By Ajuluchukwu Brown
The rising number of pre-trial inmates in the correctional centres poses a huge setback to the Justice system of the country. Awaiting Trial Inmates (ATI) are left to having on to fate as they await a trial that never starts, or when it does, appears endless.
This disturbing trend has dealt a devastating blow to the psychology of families who have their relations held in prison for various offences that could have earned them shorter jail terms.
Bidemi Omolara, a food vendor went emotional narrating her ordeal. She said: “My son is just 19, he visited a friend who stays in Wuse in Abuja. Unfortunately for him, the police raided the vicinity for ‘yahoo boys’ (Internet fraudsters). He was arrested and imprisoned. He has been in the custody of the police since last year. The lawyer handling the case has been going back and forth with it making little progress. I suffer from high blood pressure and depression because of the pain in my heart. This delayed trial is denying the common man the right to Justice. If I was a wealthy woman, I won’t be suffering from this situation. Justice in Nigeria is not designed for the poor.”
Alhassan Nurudeen, an ex-convict, now a cyclist also shared his experience. He said: “I was arrested for robbery. I left Kebbi State for Abuja to find a decent job but on getting here, I couldn’t find any. The pressure to survive made me join a robbery gang disturbing Duste, Abuja. On one of our operations, we were caught and taken straight to Kuje prison. I was later sentenced to five years imprisonment but I spent four years as an awaiting trial inmate.
“Summing up the total years, it was nine years that I wasted. I thank God that when I came out, I was introduced to a non-governmental organisation that empowers ex-convicts like myself. I was trained and given this motorcycle to start up. I thank God for a second chance to do better. Those four years I waited for trial were the most excruciatingly years of my life.”
Another ex-convict, Ikechukwu Odinaka explained that the condition of the prison for awaiting trial inmate is deplorable.
In his words: “I spent two years as an awaiting trial inmate. Honestly, it is not an experience worth remembering as life was at its lowest form behind those huge bars. There are times I wanted to take my own life. The feeling was complex because ones fate had not been decided.
“You were left wondering how long will the wait be? Many fellow inmates ended up dying due to depression. I recall one of the very young inmates who were around 19 or 20. He was crying throughout his stay. We did everything to cheer him up but to no avail. He kept telling us how innocent he was and how unjustly he was imprisoned.
“He only spent three months with us, he died afterwards, possibly owing to the trauma. Many died like that. The Justice system needs to step up. They are the last hope of the common man. I am now a carpenter, fighting hard to regain the life I wasted on crime.”
Felicia Ejiro, a civil servant also shared a sad experience, involving her sickle cell stepbrother who lost his life as an awaiting trial inmate. Narrating, she said: “In 2018, the disbanded Special Anti-robbery Squad (SARS) in Warri, Delta State was uncontrollable. Then, all you needed to do to get arrested, as an Internet fraud suspect was to dress flashy. We received a call that Ovie Ejiro had been arrested. He didn’t face trial as he died on the third year awaiting trial. He was the only male child of his mother. It was too devastating for the mother that she died grieving. “
Reacting to these developments, Dr. Suleiman Barnabas, a psychologist and lecturer at Baze University, lamented the physiological crises that families of these inmates are subjected to.
He said: “Unfortunately, the wheel of justice grinds slowly in our country for the ordinary man. And if it is true that ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’ then the first effect of the prolonged awaiting trial is a feeling of betrayal by the state.
“This breeds frustration and a lack of confidence in the justice system. Also, the inmates and their families would agree with the general belief that money is what gives justice in Nigeria!
“This could result in depression for the inmates and their families, as they begin to reflect on their inability to afford justice because of their social status (lacking the required economic and political resources).”
A senior lecturer at the University of Abuja and the former director, planning and academic matters, law school Abuja, Dr. Mrs Gloria Ibikule, blames the police, the ministry of justice and the judicial system as the enablers of the unending situation. In her words:
“The problem of awaiting trial inmates is because of the failures of the criminal justice system. First, the police don’t do investigations on time. Their investigations are usually delayed. Under the law, the police are the ones constitutionally allowed to investigate and apprehend. Until very recently, based on the case of Osahon v the State, a police constable could undertake prosecution, but the Supreme Court has recently stopped it.
