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Nigeria: Prison System Report

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Feb 26, 2008 (080226)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Nigeria's prisons are filled with people whose human rights are systematically violated. Approximately 65 per cent of the inmates are awaiting trial most of whom have been waiting for their trial for years. Most of the people in Nigeria's prisons are too poor to be able to pay lawyers, and only one in seven of those awaiting trial have private legal representation." - Amnesty International

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the press release and excerpts from the report released today in Abuja. For the press release and a link to the full report see

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Nigeria, and additional links and background, see

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Nigeria: Criminal justice system utterly failing Nigerian people; majority of inmates not convicted of any crime

Amnesty International Press Release

February 26, 2008

For a full copy of the report visit or contact Eliane Drakopoulos, Press Officer, Amnesty International, Email: Tel: +44 207 413 5564, Mobile: +44 7778 472 109

(Abuja, Nigeria) Amnesty International today exposed the appalling state of Nigeria's prison system, saying that Nigeria's prisons are filled with people whose human rights are being systematically violated.

The organization said that the criminal justice system is utterly failing the Nigerian people, calling it a "conveyor belt of injustice, from beginning to end."

In a detailed and scathing 50-page report, the organization reveals how at least 65 percent of Nigeria's inmates have never been convicted of any crime, with some awaiting trial for up to ten years; how most in Nigerian prisons are too poor to afford a lawyer, with only one in seven awaiting trial having access to private legal representation -with only 91 legal aid lawyers working in the country; and how appalling prison conditions, including severe overcrowding, are seriously damaging the mental and physical health of thousands.

Torture by police is also routine and widespread, with "confessions" extracted by torture often used as evidence in trials.

"The problems in Nigeria's criminal justice system - especially its prisons -- are so blatant and egregious that the Nigerian government has had no choice but to recognize them -- and has pledged many times that it will reform the system," said Aster van Kregten, speaking at a press conference in Abuja.

"However, the reality is that those in prison stand little chance of their rights being respected. Those without money stand even less chance. Some could end up spending the rest of their lives behind bars in appalling conditions without ever having been convicted of a crime -- sometimes simply due to their case files having been lost by the police."

"Many inmates awaiting trial are effectively presumed guilty - despite the fact that there is little evidence of their involvement in the crime of which they are accused."

Amnesty International also revealed how all too often, people not suspected of committing any crime are imprisoned along with convicted criminals. Some were arrested in place of a family member the police could not locate; others suffer from mental illness and were brought to prison by families unable or unwilling to take care of them. Most have no lawyer to advocate on their behalf.

In one such case, Bassy, a 35-year-old woman with mental illness, was brought to prison by her brother, who said the family could no longer cope with her. Prison authorities classified Bassy as a "civil lunatic." Accused of no crime and never brought before a judge, Bassy spent almost three years in prison, sleeping on the floor in a cell with 11 women. After the intervention of PRAWA, a Nigerian non-governmental organization dealing with the incarceration of mentally ill prisoners, Bassy was finally transferred to a hospital, where she is now receiving treatment.

"When a state arrests or imprisons someone solely because they are a relative of a suspect or because they suffer from mental illness, they are violating that persons right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention - a right guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," said van Kregten.

Cases take so long to get to court that once an inmate has been tried and convicted, they are reluctant to launch an appeal. Even those claiming innocence say they risk staying in prison longer waiting for their appeal to be heard and than if they simply serve their sentence.

Amnesty International also highlighted the plight of prison staff, who work long and stressful hours for low wages that are often paid late. Poor pay often leads to petty extortion of prisoners, and staff shortages create security risks for both staff and inmates. Inmates are often relied on to govern themselves and have taken on disciplinary functions, including meting out corporal punishment, close confinement and diet restrictions - all of which do not comply with international standards.

"The Nigerian government is simply not complying with its national and international obligations when it comes to the criminal justice system in Nigeria and must begin to do so seriously and urgently," said van Kregten. "The conditions we saw and the stories we heard from inmates are a national scandal."

