Nigeria’s citadel of injustice

The United Kingdom prepares to repatriate Nigerial prisoners to a country whose justice system appears to be riddled with injustice

Chinwuba Iyizoba | Aug 13 2009 | comment  



Jail wireJails in the United Kingdom are overflowing and part of the reason is the presence of 11,000 foreign criminals, 800 of whom are Nigerians. To help decongest its prison system the UK is considering sending some 400 Nigerians back home to finish their term under a "non-consent-prisoner transfer policy".

The plan, which would require Nigeria to amend laws requiring "prisoner consent" before transfer, has provoked an outcry from Nigerian prisoners. The main reason for their protest is the deplorable condition of Nigerian jails – a matter that is being studied by British officials who sent a team to inspect Nigerian prisons.

The deplorable jails they saw in Nigeria convinced them that, if "would-be-deportees" sued for human rights abuse, they would win and escape repatriation. To help prevent such an outcome, the UK Government has approached the Nigerian Government with an offer of £1 million to help create more humane prison conditions (especially for the British deportees).

The chief executive of the UK border agency, Lin Homer, has told MPs that the move "will save the UK money", given that the costs of maintaining a prisoner in the UK amount to a total of €30,000 (£25,800) a year. But the bad news for the UK Government is that the plan is bound to fail. The reason is that while Britain left Nigerian jails in excellent condition when it granted the country independence, they are now in an appalling state. As one maintenance contractor with Nigerian prisons since the 1960s says, today the prisons are "overcrowded" and "unkempt" with filthy cells that have no running water. "Diseases are widespread. In Abakaliki Prison (Ebonyi State) the prison clinic attends to up to 60 inmates daily for cholera and malaria. When serious illness occurs, requiring specialised treatment that a prisoner’s relatives are not able to afford, the prisoner is likely to die. In many prisons, children are kept with adults. In Kuje Prison, for instance, 30 boys, some as young as 11 share a dormitory with over 175 men.

Even more disturbing is the fact that hundreds of prisoners in Nigeria have never been proven guilty of any crime. Seven hundred of the 1000 prisoners in Enugu prison were never charged by an official court and some have spent as much as 12 years in detention "awaiting trial".

In 2008 Amnesty International studied the situation in 10 prisons and reported that 65 percent of all prisoners in Nigeria were awaiting trial.

‘Prove yourself innocent’

The reason is that police arbitrarily arrest and detain people, often rounding up hundreds of innocent people, and demand that they prove their innocence (usually with cash). Those who cannot pay are sent to prison.

One friend told me of his own ordeal with police: "I went out to get some snacks at 8.00pm and fell into the hands of the police," he said. "They ordered me into a waiting car. My protest of innocence was ignored. At the station they charged me with robbery, since there was a robbery that night. They took all my money and threw me in prison with some other boys arrested that same night. Luckily, I called a relation who came the following morning.

He met with the officer in-charge who told him: ‘The boys where apprehended for robbery’.

"‘How did you come to such conclusion?’ my relation asked.

"‘Usually’, the police officer said, ‘boys apprehended at such hours are robbers’.

"The police released me when the police commissioner intervened. I do not know what happened to the other boys."

It is claimed that sometimes the police arrest parents or relations and torture them for information about their wards. In defence of the practice, one police officer said: "The mother of a criminal always knows where he is."

At Enugu prison I met a prison warder, Emma, who complained about the excesses of the police: "The biggest problem we have is the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police. They bring in prisoners directly from their night raids, flashing warrants and demanding the prisoners be detained in jail here. Some have been shot in the leg and the prison clinic has to battle to save their lives. The normal procedure is to arrest the suspect, detain him in a police cell and then charge him in court. There the judge gives a date for the hearing and orders the prisoner to be kept in prison. The prisoner, now knowing the date of his hearing, keeps reminding the prison warder of his hearing date until he appears before the court and his case is determined. When the SARS bypass these procedures, they fill the prison with prisoners who have neither lawyers nor hearing dates and are thus lost."

As chaos spreads in prisons, there has been a rise in claims of "extra-judicial murder" by police officers. For instance, they are alleged to kill suspected armed robbers in cold blood because they are said to fear that the robbers might escape, come back and take vengeance on them. Worse still, good Nigerians are accepting the situation because they believe it is a better alternative to letting hardened criminals escape from prison. But it is claimed that in reality corrupt police officers are in league with robbers and often commit the murders in order to protect their own identity. Disobedient Courts

Although the Nigerian constitution guarantees the right of a crime suspect to be tried in court within a reasonable amount of time or to be set free pending appeal, neither the police nor the judges respect this law.

In addition, the police prefer to file all charges with the magistrate courts because the process is less cumbersome. But because magistrate courts are meant to deal only with misdemeanors or lesser crimes, magistrates hand the prisoner back to the police. The prisoner is then moved to a prison as someone who is "awaiting trail" while police prepare their case. In reality, in most cases the police do nothing. Sometimes magistrates adjourn cases outside their jurisdiction endlessly. Thus, many prisoners have exceeded the maximum sentence for the crime while "waiting" for trial. A researcher for Amnesty International, Aster van Kregten, says: "Some prisoners are called 'forgotten inmates' as they never go to court and nobody knows how much longer their detention will last, simply because their case files are lost."

A government without will

Meanwhile, the Nigerian Government, fully aware of these problems, promises much but does nothing. In July, 2002, President Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a former prisoner, described the situation of inmates awaiting trial as "inhuman". He set up commissions of inquiry in 2005, 2006 and 2007. They all submitted recommendations that were never implemented. The Government continues to set up new commissions to study reports by old commissions. In June this year, the minister of internal affairs attributed the problems to "inadequate funding". However, the Minister of Interior, Chief Sunday Afolabi, reported that the government allocated NGN2.4 billion for prison reforms in 2001.

Money brings results

One reason for the neglect of the prisons by successive Nigerian governments may be the fact that few rich Nigerians go to prison. When they do, they often allegedly bribe their way into comfort. Some time ago, a past governor, jailed for misappropriation of public funds, requested and was given air-conditioning in his private cell. The rich can hire the best lawyers and judges and thus accelerate the usually "snail-slow justice" system to jet speed.

If criminals from the UK are repatriated to Nigeria, they have little or no chance of their rights being respected because Nigerian prison officials (unlike their British counterparts) have no fear of lawsuits for human rights abuses. The Court and police have no fear of breaking the law because it appears the Government has no will to enforce the law. As Amnesty International has summed up: "The whole system is a conveyor belt of injustice."

Nigeria’s Minister for Defence, Major General Godwin Abbe, has confirmed that nothing is likely to change: "When they come here, whatever conditions they find, they will take it," he said.

Rich nations have an obligation in solidarity and in justice

The basic fact is that good laws exist to guide things in the direction of what is truly good. Of what use are they, then, if they can be circumvented easily? The deterioration of Nigeria’s prisons has occurred because so many Nigerians circumvent the law whenever it becomes inconvenient. If the UK succeeds in pressuring the Government of Nigeria (with cash) to remove the "consent" clause in the constitution, it will aggravate the injustice already meted out to Nigerian convicts. True justice and solidarity demands from the British that they put pressure on Nigerian leaders to improve the lot and condition of all prisoners! The prevailing structure of injustice can and must be challenged and brought to an end. If the British fail to take the necessary steps to achieve this, their £1 million facilities will soon become white-washed tombs -- shining on the outside, while the inside is filled with dead men bones.



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