July 17 of every year is marked as International Criminal Justice Day world over. It is day and a call to reflect on ongoing efforts to seek justice for serious crimes worldwide. This year has brought significant progress in the fight against impunity in the handling of criminal justice, amidst growing challenges, according to HRW.
Personally, May 8, 2019 remains a day I will forever live to remember, not just because that was the day my liberty as a Nigerian was forcefully taken away from me for no just cause but because it was the day that marked the beginning of my 162-day journey behind bars, a journey that has exposed me to the Nigerian Criminal justice system in no shallow depth.
On that fateful day, I was picked like a terrorist from my base in Port Harcourt after rigorous tracking and searching, using sophisticated technology by the men of the State Investigation Bureau (aka SIB), Kaduna State.
I remember asking one officer in Kaduna; “officer, why is it so difficult for you guys to track and arrest kidnappers and armed terrorists and herdsmen ravaging the state, considering the fact that they use mobile phones for their operations too?” He smiled and said to me, “Steve, you won’t understand, your case is a case of interest. You know in this country some people decide who gets arrested and we officers only work based on instructions given to us. They tell us go, and we go; come, and we come.”
In 162 days I got to understand how bad the criminal justice system is in Nigeria. Permit me to say with a high sense of modesty that I know the depth of rot now like I know the back of my palms: from the police, the courts, especially the Magistrate Courts, to the Prisons (now Correctional Service). This trio that forms the criminal justice architecture is a worse and far more lethal combo than kidnappers and the other ravaging evils we face today. What I mean here is that it will be better for anyone especially ordinary Nigerians to get kidnapped by kidnappers where ransoms will be negotiated, paid and they will be released eventually than to fall in the hands of any of the trio.
Most Nigerian police prosecutors are very corrupt individuals who could change the case of a mobile phone argument to armed robbery; like in the case of Wisdom Felix, a young man I met in jail who was subsequently killed by the prison authorities under very inhumane circumstances.
The magistrate courts oftentimes accept whatever the corrupt police prosecutors say. They frequently send suspects to prison on charges that have nothing to do with what the suspects actually may have committed. This is possible as most suspects appear before the magistrates without lawyer(s) to represent them. The magistrates also, most times, pervert justice and act so unprofessionally that you would wonder if that is what is required by their most revered profession.
Suspects, after being set up by the police prosecutors under the supervision of the magistrates, are then taken to prison (Correctional Service) where the living condition is equivalent to a concentration camp – no thanks to the extremely corrupt prison authorities, health and hygiene are zero; and should an inmate fall sick, the chances of dying are very high.
Then, in some instances, the suspects who are yet to be convicted or sentenced may even get killed by the prison authorities as in the case of the inmates recently killed by officials of the Kaduna Prison in April 2020, an act the prison authorities have been working tirelessly to cover up. Till date there had been no inquest into the killings.
A criminal justice system which allows suspects of minor offenses to stay in prisons and sometime police stations for years longer than the jail term their offenses carry can best be described as a system on a free fall hades. This is the reason 65-70% of inmates across the correctional centres are awaiting trial persons and in most cases some of them don’t even go to court; the prison has become their homes while they continue to pray to God for some miracles. It cannot get any worse!
In all of these, the court which is an integral part of the criminal justice system is chiefly to blame for most of the ills bedeviling the system in Nigeria. The courts are insufficient, at least so it seems, to handle the number of cases springing up on a daily basis while some judges and magistrates on the other hand sometimes needlessly delay cases they ordinarily should dismiss. This is chiefly the reason for the congestion of both our police stations and the so-called correctional centres.
As a matter of necessity, the Judiciary must work out a workable blueprint on how cases should be handled in order that small offences with clear evidences against suspects are resolved, possibly on first appearance in court.
Steven Kefason, Kaduna