INVESTIGATION: Nigerians languish in police cells as magistrates ignore new law mandating inspection

Prison used to illustrate the story.
Prison used to illustrate the story.

“The worst forms of human right abuses are perpetrated at the police stations and other detention facilities of our security agencies, yet, our magistrates have remained adamant in carrying out their statutory duty of periodic inspection of police cells as stipulated in the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015.”

Those were the words of Justus Ijeoma, a human right lawyer, as he recounted the plethora of human right cases he had handled in recent times.

“I have just finished preparing a Fundamental Right Enforcement Application against the Nigeria Police on behalf of Nonso Anatogu, a commercial bus driver who was arrested and detained from June 8 till June 20 without bail and without arraignment in court,” he added.

Mr Anatogu was arrested by officers from Onitsha Area Command at the instance of one Chukwuma Nnoruka. Both the suspect and the complainant were business partners who entered into a commercial agreement of hire-purchase that went sour.

The lawyer alleged that Mr Anatogu was detained and tortured on a civil matter that did not concern the police. He said the police also refused to release him on bail to his relations. Mr Anatogu was eventually arraigned on the 13th day and granted bail by the court.

The case of Ugochukwu Oraefo is even more remarkable. The Onitsha-based businessman and aluminium manufacturer had received several threats from kidnappers and decided to pay them N20 million in 2013 to save himself and his family members from being kidnapped.

He then presented the bank tellers and account number into which he lodged the money to officers of Special Anti-Robbery Squad SARS at Awkuzu in Anambra State for investigation and possible arrest of the culprits. But in a sudden twist, the complainant became the suspect, as the officers reportedly turned on the victim.

Mr Oraefo said he was detained and tortured for five days from April 30 until he allegedly paid the police officers N6 million naira to regain freedom.

Mr Ijeoma, who is also the Executive Director of International Human Rights and Equity Foundation I-REF, said his organisation has taken up the case.

“When Mr Oraefo reported his ordeal, detention and extortion to our office, we wrote a petition to the Inspector General Police. The matter was assigned to the I.G.P Elite Unit known as X-Squad, for investigation”.

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In the above instances, the victims were lucky to eventually secure their freedom and to be alive to tell the stories. This is not the case with Innocent Ikechukwu Ngana, a timber merchant and farmer from Akwa-Mmanya village, Nimbo in Uzo-Uwani Local Government of Enugu State.

Mr Ngana was arrested in the presence of his wife Ngozi at their village while returning from his usual farming activities.

A judgment from an Enugu State High Court presided by Justice J.L.C. Okibe and delivered on December 12, 2018, held that the continued detention of the applicant by the Commander of Anti-Kidnapping Office, Enugu State Police Command, since his arrest on July 6, 2018, without arraigning him in court is illegal, unconstitutional and infringes on his fundamental rights.

The court ordered the police to either admit Mr Ngana on “bail or arraign him in court within one week”. But the Anti-kidnapping Unit of Nigeria Police Command in Enugu State had not obeyed the order at the time of filing this report. As such, the family is yet to see him after over one year in police custody.

The detainee’s wife, Nngozi Agana, said the family was worried about the safety of her husband. She said officers of the anti-kidnapping unit had on several occasions chased her away and warned her to stop coming for her husband.

The counsel to the family, Uche Abonyi, also told this reporter how he sent another lawyer, Jude Nimaa, to accompany Mrs Agana to the Anti-Kidnapping Office but were chased away at gunpoint.

Magistrates not acting

The police stations and the offices of other security agencies are the first port of call in the nation’s criminal justice system. By virtue of Section 4 and 24 of the Police Act, the police are empowered to arrest and detain persons in the exercise of their primary responsibilities of crime prevention, investigation and prosecution of suspects.

These enactments are in addition to the provision in Sec 35(1) (c) of the 1999 Constitution.

Ironically, several judicial pronouncements have described the police stations as the epicentre of the worst forms of human right abuses. All the respondents to the interviews conducted by this reporter agreed that most of the human right abuses are perpetrated at the police stations.

Lending judicial credence to this assertion, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, in a Practice Direction issued on June 20, 2018, stated as follows: “I have observed and received several complaints of the horrific incidents of police brutality, inordinate arrests, detentions and extortion of innocent Nigerians by police officers across the country. These incidents have assumed frightening proportions in recent times.”

In 2015, the National Assembly passed the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) and was signed into law. This marked a watershed in the history of criminal justice administration in Nigeria, as it brought changes in the system, gave the sector a human face and made it citizen-oriented.

Section 34 of the ACJA is one of the innovations brought into the system by the act.

Sec 34(1) of the Act states “The Chief Magistrate, or where there is no Chief Magistrate within the police division, any magistrate designated by the Chief Judge for that purpose, shall at least every month, conduct an inspection of police stations or other places of detention within his territorial jurisdiction other than prison”.

Section 34(2) is explicit on the duties to be undertaken by magistrates when they visit places of detention. “During the visit, a magistrate may: Call for, and inspect the record of arrest; Direct the arraignment of the suspect; Where bail has been refused, grant bail to any suspect where appropriate, if the offence for which the suspect is held is within the jurisdiction of the magistrate.”

