Cruel justice system needs urgent reform

COURT LOGO (LAW)

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

Dele was rescued through the sterling efforts of Avocats Sans Frontières France (Lawyers without Borders France). That means without ASF or other NGO international intervention, Dele might well have died in jail. He suffered from the impunity of the police, who dubiously arrested him at his shop, close to the scene of crime in place of his neighbour, declared wanted for armed robbery.

In prison, he was tortured, forced to sign a statement doctored by the police and was charged with his neighbour’s alleged offence: armed robbery. After this, an Ikeja Magistrate’s Court remanded him in the Kirikiri Medium Security Custodial Centre. This occurred on October 16, 2011. But from that moment, he was never brought to court again for 11 years until his eventual release in May. How callous!

More than a decade of his life was wasted. It is atrociously inhumane. It demonstrates how in Nigeria, public institutions established to safeguard citizens’ rights are often the ones abridging them. He deserves, at the very least, adequate compensation.

Unfortunately, Dele’s is just one out of several cases. Clinton Kanu, 56, was wrongly charged with murder by the police in Imo State; he spent 27 years in prison for an offence he did not commit. Initially accused of stealing a generator and fluorescent tubes, he was later charged with murder, earning him a death sentence. Criminally, the police procured false witnesses to buttress their claims. Though the Court of Appeal affirmed the sentence, the Supreme Court discharged him eventually. Released only in 2019, while in jail, he lost his mother, and his once thriving business collapsed. His trauma, orchestrated by state agents, is an atrocity that should not go unpunished.

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Similarly, in 2017, it took a Federal High Court in Kaduna State to release three persons, Idris Abubakar, Anas Abubakar and Aliyu Abubakar, after they were arrested and detained by the police for 19 months. They were neither taken to court nor allowed access to their lawyers and relatives. The police had arrested them for alleged theft and after six days of incarceration, falsely claimed they were members of the Boko Haram terrorist group. The police could not however produce the incriminating objects they claimed to have obtained from them. The judge then ordered the police to pay them N2 million as damages for violating their fundamental rights.

In Lagos, a police corporal, Alagbe Olumide, arraigned one Ayodimeji Alegbeleye for a murder he never committed before an Ebute Meta Magistrate’s Court in 2013. Initially, the police claimed the accused stabbed and killed one James Igbahan, and in their usual style, filed an application for his remand in prison custody. But based on protest by the defence counsel, and interrogation by the magistrate, the police investigator confessed that the accused, whom they found at the scene of the crime, was only a friend to the real suspect, whom he also admitted was at large. Queried by the magistrate, the corporal confessed that his superiors compelled him to charge the innocent person with murder.

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This anomaly thrives on wickedness; and on the sloppiness and laziness of police prosecutors, helped by lack of effective oversight by the relevant judicial authorities. The practice of arresting people and dumping them in cells before scrambling for charges to prefer against them is sheer cruelty. It is a gross violation of human rights. The judiciary needs to go beyond just awarding damages. Erring police officers should be severely sanctioned for such rights violations and for misleading the court.

The judiciary shares in the blame. The Chief Judge of Lagos State, Kazeem Alogba, revealed in August 2021 that 50 per cent of homicide cases in the state were trumped-up charges. He said that “even when these victims are eventually acquitted of the trumped-up charges, no law provides people like them with compensation.” Therefore, verbal reprimand is no longer enough. The courts should go beyond dismissing such cases and make compelling examples of these errant police officers.

The Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 mandates every Chief Magistrate, or any magistrate designated by the Chief Judge to visit police stations or other detention centres monthly. The judicial authorities in the respective states should implement this vigorously. Through this, wrongly detained persons would be detected and freed.

This practice contributes to the large number of awaiting trial inmates in the correctional centres. The various custodial centres’ and their decrepit structures across the country are overburdened by an inmate population that is 39.87 per cent above their carrying capacity. Built to house 50,083 inmates, the Nigeria Correctional Service revealed in October 2021 that the centres had 70,056 inmates, out of which 50,822 (72.54 per cent) were awaiting trial, and only 19,234 inmates (27.45 per cent) were convicts.

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Judges and magistrates should therefore be thorough. The National Judicial Council and other judicial authorities should accord priority to the training and retraining of all judicial officers.

Magistrates should stop granting remand orders frivolously without sufficiently interrogating the motive and monitoring the implementation. They should go beyond the prosecutor’s account and their hurry to sentence to interrogate the issue.

In the United States and many other countries, where errors in the justice delivery process manifest in wrong conviction, the system has a way of compensating the victims.

Therefore, all the victims of illegal raids and wrongful incarceration should be released immediately and compensated. There is also an urgent need for judicial reform to eliminate the delay in the justice delivery system. The prerogative of mercy should be regularly invoked by the state governors to decongest the overcrowded correctional centres.

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