Saturday, September 19, 2009

Nigeria: Nigeria's prisons scandal

In June 150 prisoners escaped from Enugu state prison in southeastern Nigeria, beating wardens and raping female prisoners before they fled.

A few weeks earlier eight inmates reportedly were killed in another jailbreak, at Agodi prison in Ibadan in the southwest.

Escape may appear to some prisoners to be the only way out, given that some two-thirds of Nigeria’s prisoners have been detained without trial, according to a report by the Centre for Social and Legal Studies (CSLS) in Abuja, which calls on the government to pass criminal justice reform legislation immediately.

The May report, ‘Justice sector reform and human rights in Nigeria’, says in the Kuje prison in the capital Abuja 85 percent of the 622 prisoners have not been tried. A 2008 Amnesty International report estimated the overall number of detainees without trials at 65 percent.

The researchers saw prisoners who have been awaiting trial for nine years.


All stages of the criminal justice system contribute to delays, said Yemi Akinseye George, senior lecturer in legal studies at the University of Ibadan and co-author of the report.

Police often arrest and detain people on “holding charges” while they collect evidence, George said. “That is wrong. It is illegal…It is against the constitution.”

Bail conditions are often impossible to meet, said Adekunle Ojo, a human rights lawyer and vice president of the Nigeria Bar Association.

With few government-subsidized legal aid programmes, prisoners often cannot afford a lawyer, said Professor George, leaving courts in a bind. “People cannot afford assistance, but courts cannot release them when there are no lawyers to take up their cases.”

In some cases, ineptitude has led to the loss of hundreds of files, the report says.

When a case does go to court, witnesses – with no official protection scheme in place – are often too frightened to give evidence, leaving cases hanging.

With no trial, many prisoners end up spending more time detained than they would have under a conviction, according to human rights lawyer Ojo. Minor offences such as petty theft or traffic offences incur a maximum six-month sentence in Nigeria.

Justice Minister Michael Aondoakaa says the problem lies in the structure of the criminal justice system, whereby the federal government owns and operates prisons but state courts sentence prisoners.

“I cannot sit here and predict the volume of people that will be taken to the prisons because they come from the state courts, the magistrate courts, the high courts, the sharia courts, the sanitary courts, etc. All these [institutions] pour people into the prisons.”

Disease, torture, squalor

With the ensuing overcrowding, most prisoners sleep on the floor and are provided with minimal food rations, the reports say. Overcrowding and poor sanitation leads to a high incidence of disease such as tuberculosis, skin infections and malaria, and most prisons have no health facilities, says Amnesty International. Most prisons also have no functioning toilets, researchers say.

On top of overcrowding, torture and ill-treatment are common, CSLS researchers found, noting: “beating often leading to the death” of inmates, and “…whipping, mostly with cow-hide whips and batons was a common way of punishing stubborn prisoners”.

Almost 80 percent of Nigerian prisoners surveyed said they had been beaten, threatened with weapons or tortured in prison cells, according to Amnesty International’s 2008 report.


University lecturer George said such appalling conditions point to the need for urgent reform; he said pledges by successive governments to implement reforms have yielded “scant results”.

Former president Olusegun Obasanjo set up a committee to propose improvements in prison conditions. This committee drew up reform recommendations, including detailed updates to the criminal code – which is over 100 years old – and to criminal procedural law, which dates to the 1960s. They drafted a bill over two years ago and the national assembly has yet to take it up.

“The most urgent thing that should be done is to push for the passage of this bill,” George stressed.

Only one state – Lagos – has so far reformed its criminal justice law, he pointed out, with the reforms already helping reduce prisoner numbers, he said.

George says the Attorney General must push harder on the bill. “[He] is supposed to provide leadership on this issue and make the national assembly feel the bill is urgent, but he isn’t doing so.”

But Peter Akper, adviser to the Attorney General, told IRIN his team has approached the Justice and Human Rights committees to speed up the bill’s passing.

The government is making some progress on other fronts, Akper said, referring to a programme to eliminate overcrowding run by the Attorney General and Ministry of Justice, that has cleared a backlog of some 5,000 cases in recent years, he said.

Other ongoing reforms include reviewing sentencing guidelines, he said.

George said such changes mark progress but “there is no alternative” to the legislation for system-wide change.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. Photo: Copyright IRIN

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