Nigeria: We Are All Prisoners

prisoner_ngDick Cheney, the immediate past Vice President of the United States once said, ‘it is easy to take liberty for granted when you have never had it taken from you.’ Yet liberty and freedom is regularly denied Nigerians and because we are not the ones behind bars in anyone of the nation’s 228 prisons, we do not give a hoot. Additionally, police stations across the land are holding unknown number of Nigerians, many of whom their only crime was that they were unlucky to be outdoor the day the giant money making broom of the police swept through streets and cities, raking off scores, even hundreds to their stations where they have to pay to secure their ‘bail’ and freedom. If you are unable to pay or blinked at the wrong time, argued too much or an officer felt your eyes lingered too long on his name tag or service number, your situation rapidly deteriorates just to teach the unfortunate a lesson. This happens somewhere every day.

During my undergraduate days, I was involved in a motor accident in which I broke my thigh bone and was consequently confined to a bed for three months. The world became so small because all I could see every day for the three months through the same window was the same patch of sky. Even though I was surrounded by family and friends and eating what I wanted, the confinement was not fun.

Imagine then being suddenly and violently as is the arrest method here,  unjustly swept off into dungeons that pass for prisons for years on end, watching your life in slow motion at best, or on pause at worst like an out of body experience. Some are paraded before television cameras with weapons retrieved fifteen years ago from another generation of criminals. Sometimes, inmates as they are called remain in prison unknown to relatives. Father Jacob Adeyemi, the Chaplain of the Catholic Prison Chaplaincy of the Archdiocese of Lagos, a veteran of ten years and still counting told the story of someone who was held in Badagry prison for years, his where about unknown to his family. They had conducted a search without success and declared him dead. He was mourned and consigned to the dark regions of memory where unpleasant experiences are stored. When this prisoner’s residence was eventually traced by the Church, it was difficult to convince the parents their son who they had mourned was alive but wasting away in prison. Father Adeyemi lamented that many people remain behind bars because they could not provide N10, 000 to ‘secure’ their release. The fact that the investigating police officers routinely do not try to find and locate the parents of those they arrested and held for years, speaks volumes of the quality of their investigation.

prison-africa001Across Nigeria’s 228 prisons, there are 49,000 prisoners, confined in hopelessly overcrowded spaces that seemed designed by the creeping failure of government to physically and mentally destroy inmates by instalments. Out of this number, Father Adeyemi disclosed that about 29,000 inmates are awaiting trial, some for as long as ten years! Ikoyi prisons in Lagos illustrate the twin horrors of congestion and awaiting trial. Built to handle 800 inmates, it has a population of 1,659, out of which less than 200 are convicts. Father Adeyemi explained that the number of those awaiting trial is the major reason for the congestion. Hunkered down in the trenches, he expects the situation to worsen as soon as Nigerian prisoners in British jails are returned to Nigeria to complete their prison terms. This arrangement between the Nigerian and British governments led to the construction of a unit at the Medium Security Prison at Kirikiri at British government expense. More convicted Nigerians are also expected from Thailand to complete their terms here in Nigeria. He hoisted the problem of those awaiting trial on the police, the prison service and judiciary, insisting vehemently that those who should be in prison namely the politicians who have failed Nigeria are walking free.  His words: ‘Our politicians, those who embezzle money, those who award and receive contracts that are not executed are not in prison. Those who made it to trial by EFCC have had their cases stalled or suspended because of political connections. How many of them slept in the prisons for one week?’ In a nutshell, most real criminals do not end up in prison. Their formidable war chests are more than sufficient to buy them freedom.

Every step of the way from arrest to trial is booby trapped. First of all, if you can bribe your way at the police station you go home. If you cannot, you move down the conveyor belt of misery to prison to await trial after surviving horrifying torture to extract ‘confession’. The judiciary receives the baton here.  Father Adeyemi narrated the story of one Chidinma Nnekwe whose file went missing for three years. A Catholic Church lawyer, Barrister Mary went to investigate. She was told that for N5, 000 the file would be found. She told them she had only N3, 000 which they took and after a few minutes produced the file that had been missing for three years. But they told her they will hold on to it to shake off accumulated dust while waiting for the balance of N2, 000, the final portion of grease that will after three years turn the wheels of justice! Chidinma’s dilemma is common place, clogging the wheels of justice, bringing them close to a halt.

