Indiscriminate jail sentences of Nigerians in Ghana embarrassing says Ambassador
In this interview by Ajayi Oluwapelumi,
Nigeria's High Commissioner to Ghana, Ambassador Ademola Oluseyi
Onafowokan, shares his sympathy with Nigerian prisoners in Ghana, his
efforts at ensuring their rights are not trampled upon and the
constraints in prison exchange agreement between Ghana and Nigeria.
In 2012, majority of
the 707 foreign prisoners in Nsawam, Ghana, were Nigerians, and same
appears to be the situation in other prisons in the country. Over the
years, their population has grown, with Nigerians still topping the
list. Is Nigeria High Commission planning to help Ghana Prison Service
in terms of infrastructure and funds for feeding?
Firstly, I agree with you that
majority of them are Nigerians, but should majority of them be
Nigerians? We shouldn't even be saying such things with pride because it
is a national disgrace. Every country we go, they are filled with
Nigerians, why? It is unfortunate. But I believe if you are ready to
take the risk, then you must be ready to dance to the music.
Now to the question of helping with infrastructure and other things; Nigeria High Commission doesn't have the kind of money
to build prisons. We are just here to do our core duties such as
issuing passports, visa, supporting Nigerians in distress and to keep
promoting the diplomatic relationship between the two brotherly nations.
What is the true state
of Nigerian prisoners in Ghana? Secondly, is the prisoner exchange plan
between Ghana and Nigeria still feasible?
As regard the issue of the
report, I want to believe it was written by one of the prisoners and
smuggled to someone to publish for them, because the report is not the
reality on ground. First of all, I will like to assure you that no
Nigerian has died in the prison. Secondly, I want to assure you that I
visited them; spoke to them and I always sympathise with them. But the
truth is, when you do illegal things in a foreign land, you should know
you will be jailed in that foreign land, so why commit such a crime?
Moreover, if they succeeded in making money from
such illicit transaction, they use the money to harass everyone on the
streets; illicit money source of which you will never know. I have
visited them and I make sure people visit them regularly. I usually send
my officials to take toiletries and other provisions to them. If you
check on them, they are almost more than the Ghanaians in Nsawam prison
in terms of population. They wouldn't stop doing drugs and getting
involved in armed robbery cases.
I remember a Nigerian was
sentenced to death, I personally spoke to the Chief Justice and I wrote a
letter to plead for his life, and he has not been executed, and I don't
think he'll be executed. About the long sentences they are giving them,
which I was told by the Chief Justice of Ghana Mrs Theodore Woods, they
assured me that they will look into it, but they told me those
sentences are to discourage other Nigerians from thinking Ghana is a
safe haven for criminals. It is logical to make a U-turn if you know
that you are likely to get a prison sentence of 50-130 years if caught
committing crime as a Nigerian or a foreigner. But that has not deter
them, as Nigerians fill up the Ghana prisons on a daily basis, and after
being caught, they want us (Nigeria High Commission) to come and get
Also, any Nigerian prisoner
released comeS to the Nigeria High Commission (NHC), we usually give
them GHC100 ($40) which will take them to Lagos. Since I resumed as the
High Commissioner, I have been doing that religiously. Sometimes when
they come, I will ask them to be brought in front of me, and I ask them
what led them into it, and afterwards, I counsel them. The question
remains that when you know there is a reward for your crime if caught,
why do it?
On the question of prisoners
exchange, I have spoken with the parliamentary Committee on Foreign
Affairs and I mentioned the issue; I was made to understand that
Nigerian prisons are too full, and that the prisoner exchange document
has not been concluded yet. If you check countries around the world, you
will find Nigerian prisoners there, and it baffles me. I think we need a
national orientation because this is becoming a huge embarrassment to
the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and this is as a result of the fact
that they want to get rich quick. It's not a crime to be rich,
but it must be earned. The High Commission is doing its best to ensure
that Nigerian prisoners have a humanity touch. The High Commission
doesn't have power to get them released; all we can do is to keep
Is it not out of place
for Ghanaian government, through her policy, to give the nationality of a
particular country like Nigeria excessive jail sentence, claiming it is
an instrument of deterrent?
