© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
Justice for Sale (II) : Extortion, Injustice prevail in Lagos State Courts
By, Damilola BANJO
VARIOUS corruption indexes have rated the Nigeria Police Force and the judiciary among the top five most corrupt institutions in Nigeria.
The Transparency International TI) in its 10th edition of Global Corruption Barometer Africa 2019, rated the police and judiciary 1st and 3rd most corrupt institutions in Nigeria. Also, in 2019, a public survey by Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) ranked the police first, and the judiciary third.
In the report, 70 percent of Nigerians said they have been extorted by an official of the court.
Indeed, these two institutions are peas in the same pod. Equally corrupt with one constantly trying to out beat the other.
“Securing bail is more difficult when we charge suspects to court. It is better you negotiate at the station and get your person released than allowing them to be charged to court,” Saudi, one of the corrupt police officers at the anti-Cultism Unit told this reporter.
Sadly, Saudi was right. The fear of being locked up in prison, pending a prolonged process of perfecting bail condition is one of the several reasons many Nigerians succumb to extortion at the police stations. The corrupt policemen know this and milk it.
Paying the ransom demanded at the police and getting charged to court are decisions likened to the red sea and the devil itself for many Nigerians. Pay the ransom at the station or get locked up in the prison while being extorted to the last naira notes by judicial clerks, prosecutors, and prison wardens.
“Within the court system, especially the magistrate which is closer [to the people], the level of rot is killing. It can even lead to a revolution overnight. The moment you’re charged to the court on any case, the magistrate does not have your time, they do not care if you committed the crime or not,” Awosanya said.
Shoddy Investigation, Languid Prosecution
“This case is hereby dismissed for lack of diligent prosecution,” is a familiar verdict in any magistrate court in Nigeria. Of course, such pronouncement comes after months of protracted court hearing with no tangible evidence to prosecute the crime alleged.
The police prosecutors do not have detailed information beyond what is provided on the surface of the charge sheets. They appear before the court in lacklustre attires, and with no enthusiasm. So disenchanted are many of them, they fail to see how incompetent they look in an open court as they seek an adjournment, reciting the same reason as a pupil learning by rote in a kindergarten class.
In one case monitored by this reporter, Michael Unah, a prosecutor at the Lagos State Magistrate Court in Ogba, told the court –for the fifth time — that his witnesses were not in court. The magistrate nodded in agreement, adjourned the matters and the defendants were returned to prison.
Thousands of the inmates in Nigerian prisons experience this. They are remanded in prison custody as their cases get adjourned indefinitely.
Ideally, a case is thrown out after three appearances where the prosecutor presents no new evidence or witness before the court. Although, the discretionary power of the court could sway the judge otherwise.
The lack of diligent prosecution is one of the reasons for protracted legal battles and reason many defendants remain in prison for months, sometimes years.
Dolapo Agbaje, Usman Olamilekan, Chinma Ogbeeze were in prison for more than a year. They were raided and subsequently accused of stealing. The young men denied committing such an offence. They were each granted bail in the sum of N50,000 and two sureties in like sum. As the case dragged, the men, in their early 20s, could not perfect their bail. Ogbeeze said he has no relation in Lagos that could stand surety for him.
Agbaje and his co-defendants appeared four times before Magistrate Fashola and all the while Unah did not produce a single witness or evidence against them.
After one year, Unah had not presented a shred of evidence before the court. He again asked the court for “more time”. In the end, the magistrate struck out the case and released the defendants.
In another case, Babajide Olosande, a 62-year-old bus driver, was charged to court to pacify a complainant who accused him of stealing his bus, the IPO, Ada, later owned up. Babajide’s traducer, Oladipupo Jacob, was becoming an irritating nag to Ada; so, she charged Babajide to court to save herself the trouble. Babajide was accused of theft without any shred of evidence to establish he stole the bus.
“We do not want to charge you to court yet but Baba Ade [Oladipupo Jacob] was coming to the station every day to cry and saying we have collected money from you,” Ada said in the presence of this reporter while trying to pacify Babajide when he made it out of Kirikiri Prison three months later.
