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Injustice to one is injustice to all

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It is often said that conflicts can never be completely avoided wherever humans settle; as far as there are humans there will always be a conflict of ideas and the way we handle such disagreements are very important. That is why every civilized society has a constitution that hinges on the total respect and supremacy of the rule of law; to keep everyone on a check, ensuring that no one breaks the law and possible victims of such crime get justice.

Sadly this hasn’t been the case in Nigeria, despite the availability of a not so perfect constitution, a working police force and a seemingly intellectual judiciary, the manner of settling disputes has somewhat been a shameful story. The Nigerian socio-political system has been set out to suit the rich and oppress the poor; the rich can easily evade the law, politicians use state security apparatus to intimidate fellow citizens and no one does anything about it.

In this paper, the Prison’s Rehabilitation and Law Abiding Organization International (PRALARG INT’L) takes us through a sad but true reality of the different kinds of inmates in our prisons, highlighting the possible reasons for their incarceration. As an organization that has stood at the forefront of human rights defence, prison inmates’ rehabilitation and reintegration for years, PRALARG INT’L has a priceless bank of knowledge and experience on the Nigerian set up as far as prison matters are concerned.

While there is no doubt that the correctional facilities in Nigeria are overpopulated by almost 110 percent, it is also no news that a lot of these inmates are being innocently detained owing largely to the unprofessionalism of the Nigerian police force and corrupt nature of the judiciary.  We definitely have some of these real criminals in our prisons; I mean those who actually committed the crimes that they were imprisoned for but it is also worthy of note that an appallingly large number of the inmates in our prisons are also incarcerated innocently over reasons that are clearly avoidable.  PRALARG INT’L has managed to come up with these categories based on our countless visits and personal encounters with these prisoners as through our rehabilitation programs and cases we have taken up and found out to be true cases of injustice.

We believe people need to know the right things for them to be able to do the right things. Nobody acts above their level of knowledge therefore a crime-free and law-abiding society means a society that understands the laws of the land and adheres to them.

  1. Those imprisoned on human rights abuses: The average Nigerian society is undoubtedly a vast crime scene, of different degrees. The political class has equally not made things any easier. Statistics’ predict that over 40 percent of inmates in Nigerian prisons are yet to undergo trial, and another 25 percent have had their cases adjourned into oblivion. This sad development has been further enabled by a corrupt police force that is bent on frustrating and brutalizing the citizens instead of protecting them.

There have been countless cases of police brutality in the country; both on the streets and upon arrest or detention in their stations. The recent protests nationwide have only but further exposed the atrocities of the Nigerian police force against its own citizens. These brutalities are so extreme that they force victims to write confessional statements admitting to having done things they did not do and at the end of the day send them to jail over nothing. The respect of fundamental human rights in Nigeria is a sham and the elites have adequately enabled the system of oppression of the poor by the rich.

It is rather unfortunate that a state apparatus meant for the equal protection of every citizen is now being used as a tool for oppression; so bad that the police can be sent to arrest someone without a warrant on grounds of simply acting on an order from a top government official based on personal rifts and such a person can actually be sent to prison and no one would even know or do anything about it.

We once had a case where a young man legitimately purchased a piece of land but wasn’t able to develop it at the time of purchase due to financial constraints; according to him, he even took a loan to help him purchase the land. Now after a few years, he was surprised to receive information that someone else was in the said land and even planning to build a structure.

He quickly rushed to the scene and approached the man to explain himself and hopefully straighten things out with him but he was surprisingly met with a hostile attitude from this stranger who clearly had top connections in the Nigerian police force and in no time had this gentleman, (who was the original owner of the land) locked up. Right in the station, he was tortured and forced to write a confessional statement with threats to be charged to court if he didn’t. he quickly obliged over a fear of the man using his seemingly high connect to send him to jail but after writing a confessional statement he was arraigned in court, tried and eventually sent to prison for the threat of life, no one was talking about the land. He could not afford good legal representation and his incarceration was made even easier; no appeals or whatsoever.

