A situation where 70 percent of inmates in Nigerian prisons are awaiting trial is a sad commentary on Nigeria’s criminal justice system. Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice] Abubakar Malami (SAN) recently decried this situation and called for urgent action to ameliorate it. He said most of the inmates are young Nigerians who are being held because they cannot afford to pay the meagre fines as alternative to prison. Many of them were convicted for crimes such as stealing of onions and mobile handsets.
Malami spoke during a visit by the Presidential Committee on Prison Reform and Decongestion to Birnin Kebbi Prisons in Kebbi State. He said the committee will pay the fines of some inmates and also review cases of inmates that have been awaiting trial for more than five years. Nigeria, he said, “cannot continue to overlook the need for non-custodial measures in the judicial system.” According to him, such measures including community service orders and probation are provided for in the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015.
Chairman of the committee and Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory [FCT] Justice Ishaq Bello, on his part, advised magistrates to be careful with the kind of remand orders they issue, adding that “as heads of courts, they must know what those under them are doing because a lot of prison inmates have no reason to be there.”
The federal government had earlier this year inaugurated the Presidential Advisory Committee on Prerogative of Mercy with the task of assisting the President to discharge his constitutional responsibility of granting pardon to inmates, ex-convicts and decongesting prisons nationwide. The committee, which has a four-year tenure, was reconstituted on June 19, 2018 to discharge the prerogative of mercy as enshrined in section 175 of the 1999 Constitution.
Back in 2013, the then Minister of Interior, Abba Moro, inaugurated an inter-ministerial committee on decongestion of prisons nationwide. The committee was asked to articulate short, medium and long-term solutions to the problem of awaiting trial persons. As at then, statistics from the Nigeria Prisons Service showed that of the country’s 41,524 prisoners, 29,372 were awaiting trial. Till date, this committee’s report has not been made public.
President Muhammadu Buhari once described congestion in Nigerian prisons as a national scandal. He spoke in October 2017 when a delegation of Supreme Court and Appeal Court justices visited him at State House, Abuja. As a major cause of prison congestion in the country, elongated period spent by inmates while awaiting trial is a long-standing crisis within the criminal justice system in Nigeria. Transfer of prosecuting police officer, loss of case file, unnecessary application for adjournment by lawyers, lack of vehicle to transport inmates on days fixed for hearing and absence of witnesses in courts are some of the factors responsible for most of the long periods spent by inmates awaiting trial. Besides, the state of most prisons in the country impacts adversely on the human rights of inmates. Some of them also get hardened when they are kept together with violent criminals. The country has equally suffered jail breaks as a result of prison congestion.
As once advocated by AGF Malami, courts could be set up inside prisons to fast-track decongestion. Appellate courts must also make sure that the ACJA 2015 works well; ensuring that the sections that prohibit interlocutory appeals are complied with.
The implementation of the ACJA 2015 which implementation has not been encouraging must be improved upon. Funding is required for witness support and employment of probation officers with regards to the Act’s non-custodial sentencing provisions. Some cases are lost in court because the witnesses involved cannot appear due to financial constraints.
While we urge Justice Ishaq Bello’s committee to make its visit to prisons more regular, we encourage the effective use of non-custodial measures contained in the ACJA 2015. Prison decongestion in Nigeria is long overdue.