There is urgent need to overhaul the criminal justice system

The recent disclosure that almost 90 per cent of inmates in Nigerian prisons are on the Awaiting Trial (AT) list should be of serious concern to stakeholders in our criminal justice system. Statistics released by the Centre for Crisis Communication (CCC) revealed a breakdown of the percentage of awaiting trial inmates to that of total number of inmates in eight prisons as follows: Ikoyi, 88 per cent; Katsina, 93 per cent; Kano Central, 59 per cent; Umuahia, 96 per cent; Owerri, 93 per cent; Port Harcourt, 89 per cent and Enugu, 85 per cent. This development, according to CCC Executive Secretary, Air Commodore Yusuf Anas (rtd), was indicative of a systemic failure in our criminal justice administration.

Arguing that the unwieldy number of inmates in most of the prisons may be responsible for the recurring jailbreaks in Nigeria, the CCC suggested some practical ways to reduce the number of awaiting trial inmates. Such measures include an overhauling of our criminal justice system as well as “adequate funding of the Nigerian Prisons Service to enable it fortify the prisons with trained personnel and modern facilities that will aid security and surveillance in our prisons”.

While we commend the CCC and call on the authorities to look into their one-year report which deals with several issues of human dignity in Nigeria, what is particularly disturbing about the awaiting trial inmates is that many of them may have spent the equivalent years or even longer time than the period for which they would have been jailed if their cases had been promptly disposed of. But beyond that, the huge gulf between the number of convicted persons and those awaiting trial clearly shows that the machinery of justice dispensation in Nigeria has almost ground to a halt. Clearly, having these individuals languish in prison without any attempt at hearing their cases is a clear violation of their fundamental rights.

While we do not advocate a wholesale release of these detainees, it does not make any sense keeping people behind bars for years in excess of the length of the prison terms they probably would have served had they been tried and convicted. And we are not even talking here of those who may be innocent of the alleged crimes for which they were arrested and put behind bars without trial. Therefore, there is an urgent need for both the federal and state judiciaries to recruit law officers to prosecute these cases.

However, there is a need to look more critically at what may be at the heart of the problem. One area of delay in justice dispensation in our country which usually leads to prisons congestion is the office of the Director of Public Prosecution. It has been established that some DPPs often take long time to assess cases referred to them, and in some instances case files could be misplaced. A former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Dahiru Musdapher, once spoke strongly against these practices which he explained have contributed to the slow dispensation of justice in the country. He said it was inhuman to lock up suspects in prison custody without putting them on trial.

We agreed with Justice Musdapher then and even more so now as we believe that the agony of suspects is needlessly prolonged by not bringing up charges before them in courts so that if convicted they could be jailed accordingly, and if found innocent, they would be released to go home and rebuild their lives. We do not believe that the end of justice is served by keeping accused persons under indefinite incarceration. We therefore call on the relevant authorities across the nation to review the cases of the awaiting trial inmates in our prisons.