It’s rare privilege to clock 70 after escaping public execution 43 years ago – Bishop Kayode Williams
Bishop Kayode Williams of the late Ishola Oyenusi robbery fame, who clocks the biblical three scores and 10 years tomorrow, has every reason to be thankful. Forty-three years after he left prison and got presidential pardon, he has remained unwavering in his commitment to prison reforms, which he considers a bounden duty of some sorts, and he has no qualms telling anyone who cares to listen that he won’t stop to talk about the parlous state of affairs at the nation’s correctional centres until he breathes his last. In this interview with Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf and Funke Cole, the Abeokuta-born clergyman reminisces about life in prison, shares interesting insights on his pet project especially the Prison Rehabilitation Mission International Inc (PREMI), and offers useful suggestions on how to turn the conditions in the prisons around.
Seventy years is a milestone in the life of anybody. How do you feel at 70?
I feel excited because I can’t believe that I am alive today. I was almost tied to the stake and executed for a crime that I committed. But divinely, God intervened, refined and rebuilt my life. Because of God’s mercy, I gave my life to Christ and promised to dedicate the rest of my life to the service of humanity.
Not only that, my nation Nigeria gave me a Presidential Pardon thereby removing the stigma of imprisonment from my life. All these favours have lifted my energy and verve to give back to this society that recognised that I deserved a second chance and that I can do better in life. So, I don’t want to sit back and lament that I wasted 10 years of my life in the prison. After spending 10 years in prison, I have spent another 43 years outside it today, and I am spending my time in goodness and happiness, transforming lives, engaging people in government to let us work together for the betterment of the country. I mean life can’t be more meaningful than this.
Before my flight takes off, I want to use the rest of my life serving God and humanity in excitement. That’s all I want to do. I’m not aggressive or desperate about anything in life because I know everything in life is under God’s control and not man.
At 70, do you have any regret whatsoever? If you had not gone to prison do you think your life would have been any better?
I don’t have any regret. I think going to prison though is bad in itself, but I think by destiny God had a plan for my going to prison, because it really changed my focus about life. Honestly, going to prison changed my orientation completely. The prison is not anything like life outside at all. It is when you taste the good, the bad and the ugly and God brings you out triumphantly that you can now sit down and rewind the story of your life before you begin to take decision. So, I think it’s an experience that I will continue to remember for the rest of my life.
I believe that God used my prison experience to turn my life around. So many members of my group were executed. Today, I’m preaching to people, dining and wining with kings.
I am a bridge builder between the powerful and the weak. So, I have no regret whatsoever.
You mentioned your group. After you left the prison, did you stumbled on any of them at any point in time?
On my birthday event, one of the ‘egbons’ in crime, Awonoga (laughs). Matthew Afefe is coming there too. I wasn’t actually part of the Oyenusi gang per se; I was just a boy in their midst. Afefe was held for the Kano robbery in the early 70s. In fact, Afefe was one of the first sets of armed robbers that robbed those bureau de change mallams and the moneybags of Kano in those days. He was my most ‘senior’ brother in crime then, but I’m his pastor now. (laughs).
How old is he now. Has he changed too?
(Laughs) He will tell you himself. Of course, he is no more into crime at all, he has settled down and he is a changed man now. But Afefe’s case is very peculiar. He was sentenced to life imprisonment twice. That means he was going to serve in prison forever and ever even in afterlife (laughs).
When I went to prison, I met him there as a father. When I was going out of prison, he was still there. When he heard what I was doing outside, he sent for me. When I came, he asked me, “Kayode se looto ni? Oo mugbo mo? Oo se aburu mo? (Kayode is it true that you no longer smoke Indian hemp or do other crazy stuffs anymore?). He was shocked.
But after some years, as luck would have it, he came out of prison and he visited my church to listen to the gospel. After the service, he came to me and said he didn’t know what to do with himself because he had nowhere else to go. Unfortunately, at the time he met me too, I was struggling and still trying to get on my feet.
Of course, he was not the only one who needed help; there were many like him all waiting on me but I couldn’t really do much at the time. I remember I took Afefe to a member of the Lagos State House of Assembly then and asked the lawmaker to help rehabilitate him but nothing much came out of it. Afefe found things pretty tough. But one day when he couldn’t bear it any more, off he went to one supermarket to go and do shoplifting in spite of the fact that he had already spent a double life sentence in prison.
