It was my second visit to the Nigerian Prisons, on a trip with Equity Chambers, OAU to the Ife medium security prison. We had paid a similar visit to the Ilesha medium security Prison in 2010 with virtually similar experiences. The religious fervor with which the entry gates are locked the instant you step inside the facility prompts a message within: “the occupants of this house cannot afford luxuries, neither of time nor of space”. Walking past the poorly ventilated cubicles crowded with dry-eyed inmates, silent prayers against every plan of the enemy screen in the recess of one’s mind up until you come to the reality that many of the occupants of the facility could also pray, they just probably could not pay enough.
In Nigeria, being poor is akin to carrying an insignia, a dehumanizing stamp that entitles you to the worst of treatments wherever money speaks – be it in school, market, hospital or even the court – and money happens to speak everywhere. Statistics from global institutions state that 70% of Nigerians live on less than a dollar (i.e. less than N155) a day and we often fail to see that those statistics refer to fellow citizens, perhaps our neighbors even if we claim to be exempted. It is this alarming poverty that yields increasing rates of crime of which cyber-crimes, stealing and armed robbery are a few; crimes that seem to be the exclusive preserve of the very poor, being some of the very few things they can comfortably afford with desperation. Just like in Ilesha, over sixty-five percent (65%) of the Ife prison inmates are awaiting trial and many of them are being held for stealing, armed robbery and related offences. At least eighty-percent (90%) of that figure come from very poor backgrounds, which indirectly translates to their inability to afford quality legal representation that in turn, aside other factors, helps to keep them perpetually awaiting trials that seem to take eternity to come.
The preamble to the 1999 Nigerian constitution says that the document exists to promote the good government and welfare of all persons in Nigeria. Sections 16 and 17 of the same constitution direct the state to ensure the best welfare for all citizens and guarantee equal opportunities before the law but not only have they turned out to be chimerical in the context of the Nigerian reality, section 6(6)(c) of the very same document declares those directives non-justiciable thus erasing any hopes of moving the court to compel government to empower people, under those provisions. It then becomes clear that as long as the nation exists, there will continue to be a class system and with a very wide gulf between the rich and the poor. One of such indices is the (in)ability to procure justice. We need not delude ourselves to think the cliché that “the court is the last hope of the common man” is literally true, for in the face of mounting lawyer’s and mandatory filing fees, the court is in no way the poor man’s sanctuary.
As we rounded off an emotion-laden interactive session with the inmates at the Ife prison, one of them who had been awaiting trial for an upward of three years made a profound statement thus “Please look at all of us (the inmates), there is not a single ‘rich-man’s kid’ here!” His words oozed of sentiments but they bore some factual truth to some degree. You may then wonder if the rich never commit crimes or if their cases are treated differently and there lies your answer. The poor commit crimes against the rich and even against fellow impoverished souls to make ends meet, and when the decidedly (especially in the poor man’s case) long arm of the law catches up with him, he is not in any way spared. He is taken through protracted trials, his files await advice from the DPP – Department of Public Prosecution – for eternity, he is denied of a chance at plea bargaining and then most likely convicted and shipped off to a worse experience in overstretched prison facilities. The rich on the other hand is better placed in positions where he can rob the future of three unborn generations of the poor, be treated as a king in the course of a supposed trial, and given the chance to bargain for a lighter sentence which he can then spend in five-star hospitals. It would only take a few months before he returns with pomp and pageantry to enjoy his vastly untouched loot, a free man.
As far as Nigeria is concerned, Articles 3 and 7 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right ratified in Nigeria by an Act in 2004, are not immediately applicable where the poor is in view. Article 3(2) states that “every individual shall be entitled to equal protection of the law” while Article 7(1) provides that “every individual shall have the right to have his cause heard” but the reality in our criminal justice system vis-à-vis the rich and the poor as shown above is very far from the prints of those lofty words. The naked truth is that the poor may be sentenced to three years in prison for stealing vegetables, as prescribed by section 390 of the Criminal Code of Nigeria after having spent six years behind bars waiting for the trial to commence. The reality of the rich on the other hand is not exactly the same.
There may be no immediate end to poverty, it seems, for even the holy book reminds us that the poor we will always have among us. The focus immediately should therefore be on enhancing the justice system to better cater for the poor. True justice, in my opinion, is one that takes people’s backgrounds into consideration before punishing them for their errors. To whom much has been given, much should be required, and vice-versa. It is thus not being canvassed that the criminal activities of the poor be condoned but that the poor gets fair and equal access to justice as the privileged half of the society. The Nigerian Bar Association may need to get more active through legal aid centres, legal clinics and in the discharge of pro bono works while lawyers who handle the matters of indigent clients with deliberate recklessness should of necessity be cautioned. The respected members of the bench may also have to be reminded to temper justice with class-fairness and relative mercy while the supporting structure of logistics and filing within the court system needs be enhanced to ensure speedy trials. For the citizenry, the call upon the government for fairness and proactive measures at all times and in all places must continue on a consistent basis, and not only sporadically exclaimed when we come in contact with the dehumanizing conditions of our prison system.
Tobi Adebowale is a lawyer-in-equity and social reform enthusiast.
@tobisammyjay on Twitter