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THE PLIGHT OF INDIGENT INMATES IN NIGERIA.

BY: SOLUMTOCHUKWU .P. OZOBULU ESQ

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Natasha(not real name) gazing at the blue sky inhales deeply as she steps out of the Makurdi medium security prison where she has been incarcerated for close to ten (10) months awaiting trial. She stood fixed tormented by the thoughts of her experiences in prison custody. Just like flashes of lighting her mind wandered from the beating she got both from fellow inmates and prison warders alike on different occasions, the apology called food, the odour that serves as air freshener to the air tight cell rooms that made her feel choked most times. She did not forget the moments without sanitary pads and underwear or the moments when she had to alternate between sleeping on the bedbug plagued mattress and the bare ground. At this point tears dropped like the rain and flowed down her chin as she remembers the few friends she made in custody who are not free from the hunting/inhumane treatments.

There has been an awakening to the quandary of inmates in our Nigerian prisons, the gross terrible condition they live in and the very harsh situation they have found themselves in. Over the years, there has been serious concern about the state of the Nigerian prisons, because of the dilapidated state of the buildings, the quality of health care received by the inmates, abuse of human rights and the congestion of the prisons. The Prison system in Nigeria ought to serve as an institution of correction, reformation and rehabilitation; geared towards disabling its inmates from further criminal pursuit but this is not the case.

There is an ill-conceived believe that prison inmates have no rights within the general population. Their rights may be limited; but they have a degree of human and civil rights that is guaranteed by the Constitution, by international conventions and the UN Declarations. For instance, the UN General Assembly adopted the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners otherwise known as the “Mandela Rule”, on December 14, 1990, which guarantees the basic human rights of prisoners. Therefore, prisoners cannot and should not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment; they are to have full access to due process and equal protection and should not be discriminated against. Inmates are to be protected against discrimination and not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading punishment which borders on abuse of their rights. Furthermore, they are entitled to adequate medical and psychiatric care. And their physical safety must also be assured at all times.

Another primary concern surrounding the Nigeria Prison system is the congestion of the Nigeria prisons which, has been a major concern for almost a decade, among stakeholders in the country. Congestion constitutes a major problem creating a negative effect on the welfare of the inmates in the Nigeria prisons. On further investigation it was discovered, that an average Nigerian prison contains three times more persons than its capacity.  For example, the Makurdi Medium Security Prison has an Original capacity of 240 inmates however, as at March 2019; there were over 975 inmates in detention. Of this number, over 623 are still awaiting trial. Several writers have identified congestion as a major problem facing the Nigeria prisons which has exposed the inmates to improper health conditions, claimed the lives of some inmates and put enormous pressure on the prison infrastructure.

The genesis of this problem can be traced to poor administration of criminal justice in Nigeria and unethical activities of the Nigeria Police which has constantly threatened the physical, mental and social well-being of inmates. Consequently, the Nigeria prison has failed to achieve its major role of rehabilitation and reformation of inmates but rather the scenario has been that of dehumanizing situation and hardening of the inmates.  The congestion of the Nigeria Prisons lays a foundation for a whole bunch of other pressing issues that directly deal with the welfare of prisoners ranging from the quality and quantity of food they are served to the quality of water for drinking and domestic affairs, to mattresses they sleep on, and the list goes on and on.  This cause definitely comes along with its appalling effects which are not limited to but include; poor sanitation, poor medical services and increase in human right abuse. The congestion of the Nigeria prison is gradually leading to an apparent decay not just of the horrifying infrastructures but also of the institution as a whole. We can consequently say that the Nigeria Prison system is a walking corpse gradually edging it is way to an end, if no severe holistic intervention is put in place.

The Panacea to this nemesis of congestion of prisons and abuse of prisoners’ right in Nigeria includes but not limited to:

  • Establishment of more prisons.
  • Upgrading of existing prisons to meet with international standards in order to improve the welfare of prisoners.
  • Capacity building for prison officials in order to carry out their duties within the ambit of human rights.
  • Establishment of committee for monthly supervision of the prisons by the Minister of Interior.
  • Domestication and Effective implementation of Administration of criminal justice Act by states government.
  • Provide tools and access to education and skill acquisition for Inmates.s
 

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LAWYERS ALERT SECURE ANOTHER BAIL

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Our dedication to the protection and enforcement of Human Rights.

