Kid from Death Row lives to tell a tale: As a boy of 14 Kiki Francis was arrested on his way to see his priest. He spent the next eight years in jail. Karl Maier in Lagos heard his story

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOR the young men on death row, Friday nights were a time of dread. 'If they said you would go outside the next day, your hands would start shaking,' said Kiki Francis.

Executions were often carried out on Saturday, and when inmates were led outside they did not know if it was to be for some fresh air or if it was to be their last breath. Those on death row were allowed five minutes of sun each day.

Death row at Nigeria's notorious Kirikiri Maximum Security prison in Lagos was home to Mr Francis, 23, for four years after being convicted on charges of armed robbery allegedly committed in 1984 when he was 14 years old. The military decree under which Mr Francis was convicted barred the right of appeal. In August 1990, the then military governor of Lagos, Colonel Raji Rasaki, announced he intended to execute Mr Francis and 11 other youths who became known as the 'kid robbers'. But on the day the execution was to be carried out a human rights group obtained a court order stopping it.

Three months later the Campaign for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), led by Beko Ransome-Kuti, obtained a court order suspending the executions. 'Beko and the human rights groups got a court order to stop the execution on the day it was to be carried out,' said Mr Francis.

The government maintained that the 'kid robbers' could be executed because 11 of the 12 youths were over the age of 17 when they allegedly committed the crime. The Nigerian legal system regards anyone below the age of 17 as a minor and not subject to execution. Human rights groups, such as the CDHR and the Civil Liberties Organisation, argued that the authorities had never permitted a medical examination to determine their true ages.

On Christmas Eve 1990, one of the youths, Mohammed Ibrahim, died on death row of chronic pulmonary tuberculosis, an illness that runs rampant in Kirikiri. Another youth initially arrested with the group, Bello Dan Musa, died in 1984 of unknown causes. There were up to six inmates eating, sleeping and relieving themselves in a 4ft by 6ft cell, which was damp and full of mosquitoes. 'No make for man be that prison,' Mr Francis said. 'It suit you just die.'

The evidence against Mr Francis and the surviving 11 boys was thin. They had been picked up in a police swoop after a wealthy woman in the Ikorodu market area reported a robbery. The assailants allegedly carried a gun and cutlasses. She accused her two houseboys of involvement, and they, in turn, rode around with the plainclothes police pointing out neighbourhoods of immigrants from the republic of Benin and the Nigerian border town of Badagry. The houseboys had said the other robbers spoke Egun, the most common language in Badagry. The bulk of these immigrants are fishermen living along the lagoons that divide Lagos into three islands set off from the mainland. Its name, which means 'lakes', was given it by the early Portuguese explorers.

Many fishermen came to purchase pirogues, the thick wooden canoes carved from a single tree trunk that ply the countless lakes, rivers and coastal waters throughout Africa. The woodlands of southern Benin are badly depleted, and fishermen near the border on Lake Nokoue, known as the Tofinu or 'water people', are suffering from overcrowding at Ganvie, their lake village on stilts. For them, Nigeria is a land of opportunity. Near the Lagos mainland fish farms, consisting of tree branch and bush cuttings planted into the shallow waters, cover the area.

Mr Francis lived in one such fishing village near the Obalende market area of Ikoyi island. He was a Catholic catechist who spent his days walking along sandy pathways through a maze of cardboard and wooden huts spreading the word of God.

The police came at 7.30pm on 17 September 1984. Mr Francis was on his way to visit his local priest, Emmanuel Babatunde, when he was stopped at the gap in the cement barrier wall where people can sprint across the highway into the city. Two plainclothes policemen, accompanied by the two young houseboys, told him to sit down in the sand and wait. Then they kicked him.

Soon afterwards, Awuji Roshe and Oluwole Jifrey walked by and were told to do the same. All three were bundled into the back of a stationwagon and driven to Ikorodu police station. The cells were filled with poor young Hausa men who came from northern Nigeria and ended up roaming the streets of Lagos. Mr Francis was released after three days, after paying a 200 naira ( pounds 5.50) fine and promising to report to the police.

Two weeks later the police returned to arrest him and he was sent to Kirikiri. Mr Francis and the other youths were convicted only in 1988 and in controversial circumstances. Their arrest took place at a time when the military government of General Muhammadu Buhari had launched a tough campaign against violent crime. Decree 5 of 1984, which set up the Robbery and Firearms Tribunal and under which they were tried, provided for no appeal.

Gen Buhari was overthrown on 27 August 1985 by Nigeria's current military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, but the executions continued. The Civil Liberties Organisation estimated there were at least 120 executions in 1990.

Their court case, presided over by one of Nigeria's toughest judges, Moshood Olubani, was riddled with problems. 'The whole trial was full of procedural irregularities and overt bias against the convicts . . . I have no doubt in my mind that if this case were to come before an appellate court, it would succeed, the conviction would be overturned and a verdict of acquittal substituted,' Bayo Manuwa, the Lagos state director of public prosecutions, wrote to Col Rasaki in 1988. 'It is therefore my considered recommendation that the military governor be advised to disallow this conviction and order the immediate release of the convicts from custody.'

Two years later, however, Col Rasaki confirmed that the executions would go ahead, but the human rights groups intervened with the court injunction. 'Sleep and pray were the only things to do,' said Mr Francis. 'I had already lost hope.'

Politics intervened in the form of an elected state governor, Michael Otedola, and the departure of Col Rasaki. Mr Otedola's decision to pardon the 'kid robbers' was a popular one, especially at Mr Francis' village. 'This boy was a teacher for us. He would come around with his Bible and we had prayers every day,' said Richard Ghenu, a distant uncle. 'He was gone so long but now we are strong again having him back.'

Since his release in January, however, Mr Francis has only been back at weekends. The People's Bank, a government institution that provides low-interest loans to the poor, awarded each of the freed 'kid robbers' 10,000 naira to set up their own trade. Mr Francis has gone to Badagry to sell gari, the manioc-based staple porridge, and rice. Business is bad because of rampant inflation, now running at over 100 per cent a year. But Mr Francis said his prison experience convinced him that he should leave Lagos. Rents are high, too.

The human rights groups that launched the campaign on behalf of the 'kid robbers' he views as saviours. 'Without Beko and the CLO, we were lost,' he said. Ironically, today Dr Ransome-Kuti is in jail facing charges of sedition and conspiracy because of his role in organising pro-democracy rallies this month in Lagos.

Mr Francis will always be suspicious of the government. He was not even sure if he should accept the loan. 'I fear that if I do not repay it, the police will came back for me,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)