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‘Stuck in limbo’: endless wait for justice for those in Nigeria’s prisons

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Sunday Alamba/AP</span>
Photograph: Sunday Alamba/AP

In the noisy hallway of Igbosere high court in Lagos on an October Monday morning, people sit on the floor waiting for their cases to be called as lawyers and officials dash between them.

In a faded white shirt, silky joggers and sandals, Tunde Akeem*, 40, is listless, barely listening to his legal counsel.

In August 2015, Akeem, a cobbler, says he came across a disturbance on his way home from work.

Akeem says he was scared by the police presence and ran away, without actually knowing what was going on. But his right leg was hit by a stray bullet – and he was arrested and charged with armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery, charges he denies. But he has been in a prison cell ever since.

Akeem’s case is called, and he shuffles into court. His appearance lasts 10 minutes, with the judge adjourning the case to January. By then, Akeem will have spent almost six and a half years in pre-trial detention, without any evidence presented.

What we see is probably the worst face of the justice system. It affects people who have no resources to hire lawyers

Megan Chapman, Justice & Empowerment Initiatives

“The experience is very bad, I don’t know how to say it, but the experience is bad,” he says.

Akeem’s situation is not unique. In a prison population of almost 70,000, more than 50,000 are awaiting trial, many having spent years on remand.

“Can you imagine just being picked up out of your day-to-day life without any warning, without a chance to prepare, and potentially not going back to that life for five, six, eight years?” says Megan Chapman, co-director of Justice & Empowerment Initiatives, an NGO providing pro-bono services to Akeem.

“There is a sense of total limbo with being stuck in the system. The people around you, the community, the society may come to different conclusions about the reasons you are gone. And how long will family members continue waiting for you, or continue to support you? Because, of course, once you are in the prison system or even just in police custody, to have any reasonable quality of life, you need family members bringing you food, otherwise you are basically stuck with rations that will erode your health very quickly,” she says.

“What we see is probably the worst face of the justice system. It affects people who have no resources to hire lawyers and to pay the kind of money the police and other people in the justice system may demand to get out [of prison].”

In Nigeria, criminal cases are tried in magistrates courts and the high court. Similar to the UK, magistrates deal with minor offences such as traffic violations and public disturbances while serious offences are referred to the high court by the director of public prosecution (DPP). It can take several years to get a referral, leaving the suspect is remanded in prison, sometimes for longer than the sentence would be for the crime of which they are accused.

Efforts have been made to speed up the judicial process, including the 2015 Administration of Criminal Justice Act. And in 2016, Justice Ishaq Usman Bello, a former chief judge of the Federal Capital Territory, started visiting prisons in his jurisdiction to free prisoners whose remand period had exceeded the maximum sentence possible for the crime. This followed the launch of the presidential committee on prison reform and decongestion, which he heads. The minister for justice, Abubakar Malami, says the committee freed 10,000 inmates in four years.

Suspects are sometimes on remand for longer than the sentence for the crime of which they are accused.
Suspects are sometimes on remand for longer than the sentence for the crime of which they are accused. Photograph: Friedrich Stark/Alamy

But legal experts say more needs to be done.

“The law is getting better on paper, addressing some of these challenges, but not a total system change. Why? Because at the end of the day, there is not the political will to change,” says Chapman.

Muhammed Adamu, 36, was at a friend’s birthday party at a bar in Mushin, a Lagos suburb, in 2019 when a fight broke out. The bar owner called the police, who arrested everyone there, including Adamu.

Adamu was wearing shorts with an army camouflage pattern, a criminal offence for non-military personnel in Nigeria with a maximum prison sentence of a month or a fine of 10,000 nairas (£17).

He pleaded not guilty to a charge of impersonation and was remanded in prison, where he remained for the next two years.

“The system starts from the police. The police force is the first place you get to when it comes to the criminal justice system in Nigeria,” says Oluyemi Adetiba-Orija, founder of the Headfort Foundation, an NGO providing pro-bono legal services. “Police come to court and tell the court there is no witness and they ask for an adjournment while the person is in prison. They are not giving the person the room to prove their innocence.”

Adetiba-Orija says the police can make up charges if they dislike someone or to extract money, knowing the person could spend years behind bars fighting it. “He charges you for whatever comes to his mind. A policeman can determine your future for the next 10 years,” she says.

Those seeking reform say the issues with the system also include problems with policing.
Those seeking reform say the issues with the system also include problems with policing. Photograph: Israel Ophori/EPA

The DPP and the police did not respond to requests for comment.

Related: Failed state? Why Nigeria’s fragile democracy is facing an uncertain future

Francis Enobore, a spokesperson for the Nigerian Correctional Services, says the agency does not determine how long a person stays in prison. “When an offender is referred to be kept by a competent court of jurisdiction, we keep [them].”

Adamu was finally released in August after no-one from the police turned up at court, enabling his lawyer to have the case struck out.

By then, he had lost his job as a scrap metal dealer, and belongings which friends had to sell to fund his welfare in prison.

Adamu has been stigmatised by the ordeal.

“When I came back, people I knew started looking at me with bad eyes, saying this one is from prison. Everywhere I pass, sometimes people point at me and say, ‘Don’t you know this man, Muhammed, who went to prison?’” he says.

“The government has to help the prisoners, because prisoners are suffering there. Even the people that commit the crimes and those who did not commit any crime, they are all suffering.”

Against legal advice, Akeem wants to plead guilty. He reasons that with a sentence, he will know how many years he has to spend in jail, rather than having endless months waiting.

“That is what everyone in my cell is doing. They will take mercy on me. I have spent six years inside already,” he says, before being led back to his prison.

* Name changed

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