Legal Aid Group Demands Voting Rights For Prisoners

By Abiose Adelaja Adams

The Legal Defence and Assistance Project, LEDAP, a non -governmental organization, NGO, has expressed optimism that the postponement of the general election will give room to the courts to deal with its pending lawsuit against the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, regarding prisoners’ right to vote before the new election date of March 28.

The suit with file number FHC/ABJ/CS/157/2013, was first filed in March 7, 2013 at the Federal High Court, Abuja, in defence of a certain Godwin Pius, a Nigerian death row prisoner at the Federal Prison Ibara, Abeokuta.

The plaintiff prayed the court to issue an order compelling INEC to register the names of all prisoners in Nigeria in the voters’ register and set up voting units in all prisons and detention centres, provide polling centres and facilities to enable them vote in 2015 and in all subsequent elections in the country.

“Prisoners have the right to vote, as enshrined in the 1999 Nigerian Constitution and the Electoral Act; but INEC has denied them of that right in all elections conducted in Nigeria,” Obiagwu said in an interview with the www.icirnigeria.org.

He argued that failure of INEC to register the names of all voters constitutes a violation of their rights because electoral body has the statutory duty and obligation to ensure registration of the names of all qualified voters (including approximately 60,000 prison inmates) in Nigeria in the voters’ register, set up voting units and provide facilities to enable registered voters to participate in elections.

“They might have been incarcerated in prison but they are still citizens of Nigeria above 18 years, and so have the right to vote under Section 12 (1) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended),” the lawyer and activist stated.

INEC on February 6, 2014 had prayed the court to strike out the suit arguing that it was incompetent on the grounds that Pius, the death row prisoner, had no locus standi to institute proceedings in a court of law, given that he had been stripped of his right to personal liberty by virtue of being a prisoner on death row in a secluded prison under a 24-hour watch.

Obiagwu however, argued that there is no provision of law in Nigeria, including the Prisons Act and regional or international treaty to which the country is a signatory that excludes prisoners’ right to vote.

“The combined reading of  Section 14(2) (c) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), Section 12 (1) of the Electoral Act (as amended), and Article 13 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights Act 1990 shows that the right to vote by any Nigerian who has attained age of 18 is guaranteed. This right is not removed by fact of imprisonment of the citizen.”

Obiagwu’s major argument is that  the policies and laws made by the elected leaders and government affect the daily lives and rights of prisoners but they are excluded from the process of electing such people.

“The Nigerian prison system is beset with well-known and fairly well-documented problems including high awaiting trial population occasioning congestion, poor sanitary and health facilities, decaying infrastructure.”

Jail breaks has also become common due to the aforementioned, he noted.

In his analysis, elected governments in the past have shown no commitment to reforming the laws regulating Nigeria’s prisons. The current Prisons Act was enacted in November 1947 (68 years ago), and is yet to undergo any fundamental reform since.

Also, a draft prisons bill presented to the National Assembly in 2004 is yet to be passed into law.

According to the Nigeria Prisons Service website, there are 239 prisons nationwide with a capacity for 49,505 inmates. As at June 30, 2014, there were 56,785 inmates in Nigerian prisons, out of which a huge 68 per cent are awaiting trial, while only 32 per cent have been convicted.

According to Obiagwu, the problems with the criminal justice system and conditions of the prison, have been acknowledged by the Nigerian government and in many attempts at reform, the federal government has set up panels such as National Working Group on Prison Reform and Decongestion in 2005, Presidential Committee on Prison Reform and Rehabilitation in 2006 and Presidential Commission on the Reform of Administration of Justice 2006.

These panels submitted reports recommending far reaching prison reforms to the government.






     

     

    ‘Unfortunately, past government in Nigeria have shown apathy towards implementing reports of panels it created,” Obiagwu lamented.

    The last hearing of the case was in October 2014, but case was adjourned because of the absence of the plaintiff’s counsel in court. However, the case could also not be heard on the adjournment date because the courts were on strike.

    The activist lawyer expressed the hope that with the six weeks postponement of the election, the court will take another look at the case.

    “With this postponement now, we can proceed with it and even if it doesn’t meet this election, we would have won the case for subsequent elections in Nigeria,”

     

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