Diplomatic concerns as Nigerians allege starvation, torture, other abuse in Ethiopian prisons


GIFT HABIB takes a look at how Kaliti Prison in Ethiopia is fast becoming a home for several Nigerian inmates who are being allegedly subjected to starvation, physical torture and other forms of abuse

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, has a diaspora population of approximately 1.7 million, according to a 2020 report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Out of this number, thousands of Nigerians abroad are languishing in foreign prisons. In 2013, about 15,316 Nigerians were reported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be in various prisons abroad.

In 2021, data published by Patriotic Citizens Initiatives, a civil society group, indicated that 170,000 Nigerians were currently serving terms for drugs/human trafficking and other related immigration offences across the world. This reflected a sharp rise from the 16,300 recorded in 2012, out of which 6,500 were on death row.

PCI also said that as many as 8,000 Nigerians were incarcerated in Chinese prisons, 3,719 in Canadian prisons, while British jail houses were home to some 750 Nigerian inmates. India also held about 1,000 Nigerian prisoners. Indonesia imprisoned 200 Nigerians, with 40 of the inmates on death row.

Over the past few years, Nigerian inmates abroad have continued to cry out, alleging human rights abuses in foreign prisons.

In Africa, 140 inmates from the Kaliti Prison in Ethiopia wrote the MFA asking it to intervene in their incarceration in 2019. They complained of being starved or given leftover, harmful food. They also alleged that many of their fellow inmates had died because of the cruel treatment.

The ministry responded weeks later and said it did not abandon them, stressing that it would intervene in the matter. This promise has yet to be fulfilled as Nigerians in this prison continue to suffer brutality.

On March 12, 2023, a Nigerian inmate, Favour Eze, reportedly died in the Kaliti Prison, a maximum-security jail in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, after she was allegedly being brutalised by Ethiopian prison officials.

Also, on September 21, 2023, a Nigerian inmate in the same prison, Uchenna Nwanneneme, was reported to have died after allegedly contracting tuberculosis, months after poor medical attention.

Explaining the situation in the Kaliti Prison, a Nigerian inmate, whose name was withheld for security reasons said although he was arrested over nine years ago for carrying a bag containing drugs (without his knowledge), the claim that Nigerians are in the Kaliti Prison for drug-related crimes or other related crimes was not entirely true.

He said “Some people committed crimes, quite all right, but many are also innocent. If you are returning to Nigeria from a different country, you will have to go through Ethiopia. One would be detained, kept on one side and checked thoroughly as long as you are using a Nigerian passport.

“After checking your luggage and bags, while waiting for your next flight, if one exchanges words with them rudely or violently, they will forcefully take you to the Ethiopia town to scan your stomach in the hospital.

“If one records them during this scenario with a mobile phone and tells them that if they do not find anything illegal on them, they must renew their ticket for the missed flight, they will just use their brain and bring evidence of cocaine to open a case for you and take you to the police station and the prison. While in prison, they will serve you a paper that you have been sentenced. I am telling you a reality.

“To be sincere, I committed a crime and that is why I am here. Someone gave me a bag and I noticed that there was drug inside it. I live and work in Brazil. I have been in this prison for nine years and eight months.”

Speaking on the condition of Nigerian inmates in the prisons, the source said most Nigerians were beaten mercilessly and starved while inmates from other countries who committed similar crimes were less maltreated.

He said, “There are 210 Nigerians here. Our condition is very critical. If you fall sick, you will be left to your fate. If you do not have money to take care of yourself, there is a probability that you will die.

“What happens here is, if one is sick and goes to the hospital, you would be asked to drink water and start exercising. The prison authorities will never place you on any medication. We are given one spoonful of white rice without sauce or spices twice a day. If we have any problem with their indigenes in prison, we get the beating of our lives.

“The police here at the prisons do not understand nor speak English. Imagine being placed in prison with their indigenes; most Nigerians here have contracted tuberculosis. The state of the Katali prison is very bad. Citizens from other countries are treated well for the same offence that we committed but I do not know what Nigerians did to them that we are treated differently.

“We are mixed up with their indigenes out of which some are mad or sick. The mad people sometimes pick up stones and attack us and if Nigerians retaliate, we will be put in a dark room where we would spend seven days and sometimes, we will bribe the police before we can be given a space to lay on the floor. The police will beat us and tell us that the Nigerian Embassy cannot do anything.”

