Nigerian prisoners serving time in the UK may be deported home to finish their sentences in a new 112 bed wing of the Kirikiri prison complex in Lagos. The UK government plans to construct the wing at a cost of N299.6 million (£700,000).
The March 2018 announcement of the plan triggered debate in Nigeria on the poor state of the country’s prisons.
An editorial in ThisDay newspaper pointed to the “gross over-population of Nigerian prisons”. According to “many Amnesty International reports”, it claimed, “about 70% of the people in Nigerian prisons have never been convicted of any crime”.
The newspaper has not replied to Africa Check’s request for the exact source of the statistic. Is it correct that unconvicted inmates make up 70% of Nigeria’s prison population?
More than 49,000 inmates awaiting trial
Nigerian Prisons Service statistics show the country’s prisons held 72,277 people as of 16 April 2018.
Of these, only 23,048 were convicted prisoners. The remaining 49,229 – 68.1% of the prison population were awaiting trial.
Prisons service spokesperson Francis Enobore told Africa Check that they attempt to help pre-trial detainees “access justice as quickly as possible”. But the situation that awaiting trial prisoners outnumber convicted inmates in Nigeria isn’t new. World Prison Brief numbers show that the proportion of awaiting trial inmates in Nigeria’s prisons has fluctuated between 63% and 74% since 2000.
The brief is compiled by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at the University of London. Its information comes from government and other official sources and is published every month.
However, Enobore couldn’t say how many of the awaiting trial inmates hadn’t been convicted “of any crime” before.
“We don’t have such data,” he said. “Sometimes, we are able to identify some persons who are coming to prison for the second, third or fourth time for different crimes. Some of them confess at the point of documentation that they have been convicted before and served jail term or paid a fine.”
Poor investigations & lack of IT delay cases
When it comes to trials, backlogs often start with the investigation, Lagos based lawyer Monday Ubani told Africa Check.
If law enforcement “has not done a good job with regards to investigation”, he said, “it begins to play out during trial”.
“Secondly, the court is congested with cases. Information technology application is almost zero. The judges and magistrates take evidence in handwriting. You can imagine how much they have to write down in a day. This prolongs trials.”
The lawyer, former head of a chapter of the bar association, said “very harsh and burdensome” bail conditions were another reason for the large number of awaiting trial prisoners in Nigeria’s jails.
New law to speed up trials
In 2015 Nigeria passed a new law, the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, to speed up trials.
“The new law, among other things, disallows appeals on interlocutory matters,” Ubani said. These include whether a court has jurisdiction to hear a case. It also “limits the number of adjournments, and stipulates that a trial should run from day to day” as much as possible.
But the new law is yet to reduce the number of awaiting trial inmates, another lawyer, Malachy Ugwummadu, told Africa Check. He is president of Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, a civil society organisation that works to protect the rights of Nigerians, especially detainees.
“We, law practitioners and civil society, have started witness improvements in the system,” Ugwummadu said. “We expect that it will get better with time, as the judges get a better grasp of the law.”
Conclusion: No data available on ex-convicts awaiting trial
Figures from the Nigerian Prisons Service shows that two-thirds of inmates still need to be tried. Reasons offered include shoddy investigations, court congestion and strict bail conditions.
Although a new law has been passed to speed up trails, it is still to bring down the number of awaiting trial inmates.
The prisons service doesn’t have data on how many of these people have been found guilty of another crime before. The claim that “about 70% of the people in Nigerian prisons have never been convicted of any crime” is therefore unproven.