My first week of freedom after 10 years in a Nigerian jail
Moses Akatugba was tortured to confess to a crime he says he never committed: a ‘confession’ that landed him on death row. On 28 May he was pardoned. This is his account of his first week of freedom
When I called my mother from prison to tell her I’d been pardoned after 10 years in jail, she fainted.
I was told they had to pour water on her to revive her. Later, when she saw me for the first time after all those years in jail, she grabbed me and held me so tight. She wouldn’t let go for almost 15 minutes. The whole time she had tears of joy streaming from her eyes.
I was also overwhelmed with joy when I found out about my pardon, at 4pm on 28 May. Initially I couldn't even speak, I was so happy.
The day after hearing the news, I celebrated in prison by organising a football match between death row inmates and other prison inmates. I’d been the death row team football coach during my time in prison. We won the match 3–0! Everyone was so happy to play.
That Sunday I went to the prison church. I bought some biscuits and fruit juice to share with other inmates in church and an announcement was made that I was being released. Everyone was happy. I had friends in prison; I had been teaching English and Maths to fellow inmates and those students who were keen became my friends.
We prayed for all the activists who campaigned for my release, from Amnesty and HURSDEF (Nigeria’s Human Rights Foundation).
I was released a few days later. That first evening at home, my mother prepared a special dish — Okro soup with beef. The whole family ate together at the dining table. Afterwards, there was a party with family friends and we sang songs, played music and prayed.
We prayed for all the activists who campaigned for my release, those from Amnesty international and Justine Ijeomah [the Director of HURSDEF, Nigeria’s Human Rights Social Development and Environmental Foundation] and his wife, Goodness Justine. Drinks were shared around with everyone at the party.
At 5am I didn't hear the prison bell… and realised it was not a dream.
I really am free.
The first night I slept in my new bed, I slept so well. What struck me most was that at 5am, I did not hear the prison wake-up bell. I waited for it, and then realised that it was not a dream, but in fact I really am free.
When I realised that, I felt freedom deep in my spirit. Things had changed for good. I went back to sleep and slept until 10am, fully enjoying my ‘freedom sleep’. My family came to wake me up but I told them to let me sleep longer. It was such a good sleep.
‘Don’t pour sand on me, I'm alive, I'm not a ghost!’
In those first days of freedom I bumped into an old school friend and he looked at me like he’d seen a ghost.
We have a local belief that if you pour sand on a spirit it will vanish, and he started to pick up sand from the ground and pour it on my body! I told him — ‘don’t pour sand on me, I'm alive, I'm not a ghost!’ At that, he touched me and hugged me: he thought I had been executed.
He told me he would never forget the last time he saw me before my arrest 10 years ago.
At home, everything felt strange to me, even though I’m so relieved to be free. Lots of things have changed in the 10 years since I was arrested: new bridges have been built and the use of laptop computers and phones is common now.
People keep asking me ‘what happened to your finger?’
[After I was arrested] my fingernails and toenails were pulled out. The scars people see are the lasting marks that torture has left me with. When I wear sandals, seeing my toes reminds me of what I went through.
Torture affects people in so many ways. It’s inhuman: heating cutlasses on a fire and then flogging a person’s back is barbaric. It affects people mentally: it causes madness. They pass out because of the pain and admit to things they never did.
What I went through — the torture and being on death row — affected me in so many ways. It affected my plans for life and my ambitions at school. I spent ten years in jail. By now I could have finished school and have started working.
What struck me most is that you can live in a country where you can face so much tragedy for no reason, and yet still have to live there. I will always pray for change in Nigeria, but I advise others living here to be very careful, so that they will not fall victim to what I went through.
I've already filled out an application form to become a volunteer human rights activist with HURSDEF.
My plans now I'm free are to continue my education and get as far as I always dreamt — I want to be a doctor to fulfill my late father’s wishes.
But I’ll also be a human rights activist and help others who face the same challenges that I did. I have already filled out an application form and had a passport photo taken — the requirements for becoming a volunteer activist with HURSDEF.
The Director, Justine, welcomed me warmly as ‘Comrade Moses Akatugba’. I told him: Justine, I'm joining the fight against torture so that others will not go through the pain that I did.
If I have my way, and can stop torture, I will be the happiest man on earth. I don’t want any future generation to go through what I went through in that torture chamber.