While Babajide was in prison, unable to perfect his bail, the police found the alleged stolen bus parked at an army barracks in Yaba. The prosecutor, Unah, was informed of this development but he refused to follow it up or bring the new information to the attention of the magistrate.
A little investigation by the police could have saved Babajide from wrongful incarceration but for shoddiness and a prosecutor who cared only about his pocket, Babajide was unduly locked up for so long.
Lawyers as cogs in the wheel of Justice
The entrance of a typical court in Nigeria is always crowded with ‘legal’ merchants. There are the non-legal professionals making a business out of the ignorance of potential deponents to affidavits.
“Affidavit, affidavit, swear your affidavit here,” they call out to potential deponents.
On the other hand, there are professional sureties who stand for strangers in exchange for some money. Typically, they charge between N20,000 to N40,0000.
However, the leaders in this ecosystem are the lawyers. They loiter around the court, seeking clients. The slur; “charge and bail lawyer” must have roots anchored in this practice. These lawyers simply represent new suspects brought to court in securing their bail. Thereafter, the suspects can decide they no longer need their service.
But, while this is legal, some of these lawyers, most times, are accomplices in, and other times, facilitators of many extortions that go on daily in Nigerian courts.
When Babajide was arraigned before Magistrate Fashola, he was represented by a lawyer from A.A Adekunle & Co, a small chamber at Sango area of Lagos State.
This lawyer was expected to facilitate the perfection of Babjide’s bail conditions but he did none of it, according to Bose, Babajide’s wife. Babajide would later spend over a month in prison with no attempt to get him out by his lawyer.
“The lawyer charged us N250,000 as his professional fee,” Bose disclosed. “We pleaded with him and he agreed to take the first installment of N50,000 which was given to him the night before he appeared in court.”
However, when Babjide was granted bail, it was Adekunle who informed the family members that the prosecutor had requested N40,000 each for verification of the two sureties requested as part of Babajide’s bail conditions.
The family paid the N80,000 hoping it would expedite the release of Babajide. Adekunle did not issue a receipt for this payment neither did he ensure the prompt release of Babajide. He left the family unattended while Babajide was held in Kirikiri prison.
After weeks of failed attempt at perfecting the bail, Bose went back to Adekunle’s chambers. The lawyer insisted he would get his complete legal fees before he released the bail bond to the family.
“When I went back to the lawyer, I told him we’ve been asked to bring [a bail bond],” Bose said. “He then requested he would get his balance before he released the [bond]. I then reminded him that our agreement was that he would get his balance once we have [Babajide’s] vehicle released from the police station.”
She continued, “I took people to his chambers to beg him. He then requested for another N50,000 else he would not release the bail bond. He also told us he had used the N80,000 he said was for the prosecutor to pay for other expenses at the court.”
Adekunle is required to raise a bail bond for Babajide as the legal representative. A bail bond is a legal agreement that guarantees the appearance of a criminal defendant for trial, failure with which a sum of money would be paid to the court. The bail bond is co-signed by a bail bondsman, who charges the defendant a fee in return for guaranteeing the payment.
At the next court hearing, by which time Babajide had been in prison for about 30 days, Adekunle sent a young lawyer who came to court without the case file nor the bail bond. Babajide’s case was again adjourned and he was returned, again, to the prison.
Seeing that her husband might again spend months in prison, Bose gave the young lawyer from Adekunle’s chambers some money for transport back to the office to retrieve the case file.
About 3 hours later, the young lawyer, Kehinde, brought the case file. At this time, the prison warden had taken Babajide into custody.
Kehinde met with the prosecutor Unah, who by duty would verify the residence of the sureties before the document is sent to the magistrate for his signature.
The reason for verification is for the court to ensure the sureties can be traced in the event that suspect jumps bail.
Contrarily, the prosecutors hardly do the verification. Instead, they demand bribe, fabricate an address and submit a fraudulent document to the magistrate to assent.
