The Confessions of a Condemned Criminal

That Sunday morning rose with its usual ecstasy. The fragrance of incense filled the atmosphere, choristers filed out in front of the Sacristy, with their files and hymnbooks, humming their entrance hymn with great delight. The resonating church organ enlivened the morning with such brilliance that anyone who stepped into the church felt some kind of relieve and satisfaction. The Sunday liturgy was just minutes away.

I stood outside the church, leaning on Fr. Andy’s car. The splendour of the morning had engulfed my spirit. But, somehow sadly for me, I was not to attend Mass in the parish that very morning. I was among the team set aside by the Church Council for the Prison Ministry. So, as I stood outside that morning, with my spirit outside my body, elevated by the melodious hymns and the fragrance of alter incense, watching Fr. Ukpe stride behind a long list of choristers, altar servers, deacons and lay readers, I wished I was absent from Church Council meeting yesterday.

At eight o’clock, Fr. Andy came out of the Presbytery. He wore his traditional soutane and a surplice on top. His dressing could not be complete without his infectious smile.

“Idiongo, Good morning.” His smile was louder than his greetings.

“Good morning Father…”

“Ah, I thought you were five in number, why are you alone?”

“Hmmm,” I chuckled. “I don’t know. Maybe others are coming”

“No na, Mass is eight o’clock.”

As he said that, he moved briskly to the driver’s side of his car, plucked in his key and opened the door. I turned immediately to the right of the car, opened the door and we sat in almost simultaneously. He ignited the engine, shifted the gear stick back, turned his wheels, a little to the left, returned the wheels and his gear stick and sped off.

Barrack’s road was empty. One could easily count the number of people on the street – only two women returning from the nearby borehole. Fr. Andy sped along the road like a frightened civilian, stealing a look on his wristwatch by every second.

In about two minutes, he turned at the gate of the Nigeria Prison Service. He pressed his horn button gently and it hooted softly. The officer on duty stepped out with a stone face, apparently very uncomfortable with the presence of a visitor. But, when he noticed that the visitor was a priest, his face began to relax.

“Welcome Father.”

“Thank you! May I? I’m Fr. Andy. Prison Apostolate, C.K.C.”

“Who is the Man with you.” Fr. Andy turned quickly to me “A member of the ministry.”

“Ok, take these.” He handed two large red laminated cards with ropes to me. “These are your identities. Welcome once again.”

As we stepped into the premises, shocking waves ran through my veins. I ran my eyes through the compound, to the length and breadth of the buildings I could scan. It looked horrifying and lifeless, like it was the shadows of death. I took a deep breath and held myself together. Well-armed officers paraded the compound with stony, merciless faces. About ten to fifteen men came out from the nearby bush with logs of wood on their heads. As they came closer, their bodies were blemished – old marks and fresh wounds, lacerated skins, some with broken teeth as they attempted to talk, others with bleeding chest. One man was very spectacular. He had one ear, broken nose and a torn lip, dripping with blood. Fr. Andy closed his eye and rested his head on the steering wheel.

We opened the car simultaneously. I could not lift my legs from the car. I waited and watched the line of mutilated men walk through. As I stepped out of the car, a female officer walked up to us.

“Welcome Father!”

“Thank you, ma.”

“Where do you want to start today, Father?”

“Let me visit the cells first.” Fr. Andy turned to me. “Idiongo, get the holy water and follow me”. He brought out his Stole, a small book and Pyx and closed the door.

We walked into a long corridor, with small rooms on both sides. The smell was an apology. Flies found a common ground for their ceremonies and the atmosphere took a normal picture of an abandoned lavatory. The officer stood by the door, with her nose covered and directed us to move inside.

As we managed to move in, a particular cell caught our attention. The room space was three feet by three feet. The prisoner was fastened to the wall. His legs were bound together with heavy chains cemented to the floor. A locally made heavy rods bangled his hands against the iron bars and his neck was circled with chains like the picture of the 18th century slaves. The scene was so graphic that my eyes became watery. Fr. Andy swung his head in pity and moved closer.

“Leave that one alone, he will be killed tomorrow!” The officer shouted from the door. We ignored her and kept moving towards him. The more we moved closer, the slower our legs became and I for once, I wished it was a dream, so I could wake up.

The young man of about thirty-five, was naked except for the black pant he wore. He had mess up his cell. For the last twenty-four hours, he has been standing because his chains could not let him sit. He was supposed to be executed last Saturday morning, but the executioner was absent. He was to remain there till Monday, or whenever the executioner will be around. He emptied his bowels on himself, standing.

“Hmmm, this is a man that was created by God!” Fr. Andy exhaled heavily. He moved closer to the cell and I followed. Fr. Andy touched the iron bars.  The man looked at Fr. Andy, expressionlessly.

“Good morning friend.” Fr. Andy greeted. But the man gave no response, not even a facial shift. “I am Fr. Andy, a friend that you never had the opportunity of meeting while you were out there. I know you are in pains, so I will not expect you to say anything. Just keep looking at me. See in my eyes your brother who could not see you when it did not get to this level. I should be the one in this prison not you, because if I had seen you earlier, I would not have let you destroy yourself this far. But, boyfriend, there is still hope!”

The young man’s eyes began to cloud with tears. He bowed his head for sometimes and when he lifted it up, tears had covered his face.

