Yunusa Agali and nine others have been detained by the police in Abuja since their arrest for burglary and theft on March 26 and 27.
The 10 of them have now spent over a month in a notorious detention facility, commonly referred to as ‘Human Abattoir’ which was used by the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and other police tactical units.
The police have refused to grant them administrative bail, saying the offence is not bailable.
The police were supposed to promptly prefer charges against them and arraign them before a court of competent jurisdiction.
The Nigerian Constitution provides that no suspect can be held in custody for more than 48 hours for any reason. Suspects should either be released on bail or arraigned in court within the stipulated period.
The suspects could not be arraigned because courts across the country have been shut down since April 6 due to a strike by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN).
Mr Agali’s lawyer, Bala Dakum, told PREMIUM TIMES that he could have also gone to court to file a fundamental rights enforcement suit for his client and ask for bail, were the courts open.
He expressed frustration about his inability to secure his client’s bail through any legal means for over one month.
“All the odds are against a suspect at this time. You are completely at the mercy of the police and other arresting authorities, who have earned a reason to keep suspects in custody as long as they wish.
“They have no court to take the suspect for arraignment as prescribed by the constitution, and the suspect too has no court to go to assert his fundamental rights.”
Another crime suspect, Usman Maidabo from Bauchi State who was arrested on April 13 by the police and remanded at the SWAT detention facility at Area 3 in Abuja, over alleged disappearance of seven persons, has not been able to secure his bail.
Sure of his innocence, Mr Maidabo, the leader of a vigilante group in Nabardo, Bauchi State, travelled down to Abuja on April 13 to submit himself for police interrogation.
But since then, his situation has remained like that of Mr Agali and the nine others.
The situation of prolonged detention of crime suspects due to the lingering strike action by judiciary workers is not peculiar to the police, as the State Security Service (SSS) is equally involved.
In a letter dated March 22, 2021, Rickey Tarfa, a lawyer to some members of bureau de change operators who were nabbed by operatives of the service on allegations of terrorism financing, threatened to sue the agency over the continued incarceration of his clients.
“The fact of their continued detention for about two weeks now without being charged to court or released on administrative bail is a negation of the extant provisions of Section 35 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended),” Mr Tarfa, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, said in his letter addressed to the Director-General of the SSS.
But Mr Tarfa has not been able to make good his threat to take legal action for the release of his clients while the security service continues to hold on to them.
The situation at many police detention centres has worsened since the ongoing JUSUN strike began.
This reporter had the opportunity to join a monitoring team dispatched by the Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee (ACJMC) to tour some police detention facilities within the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, on April 27.
At the Police Divisional Headquarters at Nyanya, a suburb of Abuja, the detention facility was brimming with suspects and was an eyesore.
Although the facility was monitored under strict supervision of police officers with the visitors barred from going in with phones or cameras, dozens of suspects were seen screaming from their crammed cells overlooking the facility’s hallway.
On one occasion, they were seen surging towards the divisional police officer (DPO) as he crossed into another office in the building.
Even if one were visually impaired, the pungent smell oozing from the cells was enough to tell of an overcrowded detention facility calling for decongestion.
The situation was equally chaotic at the Kabusa police station, Apo in Abuja located in a densely populated area with low-income earners.
Crime suspects were seen crammed in a cell while their relatives declined to speak to PREMIUM TIMES as they wore long faces at the police counter as their efforts to secure bail were unsuccessful.
Led by Moyo Olufemi, an administrative officer at ACJMC, the monitoring team visited the Police Divisional Headquarters at Wuse Zone 3, an area in the Abuja city centre, where they interacted with police officers on duty to ascertain how they were coping with the issue of congestion at the cells.
Mr Olufemi said the visits had become necessary in view of the lingering strike by court workers and the attendant impacts on criminal justice dispensation.
“We are touring police detention facilities in line with the ACJMC mandates to ascertain the challenges being faced by the police in detaining crime suspects given the fact that courts across the country are shut due to the strike action by judiciary workers. The ACJMC seeks to understand first-hand the impacts of the strike on the police with a view to finding an interim measure of addressing the challenges of congestion in police cells,” he said.
