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As an Islamic cleric, part of Abdulrasak Odunuga’s job is to counsel people on how to lead lives devoid of vice and crimes. From time to time, he preached sincerity, love, fairness and honesty.
Apart from constantly counselling Muslims on how best to live their lives, Odunuga frequently visited the bereaved, the downtrodden, the accused and the wrongly accused to offer words of encouragement, making them understand that faith would always make them overcome difficulties and predicaments. The cleric also settled rifts between couples and carried out follow-up visits to the homes of such couples to strengthen marital bonds.
Unfortunately, the 31-year-old cleric would suffer a misfortune he never saw coming, an adversity that has negatively impacted his status as a shining light in his Sawmill neighbourhood in Sagamu, Ogun State.
Interestingly, the cleric’s misfortune was orchestrated by two enemies from within — his wife and his mother-in-law.
Odunuga’s predicament started in June 2020, when Yemisi, his wife, claimed to have had a dream.
“On one afternoon in June, 2020, Yemisi came to the balcony where I stood at our Sagamu residence to say she had a dream that I had sexual intercourse with Deborah, her daughter, who was then a 14-year-old,” Odunuga told FIJ.
“At first, I thought the remark she made was a joke, but when she repeated the statement, I immediately wiped the smile I had on off my face.”
Odunuga said that Yemisi would, within the space of five minutes, change the narrative from having a dream, to alleging that he had physically raped Deborah.
“When she again changed the story from having a dream to Deborah being physically raped by me, I concluded it was either she was temporarily insane or she was under a spell,” the cleric, popularly called Alfa, said.
“As she was making the claim, she was also raising her voice, and this led to a few neighbours coming out to listen to her allegation. At that point, I was shocked and very embarrassed by her actions. The humiliation was so much that the neighbours that once treated me with reverence in the compound began looking at me with suspicion. They also started talking to each other in whispers.
“To clear my name, I immediately requested that we go to a medical expert to conduct a test on the girl that same day, but Yemisi refused.”
After accusing Odunuga of rape and declining the request for a medical test to be conducted on Deborah, Yemisi moved out with her children the following day.
MOTHER-IN-LAW’S SPIRITUAL REVELATION
After having to live with the unbearable stigma of being seen as a ‘rapist’ in his neighbourhood for six months, Odunuga would again suffer an attack from his mother-in-law.
“On December 21, 2020, I was in my room when some persons suddenly knocked on my door violently,” Odunuga said.
“When I opened the door, I discovered that they were police officers. I asked what their visit was about and without mincing words, they told me I was under arrest. I demanded to know what my crime was, but just like the scenes we usually see in our local movies, they told me my offence would be revealed to me when I got to their station.”
Odunuga said it was when he got to the station that he was told by the officers that the arrest originated from a spiritual revelation his mother-in-law had in her church.
“The officers who arrested me said that in early December, my mother-in-law received a spiritual revelation that someone had recently had an intercourse with one of her grandchildren with the intention of using the child for ritual purposes,” Odunuga said.
“Her funny revelation was then again linked to Yemisi’s allegation that I had raped Deborah six months back and that was what prompted them to petition the police so that I could be arrested.
“Interestingly, the same medical test I had insisted we conduct when Yemisi first accused me in June, was then carried out at a hospital in December, six months after I was first humiliated. This time, however, it was done without me being aware. No sample was collected from me.
“Now, when the medical test result came out, it showed that there were signs of penetration around Deborah’s private part; no swab and blood tests were conducted as far as I know. And if they did, the result was never made known to anyone.”
Odunuga was subsequently detained at the police station. While in detention, he was not also allowed to reach out to any family member or friend so he could tell them what was happening to him.
MISPLACED CONFIDENCE AND HURRIED SENTENCE
Despite his arrest by the police, Odunuga was confident he had not committed any crime. So high was his level of confidence that when Tailorson Nwani, an Ogun State-based lawyer, offered to take up the case pro bono, he politely declined the gesture, stating that he would defend himself in court and that he would get exonerated in the end.
The cleric’s decision not to accept Nwani’s offer of help would eventually lead him into more trouble. Two days after his arrest, Odunuga was transferred from the police station to the correctional centre in Sagamu.
When the Ogun State Director of Public Prosecutions’ office formally brought charges against the cleric, what was initially a one-count rape charge had been amended to two — an additional charge of proclaiming to kill Deborah after raping her was also brought against him.
“I only got to know about the additional charge after my first appearance at the Magistrate Court, where the case was being heard,” the cleric said.
Court Documents on the Matter
“I was shocked and lost for words. What I thought was a case I could easily defend myself against had spiralled out of control. This was when it dawned on me that my wife and mother-in-law were really out to destroy me.
