Like many happenings in the polity with human angle side to it, the recent “suicide” of Mr Wasiu Alowonle may not receive adequate attention and soon will fade out of our collective consciousness. But the stain on our society which paid lip-service to upholding rule of law cannot be over emphasized. The report has it that last Tuesday, while in court to continue proceedings in his criminal case for a charge of conversion of a sum of N40,000; Wasiu leaped from the third floor of the Samuel Ilori Lagos State Magistrate Court House located at Ogba, apparently in frustration about his travails having been remanded in custody for about six months. Let that sink in: conversion; N40, 000; remanded; six months; suicide.
“Crime attracts morbid fascination;” says Bob Osamor in the Preface to his highly recommended text book for students at the Nigerian Law School “Criminal Procedure Laws & Litigation Practice”. “… people are often riveted by tales of criminalities that they are distracted from the substance and, therefore, fail to appreciate the essence of criminal procedure law” the author concluded. It is the same failure both by every one of us and especially operators of the criminal justice system that has now driven Citizen Wasiu to his apparent suicide.
By the Constitution, one of the bundles of rights under the fundamental right to fair hearing is that an accused person has in his favour, a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The corollary to this right is that pending the hearing and determination of the charge(s) against him, an accused is entitled to be granted bail.
Bail, by the governing considerations for its grant, is to set the accused at liberty pending the conclusion of his trial. The nature and gravity of the offence, the criminal antecedents of the accused; and the likelihood of the accused interfering with the course of justice are crucial factors. In Citizen Wasiu’s case; the charge against him, even if he had pleaded guilty upon his arraignment, would not have merited a prison term of up to the six months he had been remanded. Therefore, on this consideration alone, why the accused had been in custody before his decision to commit suicide is enough to cause outrage in every sane person. Similarly, the deceased was reported to be an artisan and the allegation against him leading to the charge was that the complainant gave him a job which he was unable to finish as per schedule. Thus, the deceased was not known to have criminal antecedents that could have played a role in his bail and continuous remand. Lastly, the report equally indicated that the complainant had informed the police prosecutor that he would negotiate an out of court settlement with the accused: in between, it is likely that involving the police was merely intended to “harass” the deceased but in a twist of fate, the consequence is a suicide committed within the premises of the court. Extreme and unusual the case might be, there are many cases similar to Citizen Wasiu, and the pity is anyone of us could have the criminal justice system deployed against them in the same way.
Imagine that probably Citizen Wasiu had never before the sad incident had a brush with the law, not to talk of spending months in prison custody. Imagine that the deceased had a young family and dependants that he felt he had let down for the period of his incarceration. Imagine that while remanded, he had suffered physical and emotional abuse in the hands of “landlord” inmates who had been remanded and awaiting trial for more heinous crimes like murder or armed robberies. Imagine that he had suffered similar humiliation in the hands of rogue prison warders. Imagine that Citizen Wasiu, prior to his travails, had propensity for a wide spectrum of mental disorder or depression or anxiety. Just imagine the desperation that N40, 000 worth of money received on a job order from a client – the complainant, had caused him his liberty and the future yet unknown. And imagine that all these happened in a society which professed the rule of law.
The implication of the suicide should not be lost on us all. Criminal justice is intended to assert the society’s collective resolve to ensuring that citizens abide by the dictates of the criminal statutes. As the cliche goes, “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime”. Sadly, it appears that applies to only the common man in Nigeria.
The laid down procedure for processing bail for citizens navigating the criminal justice system, most especially those in the lower class in the society, more often than not, results into long lasting emotional damage. Hardly do accused persons have the opportunity to perfect bail same day when granted, when of course arraignment, especially by the police at the inferior courts, are usually targeted for later in the day when the courts have just an hour or two to close of business, or especially on Fridays to ensure that by all means the accused spends the weekend in prison custody. And most bail conditions give room for racketeering by the ubiquitous “charge and bail” elements of the legal profession who work in active connivance with the police and the court officials.
To round up taking Citizen Wasiu case to drive the point home, why in the world should a citizen be on remand and unable to perfect bail for an offence which punishment might not even be up to six months upon conviction? Why did the magistrate fail to observe this anomaly? Why did his trial for such a paltry sum lasted that long? These are questions that should prick our collective conscience. It is only hoped that this sad episode spurs us into action to having the bail system overhauled for the better.
Ajadi is a senior associate at Wale Taiwo & Co, Magodo GRA Phase II, Lagos. firstname.lastname@example.org