“Guy, this is not the time for you to cry” Fr. Andy continued, shaking his head in the process. “As far as humanity is concerned, you are gone; you will be killed. But humanity has only knowledge, she doesn’t have wisdom. Wisdom is restricted to few individual, like us.” The man began to cry, really louder. “I have come to give you a new life. If you accept it, Guy, you will come back to tell me thank you” Fr. Andy paused and looked at him. The man turned to his left and spat out a large volume of mucus from his mouth.

“How will you help me Father?”

“Let’s start with your name, boyfriend!” Fr. Andy asked. “Mine is Andifak, my friends call me Andy.”

“I’m Akaniyene…”

“Sure! You are more than wealth because God loves you. But you did not really understand, that is why this happened to you. Akan, even in this cell, God has not abandoned you…”

“I will not live again…”

“Lies! That is what the stupid court of law wants you to believe -- that they will kill you. Guy, nobody can kill you except God, that is why he has sent me to you this morning. He is waiting with open arms for you.”

“Father, I am an armed robber! I have killed many in my operations and I have destroyed many.” He bowed his head and began to cry again.

“Sorry, guy, look up to me.” Fr. Andy condoled.

“Father, what brought me here was that earlier this year…” tears choked off the words. He spat out a huge mucus again and continued. “I raped one woman on one of our outing and killed her aft…” he cried out aloud and threw himself up in frustration but the restrains did not allow him to move an inch.

“Hmmm, it’s ok. You lived an awful life, but…”

“I’m very sorry Father, I feel so stupid. What really happened to me. I was a normal boy until my father died. My mum abandoned me to my father. I don’t even know what she looks like. After my father died, my uncle sold my father’s house and ran away with the money. And I left for the street. I could not do anything again after Uyo High School. I don’t know why I never had the opportunity of killing my uncle ever since I join the Red Scorpion Cult. Look at me now, there is nothing I can do again…”

“No, there is something you can do, a whole lot that will serve you. Are you still thinking of killing your uncle?”

The man could not answer, he kept weeping. Fr. Andy went on. “Ok, Akan.” The man lifted his face, his yes red like blood. “You will not get out of here alive, but if you have the opportunity to live again, will you go back to Red Scorpion?”

“No father, God forbid…”

“Why...?” Fr. Andy asked.

“Father, I’m regretting everything I did, everything! Look at me, just look at me…” The man began to sob again.

“Ok. Which church have you ever attended…”

“None Father.”

“Ok. No problem. Would you love to accept Jesus into your life in this last hour.?”

The man began to cry again. “Father, I want God to forgive me for the people I have killed, those I slaughtered, the children I mutilated to dead…” He shouted and tried to jump up. “Will God ever forgive me…?

Fr. Andy smiled. “He has already! Keep talking…”

“Oh, my God, the woman I killed recently… Father, I don’t want any other thing, I want God to forgive me.”

Fr. Andy took a deep breath. He turned to me swiftly then turned away. He beaconed at the officer who stood by the door to come in.

The officer shouted “Father, get out of there. There is nothing you can do about that devil.” Fr. Andy handed the Pyx and the book he carried to me. “Hold it with respect that is God.”
Fr. Andy ran out of the long corridor as if chased. Before a minute could pass by, he zoomed back with a pail full of water. He dropped the pail, stood in front of the prison bars, breathing heavily from the race.

Fr. Andy’s voice changed. He sounded very dreadful. “Akan, are you sorry for all you did?”

“Father, with my soul, I’m very, very sorry, please help me… may God forgive me… may He have mercy on me…”

“Ok.” Fr. Andy reached out his hands through the iron bars to touch his head but the restrains could not make it possible. Fr. Andy kept his hands there and prayed:  “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your Son, you reconciled the world to yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Fr. Andy held up the pail of water. “Akan, I want to baptise you to became Christian, a saint of God, do you agr….”

“Yes sir, yes father… yes, yes!”

“Ok.” Fr. Andy held the pail up. “I baptise you with the name Augustine, in the name of the father…,” Fr. Andy splashed the water on him through the prison bars. “…and of the Son…,” Fr. Andy splashed the water again. “…and the Holy Spirit!” This time, Fr. Andy emptied the entire pail on him.

“What are you doing Father?” The officer shouted. We remained silent. Fr. Andy brought out the Holy Communion from the Pyx to give to the man, but it was not possible to give him because of the restrains. He gave the Communion to me.

“Idiongo, try it with your hand; yours is longer!” I held the Communion, Augustine brought out his tongue, but it was not possible to place it on him. The chains fastened him to the wall.

“Father, I have an idea.”  I suggested.

“What?” Fr. Andy responded with all eagerness.

“I have a biro pen; can we fasten the Holy Communion by the cover of the pen and point it to his month? Is it wrong?”

“No, we are saving a soul.” I brought out my red pen, Fr. Andy clipped the Communion on the pen and I reached it out to Augustine. The man used his lips drew out the Communion and ate it.

“May the body of Christ give you everlasting life”

He answered “Amen!”

On Monday evening, the Angelus’ bells in the prison corresponded with his footsteps as he marched down to the gallows. His face covered with a black hood. He was led to the stand; on the stand, his face uncovered. To his surprise, he saw Fr. Andy and myself standing there before him. He smiled beautiful and looked down on the rosary beads around his neck. Fr Andy blessed him with the sign of the cross. The executioner took off the stool and he hung there.

“I need his corpse!”

“Ah, why na Father?” The executioner queried.

“Because he died as a Christian, not as a criminal. Augustine has the right to Christian funeral.”

Idiongo Ebong

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