The legal department in line with the vision and strategic plan of the organization and in line with our commitment towards de-congesting the prison, through rendering pro- bono services to indigent inmates visited the Makurdi prison sometime in February.  The legal team came across a peculiar case of a young man who was arrested on his first visit to the state for a contract. The incident occurred on the 10th of November 2018 at about 11am, while he was waiting to be served his meal in a restaurant in Makurdi, a group of young men mobbed him and leveled some accusations against him based on the fact that he was an unfamiliar person in the neighborhood. He was taken to the police station and his working tools were confiscated. He was brutalized, maltreated, deprived of some basic human rights while in police custody. He was eventually remanded in the Makurdi Medium Prisons. He was without legal representation between November 2018 and February 2019 when the legal team came to his rescue.

Upon further investigation we realized that he had two First Information Report (FIR) drafted against him and that on both FIR all the other accused persons totaling about twenty(20) persons had already been granted bail.  Moved by the circumstances surrounding his arrest and subsequent remand; we drafted and filed the necessary bail processes at the appropriate court.  After several adjournments the matter was transferred to two separate courts. Empowered by our vision we did not give up, rather we tenaciously pursued the matter in the two courts were the mattered has been transferred to.

The next hurdle before us was to ensure that the two courts grant the bail applications before them. Eventually both bail applications were heard and graciously granted. Armed with this good news we visited the prison to inform him of the new development and get a contact outside the prison that could help with processing the already granted bail. We got in contact with his sister who came into town and visited the office on Thursday. She was grateful to the office for the help of LAWYERS ALERT in securing her brother’s bail. On Friday the 26th of July 2019, all bail conditions were met and Harrison Igweonu was released from prison custody.

 

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El-zakzaky, Human Rights and the Imbroglio Surrounding his Detention.

By Sunday Adaji Esq.

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Sometime ago, President Muhammadu Buhari declared that national security should supercede the rule of law, a statement that attracted lambasting from some quarters. Perhaps, President Buhari’s statement is being played out in El-zakzaky’s case.

It would be recalled that in December 2014, Sheikh Ibrahim Yaqoub El-Zakzaky was arrested alongside his wife and others over his group’s clash with some members of the Nigerian Army.  And on May 15, 2015, the outspoken and foremost Shi’a Muslim cleric in Nigeria, who doubles as the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria – IMN – (a group he formed when he was in the school), was first arraigned before the Kaduna State High Court. The court did not grant him bail, but the Federal High Court, Abuja, did, declaring his continuous detention as unlawful and unconstitutional. Despite being granted bail, the DSS (Department of State Security) still continues to detain him. They did not border to appeal against the decision of the Federal High Court which granted bail to El-zakzaky, which is what the DSS should have done instead of blatantly disobeying the court’s order.

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El-zakzaky is being prosecuted on the allegation of Culpable Homicide, Unlawful Assembly, Disruption of the Public Peace and other charges filed against him alongside Zeenat, his wife.

It is said that El-zakzaky is being detained on grounds of national security. Since December 14 2015 till date, El-zakzaky’s devotees have continued to protest against his detention but it appears the Federal Government is adamant and does not see any reason why El-zakzaky and his wife should be released.

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On July 18, 2019, Femi Falana (SAN), lawyer to El-zakzaky brought application before the High Court of Justice, Kaduna, praying the court to grant El-zakzaky permission to travel abroad for medical treatment. In his application, Falana informed the court that El-zakzaky’s condition of health is getting worse by the day, that he lost one of his eyes while in DSS’s custody, that both he and his wife were not given adequate medical care since December 2015 when they were detained and that they needed medical attention. The prosecutor objected to the grant of the application on the grounds that Nigerian doctors have not yet confirmed if El-zakzaky should be treated in Nigeria or abroad. The Presiding Judge, Honourable Justice Darius Khobo, adjourned ruling on the application to July 29, 2019.

Meanwhile, El-zakzaky’s devotees are restive. In the FCT (Federal Capital Territory) recently, his devotees went on rampage, set ablaze two vehicles belonging to NEMA (National Emergency Management Agency) and shot several persons, including a senior police officer and a female Corper with Channels TV.

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Law enforcement agents, including members of the Nigerian Army have positioned themselves at strategic places in the FCT to grapple with the rampaging devotees of the IMN.

