The fight to free Nigeria’s prisoners

Two-thirds of the country’s inmates haven’t even been on trial yet. Nosmot Gbadamosi speaks to an all-woman law firm fighting for their rights.

Nigeria's security forces have long been accused of brutality, harassment,
extorting citizens and locking them up if they are unable to pay.

Olumide sits in the overcrowded courtyard of Ikoyi correctional facility in Nigeria’s commercial city Lagos. He is pleading with a lawyer to take up his case. The inmate, whose surname is being withheld because his trial has not started, worries about how he will find another job if ever he is released. But right now he’s also starving.

‘I don’t have any person to help out with food,’ he says explaining that many prisoners are reliant on family members bringing in food and medicine or are forced to go without. More than 3,000 prisoners are housed at Ikoyi which was built for a capacity of 800. Human rights campaigners have warned this risks outbreaks of coronavirus.

On 13 November 2019 Olumide, who is a driver, had been waiting for a bus after a night out clubbing with friends. He says a group started running towards him shouting ‘stop thief’ and shortly after he was arrested by police for a robbery of spare parts that had taken place in a nearby store. He has been in prison for almost six months without a trial.

More than two-thirds of Nigeria's prison inmates are pre-trial detainees, some having spent decades behind bars, waiting for a trial. 

But an all-women, non-profit law firm is fighting to tackle this. They provide free legal services in one of the most punitive judicial systems in the world. ‘Most of the cases are minor offences: someone that stole noodles, stole gala [sausage roll], very flimsy things,’ says lawyer Oluyemi Orija. ‘They can’t afford legal representation so they continue to wallow in prison.’

In 2018, Orija launched the Headfort Foundation, which has so far helped free more than 100 inmates. The firm’s three staff lawyers are supported by a tiny team of eight volunteers. Once every few months, they visit prisons in Lagos and speak to poor inmates struggling to find adequate representation.

Defendants are often innocent, says Orija: ‘They are being picked up at the roadside and if you cannot give the police their financial demands then you might just end up serving some time in prison.’ She explains that the firm runs an emergency line for citizens harassed by police.

Nigeria's security forces have long been accused of brutality, harassment, extorting citizens and locking them up if they are unable to pay. This often results in long pre-trial prison stays. New Internationalist has heard testimonies from people who say they were made to sign statements by police they could not read or understand.

A 2016 Amnesty International report accused Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police officers of regularly demanding bribes from suspects. During the Covid-19 lockdown,  police launched an internal inquiry and arrested an officer who was seen in a video extorting 40,000 naira (about $100) from a motorist in Lagos.

President Muhammadu Buhari made reforms to Nigeria's Prison Service last year, changing the name to Correctional Service and promising to speed up trials. In April 2020, Buhari pardoned 2,600 prisoners who were elderly, terminally ill or had less than six months left to serve on sentences of three years or more. This was to reduce a possible spread of coronavirus. However, there were more than 51,000 awaiting trial out of 73,756 prisoners, according to the Nigerian Correctional Service and the situation inside prisons remains dire.

‘We are suffering,’ says one prisoner who asked to remain anonymous because of the stigma associated with being imprisoned. ‘It is very hard in here if you don’t have anyone that can bring you food and essential care.’

In December, five inmates were fatally electrocuted at Ikoyi as a result of overcrowding. While regretting the incident, the controller general of corrections, Ja’afaru Ahmed said through the centre’s spokesperson Francis Enobore that the cell in which it happened had a capacity for 35 but at the time was accommodating 140.

Most of the people in the prison don’t even know their rights, says Isa Sanusi, an Amnesty International Nigeria spokesperson. Adding that even though government has promised several times to have been improving or trying to reform SARS and other units of the Nigerian police, nothing has changed.

Anietie Ewang, Human Rights Watch Abuja-based researcher, says greater accountability is needed within the system to ensure citizens are not unnecessarily detained. ‘Many have been in custody for above five or six years awaiting trial which is alarming,’ she adds.

Orija views judges as equally culpable, For instance, somebody could be taken to court for the very first time and the judges will not even look at the charge. The first thing that comes to their mind is to remand the person, whether this is even a reasonable charge, she says.

Headfort’s ambitious plan is to have a desk at every court staffed by volunteer lawyers that can stand in for those who arrive with police to be remanded.

But beyond that, ‘nobody wants to be associated with an ex-inmate so the vision in the foundation is to help them get back on their feet anyway we can,’ says associate lawyer Hairat Suleiman, ‘first to rehabilitate them and then to train them.’

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.