With teary eyes, Junior Edozie looked dejected and struggled to hold back his tears while muttering incoherently. It was clear that his spirit was almost broken. “I’m tired,” he said to his troubled mother as they embraced. “Maybe I should opt for a plea bargain. I know many persons who took it and they are out of prison today.” Standing next to his mother was his uncle. A tall, slim and shy looking man who took extra care to mask his pain. He would later say that “I’m the man here and I have to be strong for the family.” It was he who interrupted Junior by asking “Why will you admit to a crime you didn’t commit? I know how difficult this must have been for you, but you are innocent, and soon, you’ll be out of here.”
Junior Edozie was arrested in November 2014 by men of the Nigeria Police on allegations of armed robbery. On his way to work that fateful morning, he made a stop at 1 Lawal Street, Abati, Akowonjo where his friend, Prosper, lived. Junior only wanted to charge his phone. While waiting for his phone to charge, police officers stormed the apartment in search of the landlord – a man named Hakeem – who was accused of stealing a vehicle belonging to one Barrister Omodele at gunpoint.
Azeez wasn’t at home but in typical fashion of how security agents operate in Nigeria, they arrested Junior and two of his friends, Prosper and Peter. The police took them to Afonka police station where they were intimidated and compelled to write a statement. Soon after, they were transferred to the SARS office at PWD, Ikeja, where their rights were abused, and the officers took turns to beat and humiliate them. Upon learning of their arrest, their families made several attempts to bail Junior and his friends, but the police wouldn’t budge. They were soon charged to court for armed robbery and remanded at the Kirikiri Prison – where they have spent the last seven years.
Junior was only 19 when he was arrested. He had just finished his secondary school education and hoped to study Mass Communication at the University of Lagos. Since he couldn’t gain admission immediately, Junior started downloading movies and music for interested persons at a fee. He conducted his business at the GSM village in Egbeda market, where his hard work and humility had endeared him to many people. His business was also beginning to grow gradually.
While in prison, Junior lost his father in 2018. This death left the burden of caring for his five siblings and himself solely for his mother to bear. His mother, Mrs. Joana, sells animal feeds by the roadside in Agege and has since struggled to cope with all the responsibilities, not to mention the pain of having her son in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. “It has not been easy,” she tells me. “It is only God that has been there for us and is seeing us through. I am even tired of crying, but the pain of seeing my son in prison for what he did not do is too much to bear.”
Nigeria’s justice system is painfully slow and riddled with a lot of bumps. For the poor, it can be a cruel experience as justice often takes too long. For Junior and his friends, it’s been a long and aching journey. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck last year, courts shut down, and Judges couldn’t hear their case for an entire year. It got even worse when the judiciary went on strike and when thugs burned courts after the #EndSARS protests in October 2020.
In 2019, he had only two court appearances. Same as 2018. Junior cannot believe he has spent almost seven years in prison. Sometime in 2017, the robbery victim, Barrister Omodele, testified in court claiming no knowledge of Junior and his friends. Barrister Omodele identified the attackers and told the court that the robbery did not involve Junior and his friends. The criminals he identified have since been arrested and reprimanded in prison.
Upon hearing Barrister Omodele’s testimony in court, Junior, his friends, and their families had hoped that this testimony would vindicate them. But the judge still expects the identified armed robber, Azeez, to testify in court before she rules on the innocence or otherwise of Junior and his friends. Unfortunately, it has taken over a year, with several excuses, to bring Azeez to court.
After seven years, the boys, now men, are understandably tired. It explains why Junior is considering a plea deal. They were brought to court yesterday with the hope that Hakeem would finally give the testimony that might exonerate them. But the Judge had adjourned without prior notice, dashing their hopes and crushing their already broken spirits. Junior’s mother continues to encourage him that freedom is close even though she is losing faith in the judicial system. The next hearing is on the 6th of December, and everyone is hoping that Hakeem will be brought to testify and that his testimony could mark the beginning of Junior’s walk to freedom.