The cruel justice system needs urgent reform

The cruel imprisonment of an innocent man, Maxwell Dele, for 11 years without trial in Lagos State is heartbreaking news that should prick the conscience of all stakeholders in Nigeria’s weakened justice system. Dele’s ordeal, which came to light after his recent release, reveals the precarious state of the justice system and the impunity with which rights are routinely violated in the country.

Dele was rescued thanks to the considerable efforts of Avocats Sans Frontières France. This means that without the intervention of ASF or another international NGO, Dele could very well have died in prison. He suffered from the impunity of the police, who arrested him in a dubious manner in his shop, close to the scene of the crime, in place of his neighbor, declared wanted for armed robbery.

In prison, he was tortured, forced to sign a statement doctored by the police and was charged with the alleged crime of his neighbor: armed robbery. After that, a magistrate’s court in Ikeja remanded him to Kirikiri medium-security detention center. This happened on October 16, 2011. But from then on, he was never brought to trial again for 11 years until his eventual release in May. What insensitivity!

More than a decade of his life has been wasted. It’s horribly inhuman. It shows how in Nigeria, the public institutions created to protect the rights of citizens are often those that restrict them. He deserves, at the very least, adequate compensation.

Unfortunately, Dele is just one case among many. Clinton Kanu, 56, was wrongly accused of murder by police in Imo State; he spent 27 years in prison for an offense he did not commit. Initially accused of stealing a generator and fluorescent tubes, he was later charged with murder, which earned him a death sentence. In criminal cases, the police provided false witnesses to support their claims. Although the Court of Appeal upheld the sentence, the Supreme Court eventually released him. Only released in 2019, while in prison, he lost his mother and his once-thriving business collapsed. His trauma, orchestrated by state agents, is an atrocity that must not go unpunished.

Similarly, in 2017, it took a Federal High Court in Kaduna State to release three people, Idris Abubakar, Anas Abubakar and Aliyu Abubakar, after being arrested and detained by police for 19 months. They were neither brought to justice nor allowed to see their lawyers and relatives. The police had arrested them for alleged theft and after six days of incarceration, had falsely claimed that they were members of the terrorist group Boko Haram. However, the police were unable to produce the incriminated objects which they claimed to have obtained from them. The judge then ordered the police to pay them 2 million naira in damages for violating their basic rights.

In Lagos, a police corporal, Alagbe Olumide, indicted an Ayodimeji Alegbeleye for a murder he never committed at an Ebute Meta Magistrate’s Court in 2013. Police initially claimed that the accused had stabbed and killed a certain James Igbahan, and in their usual style, applied for remand. But based on protests from the defense attorney and questioning by the magistrate, the police investigator confessed that the accused, whom they had found at the crime scene, was only a friend of the real suspect, whom he also admitted to be at large. Questioned by the magistrate, the corporal confessed that his superiors had forced him to charge the innocent man with murder.

This anomaly feeds on wickedness; and on the sloppiness and laziness of police prosecutors, favored by the lack of effective control by the competent judicial authorities. The practice of arresting people and throwing them into cells before rushing to find charges against them is sheer cruelty. It is a flagrant violation of human rights. The judiciary must go beyond the mere award of damages. Police officers at fault should be severely punished for such rights violations and for misleading the court.

Justice shares responsibility. Lagos State Chief Justice Kazeem Alogba revealed in August 2021 that 50% of homicide cases in the state were false charges. He said that “even when these victims are finally acquitted of trumped up charges, no law offers compensation to people like them.” Therefore, verbal reprimand is no longer enough. The courts should go beyond dismissing such cases and provide compelling examples of these errant police officers.

The Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 requires each Chief Magistrate, or any magistrate designated by the Chief Justice, to visit police stations or other detention facilities on a monthly basis. The judicial authorities of the respective States should implement this vigorously. Through this, those wrongfully detained would be detected and released.

This practice contributes to the large number of inmates awaiting trial in correctional centres. The various detention centers and their dilapidated structures across the country are overloaded with a prison population 39.87% higher than their capacity. Built to accommodate 50,083 inmates, the Nigeria Correctional Service revealed in October 2021 that the centers had 70,056 inmates, of whom 50,822 (72.54%) were awaiting trial, and only 19,234 inmates (27.45%) were convicts.

Judges and magistrates must therefore be meticulous. The National Judicial Council and other judicial authorities should give priority to the training and retraining of all magistrates.

Magistrates should stop granting dismissal orders in a frivolous way without sufficiently interrogating the motive and monitoring the implementation. They should go beyond the prosecutor’s narrative and their haste to convict to interrogate the issue.

In the United States and many other countries, where errors in the justice delivery process manifest themselves in wrongful convictions, the system has a way to compensate victims.

Therefore, all victims of illegal raids and abusive incarcerations must be immediately released and compensated. There is also an urgent need for judicial reform to eliminate delays in the justice system. The prerogative of clemency should be regularly invoked by state governors to decongest overcrowded correctional centers.