To further reinforce the above mentioned provision of the ACJA, and ensure that it is put into practice, the former CJN, Mr Onnoghen, released the practice direction mentioned earlier, in which he directed the Chief Judge of every state of the federation to put in place appropriate mechanisms to ensure compliance with the above provisions of the act, in order to curb the excesses of police officers, through the instrumentality of the statutory powers of the courts as provided in the ACJA.

The intention of these provisions for magistrates is to act as checks on the activities of police officers. The spirit of the law is that judicial officers at the magisterial level shall carry out over-sight functions on the police and other places of detention within his territorial jurisdiction, except prisons.

Four years after, magistrates are yet to commence implementation of Section 34 of ACJA.

This reporter tried to find out from the Chief Magistrates in the Anambra State if his office had complied with the provisions of the Act from 2015 to 2018.

The judicial official explained that the Code of Conduct prevents them from talking to the press but said magistrates in the state had not been carrying out this function because the ACJA is a federal Act and that the Administration of Criminal Justice Law of Anambra State (2010) does not have a similar provision. As such, he said magistrates in the area are not bound by the provisions of the Act.

A lawyer based in Awka, Steve Unachukwu, however, punctured this view of the Chief Magistrate.

He argued that since there was no similar provision in the state law, the federal Act has covered the field. According to him “the makers of the ACJL were careful not to legislate over a federal agency like police which they don’t have powers to do. Therefore, the federal legislation on that subject matter supersedes as there was no conflict between the two statutes. What happened may have been a deliberate omission to avoid making a state law that will be overreaching.”

Another magistrate, who pleaded anonymity, gave a practical reason why those provisions of the ACJA are redundant.

“My primary duty is to be in court to hear matters, whether civil or criminal. So if you are giving me an extra burden to go to any other place (like police stations) that extra burden must come with extra logistics.

“If I am going to the police station, of course, I won’t go alone. I have to go with the court registrars and court clerks. The logistics of how to move the court officials to the police stations is an administrative duty. There are people employed to perform administrative duties. What then is the duty of the Chief Registrar and Deputy Chief Registrars? They are there to assist the court to function.

“If I am going to the police to perform some judicial functions, what about my security? What is the guarantee that they would respect what I would say when I get there? What is the guarantee that they would not chase me away from the station? If they had disobeyed the orders of higher courts, then who am I?”

This position of the senior Magistrate clearly showed that Magistrates in Anambra State have not been visiting the police cells, contrary to Sec 34 of ACJA as well as the CJN’s directive.

This reporter addressed a letter in June to the office of the Chief Registrar, Anambra State Judiciary, the public institution that receives Quarterly Performance Evaluation Reports from magistrates.

The letter asked whether magistrates were visiting places of detention within his jurisdiction on official assignment. The letter did not receive a reply.

A similar letter was addressed to the State Commissioner of Police, dated August 6, requesting for data of police stations that had reported or recorded the visits of magistrates from January 2015 to December 2018. It was also not replied by the police.

However, another letter requesting the same information from the Executive Secretary of Anambra State Judicial Service Commission (JSC) attracted a reply after persistent follow-ups.

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The Commission is in charge of appointment, promotion and discipline of magistrates. The reply signed by the Executive Secretary, Stanley Mbanaso, indicated that the mechanism was still being put in place for the Chief Magistrates to commence the implementation of the provisions of the ACJA. The Act has been in existence for four years.

A ray of light

People who spoke to this reporter agreed that Nigeria’s criminal justice system does not inspire confidence and respect from the masses.

‘The components bodies and stakeholders in the system are supposed to collaborate with each other in the interest of the common man,” Mr Ijeoma said.

“Our magistrates should not continue to be indifferent to the plight of the ordinary man who falls victim of police dehumanizing acts. It is only when other stakeholders like magistrates begin to discharge their responsibilities that the system would be on its way out of the dark tunnel.”

The Chairman of Magistrates Association of Nigeria, Anambra State Chapter, Chinwe Ughanze, called for increased awareness of the provisions of that section and its implementation through training prorammes for magistrates and police officers to enable them build the desired synergy.

She said this will help solve the problem of inter-agency rivalry and mutual suspicion existing among stakeholders in the criminal justice system.

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The Secretary of Nigeria Bar Association Awka Branch, Tony Anazor, took a swipe at civil society groups and human right organisations for not mounting enough pressure on judicial officers to make them to discharge their duties.

He accepted that his organisation, the NBA, has not really done much in this regard, despite having a Committee on Human Rights at every branch of the association.

Mr. Anazor said the NBA, which is supposed to be a pressure group in the justice sector, has not lived up to this expectation, except when it affects her members. He promised to bring up the matter at NBA with a view to fashion out modalities for engaging the judiciary and police authorities and ensuring that magistrates start going to the police stations periodically, just the same way that the Chief Judge consistently visits prisons.

A source at the state Judicial Service Commission told the reporter that following his persistent request for data on magistrates’ visit to police stations, the Executive Secretary recently wrote a memo to the Chief Judge on the need to direct magistrates to commence the visits in compliance with the law.

Consequently, the Chief Judge, Ijem Onwuamaegbu, has directed the Chairman of Justice Sector Reform Team, Peter Obiorah, to ensure that a provision similar to Sec 34 of ACJA is included in the ongoing amendment of the Anambra State Administration of Criminal Justice Law, which the Rule of Law and Anti-corruption (RoLAC) programme is putting together.

This investigative report was supported by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ).

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