When President Muhammadu Buhari hosted a delegation of the judicial arm of government led by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, at the Presidential Villa, Abuja on October 6 last year, he decried the state of the nation’s prisons, noting that it was a national scandal that many prisons were overcrowded by 90 per cent. Exactly two months later in Kano, precisely on December 6, 2017, the President reaffirmed that prison reforms and decongestion would be pursued with greater vigour by his administration.
President Buhari, at a ceremony in Kurmawa Central Prison Kano lamented that some of the freed inmates were too young to be in jail. He urged prison authorities to make every effort to make better citizens of prisoners. He pledged that prisons reforms and decongestion would continue to receive prompt attention from his administration.
Corroborating the president’s observation, the Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS) on December 15, 2017 noted that 66 per cent of inmates in Nigerian prisons were awaiting trial. This gives credence to the assertion that Nigeria is a country where people hardly go to jail for their crimes. At the quarterly meeting of the Penal Reform Media Network (PERMNET) in Lagos, the controller general of the NPS, Jaafaru Ahmed, put the total number of inmates of Nigerian prisons at 72,384, with 48,527 of them awaiting trial. He called for synergy among the three arms of the criminal justice system – the police, judiciary and prison – so that the case of anyone brought to prison as awaiting trial inmate would be determined as quickly as possible.
The figures released by the NPS have also become a subject of worry, not only to us, but to most Nigerians who cannot understand why there are few prisoners in the face of many crimes. The common conclusion is that Nigeria’s prison population is largely disproportionate to its 198 million population. Our submission is that if the country has a total of 72,384 inmates in prisons and 48,527 are awaiting trial, it means that only about 20,857 have actually been convicted by the courts, as those awaiting trial cannot be considered convicted and could indeed be set free by the courts.
NPS’ figures were corroborated by the Centre for Crisis Communication (CCC), which in a recent report disclosed that over 70 per cent of Nigerians in prison custody are awaiting trial, while inmates, whose cases had been concluded and convicted for various offences, comprise a mere 20 per cent.
With a total of 240 holding facilities, including maximum, medium security prisons, satellite prisons, borstal institutions for juveniles, farm centres, open prison camps and female prisons being operated by the NPS, the country’s huge population figure, coupled with the rather high incidence of crime, make the figure a definitely confounding one for those who see Nigeria as a country where people do not go to jail.
For instance, South Africa, with a population of 56 million, has a prison population of 162,000 and the United States, with a population of 323 million, has a prison population of 2,194,000. While Brazil has a population of about 211 million people and 372,000 prison inmates, the United Kingdom has a population of 66 million and prison inmates figure of about 89,000. From these figures, analysts believe that Nigeria, with much higher crime level is grossly under-prison – populated. To them, even a 500,000 prison population is insufficient given the high rate of crimes in the country.
Another damning finding, according to observers, is the category of people in detention. While in most of the countries mentioned above, both the mighty and lowly are serving prison terms, only the poor are in Nigerian prisons. In Nigeria, the rich have devised means to avoid being jailed for crimes they commit. For instance, from 2007 till date, anti-graft agencies in the country have arraigned no fewer than 60 high-profile public officers but are yet to get any of them convicted.
Since the figures of the current prison population were released by both the NPS and the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), it is curious how a country with so much impunity, murder and other forms of criminality would have just 17,000 people in prison when other countries with lower crime rates have many more people in prison.
The reason may not be hard to figure out. Though there is no dearth of laws in the country, the rich often use their means to frustrate their trial. To us, it is disturbing that people who commit murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, robbery, theft of public funds and those who commit financial fraud are allowed to freely walk the streets when they are supposed to be behind bars.
It was to enhance justice delivery system that informed the passage of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act in 2015. Three years after, there hasn’t been any improvement in the country’s justice sector.
It is our view that the seemingly increasing prevalence of mob justice in the country is one of the key consequences of failures within the Nigerian criminal justice system and a grave warning to the managers of governance spaces in Nigeria about the gradual unraveling of social order and an unmistakable low public confidence in the capacity of the security services and the courts to fairly and independently punish crime. The problems of criminal justice system in Nigeria is represented and manifested at every processing point of the entire criminal justice line. Therefore, stopping this national descent will take more than the passage of a bill as nothing short of a holistic and cross-cutting reform will save the system.
We believe that resolving these identified blights in the Nigerian Criminal Justice architecture would involve the collaborative efforts of all tiers of governments in Nigeria as well as all stakeholders in governance. However, the political elite have benefited from the problems in the administration of criminal justice by exploiting weaknesses in the system to delay or frustrate their trials. Can this same group be trusted to superintend over a sectorial reform that will substantially weaken their hold? In our considered view, the level of political will in President Buhari to determinedly see through his promise in this sector will answer this question.
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