In a paper titled ‘A Great Need For Prison Rehabilitation,’ presented by Sister Elma Mary Ekewuba who is director of Port Harcourt based Justice Development and Peace Commission/Caritas (JDPCC), she said that some of the congestion is due to the activities of some prison staff who ask for tips from inmates due to appear in court before they are allowed to go to court. ‘Inmates who are unable to meet this demand are kept away from court.’

Getting inmates to court is also riddled with other unbelievable failures and excuses, of which the most cited are lack of, insufficient number or broken down vehicles.  Available statistics indicate up to 45 percent of inmates have never been taken to court. Lucas Diapak, the officer in charge of Ikoyi prisons during the quarterly visit in October 2009 of the Directorate of Citizens Rights (DCR), an agency of Lagos State Ministry of Justice told The Guardian that because Ikoyi prisons serves 17 courts, sometimes for as many as 100 inmates a day, many inmates arrive the courts after the judges have ended the day’s session. According to Diapak, ‘these vehicles go to drop some and return to carry others. Before they can go and come back from a place like Ikeja for example, the judge would have finished sitting… Sometimes one vehicle services seven courts…’ It is easy to picture inmates waiting endlessly year after year to have their day in court. It is also easy to see how this contributes to the congestion even when the solution is to get more vehicles to take inmates to court.

The director of DCR Mrs Omotilewa Ibirogba also told The Guardian that ‘Some of those inmates are in for minor offences and sometimes when they are picked up, their families do not know where they are…’ The Lagos state Comptroller of Prisons, Mr Kayode Benjamin Boguntokun is worried about the number of people arrested for environmental offences brought to prison. But since it is outside his control, he can only voice out his concerns and expect the relevant agencies of government to act accordingly. Mrs Funke Tella of the Directorate’s human rights desk subsequently highlighted alternative ways of punishing minor offenders, which include community service, non custodial sentencing, suspended sentencing and other forms of punishment  that preclude confinement in prison. As good as these alternatives are, the question is, who and when will they be implemented?

During the 2009 Christmas visit to Maximum Security Prisons, Kirikiri of His Eminence, Anthony Cardinal Okogie, the Archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of Lagos, the Catechist, Chigozie Anthony in his address pointed out a catalogue of issues that keep inmates awaiting trial for up to eleven years. They include, ‘denial of bail by the judiciary; granting of difficult bail conditions such as providing sureties with landed properties with certificates of occupancy of Lagos state; refundable cash deposits in the court that poor defendants cannot afford to provide.’ What Chigozie did not add is that many inmates are more often than not tortured by the police to extract false confession that they use as evidence against them in court.

Father Adeyemi’s voice rose when he talked of one William who was arrested in 1983 and released 26 years later in 2009, declared innocent of the charges of armed robbery. The second man arrested with him was released in 1996 through a well connected brother during General Abacha’s regime.  How do you give back to such a man one day talk less of twenty six years of his life? According to Chigozie even when defendants are found guilty, the considerable number of years they stayed while awaiting trial is not often taken into consideration, so sentences start running from the day of conviction or judgement.

What happens if a person is found guilty for a crime that attracts a six month sentence and sentenced as such but had spent five years awaiting trial? Is the state not guilty of crimes against her citizens, against humanity? There has to be a way to penalise government for this kind of negligence even for the guilty who spent interminable years beyond what would normally be his prison term but more so for those wrongfully imprisoned. We can take a cue from the advanced nations of the world, where anyone who served time on account of wrongful conviction is compensated financially and in other ways as a way of atonement. How can we get the government of Nigeria to atone for arresting and wrongfully convicting fellow Nigerians? The National Assembly should rise up and enact laws that will compensate such citizens and hold everyone including those involved in investigation and the judiciary responsible for subverting the course of justice.

