Like those in many African countries, Nigeria’s prisons are severely overcrowded. This is due in large part to the glacial slowness with which cases proceed through the courts. It’s not common for prisoners to spend so much time awaiting trial that they’ve already exceeded the maximum possible sentence for their offense before their case is ever heard.
In Nigeria, judge Ishaq Usman Bello is confronting this issue. He’s leading a presidential commission on prison decongestion, and makes a point of regularly visiting the prisons in his jurisdiction so he doesn’t lose touch with the conditions there. The Guardian notes that his interventions have personally freed over 3800 prisoners, or about 5% of Nigeria’s entire population.
As the article notes,
Remand inmates make up about 69% of Nigeria’s prison population. While this is not high compared to many western countries, the length of time they spend awaiting trial is. In prisons where this data is available, most defendants have been on remand for between one and four years, some for more than a decade.
“In Rivers State, 14 people were awaiting trial for 15 years. Not one day were they taken to court,” Justice Bello told the Guardian, shaking his head. “We had to release them.”
Because there is no systematic way to monitor cases, defendants may simply be forgotten in prison. Data collected by the legal aid organisation, Network of University Legal Aid Institutions, shows that there are more than 160 cases where defendants have not been assigned a date for their next trial. “Some of them last attended court in 2017,” the network’s Charissa Kabir told me.