That scandalous pageantry at Kirikiri prison
The oddity of Miss Cell 2022 pageant, held in Kirikiri prison the other day, was a nasty surprise that showcased the Correctional Centre as lacking in discretion. Ab initio, the event to commemorate International Women’s Day (IWD) with inmates was a noble intervention. But it lost its innocence when a high profile murder suspect becomes the postal child of beauty, character and role modeling that pomp and pageantry epitomises. Behind the frivolity of the event is a rude insensitivity that makes a mockery of both morality and the justice system in Nigeria.
Not a few Nigerians were shell shocked when photo shoots of Chidinma Ojukwu, the prime suspect in the murder case of SuperTV boss, Usifo Ataga, made it to social media platforms. This time, Chidinma was not in prison clothes nor remorseful, but in a celebrity mood! It so happened that the Kirikiri Correctional Centre chose to commemorate the IWD 2022 with a beauty contest. Ojukwu, a 300-level Mass communication student of University of Lagos, who is facing trial alongside her sister, Chioma Egbuchu, and one Adedapo Quadri, for Ataga’s cold-blooded murder, competed with other inmates and won the Miss Cell 2022 crown. But beyond the face value, it was a bad advertorial for reigning Miss Cell, the correctional service and the Nigerian society at large.
Following the change of name from the Nigeria Prisons Service to Nigerian Correctional Service in 2019, the detention community has been trying to live up to a standard. And more talks than actions have been made in putting a human face to life behind bars. But the reality is that Nigerian prisons are still as ugly and dehumanising as they were before the change of name. Conditions across the board terribly contrast with what was shown in that Kirikiri pageantry. As a matter of fact, a couple of gaily dressed beauty queen inmates belie the usual sorry sight of their male counterparts, to further affirm the gender discriminatory practices in Nigerian prisons. But for what purpose or gratification – in cash or kind? The media is awash with cases of sex abuses, sodomy, drug trafficking, and murder, among others that implicated the prison officers. Is the pageant a symbolism of the lasciviousness of the Nigerian Correctional Centres? Attempts to cover up for the despicable conditions in detention? Or one to whip up the likely innocence of the accused?
The wrongheaded episode is most manifest in the marriage of the age-long beauty pageant with a crime suspect. Beauty contests traditionally depict inner and outward beauty, both of which are far-fetched in a prison. Over the years, pageants have evolved criteria that include a thorough scrutiny of personality, intelligence, talent, character and charitable involvements. The widely publicised circumstances that brought Chidinma to incarceration do not show her to have the inner beauty that merits the stuff womanhood, role models and stars are made of. As the case stands today, and yet to be determined, the suspect is not the admirable character to desire in Nigerian youths or women. Therefore, it is unforgiving that the Kirikiri Correctional Centre has made a model and a heroine out of a criminal suspect at a period the world is showcasing sterling qualities of womanhood.
The defendants are facing trial for alleged murder, stealing and forgery and the proceeding is due to resume next month. It is curious that the suspect and events around her are completely devoid of contrition. First, Ojukwu’s case is riddled with inconsistencies – from the initial confession to the crime, appeal for mercy, then denial of earlier confessions. Second is the privileged treatments that consistently accompany the accused like a celebrity, coupled with her nonchalant public posture at every court appearance. These, and the cat-walking in Kirikiri prison, could only fuel insinuations that justice may not be served at the end of the day. By and large, her inability to keep a low profile is further damaging to her case.
Indiscretion across the board is a bigger insult and insensitivity to the family of the deceased and the justice system at large. The defence by the Nigerian Correctional Service that the contest was staged to mark the IWD 2022 and to keep the inmates in high spirit, showed lack of discretion on the larger implications. Did they ever consider how the grieving Ataga family would feel seeing the prime suspect having a field day? Or how the public and judiciary would feel at the charade and duplicitous packaging of a potential wolf in sheep’s clothing? The Correctional Centre has only succeeded in showing the country as one where anything is possible; and that is regrettable.
The reckless abandonment of morality nonetheless, it is incumbent on the judiciary to take a firm notice of the development, its attendant public sentiments and ensure that justice is done in this matter. The Federal Government, through the Ministry of Interior, should as well call the Correctional Centres to order and apologise to the nation for this gross insensitivity. The pageant was one innovation turned bizarre. The institution, from which more is expected, should have standard and recommended practices in reforming minds of inmates ahead of reintegration into the society.
Correctional toga should not override the tough-on-crime principles expected of our Correctional Centres. Treating dastard crimes like venial sins does not elicit public confidence in the system, nor soften hardened hearts; it only emboldens them. The correctional centre got it all wrong on Miss Cell 2022.