Nigerian prisons are certified dungeons not fit for animals. The so called prison reforms delivered nothing except perhaps extending the National Open University to prisons. Sometimes prisoners are served garri to drink as a meal while warders and wardresses sell sugar and groundnut within the walls of the prisons to them. Father Adeyemi averred that as far as he knows the constitution or any criminal code did not prescribe denial of food as part of punishment for crimes.

Prisons are so congested inmates practically sleep on top of each other on bare floors, breathing in the bacteria and viruses of each other and spreading diseases including tuberculosis. Prisoners’ body odour is better imagined than smelt, an indication that bathing is a luxury. He recounted observing prisoners use a bar of soap and a small bowl of water to create soap lather they rubbed on their bodies as body cream. Father Adeyemi sees the provision of basic amenities, water and electricity, food for prisoners and liveable wages for warders and wardresses as not negotiable in a genuine prison reform. That will be the beginning of turning prisons from a choking punishment environment to reform centres.

In a Thisday newspaper editorial on prison congestion published on October 28, 2009, they wrote, ‘…appalled by the deplorable condition of  Nigerian prisons following an extensive audit in 2005, Ojo, the then Attorney General and Minister of Justice, inter alia, made the following recommendations to the Federal Government: that the then Federal Executive Council should declare the issue of Awaiting Trial Persons in Nigerian prisons a matter of urgent  national importance and further, that the Federal Executive Council should appoint an independent Chief Inspector of Prisons in Nigeria and to report his finding to the President. Ojo also told the House of Representatives in 2005 that his office had drafted and sent to the House, the Prisons Bill clearly defining prisoner’s rights and the minimum standards for all aspects of prison life in Nigeria. He also told the lawmakers that his office had completed work on the Administration of Criminal Justice and improving the general criminal justice system. Unfortunately, four years on, these initiatives of the former Attorney General are yet to come to fruition. We are pained by the large number of prisoners awaiting trial because it is possible from the way the police easily arrest people and hurl them into prisons that there are many innocent people among them.’ In lamentation at the lack of progress in addressing the issues Thisday quipped: ‘Really, prison decongestion should not be a task beyond the intelligence and capacity of our police, judicial officers and political office holders.’

Perhaps in recognition of what seems to be beyond our political and mental capacities to solve, Thisday fired off another editorial less than seven months later on April 9, 2010. Taking it from another angle, it reads in part as follows; ‘Some of the problems of criminal  justice system in Nigeria include, torture and inhuman treatment of suspects at police stations and prisons; delay in charging suspects to court; incompetence of police prosecutors; corrupt judiciary and so forth. Many of our police stations are dungeons of torture and extra judicial killings. The recent Amnesty International Report on Nigeria was quite revealing about the reality of police extra judicial killings and brutality in Nigeria. Worse, crime investigation drags on endlessly in Nigeria. Criminal suspects are hardly brought to court. And when they are eventually arraigned in court, the trial is marred by endless and frivolous adjournments mostly at the instance of the police for lack of vital evidence to prosecute the suspects. More importantly, Nigerian prisons are over-congested and hope of de-congestion seems not to be in sight. Also detainees’ rights are regularly violated.’ When it comes to investigating ‘juicy’ cases the police usually swing into action.  While we fumble and wobble, hell on earth grows everyday in our prisons.

The new Attorney General of Nigeria and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke, less than two weeks after his appointment constituted a nine member committee to look into the Prisons Decongestion Programme of his ministry. Headed by the Solicitor –General/Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, Alhaji Abdullahi A.Yola, is supposed to aggressively and without exception deal with every component of justice administration in Nigeria. This new initiative came a few days before the attempted jailbreak of the Kaduna Prisons during which between two and ten inmates were said to have being killed by security forces. The Comptroller General of the Nigerian Prison Service, Mr Olusola Ogundipe said the reason for the attempt by awaiting trial inmates was predictably overcrowded condition of the prison built to take 524 prisoner but housing 797 inmates out of which 539 are awaiting trial. He acknowledged that the congestion has overstretched the facilities, adding to the misery of inmates. Out of the convicted 258 inmates, 139 are on death row awaiting execution.