Amnesty International has condemned the continuous detention of El-zakzaky and the manner the law enforcement agents are grappling with the situation, and urging Nigerian authorities to adhere to the rule of law and respect the right to peaceful protest when policing these events.

Professor Itse Sagay, Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), whom critics have lambasted that he was always passive in criticising Buhari’s administration, has advised the Federal Government to obey court orders and release El-zakzaky.

Human Rights’ Perspective

The questions that readily come to mind regarding El-zakzaky’s detention and the imbroglio surrounding his detention are: Can an accused person be detained indefinitely without being tried in the court of law? Where a court grants an accused person bail, can the executive (Federal Government) disobey the order of the court? Should national security override the rule of law? Is it right for devotees of IMN to go on rampage in their demand for the release of their leader?

To start with, the constitution is explicit on citizens’ right to liberty, hence no person should be detained beyond 48 hours without being arraigned in court for trial. Where, in the case of El-zakzaky, he is detained for four years, it is a violation of his right to liberty. Where a court grants an accused person bail, the executive (Federal Government) must not and ought not to disobey the order of the court. Perhaps, there may be an Executive Order empowering the Executive to detain a citizen on grounds of national security. If there exists such an order, the order is inconsistent with the provision of Nigeria’s constitution and should be declared null and void. It is not right for devotees of IMN to go on rampage in their demand for the release of their leader. What the Nigeria’s constitution guarantees is the right to peaceful assembly.

Conclusion

In view of the foregoing, Lawyers Alert is of the view that the DSS should not continue to detain El-zakzaky and his wife indefinitely. They should obey the court’s order and release them forthwith. National security should not be the grounds for continuously detaining El-zakzaky. The solution is to release him UNCONDITIONALLY and if need be, he should be placed under surveillance. When this is done, it will go a long way in dousing the tension arising from the agitation of El-zakzaky’s devotees.

 
 

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THE CLASS ACT OF THE 8TH BENUE ASSEMBLY AND THE VAPP LAW

By Jerome Uneje

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“Hmmm…Torkwase my sister, so it’s true that everything about the domestication of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (VAPPA) is finally done and dusted! Hah…the glory of the 8th Benue Assembly and the Governor will never be erased from the memory of the Benue people o! At least vulnerable and indigent women, children and even men will benefit greatly with this VAPP Act as assented to in Benue State. The two Women smile and lean their backs against the wall at the same time.

The most recently rattled and misconstrued Law has finally seen the limelight. Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Bill like other bills presented to the National Assembly became a Law in May, 2015 and it seems to have overshadowed all other instruments and laws in Nigeria regarding the prohibition of all forms of discrimination against persons regardless of their sex and/or gender. This instrument enshrines the concerns and needs of vulnerable and indigent women including men and other groups who often fall victims of violence in Nigeria.

The Law which is applicable only at the  Federal Capital Territory had left the option to States at the Sub National level to domesticate the law in their respective States or otherwise. However it became imperative for the Law to be domesticated at the sub-national level especially in States such as Benue where on a daily basis, newspaper headlines are awash with killings, rape or maiming, particularly of spouse and/or lovers by husbands or man-lover, or rape of even minors like the case of Ochanya, who died from a gradual torture of rape by her so-called uncle and his son in Ugbokolo, Benue State and that of a young woman that was strangled to death by her husband for denying him sex in Plateau State and every 1 out of 3 women and/or young girls who suffer violence daily. All of those necessitated the propagation of the campaigning and advocacy for the VAPP Act to be domesticated in the State.

Be that as it may, the VAPP Law among other things has strengthened advocacy against rape, Female Genital Mutilation, partner battery, stalking, harmful widowhood practices by State Actors while prohibiting all forms of violence, including physical, sexual, psychosomatic, domestic, harmful traditional practices; discrimination against persons and to provide maximum protection and effective remedies for victims and punishment of offenders.  In as much as this all powerful legislation instrument has provided for the above, it has also initiated positive innovations such as prohibiting persons from being forcefully isolated or separated from their family and friends and preventing widows from being subject to harmful traditional practices. It has even gone ahead to provide for a Commission of Violence Against Women which will be responsible for the general supervision of the Bill while a Victim of Violence Trust Fund will be established to provide and manage victims of violence. Under the Trust Fund, rehabilitation programmes, shelters and rape centers will be provided to cater for victims of violence. This indeed is a huge and robust fortification especially for victims of violence.