Background information

The Nigerian government has, on numerous occasions, stated its willingness to reform the criminal justice system, acknowledging its role in creating a situation of prolonged detention and overcrowding. Despite many presidential commissions and committees recommending reform, the recommendations have not been implemented. Instead, the government has set up new committees and commissions to study, review and harmonize the previous recommendations.

Nigeria: Prisoners' rights systematically flouted

AI Index: AFR 44/001/2008 Amnesty International February 2008

For a link to the full report and other Amnestry International reports on Nigeria, see

1. Introduction

Nigeria's prisons are filled with people whose human rights are systematically violated. Approximately 65 per cent of the inmates are awaiting trial most of whom have been waiting for their trial for years. Most of the people in Nigeria's prisons are too poor to be able to pay lawyers, and only one in seven of those awaiting trial have private legal representation. Although governmental legal aid exists, there are too few legal aid lawyers for all the cases that require representation.

Living conditions in the prisons are appalling. They are damaging to the physical and mental well-being of inmates and in many cases constitute clear threats to health. Conditions such as overcrowding, poor sanitation, lack of food and medicines and denial of contact with families and friends fall short of UN standards for the treatment of prisoners. The worst conditions constitute ill-treatment. In many Nigerian prisons inmates sleep two to a bed or on the floor in filthy cells. Toilets are blocked and overflowing or simply nonexistent, and there is no running water. As a result, disease is widespread.

Most prisons have small clinics or sick bays which lack medicines, and in many prisons inmates have to pay for their own medicines. Guards frequently demand that inmates pay bribes for such “privileges” as visiting the hospital, receiving visitors, contacting their families and, in some cases, being allowed outside their cells at all. Prisoners with money may be even allowed mobile phones, whereas those without funds can be left languishing in their cells. One inmate said: "If you don't have money, if you come to prison, you will suffer. They collect money from you. It is not right."

The Nigerian government has, on numerous occasions, stated its willingness to reform the criminal justice system, acknowledging its role in creating a situation of prolonged detention and overcrowding. Despite many Presidential Commissions and Committees recommending reform of the criminal justice system, these recommendations have not been implemented. Instead, the government has simply set up new committees and commissions to study, review and harmonize the previous recommendations. The reality remains that those in prison stand little chance of their rights being respected. Those who lack money stand even less chance.

1.1 Amnesty International's research

In July 2007 Amnesty International delegates visited 10 prisons in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and Enugu, Lagos and Kano States. The delegates also visited a psychiatric hospital in Enugu State which housed a number of people with mental illnesses who had been transferred there from prison. These locations were chosen to ensure a geographic, ethnic and religious spread across the country. The prisons included a mixture of some of Nigeria's main detention facilities as well as small prisons in rural areas.

The delegates conducted interviews with prison directors, medical staff, wardens and around 250 prisoners. These included 55 women; almost 160 prisoners who were awaiting trial; and 37 who had been sentenced to death. In most prisons the delegates spoke to inmates in private and in some they interviewed them through the bars of their cells. The Amnesty International delegates also spoke to state Commissioners of Police, state Attorneys General, judges, magistrates, lawyers, and human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs). At federal level, Amnesty International had meetings with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Legal Aid Council (LAC) and senior representatives of the Nigeria Police Force. Unfortunately, the delegates were not able to meet with the Minister of Interior or the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, who had other obligations following their recent appointment.

Amnesty International's researchers enjoyed full access to all the prisons they visited, and appreciated the co-operation of the headquarters of the Nigeria Prison Service in preparing for the visit, as well as during the visit itself. Amnesty International regrets that the delegates' meeting with the Comptroller General of Prisons, scheduled several weeks before their visit and confirmed twice, was cancelled only minutes before it was due, because, according to the prison authorities, they required clearance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

After leaving Nigeria, Amnesty International shared its findings in writing with the Federal Minister of Interior, the Attorney General and the Minister of Justice and the Comptroller General of Prisons and asked for reactions and clarification. At the time of going to press, only the Minister of Interior had responded, saying that “The Nigerian government is not unaware of most of the observations… The various ongoing reform initiatives are intended to provide short, medium and long-term solutions to most of the nagging problems.”

