Don't Get Arrested in Nigeria

In 1990, Ernest N. was an 18-year-old living in Ngor-Okpala, Nigeria, with a bright future ahead of him. Then, one day, he was arrested by police and held in jail on suspicion of robbery. The problem was, the alleged victim of the robbery did not exist and there were no witnesses to it. The only facts the police had were Ernest’s statement denying the allegations of robbery. His case never went to trial. Instead, Ernest remained in detention for 18 years.

In 2008, Ernest was finally released following the intervention of lawyers from the Legal Aid Council of Nigeria (LACON) and the non-governmental organization, Rights Enforcement & Public Law Centre (REPLACE). While he was in detention, Ernest’s father and mother died. No one told him. When he came out in 2008, Ernest did not know how to get home. So much had changed while he was unjustly detained. The cruelest irony was that if Ernest had been convicted for the crime of robbery, the sentence would have been a fraction of the years he spent rotting in jail, waiting for a trial that would never happen.

Oliver M.’s experience was not much different. In 1985, the police in Owerri, in southeast Nigeria, arrested Oliver, then 19, on suspicion of murder. No trial ever took place, and, despite the allegation of such a serious crime, he was never charged before a competent court. Rather, he was left to sit in detention, waiting endlessly for his day in court. It never came. Twenty-one years later, in July 2006, Oliver finally regained his freedom as a broken 40-year-old.

Ernest’s and Oliver’s experiences are not isolated. In 2006, the Nigerian Prison Service reported that the average period of pre-trial detention in Nigeria was nearly four years. The population awaiting trial is large and growing. In June 2010, Nigeria’s Interior Minister, Emmanuel Iheanacho, a retired Navy Captain, reported that across the country over 30,000 persons out of the total prison population of nearly 46,000—over 65%—were being held in detention while awaiting trial.

Four factors sustain this state of affairs. First, many victims of lengthy pre-trial detention are poor and therefore unable to afford the three essential “b’s” of the criminal justice system—bribe, bail, and barrister. Second, the allocation of responsibilities among law enforcement institutions is not coordinated. For example, even though most offences are state-created, states’ attorneys general do not have oversight of the police and the prisons. In practice, this means that the attorneys general, as chief law officers, cannot monitor the movement of suspects into and out of detention facilities within the state, and, therefore, cannot ensure compliance with the constitutionally guaranteed right to trial within a reasonable time. Third, the law requires police to investigate complaints and allegations before arrest. Regrettably, the reverse is the case in Nigeria. Finally, criminal procedure laws in most Nigerian states allow police the liberty to secure indefinite pre-trial detention orders from magistrate courts even in respect of charges—such as armed robbery and homicide—over which they do not have trial jurisdiction.

For many caught in the system and awaiting trial, early access to legal advice and representation would have made a difference. Recognizing this, the Open Society Justice Initiative, LACON and REPLACE pioneered a Police Duty Solicitors Scheme (PDSS) in 2004. The scheme, which is being implemented in six states—Imo, Edo, Ondo, Kaduna, Kebbi and Sokoto—places lawyers inside designated police stations on a 24-hour rotational basis to render legal advice and assistance to detainees. Under a Memorandum of Understanding between the Inspector-General of Police, LACON, REPLACE, and the Open Society Justice Initiative, the police has agreed to allow lawyers working under this scheme access to its cells.

The result of this experiment has been dramatic. In 2005, the program’s first full year, the scheme got 1255 people awaiting trial out of detention. The scheme also achieved notable reductions in duration of pre-trial detention in Ondo (30.47%), Imo (88.41%), Kaduna (86.26%) and Sokoto (60.97%).

In 2008 alone, 16 lawyers in these four states had access to 3,200 detainees and suspects, diverting or releasing 2,857 suspects from detention. On the average, each detainee spent seven days in jail—a striking figure, when you consider the national average is 46 months. Increasing the number of participating lawyers and paralegals, as well as the number of participating police stations, could potentially eliminate the likelihood of a repeat of stories like those of Oliver M. and Ernest N.—both of whom were released after becoming clients of the scheme.


Thats Nigeria for you and most Policemen are happy working in the east where they have the liberty of doing anything without question. Did you investigate that matter? Was any police man indicted? Then why do you think change will come?
Sorry for my next statement== Why is it that in any bad example of things, the east is always used? A preacher is given example of thieves that had been converted, the east! Example of burnt shrines, the east! And of course you toed the line. In given the states that interventions are going on you had a geographic spread but in the example you did not consider reporting those from other zones. For there to be interventions there, that means there are such cases. Well, it is not your fault, it is our portion with God. Sorry about this but it is truth! Hard Truth!

Dear Dr. Clifford, many thanks for your comment/questions. This statement is not necessarily about the police (although they play an important role in the pretrial process) and certainly not about the east. We've got a publication on the police titled "Criminal Force: Torture, Abuse, and Extrajudicial Killings by the Nigeria Police Force", which you may wish to read. It is available on our website As you correctly observed, we have the police duty solicitors scheme in 6 locations across Nigeria. It just so happens that the most eggregious cases that our partner institution has handled so far came from Imo state. It does not mean that lengthy pretrial detention does not exist in our other locations.

Many thanks Stanley, it makes very interesting reading. We were recently discussing how widespread this problem is- it's a key feature of the criminal justice systems of many African countries. The practice will gradually change if we continue inundating the authorities and the Courts with calls for change.

