The plight of about 27 Nigerians in detention in Tanzania for over seven years without trial has, once again, come to the fore with the inmates sending a distress message to the Federal Government to evacuate and save them from being casualties of the coronavirus pandemic.
The detainees said the COVID-19 pandemic, which has recorded many cases in the East African country, has spread to the overcrowded prison, with no measures by the authorities to protect the inmates.
They explained that they resorted to a save-our-souls cry to Nigeria following the presence of strange sicknesses and mysterious deaths of inmates lately, which terrified them, making them fear for their lives.
In the hand-written message ‘smuggled’ out from the notorious Keko Remand Prison in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Daily Sun, the victims pleaded that the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, and the chairman/chief executive officer of the Nigerian Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, be specifically drawn to their predicament.
As at last week, Tanzania, with a population of about 56 million, had recorded about 131 COVID-19 cases with about five officially documented deaths, although some strongly believe the actual figures for infections and casualties are much higher than reported.
Alarmed, human rights activists and opposition politicians in the country have berated the government for failing to develop and share with the public a comprehensive national plan to curb coronavirus spread.
Part of the message from the prison read: “Tell them (the Foreign Affairs Minister and the Nigerian Diaspora Commission chairman/CEO) about us here. We are about 25 Nigerians here in this jail and we have been here for more than seven years without going to court and we have not been tried and the worst part is that our embassy (Nigeria’s High Commission) is not coming to see us and they have been taking money from Nigerian government.
“They have been taking money from the Nigerian government, but they are not coming to see us. Tell the government to do something fast, because coronavirus is in this country now, and our lives are not safe anymore. We need their help to come and save us here…before coronavirus will kill us here in this jail.”
The predicament of the Nigerians in Keko Remand Prison and other facilities in Tanzania has been exclusively reported many times by Daily Sun in the past six years, starting with a two-page feature published on Tuesday, October 29, 2013.
The publication, which exposed a serious affront on the rule of law in the sundry cases involving Nigerians, showed that the detainees faced difficulties obtaining legal advice and representation, and were not arraigned even after years of detention.
Out of the 27 detainees, one is on death row, three have humanitarian cases, while the rest were said to have committed offences relating to drugs and other crimes against individuals and the state.
Intervention of solicitors from the UK
While the government of Nigeria turned a blind eye to the publication, it caught the attention of a group of lawyers in the United Kingdom, the Solicitors International Human Rights Group (SIHRG), which sent one of its members, Nigel Dodds, on a fact-finding mission to Tanzania in January 2016.
Preliminary investigations by Dodds, former chairman of the Law Society Charity Organisation in the UK, identified the names and basic particulars of 27 Nigerian detainees “who appeared to have been detained for unreasonable periods without being tried.”
On arrival in Tanzania, he visited the Keko and Segarea prisons, met the Nigerian detainees, interacted with government and prisons officials, held discussions with prosecutors and lawyers and, subsequently, submitted a report to Nigeria’s High Commission in the country.
The then High Commissioner, who he met at least thrice during his visit to Tanzania, committed himself to being guided by the document in order to ensure that justice prevailed for the detainees who had been in jail for many years.
Specifically, according to the solicitor who resigned from SIHRG midway into the assignment, the high commissioner promised to review all the cases on the list of victims, take greater interest in individual cases and rule of law issues and report to the Nigerian Foreign Office on the problems in Tanzania.
The envoy also assured his guest that he would liaise with his legal people with a view to pushing the time limits to the representations that the Nigerian prisoners could make to the Tanzanian government.
“He (the high commissioner) did tell me that he had that night signed papers dealing with the first person on the list, Cosmas Chukwumezie (case number CC96/2012), which meant that he would be released and sent back to Nigeria. He was looking at the other cases. I agreed to provide him with any further information which came to light.”
Dodds’ findings, published later by Daily Sun, on Tuesday, June 19, 2018, not only confirmed the newspaper’s first story on the matter, but also underscored the apathy of the Nigerian government, particularly its diplomatic mission in Tanzania, to the anguish of its citizens abroad.
But, nothing changed long after the elderly legal practitioner returned to his country. He expressed his frustration thus: “On February 22, 2016, after my return to the UK, I sent the high commissioner a detailed report of my further findings. Despite several reminders, no reply to this has been received. Chukwumezie remains in prison with no significant progress in relation to his case.
“I have not been advised of any action in relation to the humanitarian cases. There is no sign of any action either in relation to the 27 individual cases or in relation to making representations about the structural problems of the Tanzanian system.”
