the death of the inmates. I wrote a report that: “I, Gabriel Ohwo, Superintendent in charge of Calabar Prison, on so so date, I saw that the prisoners were rioting and the riot was almost engulfing the whole prison. On my deliberate judgement and seeing that lives and properties of government were in jeopardy, I had to try to stop the riot. So, I ordered that necessary force, and no more than necessary, should be applied and that was what happened. On that day, nothing like death happened n the prison before they were taken to Enugu. So, if from Calabar nothing happened to them, that’s not my business as I can’t bear witness to that.” This was my response in the statement.
How did Chief Awolowo’s react to all this, the riot and all?
In the evening of that day, I went around the prison to see Awolowo. I’m telling you again what you want to know. He told me: “that was a masterstroke!” From then, anytime he saw me, he called me: Great Gabriel! Because a clear conscience does not fear evil.
Someone alleged that when Awolowo was in prison in Calabar, the government gave him a house and that he was always going to sleep every night to return to the prison cell in the morning?
(Shaking his head pitiably) It is a lie! It’s not true. They never gave him a house. House ke! How would he go there? He had his own cell. The difference was that he was alone in his cell. They never rented any apartment for him. He was sleeping in the cell allocated to him by the prison officials and he was not there with anything other than his books.
When and why did you leave the Calabar Prison?
At that time, it was 3rd August, 1966 when Gowon said Awolowo should be freed, but I didn’t allow him to be released on that day. That day, I went to the prison, he had heard in the news that he was to be set free that day. When I got there, I said “Papa, I hope you would not be annoyed if I won’t let you go today.” He said: “no, as a law student, you know that unlawful imprisonment is when you are detained against your wish, but, right now, I have been set free. Nobody is detaining me now against my wish. It is my own wish. So at your pleasure, I can stay here until it pleases you to release me.” And I said, “thank you sir.”
Why didn’t you want to release him immediately?
Why I didn’t want to release him on that day was because the Calabar people were the ones in charge of Action Group in Eastern Nigeria then; they were the ones fighting for him there because of the imprisonment. And if I should release him that day, they would bombard him and, who knows, some mixed-multitude might find a loophole to kill him. And that was what I was avoiding. I just wanted the atmosphere to settle down first before releasing him. So, I released him when everybody thought he had gone. So, on the 6th of August of that year, three days after the announcement, I drove to the prison as early as 5:00 in the morning, took him in my car and drove to the Calabar airport to drop him. I made sure the small aircraft that came to convey him had taken off before leaving the airport. Everything I did impressed him terribly!
What year did you start serving as a prison official?
I think I started in 1959. I was teaching in Urhobo College before I was called to the prison yard and I left the prison service in 1979.
There is this narrative that it was the Eastern Nigerian Government under Odimegwu-Ojukwu that released Awolowo?
It’s not true. Awo’s imprisonment was not a state issue, so he could not have been released by Ojukwu. It was [General Yakubu] Gowon that released him. It was the Federal Government, which was in charge of the prisons that released him.
Sir, if Awolowo had become president of Nigeria, where do you think Nigeria would have been by now?
Nigeria would have been very good. It would have left this Third World grade a long time ago.He would have performed very well. You can see that our people are thieves. They go to oversees, but they cannot come and replicate what they see over there. And if he were to be alive, he would have improved the economy of Nigeria.
Do you think there’s any future for Nigeria with the way our leaders are behaving?
I can’t say so. You see people waking up wanting to be governors and presidents without any knowledge or experience; all they are after is to get what they can get. Awolowo did not make friends anyhow. Before he would accept you as a friend, he must have interviewed you and known your spiritual and mental abilities. The northerners didn’t agree that he should be president. He was too sophisticated for them to fathom. The Igbos only knew Zik; they didn’t know who Awolowo was. And Awolowo was not the arrogant type. One thing about him is that if you saw him, and he’s addressing you, something that would help you that you’ll hold onto forever, you’d get from him. If he talked to you, you must learn something that’ll help you forever. He was that wise and intelligent!
As a close associate of Chief Awolowo, what are those things about him that you want Nigerians, especially our leaders to know that could make them perform well?
When Awolowo, Tafawa Balewa and Nnamdi Azikiwe and others were alive, Awolowo was the most respected. People didn’t respect others like him. Chief Awolowo was someone that was honourable, disciplined, focused, reputable, honest and he had all the knowledge and wisdom that a leader should have. He did not partake in dishonest games and he did not do bribing. He assist you when you seek solutions to a problem from him. He would speak with you, assess you intently and refer you to read some books and there you’ll find the solution to the problem.
Awolowo was a clear conscience man; he did no evil, he did not fear evil. Awolowo would always say then that his wife was the closest person to his heart and that after his wife, I was the next person. If he had a reason to come to Warri, he must see me because we were very close. He would always come around; we would joke and discuss. When he was a free man, he came to see me in Ilorin to tell me that he was contesting for presidency again; he came to see me in Kaduna too. Anywhere I was in this country, Awolowo would always locate me.
How did you feel when you were told that he had died?
I wasn’t told that he had died; I was there when he died. He left here (Warri) about five days or so before he died. Before he died, he told people not to cry, like he knew he was going to die.