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50,159 Nigerians languish in prisons, awaiting trial despite ACJ Act 2015

FOR the past five years, Chris Okafor (not real name) has been languishing in one of Nigeria’s prisons in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja.

“Nobody knows my whereabouts,” he told a member of a rights group that visits prisons regularly.

Five years ago, Okafor’s vehicle was involved in an accident and people died in it. The police arrested him and he could not get bail because his relatives and his boss were unaware.

“Each time they took me to court, the judge will adjourn the case for one reason or the other and I have been here since my arrest,” he lamented.

Okafor is one of the tens of thousands of inmates kept in Nigerian prisons for years,  awaiting trial.

Despite the passage of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015 which, among other purposes, aims at speedy trial and decongesting Nigerian prisons, there are over 50,000 prisoners inmates awaiting trial in different prisons across Nigeria, according to the Nigerian Prison Service.

The figure represents 68 per cent of the total inmates in all the Nigerian prisons.

According to a statistics published recently by the Prison Service on its official website, there are 73,631 inmates in Nigerian prisons as of July 16  and 50,159 of the inmates are awaiting trial.

The breakdown shows that  72,156 male inmates while there are only 1,475 female inmates. But out of the 50,156 inmates awaiting trial, 49,005 are male while 1,154 are female.

In the entire country, only 10 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja have domesticated the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015, according to a report by CLEEN Foundation.

The Act provides for the administration of criminal justice system which promotes efficient management of criminal justice institutions, a speedy dispensation of justice, protection of the society from crimes and protection of the rights and the interest of the suspect, defendants and the victims in Nigeria.

The states that have domesticated the Act include FCT, Anambra, Cross River, Delta, Ekiti, Enugu, Lagos. Ondo, Kaduna, Rivers and Akwa Ibom.

The ACJA 2015 merges the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Act (CPA) and Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) into one principal federal enactment, which applies to all federal courts across the country and all courts in the Federal Capital Territory.

The Director Media Law Centre, Richard Akinnola, blamed poor implementation of the Act on stringent bail conditions that suspects are usually granted by many courts.

He also apportioned blame to the Police for charging innocent people to the court for offences like armed robber which they did not commit.

“The issue of prison congestion as it relates to awaiting trial inmates have been with us for a long time. Despite the enactment of the Administration of Justice Act, the main challenge is that at the magistracy level, the issue of bail even for the most minor misdemeanour is mishandled. Many magistrates grant bail with stringent conditions.

“Also, the police have been quite culpable in charging many innocent people to the magistrate court on serious offences like armed robbery, just to secure remand when such suspects have nothing to do with the alleged crime.

And since this is not a bailable offence, such remands inevitability exacerbates the challenge of congestion in prisons,” said Akinnola, a veteran journalist who has covered judiciary sector for decades.

Surprisingly, Nigeria is not rated among the top ten countries with the worst overcrowded prisons. Haiti with 335.7 per cent prison congestion, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies top the list. Two African countries: Sudan and Uganda occupy sixth and ninth positions.

In October 2017, President Muhammadu Buhari raised the alarm over the state of the nation’s prisons, noting that it was a national scandal that many prisons were overcrowded by 90 per cent.

The President who spoke when he hosted a delegation of the judicial arm of government led by the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Walter Onnoghen, stressed the need to put in place urgent new measures to speedily decongest the prisons across the country. Almost a year after, the prisons are still congested as nothing concrete has been done by the government, including the implementation of ACJA to ease the population.

According to The Guardian, Okechukwu Nwanguma, the National Coordinator of Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN), lamented that since the Lagos State Administration of Criminal Justice Law (ACJL) came into force in 2007 and amended in 2011, and three years after the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) came into force in 2015 at the federal level, the creative push for reform and the lofty goals and the outcomes envisaged by the legislation have not been achieved.

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