The ACJMC team also visited the Police Divisional Headquarters at Garki, which is also located in the heart of Abuja.
Similarly, the team visited the Police Divisional Headquarters at Apo.
The condition of the detention centres at the police stations visited by the team in the Abuja city centre is in sharp contrast with that of the suburbs of Nigeria’s capital city as the latter were overcrowded.
For instance, as of the time of the visit to the Garki police station, there were only 14 detainees, comprising eight suspects who were originally arrested by the division, and six brought to the division from the Federal Criminal Investigation Department.
Police officers speak on worsening conditions
The police had in the wake of the JUSUN strike directed its divisions and formations to avoid unnecessary detention of suspects.
It also recommended dispute resolution mechanisms in deserving cases to avoid detention of suspects for petty crimes.
But despite this, police officers who spoke with our correspondent painted a picture of a widespread congestion of police detention facilities across the country.
In a telephone conversation with our correspondent, the officer in charge of the legal department of the FCT police command, James Idachaba, said police detention facilities were overcrowded with crime suspects due to the closure of the courts.
“Well, the negative impacts of the ongoing strike by judiciary workers on police detention facilities cannot be overemphasised. You know police activity is 24 hours of everyday; since we cannot stop our operations by way of arrest and investigation,” he said.
As an interim solution to the problem, Mr Idachaba said the Inspector-General of Police, Usman Alkali, directed that only suspects arrested for serious offences should be detained.
“So, what we are trying to do is to comply with the Inspector General of Police’s and Commissioner of Police, FCT’s directive that only suspects with serious offences like kidnapping, violent crimes like armed robbery, culpable homicide, rape and the likes are to be detained because we don’t have power to release those ones on bail,” he said.
Police officers also told the ACJMC team during the tour of the detention facilities in Abuja that they collaborate with nominal complainants to resolve minor offences such as theft by granting bail to suspects.
They said that they transfer crime suspects in violent crimes such as armed robbery, culpable homicide and kidnapping to detention facilities of the FCID, which is located at Area 10 in Abuja.
Suggesting that the current worrisome state of many detention centres would likely remain till the end of the ongoing strike, Mr Idachaba said, “We have no other option but to continue to keep them until the courts open for the purpose of proper prosecutorial procedures.”
He added, “Our facilities are overwhelmed but we cannot stop arresting criminals, we cannot stop investigating and we cannot stop carrying out our police activities; we must do our job.
“Suspects with minor offences are not in our facilities; as soon as the preliminary processes are done, they are granted bail.”
Another police prosecuting lawyer, Oladiran Ayodele, who is based in Lagos, shared Mr Idachaba’s concerns about the overflowing police cells in different parts of the country.
He pointed out that crime suspects cannot be held beyond 48 hours without being charged to court as provided in the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, except for capital offences where a court order would be required to further keep a suspect for the purposes of investigation.
Speaking on the prolonged strike, Mr Ayodele said it had brought Nigeria’s criminal justice system to a standstill with the attendant effects being criminals roaming the streets freely.
“The danger in all of this is that criminals roaming the streets freely, because if we (police) arrest them, we cannot charge them to court within the stipulated time by the constitution as a result of the court shutdown,” he said.
He added that the situation has led to an increase in crime rate across the country.
“For instance, since the strike commenced, someone was defrauded of N3 million, and the alleged fraudster switched off his phones. We want to get the person arrested and also get an order from the court to freeze the person’s account. But with the court closure, it would give the criminal the opportunity to squander the money, the proceeds of crime. It is a serious issue,” he said.
He explained that the strike has forced on the police a situation whereby suspected criminals are being released without facing charges.
“The effect the JUSUN strike has had on police detention facilities is that the constitution is very clear; you cannot detain someone for more than 48 hours at most, depending on the distance of the court from the detention centre. If the distance of the court is within one kilometre, then you can only detain a suspect for only 24 hours. However, a reason the police would detain a crime suspect for more than 48 hours is if the person committed a capital offence such as armed robbery, murder and so on.
