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70% of Nigeria prison inmates await trial

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By Usman Oladimeji

There are accused people spending 12 to 15 years awaiting trial in Nigeria.

Currently there are over 76,000 Nigeria prison inmates, housed in 240 correctional centres and about 70% of them are still awaiting trial. They have been arrested and charged but not yet convicted or cleared. This is the highest percentage of awaiting-trial prisoners in Africa. World Prison Brief’s latest report shows that Ghana is 12.4%, while South Africa accounts for 32.9%. Nigeria’s constitution, section 36(5), enshrined the presumption of innocence, which states that every person charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until their guiltiness is proven legally.

But to be realistic in the Nigerian system, several researchers have revealed that many people accused of crimes are presumed guilty, arrested and imprisoned before their cases are investigated. Also, the court system beset by delays and backlogs has been proven to contribute to the delay of inmates’ trials. According to a report, accused people could spend 3 to 10 years awaiting trial in the US and 12 to 15 years in Nigeria. Under section 296 of the 2015 Administration of Criminal Justice Act, which states that the period of the remand should not exceed 28 days, the long wait is practically against the law.

Study reveals approaches to address the trial delay.

In the government’s efforts to address the situation, there have been some free legal services through the Legal Aid Council, which provides free legal assistance and representation, legal advice and alternative dispute resolution to indigent Nigerians. This is geared towards ensuring Nigerians access to justice, but the problem persists and seems intractable, which has propelled the notion of a technological solution in a view that it might help enhance the issue of backlogs. Following the imperative need to discover and address the impediments inducing long awaiting-trial periods, a study was carried out at two correctional centres in Abakaliki and Afikpo, towns in Ebonyi State in southeast Nigeria.

As a result, it was discovered that the major causes of delays include the slow pace of investigation by the police, the loss of case files, the inadequate court system, and poor access to lawyers. According to the findings, a repository portal system could help address most of the issues delaying trials. The portal would be a database where information about accused persons and their current trial status would be stored and easily accessible. Material relating to investigations and police findings could be uploaded to the portal, which would automatically allocate cases, depending on the nature of the alleged offences, to the relevant court.

The repository system is the first-ever in the African continent.

Additionally, this would aid in addressing the challenges of loss or manipulation of data by criminal justice agents, such as the police and correctional centre officials. It also tackles the challenges posed by sorting through large files manually. Such a system will be the first-ever in the African continent. On the study carried out, it was focused on 1,343 inmates at Abakaliki and Afikpo correctional centres, out of which 845 (63%) were awaiting trial. Structured questionnaires and unstructured in-depth interviews were used, with a sample of 1,498 respondents drawn from the Nigerian criminal justice agencies and awaiting trials.

Participants were asked about experiences incurred in the criminal justice system, whether the processes were automated or manual, and how the process affected their experience. This was channeled to identifying the gaps caused by manual methods in the system and determining how information and communication Technology could bridge the gap. Some of the problems identified are losses of case files, degradation of evidence, delays in preparing inmates for court appearances and concluding cases, and improper allocation of cells. This has questioned Nigeria’s criminal justice bureaucracy system, which operates on a manual process.

Criminal justice agents also support the repository system.

Furtherly, it was discovered that 39.1% of the police officers (241 of 617), 69% of the prison officials (100 of 145) and 53.1% of the court officials (60 of 113) support the notion that automation of the criminal justice processes using a repository system could help address the delays. Likewise, the interviewed criminal justice agents also emphasized the importance of linking and automating all the agencies with a repository system. It was proposed that the information on the portal should categorize offences as simple, misdemeanor or Felony and controlled by an organized independent body.


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