How Clinton Kanu spent 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit
A Failed Criminal Justice System: A Case For Prison Reform
By Chika Oduah
Each morning, 56-year-old Clinton Kanu wakes up on a thin mattress laid on the tiled floor of his tiny flat.
He lives on the third floor of a modest apartment building in the southeastern Nigerian city of Enugu, in a flat not much bigger than a walk-in closet.
He takes a moment to look around the room. There is not much to see. A battered, rust-coloured armchair sags in the corner beside a barred window that overlooks the neighbourhood’s red dirt roads. Sunlight filters through a lace curtain, exposing the dirt caked into the textured pattern painted on the pale yellow and grey walls.
Kanu is not quite six feet (1.83 metres) tall, but when he stands, his head almost scrapes the ceiling.
He goes through his plans for the day, trying to figure out where he will get something to eat. On this particular Saturday, he decides to go down the road to the home of his sister, Victoria Okoroji.
There, she dishes out scrambled eggs and shares a loaf of bread. Kanu, his sister and her husband eat together at the dining table. After that, she brings out a family photo album.
Kanu smiles at the old pictures of his nieces and nephews. Pictures taken of them when Kanu was not around. Pictures taken during the 27 years Kanu spent in prison for a murder he did not commit.
He has been trying to make up for lost time since he was released last April and trying to get his life back – but neither are easy to do.
Back at his apartment, Kanu brings out a Bible and flips through the pages to one of his favourite passages.
“And the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt,’” he recites in a gentle voice, eyes moving over the words. In the room’s stuffy heat, beads of sweat settle in the dip above his lip. “‘I have heard their cry.’”
A mild, easy-going man, Kanu says his faith saved him in prison and continues to inspire him, despite his present struggles.
“Look at me, just look at me,” he says. “I have nothing.”
Kanu was an ambitious, charismatic 27-year-old who owned two residential buildings and had a good job and government connections when he was arrested. Today, he has no job, no car, not even a refrigerator. He has no wife, no children. He does not have many friends. There is no land, no valuable jewellery, no retirement account, no stocks or bonds in his name.
Although he is no longer behind the bars of a maximum-security prison, he is without a job in a country where poverty is rapidly rising and finding employment often depends on who you know. His frustrations are mounting.
Clinton Kanu’s faith got him through his long years in prison
‘The height of wickedness’
Born in the Nigerian oil hub of Port Harcourt, Kanu was raised in a middle-class family with a high regard for education. His father grew up poor but educated; he built himself up professionally and managed to earn a good income from a stable government job as a director at the national postal service. He made sure his children got the best schooling his money could buy. Kanu’s mother, a teacher, also pushed her children to focus on academics.
Kanu worked hard in school. He was studious and liked to read. He collected young-adult crime novels and went on to study law and criminology at a nearby university. He became a consultant criminologist and an aide to government officials.
His problems began when he tried to help solve a case involving theft and a dispute over family land. When a man connected to the dispute died, someone accused Kanu of murdering him, even though he was more than 100km from the scene of the crime.
In 1992, he was arrested. He maintains that his arrest was politically motivated; that he was framed by people who were envious of his connections to government officials.
He was detained in a small prison in the southeastern city of Owerri to await trial. He waited for several years.
Looking back at it all, he believes he was a victim of the corruption in Nigeria’s criminal justice system.
“The height of wickedness,” he says, his face twisted into a scowl. “The height of crudeness, the height of treachery, the height of judicial murder.”
Sentenced to death
Nigeria’s criminal justice system is rife with corruption. In the past, judges have been suspended for misconduct and caught accepting bribes.
Excessive delays compound the problems, with enormous backlogs of stagnant legal cases. Nearly 70 percent of the country’s approximately 74,000 prison inmates are awaiting trial. The long waits contribute to overcrowded prisons. The maximum-security prison in Port Harcourt where Kanu was transferred after he was sentenced in 2005, held more than 4,000 inmates last year, although it was built for 804, according to figures from the federal government.
“Certainly overcrowding is the biggest problem caused by over-arrest, indiscriminate and unlawful arrest of citizens, some of whom are innocent,” explains Sylvester Uhaa, director of International Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), a Nigerian prison reform organisation.