The positive effect of this Law is overwhelmingly amazing as prior to this law only women could be raped as approved in other legal materials and in the true definition of the word ‘rape’ as well as penetration of the vagina and for this sole reason, only women could be said to be raped. However, this Law now provides that a man can also fall victim of rape. VAPPA is the first piece of legislation in Nigeria which recognises that men are capable of being raped and also recognizes that not only penetration of the vagina is acceptable. All other criminal statutes delineate the offence in relation to women.  The VAPP acknowledging that unlawful anal and/or oral sex can be rape and not sexual assault is therefore ground-breaking.

The above has truly shown that the Benue people at this point will be thoroughly protected by the appropriate application of this Law and in secure environment notwithstanding the degree and/or pedigree of persons involved in violations.

In conclusion, we express our warmest gratitude to the out gone 8th Benue Assembly for a great job well done. This singular act has demonstrated beyond every reasonable doubt that their tenure was people oriented and has therefore purged it of all shortcomings while the House lasted. We also commend the Executive Governor of Benue State His Excellency Samuel Ortom for his speedy action towards signing the bill into law. We also commend the doggedness of the Civil Society including FIDA, Lawyers Alert, The Civil Society Coalition in Benue, The Media and all other actors involved in the course of this struggle.

As the struggle continues, Torkwase and her friend Ada laugh out loud shake hands and stand up. They walk out of the room towards the door to catch up with a new day in a new Benue where the rights of Women and other vulnerable groups are fully protected under the Violence Against People Prohibition Act.

 

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FOI Act: Where His Lordship got it wrong

