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.
If you’re in Nairobi on Saturday, February 15, stop by the launch of the Mothers of Victims and Survivors network at the Mathare Social Justice Centre from 10 am – 1 pm. They’re asking for attendance as an act of solidarity. The office is next to Olympic petrol station on Juja Road, Mathare.
Life isn’t easy anywhere in the DRC, least of all in its prisons. Some snapshots of Makala Prison, the largest detention center in Kinshasa:
The prison currently houses 8600 inmates in a space designed for 1500 (source)
Only 500 inmates have been convicted, while the rest are in pre-trial detention due to the exceptionally slow movement of the judicial system (source)
Most prisoners are fed by their families. Eleven prisoners who presumably lacked family support recently starved to death after the government stopped providing food or medication from October 2019 – January 2020 (source)
In 2017, over 4200 inmates escaped in the country’s largest-ever prison break (source)
A number of inmates were granted presidential clemency at the end of 2018, but 80% of them opted to remain in at the prison because they would have been homeless if they left (source)
Welcome to the latest edition of Africa Update! We’ve got the competitive rollerbladers of eastern DRC, the Nairobi governor’s prison break, African women on boards, the health threats of kids’ facepaint in Uganda, and more.
Here’s the latest edition of Africa Update. We’ve got a new metro system in Abidjan, culinary imperialism in Kenya, plans to refill Lake Chad with a giant canal, how hospitals in Malawi are getting men to do more housework, and more.