/ 13 June 2021

Freeing Nigeria’s unjustly imprisoned

Nigeria Police Demo
Behind bars: Damilare Adenola was arrested during a Lagos protest against police brutality in February this year. Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP

In October 2018, Samson Udeh was in a crowded market in Lagos, Nigeria buying garri, a staple food, when he was arrested by two officers and shoved into the back of a police van. Udeh, a meat griller in his early 20s, said the officers identified themselves as members of the anti-cultism unit and accused him of being a cultist. 

“They weren’t in uniform and they kept insisting that I am a suspected cultist because I had dreadlocks at the time. I told them what I do for a living and said I had not done anything wrong but they put me at the back of their van,” he told the Mail & Guardian

He said he was kept in a cell and denied access to a phone call until the third day of his arrest. Only on the 10th day was Udeh charged in court with alleged cultism. His bail, which he could not afford, was set at 5 000 naira (about $13).

“That’s how I found myself in Ikoyi Prison. There was nobody to pay the bail money for me,” he said. 

Udeh was remanded in prison for three months without trial, because he was unable to meet his bail conditions and had no legal representation. 

The M&G put Udeh’s allegations to the Lagos state police command. Muyiwa Adejobi, the police spokesman, said the police cannot take responsibility for what happened to him. The judge who ruled that Udeh be remanded in prison was responsible, he said, and not the police force. 

Adejobi also insisted that the police officers who had arrested Udeh must have had credible evidence before making the arrest. He did not elaborate on the evidence. “Since the case has gone to court, police can not be blamed for wrongful arrest again. If we [the police] didn’t have credible evidence, we [couldn’t] prosecute him.”

Udeh’s case is far from unique. In Nigeria, remand inmates like Udeh make up 72.8% of the country’s prison population, according to a report by the World Prison Brief.

Additionally, of 65 465 inmates in correctional facilities across the country, 48 034 are still awaiting trial, according to the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS).

Difficult bail conditions

Section 35 of the Nigerian constitution says anyone arrested by the police must be formally charged within 48 hours, and those who have been charged with minor offences must be tried within two months. 

But Oluyemi Adetiba-Orija, a criminal lawyer based in Lagos, said the law is not often enforced, leaving people stuck in prison — sometimes for crimes they did not commit — for longer than stipulated. 

Adetiba-Orija runs Headfort Foundation, a nonprofit organisation providing pro-bono legal services to minor offenders without legal representation in the country. 

The 32-year-old told the M&G that people are kept in prison for lengthy periods because of their inability to meet their bail conditions. 

“Minor offences are bailable, but the conditions for bail are sometimes too stringent for the accused person to meet. In a high court, for example, for bail, it will state that two people should stand for a person; one of them, a civil servant of level 14. Another person should be a property owner with evidence of tax payment. So, just imagine someone who has no civil servant in his lineage — there’s no way he will meet bail conditions,” she added. 

According to a 2018 survey by Prawa, an NGO, most prison inmates have no formal education or means to pay bail, because 76% of them were living on less than 46 000 naira (about $128) a month before their arrest.

Abuja-based lawyer Yusuf Mahmud told the M&G that people without legal representation are more likely to stay longer in prison because they don’t understand the law. 

“If a person has legal representation, he or she will be better advised on how to go about bail. Some people don’t even know they have this right, and if you don’t know that your offence is bailable, there’s no way you can enforce it,” he said. 

Yusuf is a programme manager with the Network of University Legal Aid Institutions (Nulai), an NGO that promotes legal education in the country. 

The organisation also runs pre-trial clinics, at which minor offenders are offered legal representation free of charge. 

Representing minor offenders

Organisations like Nulai and the Headfort Foundation provide legal representation to people arrested or charged for non-capital offences, like shoplifting and wandering across the country. 

Adetiba-Orija has a four-women lawyer and litigation team that goes into prisons to find inmates like Udeh who have been locked up longer than stipulated by law because they cannot make bail. 

According to her, the Headfort Foundation has provided free legal representation to more than 125 people accused of minor offences in Ikoyi Prison since it was launched in June 2018.  

“When we go to prison, the prison wardens announce to the inmates that pro-bono lawyers are around and let them talk to us about their case. We usually select about 30 cases per visit,” Adetiba-Orija said.

She said her team focuses on minor offenders because capital offences take longer to be addressed in court. 

It was during one of her team’s visits in December 2018 that Udeh’s case was picked up. 

He was found not guilty of cultism, because the police could not provide evidence against him, and released in December 2018 at the Ogudu magistrate’s court in Lagos.

Similarly, Nulai offers a wide range of legal services, including identifying pre-trial detainees in 21 prisons across 13 states in Nigeria and working to get some of them out of prison. 

“We partnered with the Nigerian Correctional Service so we can go into prisons close to where our law clinics are situated and interview detainees. We started the pre-trial component in 2005,” Yusuf said. 

He added that, so far, the organisation has represented 785 offenders, with 415 of them acquitted by the courts. 

Police arrests 

The Nigerian police service, to a certain extent, is complicit in keeping people in prison for longer than required, according to Adetiba-Orija.

She said the police randomly pick people off the streets, throw them in prison and accuse them of crimes without evidence.

“If the police don’t pick you up during their raids, then you won’t find yourself in prison in the first place. In saner climes, nobody will arrest you unless they have proof of whatever they are accusing you of,” she added. 

Adejobi, the police spokesman, said that remanding people in prison is outside the purview of the police. According to him, the police force should not be accused of aiding prison numbers, because only a judge or magistrate has the authority to send a person to prison. 

But, in the past, organisations like Amnesty International have accused the Nigerian police of detaining and torturing people without evidence. 

According to a 2016 Amnesty report, Nigeria’s now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad often picked people from the streets, extracting bribes and false confessions from them. 

The rights group also said that it had documented 82 cases of police brutality in the country between 2017 and 2020. 

In October 2020, the Nigerian police force also came under fire from local protesters for these reasons. 

Overcrowded prisons 

One of the far-reaching effects of unlawful arrests or keeping people longer than required in prison is that they contribute to overcrowding, according to a 2019 report by the Asylum Research Center.

The report found that, as a result of keeping too many people in federal prisons across the country, resources such as toilets are inadequate, and there is not enough food to feed the number of people kept in these facilities. 

Udeh who spent three months in Ikoyi Prison, Lagos, said the living conditions were “a horrible experience”.

According to him, the food was poorly made and the prison was at overcapacity. “We were more than 300 in a cell: it was like packing fish in a can of tuna. There was no space; the water was bad; the food was bad,” he said. 

The NCS, formerly known as the Nigerian Prison Service, told the M&G that the government is working hard to improve overcrowding conditions in prisons. 

Chris Njoku, the NCS spokesperson, said that the government is currently building new correctional facilities with a capacity of 3 000 in three different regions in the country. 

“A lot of the current correctional facilities don’t have land or room for expansion. That is why the government is proactive about creating new centres to tackle the issue of overcrowding,” he said. 

Njoku also insisted that the provision of food in prisons is decent, and that contractors supply food materials every three months to each correctional facility.