“I had become totally helpless. I also regretted turning down the lawyer’s initial offer of help. My confidence failed me and I paid a heavy price for it.”
After his first arraignment on December 23, 2020, Odunuga would spend close to three years in jail without getting a fair trial.
DPP OVERSIGHT AND CONTINUED INCARCERATION
Another ordeal Odunuga faced while in prison was the DPP’s poor handling of his case.
“The DPP took my case file and would not bring it to court for more than a year. This also led to the trial being extended for a longer period than necessary,” Odunuga said.
“I had already spent a year in prison when they finally brought the case file back to court.”
At the end of the proceeding, the Magistrate Court sentenced Odunuga to five years in prison in December 2021.
He was sentenced based on the first charge of rape, which was believed to be in accordance with section 32 (1) of Child Rights Law of Ogun State 2006. The second charge of threatening to kill the victim was struck out.
Retrospectively, the cleric bagged the prison sentence as a result of the court to rule on the matter based on a report that only showed that the victim’s private part had been penetrated. All other forensic examinations like blood sample tests, vagina swab, semen analysis and foreign hair samples were not considered.
More importantly, the test was conducted six months after the initial accusation of rape was made against Odunuga.
FIJ learned that the best period for forensic samples to be collected is within the first 72 hours after a sexual assault had been committed. Odunuga advocated for this when his wife accused him of rape, but his request was never granted.
Court Documents on the Matter
With no help in sight, the cleric was confined to the cell block that had many other inmates in it after his sentencing.
This went on until January 2022, when help eventually came his way. Nwani got to hear of the activities that led to the sentencing once again and reached out to Odunuga the second time, asking if he could launch an appeal case on his behalf.
This time, the cleric did not say no.
“After I finally got Alfa’s consent to represent him in court, I filed an appeal on January 17, 2022,” Nwani told FIJ.
“Unfortunately, my client had to continue spending time in prison throughout the period the court decided to entertain the appeal suit we filed on the case.”
According to Nwani, the entire narrative changed when the medical examiner who had carried out the initial forensic test that led to the cleric’s imprisonment was recalled to testify before the Appeal Court.
“The medical practitioner who conducted the test claimed he had been practicing for 13 years. During my cross-examination, he confirmed to me that to determine evidence of rape, it had to be promptly reported, and samples had to be promptly collected as well,” Nwani said.
“More importantly, the same medical practitioner also confirmed to the court that it would be difficult to pin a rape crime on anyone when the act was alleged to have been committed four to five months back.”
The lawyer said he further probed the medical practitioner on the result that showed that the victim’s private part had been penetrated.
“On the test result that read that the victim’s part had been penetrated by the [alleged] rapist, I asked the practitioner if the fact that that particular part of the body had been tampered with in the manner of an intercourse meant that it was my client who perpetrated the act, and he said no,” said Nwani.
“Remember, the result also showed that all other tests like swab and blood tests were not at all carried out. On the absence of a hymen in the alleged private part, the practitioner also confirmed to me that there had been confirmed cases of people born without the hymen.”
In the end, the Appeal Court detected many irregularities in the testimonies made during the trial initially held by the Magistrate Court, and more importantly, in the test result that was admitted as evidence during the hearing.
Because the Magistrate Court could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that Odunuga was indeed guilty of the crime levelled against him, the Appeal Court discharged and acquitted him of any wrongdoing on May 11, 2023.
By the time he regained freedom, the cleric had already spent 30 months in prison.
LIFE LESSONS INSIDE PRISON
Odunuga told FIJ that he suffered considerable emotional damage while in prison.
“Being incarcerated in a Nigerian prison would make you question your self-worth and existence; more importantly, there is no way the prevailing conditions there won’t make you suffer emotional damage,” the cleric said.
“When I first got to the Sagamu Correctional Centre, I was physically assaulted for a few days by some of the inmates I had to share an overcrowded cell with.
“When one of the prison officials later learnt I was a cleric, I was made the Imam of the mosque inside the correctional centre. With this, fellow inmates started treating me with a degree of reverence, and this also ultimately saved me from being further assaulted by some of them.
“I also ultimately became a counsellor for most prisoners, talking them out of violent fights and advising them on how to lead better lives once they regained their freedom.”
Odunuga went on to talk about what he learnt while counselling inmates at the correctional centre.
“There is nothing more valuable in this life than freedom, peace of mind and good health. While in prison, I found out firsthand that being confined to a particular space almost on a daily and consistent basis could make you lose your sanity,” the cleric said.
“During counselling sessions, I met with inmates who actually confessed to committing crimes and were willing to turn a new leaf the moment they regained their freedom. Inside the same prison, I also met with men who were convicted for committing crimes and were still exhibiting traits of unwillingness to turn a new leaf once they made it out.