“Verification is not a problem, we can try to bribe the [prosecutor]. Not even bribe [but] to fast track,” the young lawyer from Adekunle’s Chambers told Babajide’s family members, in justification for the nefarious act,”
Unah and his orderly, Sunkanmi, run the verification scam in court 10, Magistrate Fashola’s courtroom. When the bail bond was handed over to Sunkanmi, who fronts for his boss in negotiating the deals. He demanded N30,000. This was what the illegal N80,000 allegedly collected by Adekunle was meant for.
At this point, the Kehinde had also abandoned the case. She had done the part she could. Except her principal or the family members provided the N30,000 being demanded by the prosecutor, she was incapacitated. Without any authority to compel the prosecutor to do his job legally, she simply informed the family of the prosecutor’s demand and left to get further instructions from her boss. She never checked back to know if Babajide was released, neither did her chambers.
The next day, she was not in court. The family members were left once again to find their way through the shrewd legal process. The wife approached Unah for details on the verification process but it was obvious that without paying, the verification would not be done. At least, not soon enough to get Babajide out of prison.
Unah eventually agreed to accept N20,000 which he instructed be given to his orderly, Sunkanmi. Once the bribe was paid, the hitherto tangled process became easier. Right there in the courtroom, Sunkanmi lied on the bail bond that he had verified the homes.
“From Oshodi, enter bus to Ijora, alight at 7up and locate the place and locate the address. I have verified the address and found to be correct,” he falsely declared on the court papers and signed off. Sunkanmi never left the courtroom, neither did he visit the location. Everything he wrote on the court papers were fabricated.
Courtrooms of Injustice
A lot goes on in many of the courtrooms beyond the routine adjudication on matters. There is the power show among the judicial clerks, and the unspoken comradeship between these clerks and the prosecutors against the most vulnerable persons in any courtroom, the defendants. The courtroom, for many Nigerians, does not represent justice. It is in fact where they are stripped of their dignity, restricted to a box for offenses they have no reason to answer for.
The conduct of a rotund, fair complexion woman who is a clerical staff at the courtroom of Magistrate Fashola, is an example of how judicial clerks aid and abet corruption in the courtroom. Rude, condescending and corrupt, this woman recklessly wields her powers as the intermediary between the courtroom and the court’s inner chamber.
When Babajide’s wife approached her for the release order of her husband, she flared up, sparing no insult as she ordered the embattled woman out of a cubicle she called office.
“Why are you disturbing me?” she yelled at an already frustrated wife trying to ensure her husband stay no longer than he had in prison. “Am I the one who kept your husband in prison? If the document is not signed today, you will come back on Monday.”
Babajide’s wife remained unmoved by her provocative blares. She quietly retreated from the office, willing to wait as long as the clerk’s chit-chat lasted with her colleagues. About 45 minutes later, she had the signed release paper of Babajide on her table but she would not hand over the papers until her palm was greased.
“You will pay N2,000 for the release order,” she declared. Of course, that was an illegal payment. It was not receipted nor was an invoice issued for it.
Unending legal battles
Perfecting bail and getting released from detention are only half the trouble for many defendants. The other half of the pod is facing trial for the alleged offenses. In several instances, this process can go on, moving from one courtroom to the other, with no definitive end in view.
The ordeal of 17-year-old Daniel started in 2018 and lasted well over a year. Daniel and his friends were arraigned alongside four other boys before the Yaba Magistrate Court. They were arrested from totally different areas.
The boys soon become their nemesis, the reason the trial remained active despite lack of ‘diligent prosecution’ for over a year. The prosecutor did not call a single witness nor was there evidence presented to the court for prosecuting the boys on the alleged cultism offense preferred against them.
But the magistrate said the case has to go on except the other boys arraigned with Daniel and his friends were reproduced before the court. Apparently, the other boys jumped bail, refusing to appear for any of the hearing after they were released from prison upon perfecting their bail.
“We don’t know where the boys are,” Awal said. “The magistrate keeps adjourning the case. She said she cannot strike out the case until they bring in the boys. We don’t know the boys. I have never seen them before until they were arraigned with my apprentices”.