Even the new Minister of Interior, Capt. Emmanuel Iheanacho after a visit to Kuje Prisons in Abuja was on record to have vowed that the vexed issue of overcrowded prisons will be history by the end of his tenure in about twelve months from when he made the promise.  Because there have been a lot of gap between  promises and reality, very few will expect anything positive out of this new effort by the new Attorney General of the Federation. Only time will tell if both ministers will live up to their promises or not.

Olawale Fapohunda, who was secretary to the National Study Group on death penalty set up in 2005 by former President Obasanjo, through his piece in Thisday raised fresh alarms based on the thinking of government officials on how to decongest prisons across the nation. The governor of Abia state, Theodore Orji speaking  for all the governors created the impression that executing the less than 1,000 prisoners on death row will somehow, in the words of Fapohunda relieve ‘the unenviable state of our prisons including congestion…’ With the shoddy way investigations are carried out, ‘confessions’ extracted through torture, how many of those to be executed are really guilty of the crimes they were tried for? During the attempted jail break in Kaduna, newspapers had reported that none of the death row inmates took part in the attempt. This simplistic solution for governors to urgently sign death warrants that will authorise their execution across the nation will solve nothing given the fact that the government knows that the real reason for congestion is the huge number of awaiting trial persons, which is more than half of the 49,000 inmates in the nation, aided and abetted by the consistent and worsening failure of the police, the judiciary and the prisons service.

Fapohunda’s call for a legal audit of all awaiting trial inmates across the nation should point the way to any government, its ministers and governors serious about ending congestion. In his words, ‘the purpose of this audit will be to determine those inmates who should not be in prison including inmates who are unable to pay fines, meet bail conditions or those whose case files are lost. In all, consideration should be given to the release of awaiting trial inmates who have spent upwards of ten years in prison. Any prosecutor that cannot obtain the conviction of an inmate in ten years is not likely to be in a position to do so.’ If in a rare moment of clarity government agrees to a prison audit, they must guide against what will quickly become a lost files racket designed to get all categories of criminals out for a fee, the bigger the crime the higher the fee.

The question we must begin to ask is why the House of Representatives has done nothing about the bills sent to them to pass into laws. Is their lack of interest because this largely affects the poor and the unprotected? Is it because their friends can easily buy and talk their way out of any crime and out of prison?

The time has come to pressure the United Nations to declare conditions of prisons in Nigeria and the reluctance of officials and agencies of government and the national assembly to do something about them as crimes against humanity for which nations such as Nigeria will be named and shamed during the annual United Nations General Assembly. Additionally, government officials responsible for observed failures and lapses should be banned from travelling abroad and tried at The Hague even in absentia. Perhaps this threat will penetrate the calloused consciences of government officials and compel them to do the right things and treat prisoners like human beings and not like animals. From their harrowing experience, it is obvious that even guilty inmates wish that the state is as forgiving as the Almighty God.

Those who commit crimes should be punished for their crimes. And the one sure way to reduce crime in Nigeria is for government to rise up to its responsibilities and create jobs. An idle hand is the devil’s workshop and the number of idle hands is multiplying daily. They resort to vices like prostitution and crimes such as armed robbery, assassination and kidnapping. This vast army of the unemployed represent very serious security risk which is the direct result of neglect spanning fifty years. Father Adeyemi wants government to provide business friendly environment and pay particular attention to education and arrest the shameful falling standards. Referring to the recently announced 98% failure rate in NECO examination Father Adeyemi shook his head ruefully and said, ‘You are talking about very massive failure. The blame goes to government. No light to read. Books are expensive. Teachers are not paid. Strikes last for too long during which students are not taught. The examination boards do not care whether the syllabuses were covered or not. This is why private schools are emerging everyday and I do not support it. There were no private schools thirty years ago when the standards were high.’