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“There, I also met with inmates who were innocent, wrongly convicted, serving long prison terms and had resigned themselves to fate.
“The last set of inmates are the ones who were wrongly accused and sentenced to prison for crimes they did not commit, but are now willing to commit such crimes because they feel they had no reputation or image to protect anymore.
“The last set of inmates were the ones I spent much time on, in terms of counselling and persuasions aimed at making them have a change of mind.
“In summary, if one doesn’t have the fear of God in one’s mind as a human being, and at all times, you can easily become a hardened criminal if you spend time in a Nigerian prison. Now, this isn’t about your religious orientation, it is about constantly believing in God, knowing that He truly exists and having the strong belief that he can help you turn your story around in a positive way, even when you have given up on yourself.”
‘REASON ODUNUGA WAS WRONGLY ACCUSED’
Odunuga told FIJ that he believed the reason he was lied against was because Comfort Adenuga, his mother-in-law, never really accepted him as a son-in-law.
“When I started dating Yemisi in 2019, I made every effort to know who her mother is, but she told me that it was okay if I only knew her father,” Odunuga said.
“At that point, she already had three children from a previous marriage — Deborah and two others.
“When I eventually decided to get married to her, it was only her father that consented to our union.
“It was a year after she had moved in with me that her mother eventually showed up and started accusing me of not seeking her permission before marrying her daughter.
“Despite all the explanations I gave her to make her realise that it wasn’t really my fault, she never accepted me as her in-law.
“That was where the problem started from. Things became worse when her daughter subsequently had a child for me. At that point, I became a sworn enemy to her.
“Despite all her past unpleasant actions towards me, I never thought the relationship we had would degenerate to a point where I would be accused of raping a minor.
“At the end of the day, I would still have to thank God for everything.”
FORGIVENESS, HEALING AND ‘KARMA’
When asked how he felt towards his wife and mother-in-law for making him spend time in prison, he said he had forgiven them a long time ago.
“As a man of faith, who constantly preaches patience, peace, love and forgiveness to other people, it would be wrong to continue to bear an eternal grudge towards those that have wronged me,” Odunuga said.
“I won’t lie, during my first few months in prison, I felt pained that a fellow human being could get me imprisoned all because she didn’t approve of me.
“At that point, I felt a bit of resentment. But again, when I began counselling other inmates, the resentment gradually vanished and got replaced with a feeling of gratitude. Apart from being used as a tool to advise people and impact their lives positively, I also had the belief that my imprisonment was God’s way of preserving my life from falling victim to a weightier misfortune.
“What if I had been free all the while, and in the process of enjoying my freedom, I got killed in a vehicle accident? I thank God for everything. As for forgiveness, I have forgiven all the people that played a part in my imprisonment a long time ago. I bear no grudge against any of them. It is important for people of faith to always practice what they preach. We should be shining examples at all times.”
Odunuga talked about what he recently found out about his stepdaughter and mother-in-law.
“When I eventually regained my freedom, I was told that Deborah, the same girl I was accused of raping, had been impregnated by a 70-year-old man. Let me repeat myself, Deborah got impregnated by an elderly man,” said Odunuga.
“That’s not all, I was also told that the baby she gave birth to died after delivery. As for my mother-in-law, I was also told that she has been seriously ill for the past six months. I heard she is now bedridden and can no longer walk and talk.
“For Yemisi, I have not heard from her since I was released. I still remember all of them in my prayers, hoping that God would also forgive them for what they did to me.”
STARTING ALL OVER
Odunuga and Nwani
Odunuga told FIJ that things had not been easy for him since his release.
“I returned to an empty house after my release from prison. I was told that while I was away, Yemisi came around to cart all my furniture and electronic gadgets; clothes inclusive, away,” said the cleric.
“Neighbours told me that when she was challenged while she was moving the property, she told them they all belonged to her. She said she bought everything with her own money, but that was a lie. As a matter fact, I had already bought everything before she moved in with me.
“The landlord of the house has also been kind to me. I owe him rent for two years. He has said I should pay whenever I am able to.
“What I can claim to be mine now are just the clothes and sandals I am wearing. I have nothing at the moment. Nothing.
“Despite all this, I would still have to give God all the glory for everything. I would also like to thank Barrister Nwani for coming to my aid. He did not take a penny from me all through my trying period. This is one man that did not even know me from anywhere before the incident happened. We don’t even speak the same dialect. But he still helped me. All I can ask for from God is for him to be blessed and rewarded in bountiful folds.
“As is it is now, it would be foolish of me to claim I do not need any assistance from Nigerians, because I actually do. I need their material help and assistance. I also need their help so I can sustain myself.”
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