Awal’s apprentices could have been tried differently, Inibehe Effiong, a human rights lawyer said. The lawyer opined that the law provides for the charges to be severed for the young apprentices to be tried separately.
He explained that when one or more parties in a joint trial abscond, and the prosecutor is unable to effect a re-arrest, the prosecutor should by law split the trial to exclude the names of the fleeing defendants who can be tried separately.
“It is very unfair to allow people who are still presumed to be innocent to suffer for the iniquities of their co-defendants,” he said.
The case of Daniel and his fellow apprentice is only just one instance of how people’s life routines are disrupted by unending legal process. For some others, they are locked up in prison while their case files get transferred from one judge to another without their knowledge.
That was the case for Yussuf Yaya. He was arraigned for theft in July of 2018 at the court 3 of old Ikeja magistrate court. Yaya said he has no relatives in Lagos and no money. It was not surprising that he had remained in prison, though, he was granted bail.
“They [prison authorities] have refused to take me to court. I have only been in court two times since last July,” said Yaya.
He was arraigned with his friend, Azeez Dauda, on allegation of theft. He admitted that his friend indeed stole a phone and necklace but the items had been returned to the victim. The victim also told the police he was not interested in litigation since he had reclaimed his properties.
Brushing aside the intervention of the complainant, Yaya and Dauda were still charged. They were both granted bail in the sum of N100,000 and two sureties. Dauda met his bail conditions and was released from prison in weeks.
In 2018, the Lagos State Government relocated Court 3, which shared the same compound with the Nigerian Bar Association, to Ogba Magistrate Court. With this transfer, Yaya’s case file got lost in transit.
“I don’t know my next adjournment,” Yaya lamented.
Investigation showed that Yaya’s case file was transferred to Court 14 at Ogba Magistrate Court. Dauda, Yaya’s co-defendant, had jumped bail and arrest warrant had been issued against him. In his case file, it was recorded that Yaya has not been produced from prison custody consistently for three hearings.
Inibehe said the judge should have issued a reproduction warrant to the custodian authority. But, as at July 2019, a year after Yaya was first arraigned, the reproduction warrant was not issued. Yaya remained in prison.
Addressing Illegality in Court
Various administrative failures and judicial inefficiencies account for some of the reasons the court system no longer represents justice for many Nigerians. A poll conducted by Gavel, a civic-tech organisation with a focus on the judiciary, showed that 87 per cent of Nigerians do no trust the system.
Inibehe said to restore the confidence of people in the system, the court must purge itself of these inefficiencies and corrupt officials. Ordinary Nigerians must be able to see moral rectitude in the courts, the human rights lawyer opined.
He also asked that there should be a fixed time within which the prosecutors must verify residence of sureties.
“What we need is to have the Chief Judge, the Chief Magistrate championing transparency and accountability in the courts,” he suggested.
“The reason we see what seem like corrupt act or illegality within the court system is primarily because of the culture of impunity. People know they can do whatever they want and get away with it without consequences.
“Form the police officers and prosecutors who file frivolous charges against people to the court officials who collude to extort people who are standing trial need to be made to understand that there is a price to pay.
He said there is a need for a top-to-bottom attitudinal change among the court officials.
“There should also be a life-line, a phone number that is specifically designated for lawyers and defendants to report the misconduct of registrars and prosecutors. There should be a standing committee that should be saddled with responsibilities of receiving complaints arising from perfection of bail and other administrative matters from the courts. When people know that there is a process of seeking redress, it becomes easier to lodge complaints.
“We also need to institutionalize the processes of perfecting bail, which of course is one of the most ways in the criminal justice system that people are susceptible to extortion. Part of the reform we need to insist on is to make it possible for compensation to be paid to people who are wrongfully detained. That compensation should not only be paid by the police, but there should also be legislative framework that makes it very easy to target the salary account of police officer.
“There has to be consequences for filing frivolous charges. When the officers know they will pay personally for injuries and discomfort caused to people, we would have reformed the system.”