When he got in, he took one of these big champagnes valued at the cost of N70-80k plus and he wasn’t caught. He later came to confess to me that hardship was forcing him into crime again. I was concerned, but again, I couldn’t really do much for him myself, so he left. He returned to the same supermarket some weeks later and took another exotic drink. But as he made to escape this time he was caught because the CCTV flagged him down. So when he saw the shop owner, a lady, Afefe said he already served double life imprisonment sentence; that they should take him away as a criminal who had just returned from prison.
The lady took pity on him and said she was going to send him to me, not knowing that I even knew Afefe in the first place. I was called by the lady and when I spoke with her about his condition, the lady said she can’t offer him any employment because that’s what Afefe wanted. But she later agreed to be giving him some stipends every month.
However, when he later returned to Ibadan at a Catholic where he was worshipping, I personally had to visit Ibadan where I met with the presiding priest on behalf of Afefe and pleaded his case with the church and they supported. Today, he is living well and has a family of his own.
Who else can you remember?
Majority of them have been wasted by the bullet. There may be one or two or three of them though. I remember Augustine the Green Jew, Willy Ayanpian, Anyamofu, Wahum robbers, and many others like that who were all wasted by bullets. No criminal ever dies well, and that is my warning to everybody. That is what the government doesn’t seem to understand about bringing people like us to speak to these criminal elements. There is no history of any criminal anywhere that refused to repent and amend his evil ways whoever died well. Omo Pupa, Matthew Joe in Mushin-Idioro, Awon Baba Osewon, including the native doctor that prepares charms for these notorious armed robbers all died uselessly.
So, I give God all the glory that I’m alive today. I’m telling the whole world that God can use people like me to talk to these criminals. If I stand before any of these criminal gangs and talk anywhere today, they will bow because there is respect in the crime kingdom. So many criminals were not killed by the police; majority of them were maimed and killed by members who vented their anger towards them as a result of insubordination on their part. It’s a case of dog eat dog or robber kill robber.
You set up the Prison Rehabilitation Mission International Inc., PREMI. What informed that?
It’s a long story. I came out of the prison yard on June 4, 1980. That’s 43 years ago. While I was in the prison, I discovered that majority of the problems that made people to return to the prison was because nobody wants to welcome them back to the society. Nobody wants to give them another opportunity to get their livelihood.And you know the greatest problem of man is shelter. If somebody comes out of prison and he has no home to go to, no family to go to, definitely he will go back to the same set of people that he knows their language, and that means he will be going to the Indian hemp joints, ghettos, and other hideouts where he can meet his likes. This is because our system in Nigeria is only used to opening the prison gates wide; there is no system of rehabilitation.
Back to your question, in my own case, the first day I got out of prison, I was in a state of confusion as to where to go. I had a family quite alright but they were not ready to accept me back into their fold. Of course, I had to go to the family house because there was nowhere else I could go at that point in time. I didn’t want to go back to my old friends that we were together before I went to prison in Ibadan. So, naturally, the next port of call for me was to my family house, and they were highly hostile towards me.I couldn’t go to my mother either, who my delinquency had made her a social outcast and subject of ridicule everywhere to the extent that she had to leave our home and was squatting with some relations out here after selling her shop and all her personal belongings. But I located her alright, and when I met her she was already half-blind. In fact, she had given me up for dead so you could see the excitement in her when she saw me in flesh and blood again. But I couldn’t stay where she was at the time because as I said, she was staying there on mercy capacity too. So, off we went to the family house, precisely to the house built by her own mother, who happened to be my own grandmother, and I was her only grandchild too. So, naturally, my mom had the rightful claim to the house.
But the children of my mother’s cousins already took over the house. Unfortunately, on getting to the family house, I was arrested the same week I came out of prison by one of the children of my mom’s siblings.
Why were you arrested?
I was arrested for absolutely nothing whatsoever. When I came into the house, I just went to the living room having established that every other room was being occupied safe for one bedroom which I left for my mom. So, I decided to settle down in the living room. But rather than accommodate me or even pity my poor mother, they felt threatened by my presence because of the mindset around here that an ex-convict is a danger to the society.The charge that was later read to me, which was instigated by one police officer (name withheld) married to a member of the mom’s family was that I committed conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace. They did not explain to the judge that I’m a member of the family.