“This has caused a lot of congestion in the courts and results in congestion in the prison system. That is the biggest problem – the visible problem that we see. The invisible ones are the corruption, abuse of power, disregard for the rule of law and human rights.”
Kanu was sentenced to death by hanging or by firing squad, a common sentence in the country.
Nigeria has the highest death row population – 2,000 people – in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Amnesty International.
The 621 death sentences the country imposed in 2017 accounted for 71 percent of all confirmed death sentences ordered in sub-Saharan Africa that year.
In 2016, Nigerian courts carried out three executions and handed out 527 death sentences – three times more than in 2015. Death sentences are typically given for armed robbery, murder and involvement with militia groups.
‘Like a thorn in my flesh’
The confinement and death sentence took a heavy toll on Kanu. He suffered physically, as well as emotionally, having to receive treatment in the prison’s health ward for high blood pressure, insomnia, complications arising from diabetes, depression and stress.
“I was frustrated, and I was tired,” he recalls.
In 2008, he tried to commit suicide, swallowing 10 tablets of diazepam he had managed to get smuggled into the prison to help with his insomnia. But it did not kill him.
Kanu missed his relatives and spent hours thinking about his siblings – Kingsley, Uzoamaka, Chikezie, Ginika and Victoria. Although they would visit him in prison, seeing them leave was hard.
His family suffered, too.
“It was like a thorn in my flesh,” Victoria explains. “Anytime I woke up, I remembered my brother is in the prison. That would be a sad day to me.”
She waves her hand in the air, as though pushing the memories from her mind. She avoids talking and even thinking about those years now, she says.
While he was incarcerated, Kanu’s father, his brother Kingsley, his uncle and several of his cousins died. But it was his mother’s death in 2014 that hurt most deeply.
“It’s painful,” he says.
People told him his mother died of a broken heart.
“I loved my mother so much. I’m the first [child]. My mother loved me so; it’s painful. I don’t know how to express it … a lot of times we [sons] live for our mothers.”
His mother’s death pushed him over the edge. He tried, again, to end his life, this time overdosing on dialine – a medication used to treat diabetes. But a prison nurse rushed him to the medical unit where he was stabilised. He was closely monitored but, the following year, managed to get hold of a sharp tool from the prison workshop. He used it to stab himself but stopped when another inmate pleaded with him.
“I realised God wanted me alive,” Kanu explains.
He decided to try to make something of his time in prison.
He turned to counselling other inmates, helping them to cope with the woes of confinement and, having persuaded the African College of Christian Education and Seminary to run classes in the prison, he enrolled to study theology along with 50 other inmates.
Each week, he looked forward to his classes in philosophy, religion, interfaith studies, world conflict and psychology. His studies gave him solace, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in guidance counselling in 2009 and went on to get a master’s in education management and another in guidance counselling. But Kanu did not stop there. After seven years of studying in the prison’s college, he was awarded, in 2014, two doctorate degrees in missions ministry and counselling.
That same year, he was ordained as a nondenominational reverend.
“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he reflects. “I’ve always wanted to be a reverend.”
Ten other inmates were also ordained as reverends, but they all referred to him, affectionately, as “The Bishop”.
He would hold prayer sessions with the inmates, encouraging them to stay calm and manage their anger. He spoke passionately about religious tolerance.
As the years passed, he waited for word on his appeal – a process he began shortly after the 2005 pronouncement of his death sentence.
“2005 was when the battle was set,” he says. He ended up selling his four cars, the two residential buildings he owned, his stereo system, air conditioners, beds, and his refrigerator to pay the legal fees. He had nothing left.
Then, in 2015, his case went to Nigeria’s supreme court, which reviewed the scant details of the original trial. It had been a skeletal case: only one witness – the brother of the complainant – claimed he saw Kanu at the scene of the crime, whereas two witnesses were called to testify that Kanu had not been there.
In April 2019, the supreme court ruled that there was no evidence against Kanu. He was discharged and acquitted. About two weeks later, he walked out of prison carrying his educational certificates in a bag packed with clothes donated by Christian organisations.
