POOR oversight and negligence of the Nigerian Police have led to an increasing population of awaiting trial suspects in custody of the country’s correctional service.
The judiciary and other prosecuting agencies are also not left out of the blame for the surging number of awaiting trial inmates in Nigerian correctional centres/prisons.
Minister of Interior Rauf Aregbesola had disclosed that out of the 68,747 inmates in Nigerian prisons, 50,992 of them were awaiting trial.
Aregbesola said this on Friday, July 23, during the inauguration of Osun State headquarters of the Nigeria Correctional Service (NCoS) in Osogbo.
“It should also be noted that 50,992 inmates, representing 74 per cent of the total population of inmates in our custodial centres, are awaiting-trial inmates while only 17,755 inmates, which is mere 26 per cent, are actual convicts,” Aregbesola said.
Findings by The ICIR showed that the police and other prosecuting agencies, including the State Security Services (SSS), have been the major causes of the increasing population of awaiting trial suspects.
How police file wrong charges to wrong courts
The Nigeria Police is the government agency saddled with policing and maintenance of law and order in society.
In discharging their duties, the police make arrests and sometimes prosecute suspects in court.
In Nigeria, there are federal and state courts that sit on varying degrees of criminal offences. The magistrate courts, otherwise known as district courts, fall under the jurisdiction of a state established by the House of Assembly to hear cases that do not attract capital offences.
Capital offences are serious offences such as rape, murder, and treason, attracting death sentence, otherwise known as capital punishment.
However, the Nigerian Police file cases that attract capital punishment at the magistrate court, which lacks jurisdiction to hear it.
The police have their own lawyers attached to the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP) domiciled in the Ministry of Justice of every state that can directly file cases at the state high court, which can hear cases of capital offences. Yet, they file the cases at the wrong courts, lawyers say.
Five days ago, the Lagos State Police Command arrested Emeka Orisakwe, a businessman, for allegedly defiling his three daughters.
When prosecuted, he was arraigned before the Ikeja Magistrates’ Court in the state on August 11 before Magistrate Ejiro Kubeinje.
Upon the calling of the case, the magistrate did not hear the suspect’s plea; rather, he ordered that he be remanded in Kirikiri Correctional Centre.
Kubeinje directed the police to send the case file to the state Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for advice and adjourned the case until November 2 for DPP advice.
Like Orisakwe, many other suspects are in custody for offences they have not been found guilty of. According to the Nigerian law, an offender is considered innocent until found guilty by a competent court of justice.
A Human Rights Lawyer Sam Oyigbo spoke with The ICIR on how the police often filed wrong cases at the wrong courts, saying that it was a common practice in Nigeria.
“The magistrate cannot grant bail on matters that upon conviction, could warrant that the suspect will be sentenced to death. So the suspect would be remanded in jail until the case is transferred to the high court by the Police for the suspect’s bail,” Oyigbo said.
He said that transferring the case to the high court was usually slow, demanding and could take several months or years.
According to him, the prosecuting agencies sometimes failed to send the case file to the DPP on time, which would keep defendants in custody as the DPP would be unaware that such cases were awaiting its advice.
Oyigbo further said that sometimes, prosecuting agencies would deliberately make the suspects involved go to jail by charging them under the acts even though they were aware that the court lacked the jurisdiction to hear such cases. This would then lead to the remand the suspects in prison, he said.
How magistrates fail suspects in criminal cases
A Human Rights Lawyer Ayo Ademiluyi told The ICIR that some courts failed to make preliminary findings on cases before ordering remand of the suspects.
“There are cases where some people spent two years in prison for going out at night to buy Indomie noodles before they are rounded up by the Police and charged for armed robbery.
“If they make preliminary enquiries, they will find out that sometimes, the prosecution send frivolous charges and then order that the charges be amended and be heard. But they don’t do that,” Ademiluyi said.
The ICIR also found that even when cases are filed at the appropriate court of jurisdiction, some magistrates or judges give stringent bail conditions to defendants.
Such is the case of the 22-year-old Miracle Johnson, who appeared before a Grade I Area Court, Karu, Abuja, for allegedly stealing foodstuffs from his neighbours.
According to the Prosecuting Counsel Vincent Osuji, Johnson allegedly stole foodstuffs and N7000 from his neighbour earlier in the year.
He was also accused of assaulting the police officer who was in charge of investigating the case.
The Judge Inuwa Maiwada granted bail to the defendant in N200 000 with a reliable surety in like sum.
Although there is a provision to file for a motion for variation of bail conditions, some defendants still find it difficult to get sureties and provide the requested amount by the court.
Police are only doing their job
A Police Prosecutor Oluseye Atinuke, who spoke with The ICIR, said filing some cases before the magistrate court was one of the ways through which they avoided breaching the law.
She said the police usually approached the magistrate court because it was easier to access due to the constitutional provision of how long a suspect could spend in their custody.
“For some police, it is a way of ensuring that we don’t lose our suspects because if we decide to wait till such cases are filed at the state high court, it would take too long and we would be forced to release the suspect on bail,” Atinuke said.
She noted that suspects on bail and their sureties were fond of jumping bails, making it difficult for the police to carry out their duty.
The Secretary of the Nigeria Bar Association Delta State chapter Collins Osagu said the Nigerian government needed to make laws that would extend the powers of the magistrate courts in Nigeria.
He said if magistrate powers were extended, the dispensation of justice would be easier and awaiting trial suspects could be granted bail.
“If the laws are expanded to give the magistrate courts power to try some cases, trial commences immediately; bails can be granted, instead of making orders to remand.
“If the jurisdiction of the magistrate courts is expanded, you will find out that we would not be talking about prison congestion,” Osagu said.
He also said the high rate of awaiting trial suspects was one of the major causes of prison congestion in Nigeria.
He advised that the Federal Government expand custodial facilities or build more to avoid prison congestion and its effects.
A former Executive Director of Carmelite Prisoners’ Interest Organisation Ambrose Irokwu, in an interview with The ICIR, said the Nigerian government should also take non-custodial correctional measures to curb prison congestion.
He advised the government to look beyond name changing of the Nigeria Prisons Service to Nigeria Correctional Service to make functional provisions for the wide use of non-custodial punishments as contained in Nigeria’s Administration of Criminal Justice Act.