Father Adeyemi who exhibits the kind of rugged spirit required for taking on hide bound bureaucracy and officials interested only in feathering their own nests spoke of other challenges. Recently someone tried to smuggle into one of the prisons 34 wraps of Indian hemp concealed in what looked like a giant water melon.  Investigations then revealed there were three sellers of Indian hemp but the arrested man did not pay the ‘required’ money and was rumbled. There was also another attempt to smuggle in 42 bottles of undiluted local gin in one litre water bottles with an estimated prison community value of N859, 000. These attempts have the potential to undermine the spiritual work done by churches to change the mind set of inmates and prepare them for life after prison.

The Catholic Church has a programme for helping ex inmates settle down after their release. They used to have a transit camp for that purpose in Yaba which became too small and was abused. They have acquired a large parcel of land at Alakuko to build a customised facility for rehabilitating ex prisoners. For now the church is actively involved in reconnecting them with their families to make integration easier. They also prefer that they stay outside Lagos to reduce the temptation of returning to crime. This effort according to Father Adeyemi has not always been successful with recorded incidences of ex prisoners returning to prison. Another herculean battle is to prevent hardened criminals indoctrinating those brought in for minor offences and upon their release sending them to meet their gang members and contacts and into higher levels of crime.

If the truth is to be said, we are all prisoners either behind physical prison walls or unseen walls known only to us, but no less as deadly. A first time visitor from advanced nations will assume there are many prisons in Nigeria, easily mistaking the high walls of our homes topped by razor wire as prisons, not knowing the walls and razor wire are not desired to prevent break out but break in! The wife of a former military governor was burnt to death because of a fire outbreak. Hemmed in by the fire, she could still have gotten away if not that the windows of her residence were heavily fortified with iron bars.

We are all invisible prisoners of our minds, our past, our fears, unforgiving spirit, and compulsive behaviours like alcohol addiction, drug addiction, fornication, gossiping, lying and so many others. For instance, the fear of previous failures stops us from daring again, effectively making us prisoners of the past. We cannot navigate our way past the past because we allow them to force themselves into the present.

As a nation, we are held captive by failed policies, ethnic loyalties, unconscionable politicians, the smallness of our politics, religious bigotry etc. These have bred unemployment the scale of which is now extremely dangerous. Our idle young men gravitate to crime and are called by evil men to kill in the name of God. Young girls and increasingly married women so easily take to prostitution, operating out of homes, university campuses and offices to make ends meet, taking unbelievable risks in the process. The man who cannot travel home because of robbers and kidnappers is a prisoner of the fear of insecurity across the land. The failed school system is the prisoner of mindless incompetence. Joblessness is a prisoner of failed economic policies and lack of political will. We are all prisoners of a nation that has continually failed its citizens.

Overcoming these self imposed prisons is as daunting as reforming the physical prisons but it can be done. We start by liberating our nation from evil politicians by demanding and getting the electoral reform bill passed, getting a trusted person to chair INEC and making sure our individual votes count. This is the only way we can remove from positions of authority the sick minds who have made the physical prisons a living hell, the demented minds that have cornered our common wealth meant for roads, hospitals, well equipped schools that are not there. It is the only way to throw out corrupt politicians who according to Transparency International have built the second highest walls of corruption in the world, protecting each other because as they say dogs do not eat dogs. They created the mess and cannot be part of the solution. Everyone who serves only himself or ethnic group, who is a member of the consortium of corruption, should be thrown out so that for once leaders will be accountable to those who elected them. For once we can become deserving beneficiaries of policies that will work to our common good making the economy to grow, creating jobs and reducing criminality. Prosperity will feed on prosperity until we are able to climb out of the deep ditch corrupt politicians dug for us. With our huge population, amazing mineral deposits, vast agricultural potential, Nigeria can within a generation become a first world nation. Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia did it in one generation and none of them has one quarter of our endowments. We too can. Good men in office and good policies are the twins that will bring in investors desirous of tapping into our domestic market on the one hand and as a launch pad for export on the other. Good policies and incentives will compel them to tap into our massive resource base to export significantly value added products such that rules of origin will confer on such products the made in Nigeria tag. That is how employment will be created.  It is in our hands to demand leadership through service and liberate ourselves from the huge prison Nigeria has become. We do not have to wait till the next election. Now is the time to start or remain prisoners in our nation. So help us God!

Okechukwu Peter Nwobu

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