There are countless cases like these going on in the country daily; where rich people have their way to oppress the poor through their connections within the law enforcement agencies and our judiciary has also played their rather unfortunate part in the menace of corruption that has besieged the Nigerian state.

  1. Those who went into crime and got imprisoned based on unfortunate circumstances or lack of empowerment; not primarily from anything else but natural situations such as poverty, needs, lack, hunger and discrimination. With over 80 percent of the Nigerian population living below average, one can only imagine the level of hunger and hardship in the country. Unemployment rates are steadily up by about 63 percent and this isn’t a good number for a country in which the youths account for more than half of the population.

These poor and unemployed young men and women succumb to societal pressure and often go into one crime or the other just to fend for themselves and then they are apprehended and imprisoned. Years of interaction with these categories of persons in prison show that they deeply regret their actions and would have lived a different life if they were given the opportunity to work and properly fend for themselves.

On one of our prison inmates’ rehabilitation programs, the PRALARG INT’L team encountered a certain young man in prison. He was doing a couple of years for stealing but he was living a very comfortable life until he lost his mother in his teenage. Things went worse when his father married another woman who maltreated him with passion. He barely ate and when his stepmother managed to give him food, it was never sufficient and out of fear of being beaten he wouldn’t dare ask for more.

In no time he dropped out of school and upon years of maltreatment and oppression, he resorted to petty stealing; pickpocketing and shoplifting just to eat and his stepmother kept starving and maltreating him. The PRALARG team only confirmed this story after its own careful and thorough research on this young man and the family and we found out his story was true; we went as far as asking former neighbours of his and they gave the same testimony of his good behaviour as a teenager until his mother’s death and step mother’s maltreatment which ultimately led him into stealing and his eventual incarceration.

We were also informed about a particular robbery suspect who was apprehended somewhere in Ogun state Nigeria. According to the PUNCH newspaper that reported the case, officers of the Nigerian police force apprehended the young man who was said to forcefully break into a family home and after making everyone lie down, didn’t ask for valuables like phones, pieces of jewellery or money but went straight to the kitchen and prepared some food to eat. Witnesses confirmed he didn’t ask or take anything else; neither did he physically abuse any of the victims. He was on his way out of the apartment after eating to his satisfaction when he was apprehended.

These cases are funny as well as pitiable but it is clear the story of these young men would have been different if they were not only but victims of the harsh reality of the Nigerian society; of poverty, hunger and oppression. The first young man would have lived a better life if he hadn’t lost his mother; he certainly wouldn’t be in prison if he was well catered for and not maltreated by his stepmother just like the other would not be in police custody, awaiting trial if he had something to eat.

Like hundreds of thousands of Nigerian youths out there, who have no hope of where their next meal would come from, they constantly fall victim to self-defeat and societal pressure and end up in prison; a lot of them!

  1. We also have those who are in prison largely because of ignorance. Opera Winfrey once said, “If you know better, you will do better”. We believe she couldn’t have been more correct. Knowing the right thing means doing the right thing and it doesn’t have to do with literacy or formal education all the time but understanding intended actions and the consequences that they bear. Our prisons are full with inmates with very unfortunate and pitiable stories; most of whom are there because of their ignorance; some unknowingly bought stolen gadgets while others were arrested right in a crime scene they know absolutely nothing about. Others did petty things like just writing something implicative in their statements or probably made silly statements out of ignorance during their arrest or trial in court.

PRALARG INT’L has been privileged to meet inmates who fall under this category. A particular young man we came across was incarcerated for phone theft. PRALARG INT’L was able to verify that he didn’t actually steal the phone he was accused of stealing. He had purchased the said phone from a friend who claimed to have to also bought the phone recently but was in need of urgent cash and needed to sell it and he even issued him a receipt to that effect; this young man would ordinarily not have any reason for concern but unknowingly to him, the phone was actually stolen and was being tracked. Barely a week after purchasing the phone, officers of the police force storm his apartment with the stolen phone with him and he was arraigned in court and found guilty of theft. Apparently, this friend of his stole the phone and being aware of the imminent risk sold it off to him and ran away. When he wasn’t able to produce his friend, he was eventually imprisoned not because he stole; he was imprisoned because of his ignorance. If he had known the phone was stolen he wouldn’t have bought it and if only he understood the implications of being in possession of a stolen item he would have avoided the whole trade altogether.

