Like all Nigerians who are jostling to travel out of the country thinking their lot would become better abroad, some fourteen Nigerians decided to move to Saudi Arabia to try their luck in the middle east country.
This was in 2002. It wasn’t that the fourteen Nigerians travelled together, to the country as they all came in at different times, but fate brought them together albeit in a difficult way.
Abass Azeez, Nafiu Obadina, Muhammed Abdullahi Yusuf, Amod Abass Alabi, Salau Amod Suberu, Sulaiman Olufemi, Nurudeen Owolade, Waheed Elebute, Amin Gbenga Shobayo, Abass Mojeed Akanni, Murtala Amao Oladele and Kazeem Afolabi, all found themselves in Saudi Arabia in 2002. Some of them only came into the country less than two weeks, some just a little over a month and some had only spent few months before they found themselves in big trouble in this Islamic country with strict laws.
The story is that a policeman was allegedly murdered by unknown men during a row between the police authorities and some nationals from other countries at a car wash station in a Saudi neighbourhood. According to the story, the police moved in and arrested people indiscrimately and in fact, they went as far as raiding homes of foreigners, particularly the black people. That was how these young men got into trouble without knowing anything about the matter.
In a chat with our reporter, one of the men said he was less than two weeks old in the country when the incident happened and he was still trying to settle down when the police picked him up where he was staying, in a massive raid. He said the same was the case of all of them, stating that they were victims of police anger at the death of one of them. He said he couldn’t even think of killing anybody in Nigeria not to talk about doing that in a country known for her strictness.
They were all hauled into detention as those arrested were over a hundred people but only fourteen were Nigerians among them. After serious torture among other molestation, they were allegedly tried and jailed seven years each in 2005 in a court where they conducted the trial speaking Arabic and without representation from Nigeria’s embassy in the country. One of them, Suleimon Olufemi, was said to have bagged a death sentence. According to the men, the death sentence would be carried out when the first son of the murdered policeman turns 17 years. The boys, at the time, pleaded their innocence but it fell on deaf ears.
They were to serve out their jail terms in 2008, but to their surprise, they were taken to court, while serving the initial jail terms, and given additional three years. Again, this was to terminate in 2010 but the term was increased to fifteen years. In the process, one of them took ill and died. These Nigerians have been appealing to subsequent Nigerian governments since then to come to their aid without success.
They express their frustration and suffering as nobody is ready to assist them, just as they lament that other African nationals that were arrested and jailed along with them had regained freedom following interventions from their various governments. They wonder why successive Nigerian governments have turned deaf ears to their pleas of innocence as other countries had done for their citizens.
About two organisations made desperate efforts to bring the plight of these Nigerians to the front burner but all to no avail. An organisation, The Legal Defence and Assistant Project (LEDAP) was the first to campaign for the freedom of these Nigerians in 2006 before the Centre for Human Rights and Ethics in Development (CHRED) also took several steps to secure freedom for them, again, to no avail.
Unfortunately, the case of these Nigerians best highlight what many other Nigerians are going through as many Nigerians believe that all Nigerians in various jails abroad are truly guilty of all the offences levelled against them without always giving them the benefit of the doubt.
In 2013, the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Nigeria, Foaud Abdulaziz Rajeh, disclosed that a total of 189 Nigerians were, by then, serving jail terms in Saudi Arabia. The ambassador who spoke when he paid a courtesy call on the then Vice President Namadi Sambo said the Saudi Arabian government was looking forward towards information sharing, training and exchange of prisoners. It is not known what efforts has been put in place to carry this out.
CHRED did a lot to bring the travails of these men into the limelight. Following persistent reminders, in 2009, the Nigerian Embassy acknowledged the receipt of letters from the organisation and promised to do something but nothing was obviously done as the men remain behind bars in Saudi. They are desperately calling on well-meaning Nigerians to rescue them expressing the fear that they may end up being killed if nothing is done to free them.
Our reporter visited the Abuja office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to intimate the ministry of the development and an official, who pleaded to remain anonymous, said that the ministry was aware of such allegations of not providing prompt legal services to Nigerians in trouble abroad, and noted that the issue was not peculiar to Nigerians in Saudi Arabia.
The source said that it was obvious, in many instances reviewed, that Nigerian missions abroad failed to make prompt interventions to save such citizens, even when official complaints were made.
According to the source, the hands of officials at the missions were, however, tied in most cases, and attributed the situation to a number of factors including logistics challenge, lack of funds and uncompromising procedures in host countries.
The source gave an instance with the situation in Indonesia where there were protests against death sentences passed on Nigerians and where pleas by the Federal Government for leniency to those on death row were rebuffed.
Another example given by the source is what constantly happens to Nigerians in South Africa in terms of obvious maltreatment and the inability of the Federal Government to halt it through relevant diplomatic channels.
The source said, “I think that in those cases where Nigerians have been harshly treated and constantly too, the option is to use other instruments like invoking international conventions against the countries in question
“We have received reports of non intervention by some of our missions abroad in some of those cases. Victims and their relatives have also reached us independently. I can tell you that the situation gives us great concern and let me remind you that that was why a former minister, now the late Olugbenga Ashiru had to threaten same reciprocal treatments to citizens of countries that maltreated our own citizens
“However, let me believe that all of those things are going to be history soon. Mr. President is registering a strong presence in international arena, which critics who don’t understand kick against. But I know that the totality of all the efforts will yield Nigeria the desired result.
“I sympathise with the victims and their families. Hon estly, I pray things really get better.”
Also commenting on the issue, the chairman, House Committee on Diaspora, Hon Rita Orji, in a telephone chat, said that the committee is already working on a motion that deals with Nigerians’ plight in foreign countries.
The lawmaker, who represents Ajeromi/Ifelodun Federal constituency of Lagos, added that she was deeply concerned about the news of Nigerians languishing in jails across foreign countries.
According to her, “my committee is really concerned about the plight of Nigerians languishing in jail in foreign countries, a motion to that effect will be tabled before the House”.