A man is in jail for the heinous crime of disputing land with someone having more money and connections than he does. Like him, many prisoners groan under phoney charges by the police ably assisted by the judicial system. They seek justice, which eludes them because in Nigeria, justice is for sale and usually goes to the highest bidder.
I have read many negative stories about Nigeria’s judicial system—people being charged for crimes they did not commit, people being incarcerated without trial, people spending years awaiting trial for crimes that if found guilty of, only merit a few months’ sentence. These are no longer mere stories. They are now a new reality that I have witnessed.
About two weeks ago, I was informed that one of my uncles had been arrested by police officers, and taken straight to the Port Harcourt Prison. As I wondered about the reason for such an action, my mom offered some enlightenment. He had been locked in a land dispute with a certain man who chose to use the police as a lopsided supporter. This detention is a repeat performance. The first detention was settled in a police station where my uncle had to shell out about ₦400,000 to regain his freedom.
While we tried to locate any minuscule logic in his travails, we awaited his day in court. After a week in prison, he was brought to a courtroom. The court could not handle his case because the highly efficient police force did not present a case file. Thousands of detainees in Nigeria’s prison system face similar problems. Legal loopholes frustrate their tough search for justice. There is either no case file, or no prosecutor, or no prison vehicle to transport them to court.
Earlier this week, after another week in prison, he was brought before a judge. This time, the police officers submitted a poorly written charge sheet. He was charged with armed robbery, kidnapping (of his land opponent’s daughter), and illegal gun possession. To the best of his family’s knowledge, he was not arrested during a robbery, nor because of a robbery investigation, the police officers did not find any gun in his possession during his arrest, they did not even search his house. How can someone be charged with kidnapping based on another person’s accusation?
The judge refused to entertain the case, complaining that the charge sheet made no sense. It was obvious that a cocktail of charges were selected in a bid to elongate the man’s stay in prison. To make matters worse, the obnoxious charge sheet was not accompanied by a valid case file. The judge adjourned the case until September, expecting that by then, the police would present a credible case.
For my uncle, his sojourn in prison continues. Having a little bit of money, he has been able to pay for some comfort such as having a mattress to sleep on, while many prisoners sleep on the unforgiving bare floor, and getting protection from harassment inside the prison. His family has decided to restrict food visits as they have seen that the ₦2000 spent each day in paying prison officials to get homemade meals to him would cause financial distress if they continue. They are actively following up the police to ensure that a case file is available as soon as financial inducements can allow. That case file is their only hope of getting him out of prison.