The Christmas Season is upon us. Whether you celebrate it or not, the season is one that surely makes a mark on the greatest number of persons on earth, cutting across all countries. Some might see it as just another overblown, commercialised holiday, or argue that it was appropriated from a pagan festival, hence, should be ignored or re-appropriated. But for us, it is a season to reflect on life, the gift of sacrifice, and gratitude for our lives’ journeys and the privileges bestowed on us. So, let me start by wishing you a truly Merry Christmas!
Before diving into the meat of this article, let me quickly comment on Christmas in today’s Nigeria. As some of my colleagues would strongly assert, if you (or your family) could afford to buy any live animal for the festivities (despite PETA’s protestations), then you are a cash-loaded ritualist! Whereas many of us may be oblivious of the level of poverty across the country, people are really suffering from a double whammy of low incomes and high inflation (especially food inflation) thanks to the Nigerian economy struggling to stay on its feet. It would be fair to note that many other countries are also struggling at this time, though we have extra self-inflicted wounds. Howbeit, while we all look forward to a stronger economy next year, if you can, please show some love to compatriots near you.
So, we return to our Christmas reflection. By spousal proclamation, we went to a cinema to watch Battle on Buka Street, a new movie by the actress-turned-politician, Funke Akindele. Although my cinema attendance was mandatory (by declaration!), it turned out to be a very good use of three hours. Fortunately, as a good citizen, I won’t be giving out any movie spoilers (except one), but I can assure you that it is an excellent movie. Any person who watches this movie and does not laugh at the numerous comical scenes must have problems that only Jesus can fix.
[Spoiler alert] In the movie, it was casually mentioned that one of the characters had spent years in jail awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit. When this was mentioned, I recalled seeing some reports stating that over 70% of the prison population in Nigeria are awaiting trial. The situation is so unbelievable that you could be arrested for a petty crime for which the legally mandated punishment might be say two months in prison, but you then spend years in prison waiting to get a chance to stand before a judge who would sentence you to the stipulated two months period. How does this make any sense? And why have we allowed this to continue for decades?
Every year, we see a couple of news reports stating that the judicial system is being reformed, so and so prisoners have the released on compassionate grounds or after a review of their case files, many times championed by some NGOs, showed that they had no business being in prison, and then there would be some lamentation on the abundance of inmates awaiting trial in the prisons. But then, nothing dramatic happens, and we rinse, repeat, and bring up the same script the following year. Just like many things across Nigerian society, we usually know the issues but do not seem willing to take down the demons responsible.
While I am not a wearer of old English wigs, I think some of the causes of this sad phenomenon are public information, including a paper-based judicial system that manages to handle not-too-many cases each year, while embracing the doctrine of adjournments. For one, I cannot fathom why someone who steals a goat should be taken to a prison. The same way we have mobile courts for traffic offences, we surely can have something similar that handles petty crimes for quick resolution of offences that can easily be handled with a small fine or a big knock to the frontal lobe. Then, I think if we had some rule that says no person is allowed to be in a prison without relevant documentation, we would have some relief. This is because we have heard of cases where someone is in prison and cannot be released because there is no document showing why he is in prison. So, we get a Catch-22 situation where someone cannot be released from prison yet cannot be charged to court. If we had, say a quarterly review of all prisoners and anyone not documented gets expedited release, while all officials involved are punished, some of the wicked acts would stop, and we would be more conscious about preserving records.
The same would apply to alleged cases where corrupt police and prison officials have kidnapped unfortunate persons and committed them to prison as “replacement” for real criminals. The documentation is likely to be cooked up, so should assumably fail to pass periodic reviews, especially as the National Identity Number gets wider roll-out, linking names to faces and other biometric information. Asides addressing the issue of prisoners awaiting trial, enforcing proper documentation would also fix an issue seen with a certain former governor who argued that a prison record belonged to someone else bearing his name.
During the quarterly reviews, we could also ensure that anyone who has spent up to 75% of the time that would have applied if he or she were to be found guilty is freed unconditionally without being recorded as a convict. The remaining 25% of the supposed sentence would be the country’s gift for failing to prosecute the case on time. Any person who is innocent and believes there is a chance to prove this, can then muster the required resources to seek remedy for the time wrongly spent in jail.
Unlike the United States that has several for-profit prisons, all Nigerian prisons are government-owned, so ideally, there should not be any incentive to bloat the prison population, except some principalities are making money from having many Nigerians locked up away from their families. But regardless of the demons behind this scourge, Nigeria needs to fix this mess. Imagine spending ten Christmases behind bars just because some random police officer picked you up for a non-existent crime and somehow delivered you to a prison without filing any useful paperwork. As crazy as this may sound, it is a reality that can happen. You just need to offend the wrong person.
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