Minister of Interior, Comrade Abba Moro
By Senator Iroegbu and Damilola Oyedele
The prisoners transfer programme entered into between Nigeria and United Kingdom may have suffered a hitch following the domestic laws in the countries involved, which oppose forceful repatriation, and the issue of getting the consent of the prisoners involved in the transfer.
It was gathered that of the 571 Nigerians serving in prisons in the UK at present, only 40 of them are said to have agreed to return home to serve out the remainder of their sentences.
One prisoner was repatriated to Nigeria in May this year from the UK and is serving out his term at an undisclosed prison in the country.
However, according to THISDAY investigations, the larger majority are stalling the transfer as they know their repatriation home to serve out their jail term could not be effected without their consent.
The 1963 Prisons Act would have to be amended to pave way for the transfer by removing the issue of consent. An amendment to that effect is already pending before the National Assembly.
At least 350 of the 571 Nigerian prisoners in UK jails, it is learnt, will be eligible for the transfer without consent return to Nigeria when the amendment is passed into law.
To pave the ground for the prisoners’ return to their home countries, the UK government established a 3 million UK pound annual fund to rehabilitate prisons in such countries.
Authorities at the UK High Commission in Nigeria told THISDAY at the weekend that Britain has already spent £500,000 to train prison guards and to fund an ongoing prison officer exchange programme.
It was learnt that an extra wing is also being built at the Kirikiri Prisons in Lagos. Part of the fund is going into the construction of a guard tower for the extra wing after officials discovered that the building was not being used.
The Minister of Interior, Comrade Abba Moro, said the prisoners’ exchange policy signed with UK and other world countries was not effective as a result of some factors, which included the domestic laws in those countries opposing forceful repatriation, the issue of prisoners’ consent, unwillingness of Nigerian prisoners abroad to serve in prisons at home and the obsolete 1963 Prisons Act.
He said the act was inimical to any meaningful reform of the prison system.
The minister told THISDAY that, “Nigeria has bilateral agreement with the UK government and other European Union (EU) governments as well, and one of them is the transfer of some of these prisoners to Nigeria to serve out their terms while the foreign prisoners will be sent to back to their respective countries.
“However, the complication is that there are obvious clauses from the domestic laws of these countries which make it difficult for the exchange programme to be effectively applied and allow those prisoners to return home.”
He added: “On the part of Nigeria also is the issue of prisoners’ consent whereby the prisoners’ are required to agree and give their consent before they can be successfully transferred back home.
“But the most important factor that is inimical to the recent prisons reforms is the 1963 Prisons Act, which has been sent to the National Assembly for amendment. The process has gone a long way and has gone through the second reading and we believe that if this Act is repealed it will go a long way to bring the positive changes we desire”.
“Nigeria has no objection with the prisoners coming back home but it must be on mutual agreement with the other countries,” he insisted.
Moro bemoaned the poor conditions of Nigerian prisons and insisted that urgent reforms is needed including rapid judicial process and speedy amendment of the 1963 Prisons Act in order to bring it at par with global standards and encourage the ongoing prisoners’ exchange with other countries.
Also speaking with THISDAY in Abuja, the Head of the Political Section of the British High Commission, Mr. Paul Edwards, lamented about the law in Nigeria that inhibits prisoners’ transfer.
He said: “At the moment the law in Nigeria says that prisoners can be brought home only if they (the prisoners) agree, so the Nigerian and the British governments may want their prisoners to return home, if the Nigerian prisoner says no, we cannot force it, we cannot make it happen. We think that is wrong, we think that if both governments want this to happen, it is not for the prisoner to decide whether it happens or not, or where to serve the sentence.”
Edwards said it makes more sense for a prisoner to serve out his sentence in his home country where he has a family support structure.
He, however, reiterated that UK demands that prisoners be transferred to prisons that meet human rights standards where the rights of the prisoners would be respected. This, he said, informed the decision to budget funds for prison rehabilitation and prison officers’ training program.
“Some of the works we have been doing is to ensure that there are prisons where their human rights would be respected,” he said.
Edwards said under the Prisoners Transfer Agreement (PTA), Britain had budgeted to spend an additional £1 million.
Eligibility is determined by the seriousness of the offence for which a person has been jailed and the amount of time he has left on his sentence.
Those exempted from the PTA are Nigerians with British citizenship, Nigerians who have a permanent residence status in the UK, and those convicted for small crimes such as parking ticket fines.
He could not confirm if there are any British prisoners in Nigeria jails, but if there are, the same rules would apply, he said adding that it would not be the choice of the prisoner to make.
“We are working to correctly document the other prisoners who have expressed an interest, but this takes time for the process to be complete. All we can say is with the assistance of the Nigerian authorities, we expect the other prisoners who have said they wish to serve out their sentences in Nigeria to be transferred in the next few weeks and months,” he said.
On whether convicted Nigerians who serve out their sentence here would be allowed to enter the UK again, Edwards said, “We have visa rules which say persons entering must not be against the good of the UK. They have already come to the UK and committed a criminal offence, so we would have to consider whether they would do that again.”
He also addressed the controversy, which has led to speculations that Nigeria seeks to revamp the moribund agreement so as to get convicted former governor of Delta State, James Ibori, to return home.
Dispelling the speculation, he noted that the PTA has been in existence long before the high-profile Ibori saga, which he said was a long and expensive trial.
He added that every application for the PTA by any prisoner would be assessed based on merit, on whether justice would be done, whether the exchange is the right thing for the prisoner and other considerations.
“We have to get assurances that they would serve out their sentences when they would return because they have committed crimes against the UK, so we have to make sure justice is done. So it is not as simple as putting them on a plane, they land in Lagos and then we do not care what happens to them,” he said.