The day they took me to court I was sentenced to one month imprisonment without an option of fine. It was Barrister Rotimi Akeredolu (the current Ondo State governor) that stood for me as my lawyer. He was able to plead with the trial judge that this man is just coming out of prison yard and he needs a shelter, and this is his family house in the first place.When I was in the prison, Rotimi Akeredolu came to see me. He won the case. That sentence was vacated but already the deed had been done. Even when he (Akeredolu) asked them for compensation they started begging that we should settle it amicably as a family. But my mother later took over possession of the property after going to court. Today, we’re living as one united family.I decided to regale you with all these details so you can understand the kind of humiliation ex-convicts suffer. So it was after my arrest and detention that I made up my mind that something must be done. Whatever it would cost me, I was going to make sure that anybody coming out of the prison would get an abode and a shelter, where he can lay his head however temporary.
The first person I approached to support me then was Akeredolu himself, and he said, “Kayode, egbon mi lo je. Kini tofe fa yi, wahala ni. Ijoba o ni lowo si (the country is not ready for the kind of thing you’re demanding). Akeredolu said even the government hadn’t been able to provide shelter for the normal people on the streets so is it prison inmates they would focus on then?You know the issue of prison at that time was a big stigma and every ex-convict was treated like a leper.
I remember at the time, he said he would introduce me to the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as a member. But I never bought into that idea because I was completely involved in missionary activities and all that. So, I was looking for support from churches which they graciously gave me at the time, though not wholesomely as you would expect based on the enormity of the work and responsibility at hand.
PREMI is 43 years today. Would you say the aims and objectives of the organisation have been fulfilled?
Yes, I would say to the glory of God Almighty, I have been able to really stamp the issue of PREMI, especially prison reforms, in the hearts of so many Nigerians. Achievement is not only on the visible things you do but it is also in terms of impartation.
One way you can better appreciate how far we have gone is to come and join me to mark my 70th birthday at Christ Delight Church, Alausa, where you will see things for yourself. About 17 inmates will be coming to give testimonies. I’m not doing the birthday as a celebration per se, but I’m only using it as a reawakening for the rehabilitation, reformation, reintegration and resettlement of the prison system in Nigeria. The first person that would be giving his testimony is Sulaimon Ibilolu, who is now a lawyer. He was sentenced to death and was on death row for some years. But by the grace of God, it was commuted to life imprisonment.
All the while, he was preparing and taking exams at the Abeokuta prison, and today, after his secondary school education, he took UTME and put in for Law and today he is a practising lawyer. He would be there on that day and will be sharing his testimony live. If Sulaimon, an ex-convict is now a lawyer, you can do the assessment yourself.
I don’t want to exaggerate the level of success or impact we have made thus far because you can’t really quantify it in concrete terms. There is also Kayode Dada. He was also sentenced to death in the same Ibara Prisons in Abeokuta, Ogun State. We were able to minister to him and luckily he was released and had distinction in all his papers in WAEC, and he opted to study medicine. He secured admission to study in UNILAG but the university said it was against the ethics of the profession to allow an ex-convict to study Medicine. So he was advised to go for physiotherapy and one other related course. He did very well. He also did his Masters and was later employed at Babcock University, where he was a lecturer.
The very first year of his employment he was ranked the best lecturer. But unfortunately, he is late. In fact, when he died, Babcock University said they would not allow me to bury him; they willingly took responsibility of the entire burial ceremony, saying that he was one of their best lecturers ever. His children and wife are coming to give testimony.
We struggled to obtain state pardon for him so that the stigma of ex-convict could be removed from his name. Unfortunately, that didn’t materialise before he died.Others would be there on that day. I believe if you don’t impact lives and you focus on yourself alone, you will lose followership. That is what we’re emphasising today. This is how I got to know Chief Afe Babalola, Oba Adedapo Adewale Tejuoso, Hon. Justice Oluseun Shogbola and a few other public-spirited Nigerians out there who have been supporting this cause one way or the other.I believe the best way to have a properly reformed prison system or correctional institutions in Nigeria is to call the attention of the wealthy people to give their support by providing opportunities for these inmates to be engaged in their industries so that they can also lead meaningful lives. In the last count if I recollect very well, we have been able to render support to well over 2,500 ex-convicts. But even then, this is just scratching the surface. I believe we can still do a lot more if we are able to open more doors across the states of the federation, the local government areas as well as the federal level as the case may be. Some of the things I like to do in the lives of anyone that follows me, especially these ex-convicts, is to make sure he has a shelter, a job and he is settled into a family, because once he is resettled, he won’t go back to crime. And that is where the 4Rs of prisons system, namely rehabilitation, reformation, reintegration and resettlement, come in. And these are very important codes of PREMI.