This report is based on testimonies of inmates and on the interviews held with all stakeholders. To respect the confidentiality of the people concerned, Amnesty International has not used the inmates' real names.

1.2 Government failure to implement recommended reforms

Many national and international organizations1 have warned the Nigerian government of the human rights violations occurring in the criminal justice system. In recent years, the Nigerian government has frequently expressed willingness to improve prison conditions and access to justice for those on pre-trial detention (inmates awaiting trial). The establishment of a Presidential Taskforce on Prison Reforms and Decongestion led to the release of around 8,000 prisoners in 1999. However, no long-term policy was adopted to address the problems in prisons and within a few years they were as congested as they had been before the release.

In June 2001, the then Minister of Interior, Chief Sunday Afolabi, said that the government would review prison laws and prison reform, train personnel, rehabilitate inmates and revitalize the prison system with the Prison Reforms Program. It is reported to have spent NGN2.4 billion. In July 2002 President Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a former inmate, described the situation of inmates awaiting trial as “inhuman”.

Since 2000, several working groups and committees on prison reforms have been established:

  • The National Working Group on Prison Reform and Decongestion reviewed 144 prisons and revealed in its 2005 report that the population of Nigerian prisons over the previous 10 years had totalled between 40,000 and 45,000 inmates, most of them concentrated in the state capitals. Of those, 65 per cent were awaiting trial.
  • The Inter-Ministerial Summit on the State of Remand Inmates in Nigeria's Prisons was established in 2005 to review the report of the previous Working Group on Prison Reform. It recommended the Federal Government respond to the problem of inmates awaiting trial, pay more attention to rehabilitation, and address the issue of the large number of inmates awaiting trial due to the shortage of defence counsel. ...
  • In 2006, the Presidential Committee on Prison Reform and Rehabilitation was established. This committee recommended improving the conditions of service of prison and police officials, and addressing the issues of prison congestion and the large number of prisoners awaiting trial. When then President Obasanjo received the committee's report, he said that the Federal Government would implement its recommendations.6
  • The Presidential Commission on the Reform of the Administration of Justice (PCRAJ), established on 16 March 2006 to review the administration of justice in Nigeria and propose sustainable reforms, expressed concern that imprisonment was being overused, including in cases of the non-violent persons suspected of minor offences. ...
  • The Committee on the Harmonization of Reports of Presidential Committees Working on Justice Sector Reform reiterated in April 2007 the recommendations of the PCRAJ. ...

1.3 The impact of government reforms

A draft prison bill was presented to the National Assembly in 2004.15 However, by the end of 2007 this bill had still not passed into law. Neither had the Police Act (Amendment) Bill, nor any of the other acts aimed at reforming the criminal justice system. The government has, on several occasions in 2006 and 2007, announced that it would release considerable numbers of inmates, including those awaiting trial and those on death row. This raised the expectations of inmates but did not lead to their release. In the prisons Amnesty International visited in July 2007, none of the inmates whose release had been announced in May 2007 had actually been released. ...

Amnesty International concludes that Nigeria does not take seriously its responsibility towards its citizens in prison. Recommendations made by national and international organizations have failed to lead to any action by the government. The recommendations of all governmental committees and commissions appear to be little more than words, which have left the real situation in Nigeria's prisons unchanged. Inmates awaiting trial – especially those who cannot afford legal support – wait years for their trial to take place; the prisons remain overcrowded; prison authorities do not appear to receive the funds that have been allocated to improving conditions. Amnesty International is extremely concerned that few of the Nigerian government's promises have been translated into action.


