In a riveting narrative, a Scottish-Nigerian author lifts the veil on the murky side of the British penal system as he relives his traumatic experience as an employee of Her Majesty’s Prison’s Service. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
Smart phones with camera apps were non-existent in those days. Imagine they were. Someone would definitely have recorded the vicious mob-attack on Michael Nsonwu by his fellow prison officers at the Royal Pentonville Prison in the UK. Then the video of the attack would have been shared on the many social media networks and would have elicited the outrage of the “civilised” world. Perhaps, some scapegoats would have been apprehended and made an example of to appease the indignant mob baying for blood on the cyberspace.
But no such luck. This was about a year after the racially-motivated murder of 19-year-old Black British man Steven Lawrence on the evening of April 22, 1993 made the headlines. As it turns out, Nsonwu’s assailants are yet to be brought to justice. His case has been denied a hearing despite his spirited efforts to seek redress all the way up to the High Court. And this is happening in a European country that preens itself as having one of the world’s most civilised penal systems!
So, what really happened? The details of this barbarity has been vividly documented in Nsonwu’s recently-released book by Delta Publications (Nigeria) Limited, All Screwed Up (The Incredible Prison Writings of Michael Nsonwu).
Excuse the title. This book is an exposé of the shadowy side of British penal system. It is one man’s attempt to present his “case before the court of World Public Opinion – to the end that the power of injustice may be curbed.”
For the author, who had relocated to the land of his birth in 1986, everything began to unravel on December 17, 1994. Christmas joy clung to the air. And Pentonville’s administrative department was holding its annual bash. “An officer I knew vaguely as David approached me with a toothy smile,” he narrates. “‘Hi Mick, can I have a word?’ He put his arm around my shoulder, steering me towards the exit.
“The season of goodwill!
“‘Sure,’ I replied, thinking nothing of it. We stepped out into the half-lit corridor between the function hall and the bar, the atmosphere contrasting with the animated mood of gaiety and bonhomie emanating from the festivities.
“As I turned my face, David grabbed me by the throat. His nails scrapped my windpipe and his grip began to close. Then, both of my arms were locked in classic ‘control and restraint’ manoeuvre (one of the techniques developed by the Prison Service to control violent inmates – usually involving three officers, two controlling the arms in wrist locks and the third cradling the head to avoid injury in the course of the struggle) from behind.” (pp. 16-17)
Nsonwu says he had gasped “partly in shock but mostly due to the abrupt restriction on my air.” The attack’s suddenness and unexpectedness disoriented him and left him more surprised than frightened. “Of course, it must be a practical joke,” he imagined. “A stupid and thoughtless practical joke; the result of too much booze and heightened sense of camaraderie. Right?”
Wrong, as he soon discovered. For his assailants had meant to kill him. But, why would they want to do that? That was the whole point of not letting the matter to be swept under the carpet. Indeed, it is the underlying reason for penning down this gripping narrative for posterity.
Nsonwu had joined Her Majesty’s Prison’s Service on June 18, 1990 with the altruistic mission to help his “fellow men become better individuals and effect their rehabilitation”. This apparently made him very popular among the inmates after he had been finally posted to Pentonville in September 1990. “At the end of the day, concerned with the leadership power Michael wields over the inmates, who are keen to subject themselves to his approach to justice and rehabilitation, his fellow officers close ranks against him, intending to remove him from the system. This appears to be the motive of the brutal beating to which he was subjected in the first chapter,” the book’s prologue suggests.
Yet, there had to be other more to it than that. If there was an official complicity, as the subsequent attempts at cover-up seemed to suggest, why did the authorities not simply dismiss Nsonwu on some trumped-up charges? Or, was it more convenient to make his death pass for an accident following a drunken brawl?
No one really knows. Not even the author himself, who – mystified till date – insists on tackling this hypocritical establishment head on.
Flip over to the day Lumumba died. Lumumba, an actual blood relative of the legendary Patrice Lumumba, strayed unintentionally into the wrong side of the law. An asylum-seeker, he had found himself detained for reasons he didn’t understand. His inadequate grasp of English language – French being his second language – did not help matters. So, when a mob of officers fully-clad in anti-riot gear swooped on him, he gave up the ghost as a victim of their “improper use of excessive force”. Of course, the race factor must have played a role too. And it is possible that Nsonwu, an inconvenient witness to this crime, had to be silenced somehow.
Following an inquest, the officers had gone scot-free (excuse the pun). Nsonwu was born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, on July 7, 1959. The senior Nsonwu, then a 29-year-old mechanical engineering student in Scotland had an amorous liaison with an 18-year-old grocer’s assistant from a poor working class background. Thus, the author humorously describes the circumstances of his birth: “My mother was Scottish, of the same complexion, radiance and openness as the moon.
When the light of the moon was obscured by the blanket of the clouds, my father’s ebony Nigerian hue merged unseen with the darkness of the night. The privacy provided allowed the couple to damn the myopic attitudes of the segregationists and forge a healthy oneness, from which they were accorded a golden compromise – me.”(page 59)
For a man with no prior literary background, Nsonwu’s dexterous manipulation of the English language is quite remarkable. This makes his autobiographical effort – which is his first book – a delightfully stress-free read. Not less riveting is the fact that he spices up each landmark event of his life in its historical context.
Eighteen months after he was born in the UK, Nsonwu returned to Nigeria with his dad. His dad, leveraging on his credentials and the fact that he had a mixed-racial child, had stomped into the post-independent Nigerian scene full of optimism. Among other things, he became an Assistant Superintendent of Police in 1961 and worked as a Vehicle Inspection Officer. He later built a seven-bedroom mansion and married a Nigerian woman of Igbo ethnic stock, whose complexion could pass for that of his mixed-race son.
Nsonwu reveals that his step-mother (now of blessed memory), who bore six children, would later consider him a threat and even resented him. This could have prepared the grounds for his return in 1986 to his country of birth.
His first-hand experience of the depravity of the creature called man “opened up so many things” in him. Among these many things are his transcendental views on existence and his predilection to write a sequel – a prequel, he’d rather call it – to this first literary effort that took him 13 years to write.