I agree that policy is not
right. Like I told you, I sat down with Chief Justice Theodore Woods,
and he promised to work on it. I don't think I can force authorities in
Ghana to change its justice system. So also, Ghana High Commission in
Nigeria cannot force Nigerian government to change our justice system.
In some countries, the law prescribed that you will be beheaded if you
commit certain crime, and there's little or nothing diplomacy can do to
make them change their mind. I think to go to prison for a long time is
better than being beheaded. But the best solution is to walk away from
How will you describe
the loss of Nigeria's former minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador
Olugbenga Ashiru and your relationship with him?
Ambassador Olugbenga Ayodeji
Ashiru was my boss at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for many years. We
were in the same department in 1982. He was my brother, mentor and a
family friend. He and his wife, Dr Kehinde Ashiru and their children are
like my family.
When I was posted to Ghana, he
called me and told me "Seyi, I know you're a smart man and I want you to
go there and put in your best. Even when he left as a Minister, he
invited me and my wife to his house to have lunch together, that was the
last time I saw him.
It is very devastating to hear
the news of his death. He had worked very hard for the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs and the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The only
consolation we have is that he left a mark. He accomplished a lot, and I
believe he died a fulfilled man. He was a very, very good man. I
usually call him brother Gbenga.
Sir, you mentioned
making provision of GHc 100 for Nigerian prisoners to take them to
Nigeria, but it cost almost twice for a Nigerian without a passport to
travel to Nigeria, and little less for those with a passport. Moreover,
won't get them to their home- town where they could reunite with their
families. Is the High Commission working on augmenting the cash?
If that's the case, we will
look into that, but whatever we give them is meant to get them into
Nigerian territory. Once you get to Lagos, you should be able to find
your way from there. This money
we are giving to them for their transportation to Nigeria is our own
initiative; sourced from our overhead cost, not a fund created by the
Federal Government. I think we can increase it to GHC200. The time we
initiated it, it cost GHC100 to transport oneself through any of the
transport firm to Nigeria.
Is Nigeria High Commission
ensuring that each of these Nigerian prisoners is given an opportunity
to access a lawyer to speak for them in court? Because report has it
that the opposite is the case, and neither are they allowed to speak to
That they are not allowed to
hire a lawyer is not true. Also, I can tell you that some of the
prisoners' family members do come to visit them, and that was as a
result of the fact that they were allowed to communicate with them in
the first place. Also, some of them wouldn't want their family members
to even visit them because of the shame, while some of them won't even
want their families to know they are in prison in Ghana. There's a case
of a particular man I met at the prison when I visited. He came from the
United States, and quickly wanted to do his drug runs, and he was
caught. He doesn't want his family in America to know he's in prison in
Ghana. These prisoners lie a lot; they will tell you all sorts of things
just for you to pity them. But the question I keep asking is: if you
know that when you're caught, you won't be treated with kid gloves, why
did you commit the crime?
These hard drugs they are
peddling destroy lives; the funny thing is they don't use it themselves
because they know the implication on their health, and you also know the
law frowns at it, yet you keep peddling it. I sympathise with them, but
they should stop talking as if someone put them in prison deliberately;
blaming the system, because they cause the trouble for the system
As a career diplomat, what are the things you learn from him?
I learnt a lot from him, such
as the passion for the job. Secondly, he was very shrewd in relation to
his work and personal life. Thirdly, he was brilliant, and he thought me
how to write report, how to navigate diplomatically and economically at
the desk. When he came to the NHC in Ghana, he was very proud of what
we have done from the physical outlook of the embassy to dispatches we
wrote. He kept sending me letter of acknowledgements personally signed.
The welfare of his officers was
his priority. He got more career diplomat to serve as Amdassador than
any other Foreign Affairs Minister. Policy-wise, he was fearless,
courageous and he tried his best to position Nigeria in international
The former Minister
died in South Africa hospital, a country he battled ruthlessly when
there was a diplomatic row between the two nations. Is that not an
embarrassment to Nigeria as a nation?
I don't think so. We have other
foreigners coming to Nigeria for medicals. There may be cases where we
may not have the equipment or expertise and patients have to travel, but
that doesn't mean some other countries don't travel to other countries
because of that as well. I believe the administration of President
Goodluck Jonathan is doing a lot to ensure that it is erased in our
history through the transformation agenda.