In October 2018, Samson Udeh was buying Garri, a staple food in a crowded market in Lagos, Nigeria, when he was arrested by two officers and pushed into the back of a police car. Udeh, a meat griller in his early 20s, said officials identified himself as a member of the anti-cult unit and accused him of being a cultist.
“They didn’t wear a uniform and insisted that I was a suspected sect because I had dreadlocks at the time. I told them what I do for a living and said I didn’t do anything wrong, but they put me in the back of their van, ”he told Mail & Guardian.
He said he was held in a cell and did not have access to a phone call until the third day of his arrest. It was not until the 10th day that Udeh was charged in court with alleged sectarianism. His bail, which he could not afford, was set at 5,000 naira (about $ 13).
“So I found myself in Ikoyi Prison. There was no one to pay the bail for me, ”he said.
Udeh was detained for three months without trial because he could not meet his bail obligations and had no legal counsel.
The M&G presented Udeh’s allegations to the Lagos State Police Command. Police spokesman Muyiwa Adejobi said the police could not take responsibility for what happened to him. The judge who ordered Udeh’s pre-trial detention is responsible, not the police.
Adejobi also insisted that the police officers who arrested Udeh had credible evidence prior to arrest. He did not respond to the evidence. “Since the case went to court, the police cannot be charged with arrest again. If we [the police] didn’t have credible evidence, we did [couldn’t] prosecute him. “
Udeh’s case is far from unique. In Nigeria, detainees on remand like Udeh make up 72.8% of the country’s prison inmates, according to a report in the World Prison Brief.
In addition, of 65,465 inmates in correctional facilities across the country, 48,034 are still awaiting trial, according to the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS).
Difficult deposit conditions
Under Section 35 of the Nigerian Constitution, anyone arrested by the police must be formally charged within 48 hours, and those charged with minor offenses must be tried within two months.
But Oluyemi Adetiba-Orija, a Lagos-based criminal defense attorney, said the law isn’t enforced often, leaving people in jail longer than required – sometimes for crimes they didn’t commit.
Adetiba-Orija runs the Headfort Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides free legal advice to underage offenders with no legal representation in the country.
The 32-year-old told M&G that people are being held in jail for long periods of time because they cannot meet their bail conditions.
“Small crimes can be bailed, but the conditions for bail are sometimes too strict for the accused to fulfill. In a high court, for example, for bail, it will find that two people should stand for one person; one of them, a level 14 civil servant. Another person should be a property owner with proof of tax payment. So imagine someone who doesn’t have a clerk in their parentage – there’s no way they’ll be bail, ”she added.
According to a 2018 survey by the NGO Prawa, most prison inmates have no formal education or the ability to pay bail, as 76% of them were living on less than 46,000 naira (about US $ 128) a month before they were arrested.
Abuja attorney Yusuf Mahmud told M&G that people without legal counsel are more likely to stay in prison longer because they don’t understand the law.
“If a person has legal counsel, he or she will be better off on how to take bail. Some people don’t even know they have that right, and if you don’t know your offense is bail, you can’t enforce it, ”he said.
Yusuf is a program manager at the Network of University Legal Aid Institutions (Nulai), an NGO that promotes legal education in the country.
The organization also operates investigative clinics that offer free legal representation to underage offenders.
Representing underage offenders
Organizations such as Nulai and the Headfort Foundation provide legal assistance to those arrested or charged with non-capitalist offenses such as shoplifting and wandering the country.
Adetiba-Orija has a four-person lawyer and litigation team that goes to prisons to find inmates like Udeh who have been detained longer than the law requires because they cannot bail.
She said the Headfort Foundation has provided free legal assistance to more than 125 people charged with minor offenses at Ikoyi Prison since it opened in June 2018.
“When we go to jail, the prison guards will tell inmates that pro bono lawyers will be around and let them talk to us about their case. We usually select around 30 cases per visit, ”said Adetiba-Orija.
She said her team is focused on underage offenders as capital crimes take longer to resolve in court.
Udeh’s case was picked up during a visit by her team in December 2018.
Found not guilty of sectarianism as the police were unable to produce evidence against him, he was released in December 2018 in the Ogudu District Court in Lagos.
Similarly, Nulai provides a wide range of legal services, including identifying detainees on remand in 21 prisons in 13 states in Nigeria and working to get some of them out of prison.
“We have teamed up with the Nigerian Correctional Service so we can go to prisons near our legal clinics and interview inmates. We started the pre-negotiation component in 2005, ”said Yusuf.
He added that the organization has so far represented 785 offenders, of whom 415 have been acquitted by the courts.
Arrests by the police
The Nigerian police are complicit to some extent in keeping people in prison longer than necessary, Adetiba-Orija said.
She said the police arbitrarily took people off the street, threw them in jail, and charged them with the crimes without evidence.
“If the police don’t come to pick you up during their raids, you won’t end up in jail in the first place. In more sane climes no one will arrest you unless they have evidence of what they are accusing you of, ”she added.
Adejobi, the police spokesman, said detainees on remand are outside of the police’s remit. In his opinion, the police should not be accused of helping prison numbers as only one judge or judge is authorized to send a person to prison.
But in the past organizations like Amnesty International have accused the Nigerian police of arresting and torturing people without evidence.
According to a 2016 Amnesty report, Nigeria’s now-defunct Special Anti-Raubery Squad often picked up people from the streets to extort bribes and false confessions from them.
The rights group also said it had documented 82 cases of police brutality in the country between 2017 and 2020.
In October 2020, the Nigerian police came under fire from local demonstrators for these reasons.
One of the far-reaching effects of unlawful arrests or longer-than-required detention is that they contribute to overcrowding, according to a 2019 report from the Asylum Research Center.
The report found that because too many people are housed in federal prisons across the country, resources like toilets are inadequate and there is not enough food to feed the number of people held in these facilities.
Udeh, who spent three months in Ikoyi Prison in Lagos, said the living conditions were “a terrible experience”.
According to him, the food was poorly prepared and the prison was overloaded. “We were more than 300 in one cell: it was like packing fish in a can of tuna. There was no place; the water was bad; the food was bad, ”he said.
The NCS, formerly known as the Nigerian Prison Service, told M&G that the government was working hard to improve prison overcrowding.
Chris Njoku, the NCS spokesman, said the government is currently building new correctional facilities with a capacity of 3,000 in three different regions of the country.
“Many of the current prisons have no land or room to expand. Because of this, the government is proactive in creating new centers to address overcrowding, ”he said.
Njoku also insisted that the food supplies in the prisons are decent and that contractors deliver food to each correctional facility every three months.