“I didn’t know I was going to walk into unemployment and hunger,” he recalls. “I was thrown into the cold wind.”
Praying for a miracle
On a Saturday evening in November, the sound of people singing and clapping drifts from a church on the upper level of an industrial-looking commercial building along a bustling thoroughfare in Enugu.
Inside, a young woman grasps a microphone and leads about 40 people – mostly women and some restless children – in devotional songs as they sway with their eyes closed. Their voices fill the small space.
As Kanu walks in, she says: “Hello, we’ve missed you.”
He takes a seat in the front row.
The church is makeshift, the room packed with plastic lawn chairs. Ceiling fans circulate stale air while purple, green and pink lights flash from tiny bulbs hung high on the walls. The back wall is covered in a colourful banner with the church’s name printed on it: Days of His Awesome Power Ministries.
Tonight, Kanu is a guest speaker. He has led services here in the past, but cannot attend as often as he would like because the church is nearly 30 minutes from his home and he has to beg to put together the bus fare. Still, the head pastor at the church, Mike Okey Agu, refers to him as “Pastor Clinton”.
The church is the only place, Kanu says, where he actually feels wanted. People there value and respect him.
Pastor Agu is an energetic man, shouting into the microphone as he paces up and down the aisle, laying his hands on people’s heads while repeating, “take it, take it, take the anointing”, and “blood of Jesus”.
When he sees Kanu, he smiles. He believes Kanu’s spirituality helped him gain his freedom.
Up at the podium, Agu leads the church in prayer. Kanu bows his head. Like everyone else in the dimly lit space, he believes he has a lot to pray for. The yearly rent on his apartment is due in January – N200,000 ($550) and he has no idea how he is going to find the money. He is leaning on his faith to take care of it.
Pastor Agu wants to see Kanu make a positive impact on society.
Dreaming of prison reform
Kanu knows exactly what he wants to do with his life now that he is out of prison: He wants to advocate for prison reform and be what he calls “a voice for the people”.
The nearly three decades he spent behind bars gave him insights into the country’s prison system, where he says he witnessed corruption, torture and extortion.
Money allocated to prisons and detention centres is sometimes siphoned off elsewhere. “Prison officials routinely stole money provided for prisoners’ food,” a 2015 United States government report read.
Many facilities lack basic amenities like clean toilets and a constant supply of drinking water. Prisoners are dying from treatable illnesses like malaria and tuberculosis. Cells, sometimes rat-infested, are cramped, with little to no ventilation.
“I was boxed up in a cell that could have killed me,” Kanu says.
He would like to see inmates have opportunities to study and learn trades that could help them when they are released.
Kanu was ordained a reverend in 2014, while incarcerated.
Back in his apartment, he sits in his armchair, thinking aloud. The more he thinks, the more frustrated he grows.
“Nothing is happening in the prisons,” he says, slamming his hand down and leaning forward in his chair. “You dump people there and … [they] develop ideas about how to come back and get revenge.”
Kanu wants to change that. He has big dreams. He wants to sit down with Nigerian officials to devise policies that would improve life for inmates, to establish a nonprofit organisation that will help people to transition to life on the outside after incarceration and to visit correctional facilities in other countries to see how they are run there.
He is full of ideas, but with no money, no connections and no job, he does not know how to get started. He has knocked on doors, visited government agency offices and filled out job applications. He has made phone calls and pleaded for help. But he has been away for so long and cannot trace any of his old contacts and friends.
“Everyone has moved on with their lives, as they should. It’s been 27 years,” he says, looking pensively up at the ceiling.
He believes he has marketable skills and a solid education, but he has become a beggar, living off handouts and free food.
It has been about four months since the church service.
March is coming to an end, and he still has not paid the rent. It is a quiet Wednesday night in Enugu and in his apartment, Kanu is holding in his hand a notice from the landlord. It reads: “Your rent has expired since the end of January and you have been instructed to evacuate the premises.”
Kanu sighs and sets the paper aside. Then, he closes his eyes. As he does several times a day, he bows his head in prayer, hoping his faith will lead the way.