On the level of assistance the Nigerian embassy is extending to the inmates, the source said, “We sent messages to the embassy that many of us here are sick. Some have kidney problems, spinal cord problems, and eye problems, among other health issues. Before Uchenna died, we contacted the embassy telling them about his ill-health. They did not do anything.

“We equally pleaded with them to transfer us back to Nigerian prisons just like the way other countries are doing for their citizens. It is better that we die in our country than for us to die in Ethiopia.

“The embassy is not doing anything. There was a time when the embassy visited us here and at that time, about 100 people had injuries all over their bodies. We told the embassy that no matter the situation, we are still good citizens of Nigeria. We should not be abandoned. The embassy has yet to come and address us since Uchenna died. Even Favour Eze’s body is still in the mortuary and if care is not taken, more Nigerians will die.

“There was a time the embassy said that the Ethiopian government had approved that we should be transferred to Nigeria custodial centres. The embassy said it would take two months to process everything, till now, nothing yet.”

Also, an inmate who spoke on anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue said purchasing what he needs to survive in the prison was extremely expensive, adding that the state of the prison is almost akin to an animal cage.

The source said, “As I arrived at Ethiopia airport, I was set aside while other nationalities were allowed to board another plane. I was told to pay $5,000 which I refused to pay because I did not commit any crime. I was detained and my passport was taken away from me. The next day their commander came, organised his men, put drugs in my bag and said they would use it to jail me for challenging the police authorities. I have all the recordings on my phone.

“We are living in hell. We are in a place where fowls or pigs are trained. The health conditions of Nigerians here are in a sorry state. The prison authorities will withdraw water for days. All our efforts to make the Nigerian embassy in Ethiopia intervene proved abortive. We do not know who to run to. I am not lying. The embassy comes to see us just one or two times a year. No personal hygiene. This toilet here, about 500 people are using the toilet without water. I have not taken a bath for some days.

The inmate added, “My family is not happy that I am still in this prison. I was going to see them on that fateful day from Brazil after spending nine years in the country.”

He called on the government to intervene, adding that Nigerians were dying on a regular basis due to the brutality being meted out to them by the prison officials.’

In the wake of the hues and cries, former ambassadors have called on the government to protect Nigerians in prisons abroad.

A former Nigerian ambassador to Mexico, Ogbole Amedu-Ode, advised Nigeria to engage the local authorities through its missions, especially in situations of perceived miscarriage of justice.

Amedu-Ode said, “During the trials (court proceedings), the Nigerian mission must ensure that there is no miscarriage of justice and the detention facilities and conditions the suspects/convicts are kept meet the standards of international best practice.

An ex-diplomat, Rasheed Akinkuolie, said, “The Nigerian embassy in Addis Ababa should visit the prisons regularly to review individual cases and engage the host authorities to seek deportation of individuals, who did not commit murder or such grievous offences. Visits should be at least once a month with the leaders of the Nigerian communities.

“Permission should be sought to deport those who are very sick. The prison authorities will be very cautious in maltreating Nigerians, knowing that the Embassy will be displeased to receive reports of Nigerians subjected to torture.”

As of the time of filing this story, the Ethiopia embassy in Nigeria had yet to respond to a mail seeking its comment on the conditions of the detainees.

When contacted on the phone, an embassy official referred all inquiries to the Nigerian High Commission in Ethiopia.

However, the MFA in a statement signed by its Spokesperson, Francisca Omayuli, on October 3, 2023, said the Ministry was in the process of concluding a Memorandum of Understanding on the transfer of prisoners with the Ethiopian government.

Omayuli said, “There are over 270 Nigerian nationals serving various prison terms in Ethiopia. Most of them are incarcerated for drug-related offences. The Nigerian Mission in Addis Ababa, as with other Nigerian Missions world over, embarks on regular consular visits to these prisons to ascertain and attend to the wellbeing of Nigerian inmates, and in the same vein engage with host authorities on their behalf.

“The Ethiopian authorities, on the other hand, have always maintained that Nigerian inmates are not treated differently from other inmates, Ethiopian inmates inclusive. Scarce resources and budgetary constraints, amidst the growing number of inmates, often feature as the main challenge for the prison authorities.

“It is in this regard, that the Federal Government of Nigeria, in response to the demands of Nigerian inmates, is in the process of concluding a Memorandum of Understanding on the Transfer/Exchange of Prisoners with the Ethiopian Government.

“When finalised, this will enable Nigerian inmates to complete their jail terms in Nigeria, where their family members could complement the government’s efforts towards their maintenance in prison.”