There was also the case of a man who had innocently left his apartment for a friend who begged to allow him to spend the night with his lover. He obliged and allowed his friend has his apartment for the night while he hooked up with another friend only for him to return the next day to his own apartment and was immediately arrested by the police as a prime suspect for murder. Unknowingly to him, the girl whom his friend had brought to his house was found dead with signs of haven been used for rituals as some of her organs were reported to be missing. He couldn’t find his friend who brought the girl so his plea of innocence didn’t hold much water. He was arraigned in court and found guilty and was eventually condemn to death. this was another ugly case of ignorance as he was obviously not responsible for the lady’s death but had to go down for it because of his ignorance. It all started with a wrong step of trusting the wrong person; If only he had known the intentions of his friend, he would have refused his request to have his apartment for the night. These are very familiar stories among Nigeria inmates and it is quite sad more persons keep falling into such situations. We must learn to be very careful about the friends we keep and the privileges we allow them.

During lectures leading to the induction of new members into PRALARG INT’L, we do not fail to stress the importance of seeking relevant knowledge and taking extra caution in dealing with ‘friends’ as years of experience handling countless cases like these have proved the devastating consequences of ignorance and trusting the wrong people. That is why PRALARG INT’L among its numerous programs takes sensitization very seriously. We believe people need to know the right things for them to be able to do the right things. Nobody acts above their level of knowledge therefore a crime-free and law-abiding society means a society that understands the laws of the land and adheres to them.

  1. Lack of “out of court dispute resolution” – Whether with the genuine intentions of seeking justice or for malice, litigation can have very grave consequences if not properly handled. Some have even arraigned cases in court just out of anger or personal rifts with neighbours forgetting that they could be found wanting themselves, and only get to regret their actions when they are already deep into the matter.

It is quite funny that the relatively low number of Nigerians who are accustomed to litigation, do so with little or no knowledge of the implications of their actions; most never understand the seriousness of seeking redress in a court of law until they are being remanded in prison right on the first hearing. And even fewer understand that there are possible “out of court dispute resolution” where both parties can actually sit together and straighten out whatever differences they have; whatever form that might take is completely left for them to arrange but the goal is to resolve the dispute.

Nigerians need to understand that the law court is not the only trusted way to resolve disputes. The law court has no friend; its judgments are only based on valid arguments, available evidence and critical analyses, therefore, any visit there should worth it and considered the last resort after trying other possible legal means to settle the dispute.

Litigation in Nigeria is known to be very sensitive and yet ambiguous in nature with an ugly record of irregularities and corruption in the process. As it is fondly called, it is a very lucrative business of lies not just from the part of the judges and lawyers but also among clients, defendants and accused, among witnesses, normal citizens.

This itself has had its negative effect on the incarceration toll in the country as people are known to formulate unimaginable lies just to implicate their opponents or appear innocent thereby foiling the course of justice by probably having the innocent and wrong set of people in jail.

PRALARG INT’L was privileged to intervene in a debt case that escalated some time ago; two brothers who were businessmen sold fishes worth about twenty thousand nairas for a particular man. Way long after the promised date, he didn’t show up to redeem his debt and when they asked after him, they learnt he had relocated and ran away with their money. About a year later, they saw this same man who owed them about 20 thousand naira and quickly chased after him. As they struggled to get hold of him they took his bag but he succeeded in running away from them.

This man ran away and headed straight to the police station, reporting that some thieves had just snatched his bag and that he had over 400,000 naira in it. The police quickly followed him and he led them to the two brothers and they were arrested as crime suspects accused of stealing 400,000 naira. PRALARG INT’L was contacted and swung into action once we were properly briefed and confirm the authenticity of the story.