“For very serious cases, the police would send case files to the ministry of justice for legal advice. Sometimes, these files are delayed in the ministry of justice such that the suspects are kept in custody for too long. For capital offences, it is very rare to give bail, so they are reminded in custody almost perpetually.
“Sometimes, it could be as a result of poor prosecution. For instance, it could happen that in the middle of a case, an IPO is transferred, and a new IPO comes to ask for an adjournment because he has to study the case file. Some other times, the witnesses disappear. There are cases when the person who wants to testify is not willing to do so again. All these factors contribute to the delay the trial of a remanded suspect.
“The ministry of justice also has its fault. They sometimes, don’t give legal advice on time. Then there is a problem in the Nigerian criminal justice system called ‘the holding charge’. This is a grievous error in the system. It emanates from cases, which the magistrate courts have no jurisdictional power to try, but still entertain the charge, order for the remand of the suspect on ‘holding charge’ and request that the case file be sent to the office of the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) for advise. It includes cases like murder, treason and treasonable felony. This procedure makes suspects to be kept indefinitely in custody.”
She, however, pointed out that the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, ACJA, which was enacted in 2015 is an attempt to curb issues surrounding the holding charge. According to her, it attempted to reduce the number of days one can be kept in custody under the holding charge to two weeks, adding that the provision has not been of any significant help so far.
“It takes two to tango. Both the magistrate court and the police are responsible for keeping people for a long time before trying them. Under ACJA, the law empowers any magistrate to go on visitation and enquire about the reason cases are not tried, all in the bid to reduce the number of awaiting trial inmates. The question is: is it working? There are tales of police not cooperating with visiting magistrates who want to come and find out what is happening.
“The ACJA empowers magistrates to pay visits to police stations to determine why there are too many people under detention. Sometimes, the correctional facilities do not have vehicles to convey inmates to court. In some cases, if they are lucky to be conveyed to court, that would be the day, a witness will not come or the court will not sit.
“Unfortunately, as of today, the current number of inmates in our correctional centres is about 44, 000. But 67 per cent are awaiting trial inmates, while only about 33 per cent are convicts,” she explained.
Ibikule further stated that there are not enough judicial officers in the system. She also said the judiciary has no standard ICT equipment and stenographers to aid the few judicial officers.
According to her, Lagos State has made a lot of progress in terms of equipment for the judiciary and the courts, but the average court in Nigeria is in a sorry state. Judges, she lamented, still write in long hands, in a modern age. “These judges shouldn’t be writing in long hands, because it takes a longer time and has health complications for sitting too long. In other developed climes like America, judges don’t write at all. Judges just sit and listen. The implication is that when a witness is speaking, he is observing the demeanour.
“A judge who observes very intently like that will come out with a fair judgment, unlike the one who loses concentration when writing as it done in Nigeria,” she stated.
On ways to tackle prison congestion, Ibikule suggested that the provisions of the ACJA as it relates to parole should be adhered to. She also suggested payment of fine for indigent inmates as well as the adoption of probation and other non-custodial sentences in cases of misdemeanours.
The lawyer also called for the adoption of the Ugandan system, which created a constitutional court. She said: “I have always believed that Nigeria should copy the Ugandan justice system. The Ugandan system has a constitutional court. Politicians are part of the problem, they clog the Supreme Court docket with their many cases, and these cases are given priority over other important cases of the ordinary citizens.
“In Uganda, they have a constitutional court, and all politically related cases and cases involving the interpretation of the Constitution are handled by the Constitutional Court. It is high time Nigeria followed that route so that the Supreme Court will handle matters that affect ordinary Nigerians. We have also suggested that we should have special courts that will handle cases like terrorism, kidnapping, rape, armed robbery and sexual offences. This will enable the regular courts concentrate on normal criminal matters.”