Barristers & Solicitors

In a commendable move to aid prison decongestion, Minister of Interior, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, last week announced that the federal government will cover the fines for more than 4,000 inmates, amounting to over N500 million. “As soon as I took office, my first task was to assemble a small committee to assess the conditions of our correctional facilities and the status of the inmates. We discovered that over 4,000 of them remain in custody solely due to their inability to pay fines,” said Tunji-Ojo. He emphasised that the process of prison decongestion involves collaboration across multiple government departments, especially with the Attorney General’s office.   

Tackling such a challenge requires fresh thinking. We therefore agree with the minister on the need for a total reform of criminal justice administration in Nigeria. Despite the high-level rhetoric on prison reforms by successive governments, no concrete actions have been taken to decongest our prisons and ameliorate the inhuman condition under which many prisoners live. According to the Amnesty International report, 65 per cent of the people in our so-called correctional facilities have never been convicted of any crime and mostly poor people. No society can develop with such a system where there are different standards for the poor and the rich in the application of the rule of law.  

The Interior Minister has recognised that his efforts would come to naught without adequate judicial reform aimed at a complete overhauling of the country’s criminal justice system.  The ball is therefore in the court of the Justice Minister and AGF, Lateef Fagbemi, to do the needful. From court clerks who make case files to appear and disappear, to court bailiffs who most often refuse to effect judicial process simply because they were unable to extort money from a litigant or his counsel to lawyers who facilitate some of these unwholesome practices to prison officials who treat prisoners according to the size of their bank balances, justice administration in Nigeria is about class.  

When in 2017 former Adamawa State Governor, James Ngilari, was convicted of abuse of office, the presiding Justice Nathan Musa of the state High Court said that he should be allowed to serve the terms in “any jail in this country of his choice”. Meanwhile, Ngilari was found guilty on all the five counts of conspiracy to award a contract amounting to the tune of N167.8 million for the purchase of operational official vehicles without compliance with due process. In handing down the sentence, the judge must have considered the status of the convict. Unfortunately, there is nothing new in what the judge did. When a former bank chief was convicted and ordered to forfeit almost N200 billion to the federal government after a slap-on-the-wrist sentence of six-month jail term, the trial judge then went on to order that she be allowed to spend the term at a high brow hospital in Lagos. As bizarre as that was, it is the new normal in Nigeria.  

Apart from sending rich and powerful criminal suspects to prison for a few days upon arraignment to await the ruling of trial judges on bail applications, most of the people in prison cells are poor inmates. Indeed, if rich persons are briefly held in prison custody, they are not kept in the general cell but in the ‘White House’, a special cell equipped with luxuries. Alternatively, arrangements are usually made to allow the rich to serve their terms in hospitals outside the precincts of prisons. There are other unwholesome practices.  

As things stand today, all relevant authorities within the judiciary, legislature, police, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and other critical stakeholders must join Tunji-Ojo in finding a framework for necessary reforms of justice administration in Nigeria.