A lot of resources have been put into justice sector reform across Africa, but clearly reforming only one sphere- the focus has been on the judiciary - makes no sense if the criminal justice system isn't looked into as a whole.

The various strategies; lobbying, advocacy, litigation will generate the necessary change if the authorities are committed to creating conducive environments that would enable change.

I do agree that the problem is widespead in Africa and that the common prescription has been to focus on the resourcing of the judiciary. It is important to appreciate that the persons who need and deserve justice deserve more focus. The courts adjudicate, in the common law system, when two adversories appear before them. It takes a lot to appear before a court and the sooner attention was placed on the capacity of the parties seeking justice to access it in the courts the better it would be for the collective security and welbeing of all and their investments.
The pathetic stories told by Ibe in the story of arrested persons in Nigeria is not very different from those in Ghana. The cases of Oliver and Ernest sound very much like those of Asumah Moshie and Dan Amdzro in Ghana. A crash programme by which court sittings have been organised in prisons have reduced the incidence of detainees for long periods without subsisting court warrants. But until the constitutional right of those poor people to lawyers and equality before the law is made realizable by provision of legal aid, the relief over the past year will only be a lull before the storm.

Many thanks for your comment Mr. Seini. I agree that access to court is critical but more important is access to justice, which the courts do not necessarily represent. if cases linger in our courts for longer than the punishment prescribed for crimes, justice is denied!

Whose duty is it to make the right to counsel realizable? the bar associations? government? the judiciary? a combination of all?

I totally agree with you Judy. However, i think we can play a more proactive role in shaping policy directed at changing things. For example, with JI support, REPLACE has led advocacy directed at state chief judges urging them to introduce practice directions to cap the duration of pre-charge detention. 3 states - Lagos, Ondo and Sokoto now have practice directions capping duration of pre-charge detention. As simple as this sounds, a note on the remand warrant directing detaining/investigating authorities to return suspect to court on a specified date can make the difference between spending 9 days and 9 years in prison.

"if the authorities are committed to creating conducive environments that would enable change"...we need to help make that happen by setting an agenda and holding them accountable for their commitments.

Yahaya Seni's is right about the situation in Ghana. I believe what the CJ has instituted is in the right direction but there is more that can be done.The Bar association need to be more proactive if its proper role in society is to be acived; obeservance of The Rule of Law.
I had made a suggestion to the Bar Counciul sometime ago that the Human Rights Committee of the regional bars should have committrees visiting police stations regularly to ensure that no one is detained beyond the 48 hours prescribed by the constitution. Also that the courts by the use of new electronic gadgets could monitor those they remand in custody to insure thary are regularly brought to court. There is also the need to prescribe time limit within which an accused should be tried for an offence. The constitution states within a reasonable time. There ought to be a definition of reasonable time and if an accused is not treid within the reasobale time then he ought to be released.
The prisons have no authority to releas a prisoner whose warrant has expitred; we need to find away out to this to have the 'prison lawyer' apply to the courts to relaease those inmates whose warrant has expired.
We lawyers have more work to do to aid in the enforcement and enjoyment of human Rights

Its a very interesting case study which we have used in our orientation session with the Magistrates and Police Prosecutors. Here in Malawi, we have our own sad tales as well.

Thanks Stanley for this insightful piece. It would be interesting to see further advocacy around the results you have already posted particularly with the Police (who, in my opinion, single-handedly bear the greatest responsibility for this awaiting trial syndrome. The existing system is so weak and the officers themselves pliable that we have heard people boast of being able to 'lock' someone up 'indefinitely' as a suspect of some trumped up charge. can we also pursue a review of these procedural laws? And perhaps extend this partnership to the Nigeria Bar Association and Prisons Authorities. Well done on the good work. Its making a huge difference.

Interesting piece Stanley. It paints such a vivid picture of the realities on the ground. I agree totally with Mr. Seini. The problem is so widespread on our continent that the title could easily have been "Don't get arrested in Africa". The criminal justice sector in most African countries if not all,is dysfunctional at best. I am sure if the police had been a little deligent and other justce agencies were up and doing in Ernest's case he would not have waited for 8 years to be free. We have so many Ernests and Olivers in our detention centres and we need to be their voice and challenge the system. I agree wih Judy that until a holistic look is taken at the justice sector not much can be done. Yes the police are the starting point but tackling them and leaving the other agencies (A-G, Judiciary, Prison)will have little impact. The benefits of a coordinated approach to justice sector reform can be seen in Uganda for example.

Also, Promoting the idea of paralegals at police stations and detention centres is very beneficial Currently CHRI through its Justice Centres Project has filed for wright of Habeas Corpus for 2 suspects who had the potential of becoming other Ernests and Olivers. They were arrested on suspicion of roberry and have been detained for 5 months yet have not been sent to court ever. CHRI paralegals attending those police stations heard their cases and liaised with a lawyer who agreed to take their case pro bono. During the one year the Justice Centres have been operating a number of suspects who had been detained for periods ranging from 3 to 7 years have either been granted bail or released due to the effort of paralegals who liased with lawyers, the police and A-G's department. On a continent where lawyers are in short supply, paralegals are an option worth considering if indigents will be able to access and benefit from justice delivery.

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