By Lukman Olabiyi, [email protected]
One of the sour tastes of the Nigerian justice system is the congestion of the country’s prisons arising majorly from the non-trial or delayed trial of accused persons. The trend has lingered for decades and has assumed a worrisome dimension with the current spread of Covid-19 pandemic across the world.
The menace of congestion in various categories of prisons in the country today has become very worrisome and must be checked, otherwise it is capable of defeating the very purpose of establishing prisons in any society, which is to serve as a correctional facility for the betterment of the inmates and society.
The March 31 attempted jailbreak by some inmates at the Kaduna Correctional Centre was a testimony of tension in the centres across the country. The incident in Kaduna State was as a result of unrest among the inmates when they heard of the possible spread of the coronavirus to the facility.
The inmates feared they might be affected by the deadly virus as a result of the congestion being experienced in the facility.
The jailbreak, which was foiled by security agents, however, claimed four inmates.
In a statement on April 5, Sanusi Danmusa, comptroller of the state’s command of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS), confirmed the death of the inmates at the hospital as a result of the chaos in the centre.
“This attempted jailbreak was carried out by a section of the condemned convicts’ cell in the custodial centre.
“This press release is necessary to assure the public that the command and, indeed, the service are not trying to hide any fact as purported by a section of the press, especially when life is involved.
“Four inmates later died in the hospital from the injuries sustained during the chaos that ensued, while being restrained by the custodial officers from breaking jail.
“For the avoidance of doubt, all the deceased inmates were from the condemned section of the Custodial Centre where the jail-break occurred.”
The incident was not the first of its kind that took the lives of inmates at a centre. A similar case was the electrocution of five inmates at the Ikoyi Medium Security Custodial Centre (Ikoyi Prison), Lagos, in December 2019.
According to statistics provided on the website of the NCS on January 20, 70 per cent (50,856) of the 72,987 inmates in the centres across the country are awaiting trial.
In Lagos State alone, based on data released by the Prisoners’ Rights Advocacy Initiative (PRAI), a non-governmental organisation, by March 12, the total population of inmates across the five correctional centres in Lagos, which has a combined capacity of 4,087, stood at 9,056. Out of that number, 7,356 are awaiting trial, which represents 81.2% of the total population. Only 1,700 have been convicted.
Over-crowding of facilities
George was arrested in Lagos by the police at a crime scene in October 2018. After several months in custody, he was eventually taken to Ebute Meta Magistrates’ Court on the charge of belonging to unlawful society and armed robbery.
Police sought for court’s order to remand him in a correctional centre pending when he would be properly arraigned before a court of competent jurisdiction.
Till date, George is languishing in the correctional centre. He was neither arraigned nor taken back to the court that ordered his remand for 30 days for the police to complete investigation before proper arraignment.
In another case, the police arrested three men and charged them to court for a crime they knew nothing about. After spending five years in the correctional centre, Christopher Joseph, Jesse Thomas and Babatunde Ojo were discharged and acquitted by the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) High Court on charges bordering on conspiracy, armed robbery and illegal possession of firearms.
The court set them free on the ground of lack of evidence and diligent prosecution. Justice Charles Agbaza held that the evidence before the court so far was unreliable, no reasonable court or tribunal could rely on it.
The prosecutor, Mr. Muhammad Saidu, had, at the commencement of the case, told the court that the defendants went to one Adam Usman’s residence at Zone 1, Dutse, Abuja, and robbed him of N300,000 cash.
He said the defendants also dispossessed the victim of one LG mobile phone valued at N22,000 and one laptop valued at N55,000.
But during the trial, the prosecution witness, who was also the victim, Usman, told the court that he had never seen the defendants before until they were arrested.
Their stories might be different but they walk same path, with similar experience on how they became innocent inmates at different correctional centres.
They are among many who could use their stories as testimonies to corroborate the defects of the justice system in Nigeria.
Reforms without end
Nigeria’s justice system has been the subject of numerous reform efforts over the past two decades. Committees have been formed, new laws passed, presidents came and went, and people like George and many others continue to lose years of their lives to a system that cannot or fails to detect those who fall through the cracks.
Spending longer time awaiting trial than the maximum sentence for the crime committed is a breach of constitutional rights of inmates but this amounts to nothing in Nigeria’s justice system. Many inmates are languishing in correctional centres many years years awaiting trial for crimes that, if found guilty, the maximum jail term would attract between three and four years.
