DPA STUDIES THE TYPE OF PEOPLE IN NIGERIAN PRISONS, AND WHY
Nothing shows you the failure of the Nigerian judicial system better than looking at the prison population. Take note of the following facts and figures:
(1) Out of every 10 people in Nigerian prisons, 8 have not been tried. That is 80%. It means that an overwhelming majority of prison inmates in Nigeria are innocent. The constitution presumes them innocent, and if so, why are they in prison? This statistic is something so easy to measure because every prison in Nigeria displays on a notice board behind the front desk: (a) the total number of inmates in the facility, (b) the number of convicted inmates and (c) the number of inmates that have not been tried and convicted. So, in less than one minute of arriving at the front desk of any Nigerian prison any visitor can confirm the statistics.
(2) Nigerian judiciary spends substantial resources in election petition cases, which is the main type of case that receive priority attention. The election cases are also the quickest means of judges enriching themselves and the judges clamour to hear election cases. During the season of election cases, these judges abandon other cases for months. Many innocent people locked up in prisons awaiting trial would lose months and more than a year sitting in prison and waiting for these judges to come back from their election cases.
(3) The Nigerian judges are able to achieve this extraordinary feat of congesting our prisons with innocent people simply because they totally ignore the constitutional right to bail which is anchored on the principle of presumption of innocence.
Let’s be clear on one thing, and we hope that lawyers are reading this: a judge does not have any discretion over whether to grant bail or not. What he has discretion over is what conditions of bail he should impose. Every concern that a judge may have about granting an accused person bail is adequately catered for by the judge’s discretion to impose conditions of bail, the power to revoke bail and the power to hold a party in contempt if he violates an order of the court. So, there is neither the power nor need for a judge to deny an accused person bail. To do so will violate the clear constitutional provision that presumes a person innocent until convicted.
There are so many problems that emanate from massive denial of bail to accused person’s.
(i) First, it gives anybody who can file a charge (mostly the police) the power to keep anybody in prison at will. Indeed, the court is there to prevent just that and the only way to do that is through the recognition of the presumption of innocence, through bail.
(ii) By simply denying bail automatically, a lazy and incompetent judge escapes accountability. When a judge throws an accused person into prison by unlawful denial of bail, she favors the prosecutor, which is often the party with the means of questioning any wrongful conduct of the judge. The judge then becomes complicit in whatever scheme the prosecutor has, and as an ally of the prosecutor, the judge has no need to work hard. The goal of the civil society is thus on how to impose accountability on the judges.
(iii) The unlawful denial of bail is only the first step in dudging accountability. By keeping an innocent person in prison for years, often longer than the jail term prescribed for the offence, the judge places himself under pressure to convict the accused irrespective of the evidence. To acquit him will raise questions about the years he spent in prison. But if convicted and sentenced to time already served, the judge tries to escape from any question about the unlawful denial of bail. But even when a person is eventually convicted, it doesn’t make lawful an unlawful denial of bail.
(4) Criminal trials in Nigeria lasts for years mainly because of incompetence of judges and inefficiencies in judicial system. The recent changes in criminal procedure laws were intended to correct this. But that effort failed flat because it failed to address certain fundamental causes of delay. So, when charged with a crime in Nigeria and he is denied bail, an accused is under tremendous pressure to plead guilty regardless of the fact that he is innocent. This is because denial of bail amounts to a conviction, and that is a conviction without trial.
Nigeria is a country where an innocent man is happy to be convicted. It is dangerous and painful to remain innocent.
DPA shall be carrying out a study and research into this extremely unusual phenomenon in the administration of criminal justice in Nigeria. We shall be commissioning DPA members as Research Associates. It will be a paid assignment. The research will be jointly sponsored by DPA and ECULAW Institute. Each Research Associate shall start with a visit to the prison assigned to him or her, and confirm basic statistics of the inmates demography. The Research Associate does not need to be a lawyer. Any graduate or advanced diploma holder can do a good job.
This study is part of a grand initiative to transform our judicial system and the administration of criminal justice in Nigeria. Other aspects of the study to come later will focus on how judges are hired, paid and promoted and matters of judicial ethics. It is in the interest of everybody to get this right. Otherwise, you will continue to have situations where the executive arm of government intervenes to control abuses in the judiciary and in the process rob Peter to pay Paul, because it imposes executive abuse and corruption over judicial abuse and corruption.
DPA is happy to be sponsoring this kind of research at this time.
DISCLAIMER: This study has nothing to do with the fact that an Abuja FCT High Court recently denied the DPA Founder bail. It is to be noted that in the past 12 months, 5 other courts in Abuja granted him bail over the same kind of charges. So, his experience with one court is not a sufficient motivation for this study.