2. The judicial system

2.1 Arbitrary arrest and detention

"This woman did not do anything. She is in prison because her son fought with someone. They could not get him." - A prison officer, July 2007

All too often, individuals who are not suspected of committing any crime are incarcerated in Nigeria's prisons along with those suspected or convicted of crimes. Some were arrested in place of a family member whom the police could not locate. Others suffer from mental illness and were brought to prison to relieve their families of responsibility for their care. Most are very poor people who have no lawyer to advocate for them.


The Nigerian Constitution (Section 35) guarantees the right to be brought before a court of law within a reasonable time. If there is a court of competent jurisdiction within 40km, a reasonable time is defined as one day; in all other cases “reasonable” is considered to be two days or longer, depending on the distances and circumstances.21 In practice, this is hardly ever accomplished. The Nigeria Police Force claim they cannot investigate a crime and interrogate suspects within such a short time, saying: “There is no case that you can crack within 24 hours unless it is a traffic offence”.22

Individuals who are charged with crimes are routinely held in pre-trial detention for extended periods, even when there is little evidence to support the charge, where the accused person poses little or no risk to society, or where the crime is not a serious one. If Amnesty International's interviews are any indication, pre-trial detention routinely exceeds one year, and three to four years is not unusual. In a typical account, one inmate told Amnesty International, "I have been here three years. No progress - no bail. They just keep adjourning. I cannot see what is happening in my case."

In virtually every prison, Amnesty International researchers spoke to some inmates who reported that they had been awaiting trial for seven years or more. For example, Sunday spent nearly 40 days in police and State CID detention before he was first brought before a magistrate on 27 December 1999. He was 17 years old at the time and had been arrested on suspicion of culpable homicide. The magistrate did not have the jurisdiction to handle his case and remanded him to prison pending a police investigation, a practice known as a “holding charge”. At the time of Amnesty International's visit, seven years and eight months had passed, and he was still awaiting trial. The last time Sunday was in court was in September 2006, and his case was once more adjourned. The Magistrate Court continues to use the holding charge to keep him imprisoned. Sunday is now 25 years old and has spent nearly one-third of his life awaiting trial.


5. Conclusion

Prisoners in Nigeria are systematically denied a range of human rights. Stakeholders throughout the Nigerian criminal justice system are culpable for maintaining this situation.

The police do not bring suspects promptly before a judge or judicial officer; despite the Nigerian Constitution's guarantee that this will occur within 24 hours, it usually takes weeks – and in some cases months – before suspects are brought before a judge. Suspects are usually ill-treated in police custody; many are denied their right to contact their families or a lawyer, and in some police stations, suspects do not receive any food. The police routinely use torture to extract confessions and, despite this being widely acknowledged by the police themselves, little is done to stop it. In addition, the police do not respect the principle of the presumption of innocence.

The judiciary fails to ensure that all inmates are tried within reasonable time; indeed, most inmates wait years for a trial. When inmates are convicted, most courts do not inform them of their right to appeal. Nor does the judiciary guarantee that all suspects are offered legal representation. Few of the courts take the necessary steps to end the use of evidence elicited as a result of torture. In breach of national and international law, the judiciary does not guarantee fair trial standards even in the case of minors.

The prisons cannot ensure that conditions in all their facilities are adequate for the health and well-being of the prisoners. Severe overcrowding and a lack of funds have created a deplorable situation in Nigeria's prisons.

The Federal Government has failed to implement the recommendations of many study groups and presidential committees over recent years. Few of the promises made by the Nigerian government have been carried out and this has led to the current problems being experienced in the country's prisons.

The opening of prisons to non-governmental organizations has had a positive effect: NGOs bring food, educational materials and lawyers into the prisons. They organize religious activities, offer counselling and teach inmates. However, NGOs are not primarily responsible for the welfare of the inmates. It is time the Nigerian government faces up to its responsibilities for those in its prisons.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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