Shoddy investigation, lack of diligent prosecution
Many inmates in various correctional centres across the country found their way to the facilities as a result of shoddy investigation and lack of diligent prosecution. From the point of arrest of suspects to the point of being charged to court, innocent citizens lose years of their lives to a system that cannot differentiate between the guilty and innocent.
From investigators to prosecutors, the attitude of the police and the judiciary are similar, oftentimes tainted by unprofessionalism, corruption and unethical conduct. This is what made people like Christopher Joseph, Jesse Thomas and Babatunde Ojo to spend five years in custody for an offence that they knew nothing about.
Usually, prosecutors do not have detailed information beyond what is provided on the charge sheet against the accused. Most times, they appear before the judge just to go through the motions, seeking adjournments, reciting the same reasons on every trial date.
In the end, after several adjournments that might last years, in most cases, the last word on the case is: “This case is hereby dismissed for lack of diligent prosecution.”
Corruption as bottleneck in administration of criminal justice
Various corruption indices have rated the Nigeria Police Force and the judiciary among the top five most corrupt institutions in Nigeria. Transparency International (TI) in its 10th edition of Global Corruption Barometer Africa 2019, rated the police and judiciary first and third most corrupt institutions in Nigeria. Also, in 2019, a public survey by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) ranked the police first, and the judiciary third. In the report, 70 per cent of Nigerians said they had been compelled to bribe an official of the court. Indeed, these two institutions are peas in the same pod, equally corrupt, with one constantly trying to outdo the other.
This issue is an open secret at the point of securing bail at the police station, perfecting bail at the court and releasing inmates from prison custody. All these constitute an obstacle to the wheel of justice and also fuel congestion in prison.
In 2015, Nigeria introduced the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) into its criminal jurisprudence.
Its purpose, according to Section 1(1) is: “To ensure that the system of administration of criminal justice in Nigeria promotes effective management of criminal justice institutions, speedy dispensation of justice, protection of the society from crime and protection of the of the rights and interests of the suspect, the defendant, and the victim.”
Section 1 (2) mandatorily provided that “the courts, law enforcement agencies and other authorities or persons involved in criminal justice administration shall ensure compliance with the provisions of this Act for the realisation of its purposes.”
Many governors later domesticated the ACJA as laws in their respective states, with slight modifications in some regards.
However, five years after the introduction of the Act, the various provisions of the ACJA have been observed more in the breach.
These breaches occur, especially as it relates to provisions relating to courts’ respect for and protection of the rights of suspects from indefinite detention in prison under the cover of “holding charge” by the police.
The introduction of the ACJA put an end to “holding charge” and a new system of ex parte remand request was introduced to replace it.
ACJA provided that a suspect arrested for an offence, which the magistrates’ court had no jurisdiction to try, shall within a reasonable time of arrest be brought before a High Court for remand. The application for remand shall be made ex parte and the reasons for remand shall be verified on oath. Upon consideration of the remand application, the court can either remand or release the suspect on bail.
It was also clearly stated in ACJA as follows: that if the court decides to remand, the period of remand shall not be indefinite. On the contrary, the remand period should not exceed 14 days in the first instance, and the adjournment date shall also be within the said 14 days period.
The purpose of the suspect’s remand is not to punish the suspect. It is to give either the police time to complete their investigation or the attorney-general of the state time to consider the case and give advice as to whether to file a criminal charge against the suspect or not.
After the initial 14 days remand, the court can extend the remand period by a further 14 days, if either the police or the attorney-general requests for more time. In this regard, there must be specific requests for extension of the remand period, with reasons provided for the request. The adjournment date must also not exceed 14 days.
At the expiration of the second remand period, by which time the suspect would have spent 28 days in prison, with no charge or charges filed against him, the court must call upon the police or the attorney-general to attend the proceedings and explain why the suspect should not be unconditionally discharged. This is a mandatory requirement. In the interim, the court can extend the remand by another 14 days, and fix the hearing date within the said 14 days.
Where either the police or the attorney-general’s representative attends court and shows good cause why the suspect should be further detained, then the court can remand the suspect for a final period of 14 days, and the adjournment date shall be within the 14 days.
But if the police or the attorney-general fails to attend to explain the necessity for the continued remand of the suspect, or attends and does not give convincing reasons for the continued remand of the suspect, then the suspect should be discharged unconditionally.
