Abdullahi Mustapha Berende spent nine years in prison following his arrest by the federal government for espionage and terrorism. In this interview with Daily Trust Saturday, the cleric shares memories of his trial and experience in jail among other issues of interest.
How do you react to the charges that led to your conviction?
Having just been released, I might not have information on a lot of things, so I leave what is not clear to me for people to judge. I do not know the circumstances that led to my arrest by the Nigerian government which is legal according to Nigerian law. As a nation, everybody is under the rule of law. But in retrospect, I realized I made some personal mistakes out of naivety and this can easily be overblown. I have been convicted of all those charges although I fought against it unsuccessfully. I’ll leave everything to God and the Nigerian government. But I reiterate that I have never promoted terrorism in my sermons. But the Nigerian law views certain things and actions as tantamount to being a terrorist. Also, I don’t have any link with Al-Qaeda but according to their investigation, I was linked with the group and also working for Iran but Iran has never asked me to spy on anybody, whether before or now.
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Are you not connected with Iran?
Only for educational purposes and I have about 20 students there in various universities who had gotten their first degrees and masters across different fields of study in Nigeria before my arrest, and none of them is a miscreant. I helped process their admissions which led to my frequent visit to the country.
What were the mistakes you think you made?
My knowledge of the Nigerian constitution was very low and I took lots of things for granted. I also trusted people too much, including those working in the intelligence agencies, all of which led to my predicament after arrest. However, they are now big lessons for me. Somebody of my personality should have known better. That is why it’s difficult to blame the Nigerian government.
How does it feel to regain freedom?
I’m happy and fulfilled that I came out again alive. As I stepped out of the prison and the door was closed behind me with nobody having a grip on me, it was something else. I got my phone and started calling immediately right in front of the prison, something that was a luxury behind bars. At the airport, the feeling was overwhelming seeing my people. Although I didn’t shed tears, I was totally fulfilled due to my orientation in prison. But I did cry when I hugged my mother. It has been my prayer all along that I want to meet her alive being her first child. The joy of the release wasn’t complete until I knelt down before her. I held onto her as if she was my baby and her emotional reaction made me weep.
As for my note, she is a matured person. When I saw her at the airport, we hugged but she held tight to me; she didn’t want to leave my side again as if I would disappear.
Nine years in DSS custody is not a tea party. How was the experience for you?
I was at the lowest ebb because the experience was what I least expected. I believe I wasn’t doing anything that will warrant such. But the point is: anybody the law of the land saw as a criminal is not treated with kid gloves. The experience at the DSS custody was not a pleasant one but necessary. I wasn’t taken to a hotel and no matter how well prepared a cell is, you can’t compare its comfort to the latter. Anybody under suspicion can’t get anything pleasant. The authorities have to prove to the world that they also love Nigeria more than you. It is same standard in any part of the world. Any suspect is a negative individual until proven otherwise. Anyone who says detention is a good thing needs to experience it.
What were your saddest and happiest moments behind bars?
My saddest will be my first two days and I cried, especially while I was alone contemplating how this could have happened to me. But I later got over it and even celebrated my one-year anniversary in detention. It got to a point I had to speak to God in my language although I didn’t know what to request. I had started enjoying the place and was confused whether to ask for freedom or pray God to keep me there (laughter). I had to leave it to God to decide. But my happiest moment was when it was clear to me that God has a greater purpose for me keeping me there.
Did hold sermons inside prison?
Yes! I was there with a lot of people – some of who are criminals. We all had a cell each to ourselves. During our discussion from the gate of our cells, I tell them why they need to change their lifestyles as a kind of personal advice. Many detainees came to realize they had been wasting their time outside prison. An inmate that queried the possibility of having time for prayers in cell became one of the most prayerful individuals after a week. I handled tafsir during Ramadan.
What lessons did you learn from this episode?
The whole event from the beginning in DSS custody to my time in prison and my release is a school, the syllabus which God has prepared. You learn lessons after release at completion of God’s plans. Some people refused to learn through the circumstances – eating and sleeping in prison rather than changing the narrative for good. Those who refused to learn are the ones who return to jail. Even as the main teacher, I still took classes in Hausa.
While in custody, some Boko Haram members attempted a jail break and people were concerned about your safety back home…
It was a set of people who believe they were rouges outside and still want to be rouges inside jail. If they had succeeded, it would have been another catastrophe for the nation.
How will you describe the judiciary and security of the country now?
The judiciary still remains the last hope of the common man. There is always opportunity to ventilate your grievances. In my case, they toed the middle cause and were considerate. But the problem is that Nigeria is a developing nation and there is still room for improvement. During my stay in custody, I realized the level of sacrifice of our security personnel. Anyone could be killed for the nation at anytime, yet the work is 24/7. They’re working for people who are at home sleeping. But their efforts cannot be equated with their successes. Our intelligence personnel need more equipment and resources to carry out thorough investigation before arrest. That is why I didn’t regard what I went through as bad, if I was in their shoes, maybe I’ll do the same.
Did you suffer any personal lose while in jail?
No! I met everybody and everything intact and better – my family, children many who are now in the universities, my students and, especially my wife who kept things I had gathered to dispose before my arrest down to clothes and wristwatches I am putting on now. I am one of the luckiest for having her as a wife. I also saw that Ilorin has witnessed real development, people inside will not see it, but I saw a different city.
Was there any significant spiritual occurrence for you while in detention?
God made me realize there is a great plan ahead. Before the judgement, I had the assurance not to worry regardless of the outcome. That is comforting enough. For Nigeria, I was made to understand the country will not breakup, though I was oblivious of happenings outside then and that was why I marked the last October 1st anniversary in detention with a beautiful calligraphy on a cardboard with the inscription “New Nigeria, New Nation, New people” hanged at the entrance of my cell because that was a significant date. The country will never remain the same again but it will not break. Nigeria is going through a process of reconstruction whether people like it or not. It is for us all to recognize our roles Our politics, economy, social and structural affairs will all be affected for good.
You have been tried, convicted and sentenced, are you not worried about its future implications?
Personally and religiously, it doesn’t affect anything, only from the social and political fronts. Politically and socially, an ex-convict has a limit and it depends on the way people accept him. Even socially, there hasn’t been much shortcomings. If God’s wish is for me to be involved in politics, it will still come to pass though I don’t have such plan now. My involvement was that I believe I could change the system for good. Getting there, I saw the way we play it in Nigeria makes it dirty. For now, I have suspended politics but will continue to follow political events.
What next for you after this episode?
For now, it’s my religious duties, we leave the rest to Allah.
What is your message to the people?
Everyone has a destiny to fulfill as ordained by God and no one can tamper with it except Him. We should pray to Allah to assist us in fulfilling our destinies. I believe I have a destiny that will not be fulfilled if I didn’t go to prison. I was able to understand that you don’t need to be a criminal before getting imprisoned. With the calibre of people close to me with wealth and power, I would have been brought out that very first day of my arrest.