A Compelling Reason to Behave in Nigeria

A Compelling Reason to Behave in Nigeria

En route to prison in Lagos.

SourcePius Utomi Ekpei/Getty

Why you should care

Because what good is a corrupt justice system if you never get to see a judge?

A lot of life can happen in three years. You can earn a law degree, watch a newborn grow into a toddler, start a company called Facebook and grow it from zero users to 100 million. In Nigeria, you might also spend as long waiting in jail to see a judge.

Nigerian detainees spend an average of 3.7 years behind bars while awaiting trial.

But it’s not uncommon to hear of someone being detained for even longer, according to multiple human rights reports, which cite the 3.7 years figure. Then the trials themselves often last multiple years. The kicker? Very few people are convicted once they make it before a judge. Only 28 percent of inmates, or fewer than 18,000, are serving actual sentences.

The percentage of Nigeria’s incarcerated who fall into the innocent-until-proven-guilty category is very similar to another country’s: America. In the States, 70 percent of people in jail haven’t been convicted of a crime. Tosin Osasona, who now works for the Center for Public Policy Alternatives in Lagos but used to be a lawyer, recalls the case of a young man. The 15-year-old had been playing football at a construction site with friends when another boy was either pushed or fell onto an iron rod and died. The teenager spent a decade locked away and was in his 20s when the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria learned of his case. The charges were eventually dropped, says Osasona. The prison guard service did not respond to requests for comment, but in news accounts a public information officer has confirmed the long pretrial detentions and said the government is actively working to address the problem.

Many factors influence the lengthy wait times, a primary one being that very few prisoners have access to lawyers. Several international and local organizations have started programs to provide lawyers to indigent inmates in small jurisdictions and have had success improving the pipeline. Northwestern associate law professor Juliet Sorensen also points out that Nigeria is the most populous African country but has relatively few resources, which has left criminal justice institutions grossly unequipped. Like the States, Nigeria has adversarial courts, and it’s up to police to collect all evidence. Without resources, there is a tendency to turn to torture for confessions, says an Open Society Foundation report. At the same time, a relatively young democracy, the concept of mob justice is still very much woven into Nigeria’s culture, so people expect alleged criminals to be punished immediately. “The idea of a trial is alien,” says Osasona.

But the percentage of Nigeria’s incarcerated who fall into the innocent until proven guilty category is very similar to another developed country’s: America. In the States, 70 percent of people in jail haven’t been convicted of a crime. But “we don’t have the same excuses,” Sorensen says.

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