After the fourth remand for 14 days, by which time the suspect would have spent a total period of 56 days in prison, the court must discharge the suspect, and no further request for remand shall be entertained by any court.
It was clearly stated that no suspect must be remanded in prison without any charge before a court of competent jurisdiction for more than 56 days. Anything beyond this period, the suspect must be discharged unconditionally of the offence. This is the position of the law.
However, from experience and from different reports on criminal trials, most judges and magistrates are reluctant to enforce or comply with the act, which limits detention of suspects to 56 days. This reluctance has given rise to a situation where police officers now cause the indefinite detention of persons without charge or trial, which also gives rise to the number of ‘awaiting trial inmates.’
Besides, it was also clearly stated in ACJA that no criminal trial should be adjourned beyond 14 days after the plea of an accused has been taken. But, today, in different courts, this law is not complied with.
Congestion in prison
If ACJA is strictly adhered to by the police and the judiciary, the number of awaiting trial inmates crowding the correctional centres across the country would drastically reduce but the police and the judiciary capitalise on each others inadequacy to abuse the ACJA.
For example, police know that most judges, due to their busy schedules, will not bother to read through the remand request forms and supporting affidavit to weigh whether good reasons have been advanced for remanding the suspect. On the contrary, judges take the word of the police as good enough. Consequently, the police would charge ‘uncooperative’ suspects with heinous crimes like attempted murder, where the facts would otherwise show ordinary assault, or kidnapping, where the facts could only suggest false imprisonment, all with the purpose of detaining the suspect.
Oftentimes, after remanding suspects, judges adjourn the case beyond the statutory period of 14 days. In some cases, the adjournment would be for months, in clear breach of the law. Then, after charging suspects to court, the police would abandon them there. On return dates, the police would be unrepresented. By the law, the court ought to discharge the suspect, but the judges would be reluctant to enforce the law by discharging suspects. To play safe, they again adjourn the cases to await police response, leading to further unlawful detention of the suspect.
However, in fairness to some judges and magistrates, their workload is a serious challenge that makes it difficult to comply with ACJA in dispensation of justice.
Calls for decongestion
With the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, some NGOs, lawyers and rights activists have been campaigning rigorously for decongestion of correctional centres in the country.
Edo State-born rights activist and legal practitioner, Dele Igbinedion, is an advocate of prison decongestion, with strict compliance with the ACJA by the police and the judiciary.
He said that the catastrophe of Covid-19 could be either avoided or minimised by trial judges taking proactive steps to reduce the prison population.
“Notwithstanding the hardship caused by the non-implementation of the ACJA, trial judges seem comfortable with the status quo, which resulted in congestion of prison,” he said.
In the same vain, PRAI’s director, Ahmed Adeola-Kazeem, has pleaded with the Chief Judge (CJ) of Lagos State, Justice Kazeem Alogba, to take more aggressive action to unclog the overcrowded correctional centres in state.
Adeola-Kazeem also wrote a letter to the CJ on March 13, on the need for an aggressive approach on the issue.
He said: “The living condition of awaiting trial persons is a total mess. A cell that should accommodate 30 persons is currently accommodating 130. This situation has made the spread of communicable diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis B rife among this population as well as frequent deaths, which are most times not in the public view. God forbid we have a pandemic disease like coronovirus, the devastation can only be imagined.”
Mr. Ikechukwu Nwanguma, the executive director of the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre (RULAAC), a human rights organisation, also called for the immediate decongestion of correctional centres to check further spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Similarly, a civil society organisation, Lawyers Alert, has declared its intention to monitor the process of decongestion of the correctional centres in the country, to prevent an outbreak and spread of coronavirus among the inmates.
The group’s director of programmes, Roseline Oghenebrume, said they have set up an implementation team alongside like-minded civil society organisations in the country in that regard.
On it part, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Ikorodu branch, has disclosed its intention to finance its members to monitor indiscriminate police arrests during the 14-day restriction of movement in Lagos State.
Chairman of the branch, Bayo Akinlade, said lawyers volunteering for the Police Duty Solicitors Scheme (PDSS) would receive financial and technical support. Akinlade, while speaking on the trend, stated that the association was embarking on the project in order to protect citizens’ rights and prevent illegal detention by the police.
With different views of stakeholders and suggestions on how to decongest the prisons, it was clear that a recourse to strict application of the various safeguards inherent in the ACJA would also be of immense benefit to all.