We demanded through our legal representation that the police should confirm the source of the said 400,000 thousand naira the man claimed was stolen from him. If he had withdrawn it from the bank as he claimed, then there should be proof but he couldn’t provide that because it was obviously a lie. After some other formalities, the case was withdrawn and they were released the next day and that was even because we stepped up to handle the situation.

Civil cases these days tend to encourage people to lie against each other, writing false police statements just to stand a better chance of winning. Now, in this case, these two brothers were innocently remanded in a cell for a night, accused of suspected theft of 400,000 naira when all they were trying to do was reclaim their debt even though they made a wrong decision by forcefully seizing his bag. Both of them clearly didn’t have a good time in the cell and the debtor didn’t have a nice time either going through the embarrassment and police settlements when his lies were discovered but the truth is all of it could have been avoided if they had opted for an out of court settlement and probably engaged a trusted third party to act as a mediator between them.

Asides the financial commitment required to pursue a case in a judicial system like ours, the fact that the law court doesn’t just settle disputes but also punishes offenders is enough reason to consider out of court settlement before deciding to arraign a case there; but most people are ignorant about this until it is too late and then we have more people unnecessarily in prison; over issues that could have been avoided or easily settled out of court without such grave consequences.

  1. And then finally we have those who are actually criminal-minded: Just as we have the law-abiding citizens in every state, so do we have the criminally minded individuals; those who are absolutely out to cause mayhem in the society and disturb public peace and safety. And sadly this isn’t something that we can abruptly put an end to; but can only be reduced and gradually eradicated by means of good governance, strategic economic and socio-political development but unfortunately, Nigeria doesn’t have so much of that; for instance, a good society where there are adequate job opportunities for the youths will definitely lead to a drastic reduction in crime rates. As we have seen with most countries, the crime rate is always proportional to the level of youth unemployment.

Over the years, in our bid to reduce recidivism, PRALARG  INT’L has rehabilitated and carefully tried to reintegrate some ex-convicts back into the society; why we celebrate our success on some cases; there are some persons who personally decide not to change despite efforts to make them better. They still end up committing more crimes and ending back up in prison; not out of any circumstance but their intentional decision to live a life of crime.

Certainly, not everyone in our prisons is innocent, there are those who are actually guilty of the respective crimes that got them incarcerated but it is however shocking that these set of persons mostly only make up a lesser percentage of the inmates in Nigerian prisons. These statistics indicate an abnormally in our incarceration process as those who are actually supposed to be in prison only make up a minute percentage of the total numbers of inmates; it only further exposes the fact that we have the wrong set of people in our prisons; the innocent, the oppressed, and the poor.

It is also worthy of note that despite the steady surge in crime rates across the country, PRALARG INT’L has been able to establish that there is a relatively low number of hardened criminals in our prisons as most of them fall in the categories earlier mentioned and the crimes committed by these inmates are avoidable and could have been avoided if they had better opportunities or knew better. This also hints on the terrible socio-political situation of the country; that Nigerians are not criminals as the world sees us but the harsh society, poverty and hunger have forced most of our youths into a life of crime.

Conclusively, as much as this article highlights on the different circumstances and unjust reasons why some people are in Nigerian prisons; it is also a wakeup call for all of us to think about the reality of the Nigerian society, the oppression and countless vices therein and decide to put in conscious effort to make a positive impact on the nation. Like Bishop Desmond Tutu rightly said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”. The change we seek requires more than just the efforts of Comrade Akinwunmi or PRALARG INT’L alone, but every single one of us.

If we truly desire a society where equity and justice are accessible to all despite financial or social status, then we should be ready to become intolerant in the face of oppression or corruption whether it’s in our favour or not. If a police officer would not take bribes and respect the fundamental human rights of every suspect if judges will not be corrupt and truly uphold justice if we have more volunteers committed to noble courses like ours to make the world a better place; there will be huge differences.  In this fight, both our actions and inactions count; the very moment we turn a blind eye when we see a poor man being oppressed, we somewhat enable the oppressor and posterity will judge us as accomplices of evil. May we always step in the right direction!

Comrade Olayemi Akinwunmi.

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