By Edetaen Ojo

IN a recent ruling, his lordship, Justice Gabriel O. Kolawole of the Federal High Court in Abuja suggested that the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 was somehow defective because it provides in Section 1(2) that an applicant seeking information from a public institution should not be required to demonstrate his or her interest in that information and called on the National Assembly to amend the Law to restrict its application.
Delivering his ruling in Suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/402/2013: Between Paradigm Initiative Nigeria vs. Dr. Reuben Abati, his lordship declared confidently, but unfortunately, quite erroneously, that there is no “country in the world, where access to all forms of public records are thrown open even to an Applicant who is not required to show any specific interest in the information requested from a public body.”
Perhaps, if his lordship had been more circumspect on a matter which, by his own admission, he is not very knowledgeable about or if he had focused strictly on the issue that was before him or if he had invited counsel in the matter to first address him on the issue, he would not have fallen into such a grave error.
It is clear from reading through the ruling that although the issue was not even before him, his lordship had an intense desire to express his unhappiness with the Freedom of Information Act as most of his ruling dwelt on extraneous issues, which unfortunately betrayed his lack of understanding of the applicable principles and the specific provisions of the Law.
It is now well established under international law that the right of access to information is a human right which states are obliged to give effect to through appropriate legislation.  This view is now well settled in a string of decisions of international courts, most notably the judgement of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Claude Reyes and Others vs. Chile, delivered on September 19, 2006.  The judgment is available at: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_151_ing.doc.
Being a human right, people should not be required to give reasons for seeking to exercise or enjoy their human right, in the same way no one should be required to give a reason before they can exercise or enjoy the right to life, the right to freedom of expression, personal liberty, freedom from torture or any other fundamental right.
Indeed, in Claude Reyes case, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held in Paragraph 77 of the decision that every person has a right to request information while states are under a positive obligation to provide it, adding that: “The information should be provided without the need to prove direct interest or personal involvement in order to obtain it, except in cases in which a legitimate restriction is applied.”
Most countries with FOI laws have this basic principle incorporated in their laws to allow anyone to request information without having to demonstrate any interest in the information.  Indeed, in some countries such as Finland, the Law specifically allows people to make anonymous requests to ensure that requesters are not discriminated against.
To give a few examples, stipulations that requesters need not provide reasons for their requests or demonstrate any interest in the information requested can be found in the FOI laws of the following countries: Serbia – Article 15(4); India – Section 6(2); Liberia – Section 3.2; Mexico – Article 40; South Africa – Section 11(3); Finland – Article 13(1); Uganda – Article 6; United Kingdom – Section 8; Sweden – Article 14(3); Brazil – Article 10(3); Australia – Article 11(2); Canada – Section 6; among dozens of others.
His lordship’s assertion that no country in the world allows people access to information without requiring them to demonstrate specific interest in the information requested, could therefore not be more wrong.
Not only do most FOI Laws specifically stipulate that persons seeking information should not be required to demonstrate a specific interest or need for the information, this is indeed one of the defining principles of such laws.  It is also one of the attributes of a good and strong FOI Law such that what his lordship is proposing effectively amounts to urging the National Assembly to weaken the Nigerian Freedom of Information Act.
FOI laws are guided by a set of principles, which define the strength and quality of such laws.  The very first set of principles were drawn up by Article 19, the International Centre Against Censorship, in London in 1999. Titled: “The Public’s Right to Know: Principles on Freedom of Information Legislation,” the principles were subsequently endorsed by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Protection and Promotion of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression as well as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
The Principles state that: “Public bodies have an obligation to disclose information and every member of the public has a corresponding right to receive information. Everyone present in the territory of the country should benefit from this right. The exercise of this right should not require individuals to demonstrate a specific interest in the information.”
Finally, his lordship’s proposition, if anyone were to actually attempt to give effect to the idea, is so untenable that it would be difficult to implement in any reasonable, practical or effective manner.
The idea would require that the National Assembly provides within the amended FOI Act a list of every conceivable reason or purpose that would be sufficiently acceptable or justifiable to entitle any person seeking information access to the information.
This is because if a person seeking information has to demonstrate a specific interest in the information or justify his or her need for the information, that interest or need would have to fall within a list of such reasons or needs that are recognised by the Law.
People seek information for such widely varied reasons, including a simple desire just to know, that it is difficult to imagine how the Law would approach such an exercise.  Going by his lordship’s views, the need or desire to know would, of course, not be an acceptable reason under this new FOI regime that he envisages.
An alternative could be having the National Assembly prescribe some standards that the interest or need stated by the person seeking information has to meet or satisfy.  Consequently, the Law would also have to give officials in all public institutions the discretion to determine if the stated interest or need meets or satisfies those standards.
In effect, officials of public institutions would have the right and power to say if your reason for seeking information is acceptable to them and, if not, to deny you the information.  It is not difficult to imagine how such a provision would be applied.
His lordship also expressed the view in his ruling that the FOI Act creates “a situation where scarce public resources, time and energy are permitted to be squandered in attending to a request for information which the person applying for it need not show that he needs”
It is quite unfortunate that his lordship considers it a waste of public resources, time and energy for public institutions to attend to the information needs of citizens and is unable to see the inherent benefits of a public policy which enables and indeed encourages citizens to demand accountability of their institutions and obliges those institutions to be transparent and accountable.
It has not been shown and indeed public institutions are not suggesting that operating a FOI regime in Nigeria has resulted in any substantial increase in costs to the government and other public authorities because most government agencies and departments in the country already have existing mechanisms for record keeping, although they might not be very efficient.  But even if the public institutions have to spend significant resources to improve their record-keeping and be accountable to citizens, such resources cannot be said to have been wasted by any stretch of the imagination.
The minimal cost element that may have arisen as a result of the enactment and implementation of the FOI Act would be justifiable given the immense benefits which a regime of access to information brings to the society by instituting greater transparency, accountability and efficiency.  Such costs ought to be seen by the government and his lordship in the light of the capacity of a Freedom of Information Act to advance democracy and enhance public participation. In addition, as time progresses and the public institutions become more efficient in their record keeping and in handling requests for information, the cost issues will reduce progressively.
The position of his lordship on these issues highlights the fact that while a good number of judges in Nigeria have made tremendous efforts to empower themselves on the jurisprudence of access to information laws, there is a burning need for the proper training of judges on what Justice Kolawole himself described in his ruling as “the novel nature of the rights” created by the FOI Act.
It is hoped that the National Judicial Institute (NJI) will take up this challenge and work with various interest groups sufficiently knowledgeable in this area to meet this need, which could be potentially embarrassing to the Judiciary if not addressed.
*Mr. EDETAEN OJO, a social critic, wrote from Lagos

 

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Governanace, Human Rights

 

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