Diaspora commission receives, ignores findings
Disappointed that his detailed report was not acted on after two years of its submission to the high commission, even as the victims remained in jail, Dodds came to Nigeria on Monday, April 30, 2018, to personally submit the findings and sensitise relevant Federal Government officials on the plight of the Keko 27.
He first came to Lagos, where he met our reporter who broke the news of the detainees five years earlier, and later paid a visit to The Sun’s office in Kirikiri, where he granted an interview.
The Briton later proceeded to the Diaspora Commission in Abuja on Wednesday, May 9, 2018, where he presented the report of his visit to Tanzania to Dabiri-Erewa, who addressed the press with her guest on the matter in her office.
The document submitted to the Diaspora Commission’s chairman, which Dodds made available to Daily Sun, stated in part: “It seems to me that the High Commission in Dar es Salaam is failing to provide even the most basic forms of consular assistance to Nigerian nationals detained in Tanzania. There seems to be a lack of awareness of the stereotyping of Nigerians as drug dealers, which puts Nigerian citizens in peril there, in addition to the reputational damage to Nigeria.
“One would expect cases to be individually identified and tracked. It is normal practice to maintain a list of reputable lawyers and to provide it to detainees. The evidence from the prisoners and prison staff is that visits from High Commission staff are perfunctory with little or no notetaking.
“It was clear that the information in the schedule of prisoners that I provided was news to the commission staff. There was little interest in helping them and no consideration given to the fact that some may be innocent. The fact that in most cases involving their nationals the basic human right of a trial was being denied had not been registered.
‘There was a basic failing to distinguish between interfering in another country’s judicial system on outcomes as opposed to raising simple, basic process for one’s citizens.
“The government in Abuja should have been alerted, enabling government-to-government concerns about rule of law issues to be raised. These cases present the most serious rule of law issues, but this seems to be a matter of indifference to the Nigerian authorities despite the peril to its citizens visiting Tanzania.
“What is most shocking is not that the right or wrong steps were taken or that procedures were not right, but the lack of care about the plight of their fellow Nigerians shown by officials or their indolence. The problems of the Nigerian prisoners had been raised with the commission by the press (Daily Sun) the year before my visit.”
If the British lawyer was disappointed at the attitude of the High Commission, he must have been shocked that his visit to Nigeria and the report he presented to the Nigerian Diaspora Commission made no impact beyond a press conference organised in Abuja during his visit.
Distress cry from Keko Prison
The Nigerians whose freedom has been denied for many years lamented last week that nothing has changed since Dodds visited Tanzania in 2016, and submitted his findings to the Nigerian government two years later through the Diaspora Commission.
According to them, their hope of getting justice was raised when the “white man visited Tanzania.”
The detainees disclosed that they are now alarmed by the mild response to the COVID-19 pandemic by the authorities in Tanzania. They said lack of measures to protect inmates of overcrowded prisons has added a dangerous dimension to their already terrible situation.
The effect on them is that they are living with the permanent fear that death is prowling around the notorious Keko Prison, where most of them are being held, and that they might die soon, if the Nigerian government fails to evacuate them urgently.
“We feel abandoned by Nigeria. Tell the government to evacuate us before coronavirus kills us in this prison. If we must die, let us die in our country,” they cried.
A report by Aljazeera a few days ago observed that as many countries in Africa are taking drastic measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, including nationwide lockdowns, social distancing, curfew and fiscal measures to assist the poor, Tanzania is pleased with a tepid response to the pandemic.
The government had shut schools, including university, and suspended all international passenger flights to Tanzania, but does not plan to introduce a lockdown.
In the absence of these sweeping measures imposed by other African countries, the population has become vulnerable to the deadly virus, prompting human rights activists and worried politicians in the country to loudly criticise government for not responding responsibly.
The report noted that it was with the same lukewarm attitude that the Tanzanian government responded to the Ebola outbreak. However, the Tanzanian Deputy Health Minister, Faustine Ndugulile, defended his government’s reluctance to impose more stringent measures.
“When you look at the dynamics, most Tanzanians live from hand to mouth, they have to leave their households in order to survive. So, when you go for a total lockdown, it means some will instead die of hunger,” Ndugulile told The Citizen newspaper earlier this month.
Recently, the World Health Organisation and United Nations officials warned that Africa could become the next epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic with at least 300,000 casualties likely.
In the light of this frightening prediction, and considering the “mild response” by Tanzania to COVID-19, it would be interesting to see how the government of Nigeria reacts to the distress message from its nationals in that country’s prisons.
Meanwhile, more than 16,500 Nigerians are in foreign prisons. Over 300 of them are on death row.