“So, once suspects are arrested, they are granted bail because courts are not open; the doors of our courts are locked. So, our reason for detaining is to charge suspects to court if they are found to be culpable of the offence. Now, the strike action has affected Nigeria’s criminal justice system. Criminals are walking the streets freely and committing more crimes.”
Human rights community expresses concerns
An expert in the criminal justice sector, Uju Agomoh, said the strike action had plunged Nigeria’s criminal justice system into another major crisis even as the courts were yet to recover from the lockdown occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic.
Mrs Agomoh, who is the founder/Executive Director of Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA), a non-governmental organisation committed to criminal justice reforms, said the strike is a “huge challenge for Nigerian Correctional Service already battling with issues of huge percentage of restive awaiting trial persons.”
“Not taking them to court may be the reason for increased restiveness leading to more custody management problems.
“Worst hit in all these is the Nigerian police whose cells are allegedly overflowing with arrested and detained persons because there are no courts to arraign these persons,” she added.
She said the “huge challenges” for the criminal justice system “stares us in the face and the need to apply all recommended solutions to the identified challenges becomes much more imperative.”
The police at the different divisions have resorted to granting administrative bail to persons arrested for petty crimes and who are able to provide sureties, Mrs Agomoh observed, but quickly added that “it is obvious that there is need to do more in terms of fundamentally dealing with issues of arrest and detention in Nigeria.”
Proffering solutions to the issue, she said it was time for the country and the police in particular “to creatively look at what the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-Custodial measures says about pre-trial detention being a measure of last resort.
“If we have this as our default system in our legal system, we will not be having a serious crisis like the one presented by the ongoing JUSUN strike,” she said.
Another human rights lawyer, Frank Tietie, said the ongoing strike also presents unscrupulous police officers an avenue to extort crime suspects.
“With the strike action by JUSUN, nothing has changed. The police have always made bail very difficult. They have always exercised their right to grant administrative bail but often in abusive terms; abusing the provisions of the Police Act and the constitution,” he said.
He recalled that even when the courts were in operation, “the police operated the bail system much without the intervention of the court.”
“Though it is clearly stated that bail is free, the police see bail in general practice as an opportunity for financial enrichment.
“So, I don’t think that the courts being on strike have affected that cliché of bail is free, because bail has never been free. The only difference is that much more would be paid by detainees in police custody for their bail. Police officers that have been generally involved in bribe-taking; bribe in exchange for bail are the ones who are benefitting at this time,” he added.
ACJMC’s ‘extrajudicial’ intervention
According to Tunde Dawodu, Executive Secretary, ACJMC, efforts were being put in place to reduce the crisis of overcrowded police detention centres.
He told PREMIUM TIMES that his committee was engaging heads of courts with a view to finding “extrajudicial” ways of dealing with the problem.
“We are engaging with heads of courts, particularly magistrates in terms of what interim measures we can put in place to deal with the emergency.
“We have appealed to heads of courts to ensure that they come up with something outside the strike.
“There are suspects that are on remand and their cases have not been reviewed, the heads of courts need to take extra steps to get it done extra-judicially,’ Mr Dawodu explained.
The ACJMC, established by the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015, is tasked with far-reaching statutory roles to ensure a fair and smooth operations of the criminal justice system.
Section 470 of the law, for instance, charged the committee with the responsibility of ensuring effective and efficient application of the Act by the relevant agencies.
Subsection (1) of Section 470 also mandates the committee to “ensure that criminal matters are speedily dealt with; congestion of criminal cases in courts is drastically reduced.”
In addition, it orders the committee to ensure “congestion in prisons is reduced to the barest minimum; persons awaiting trial are, as far as possible, not detained in prison custody; and the relationship between the organs charged with the responsibility for all aspects of the administration of justice is cordial and there exists maximum co-operation amongst the organs in the administration of justice in Nigeria.”
Speaking with this reporter, the 1st Vice President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), John Aikpopo-Martins, who is the co-chair of the Human Rights Committee of the body of Nigerian lawyers, said the association had yet to monitor congestion at police stations across the country.
“We have not directed our members to monitor the prisons and other detention facilities. However, the NBA leadership will direct members to monitor police stations across the country with a view to rendering pro bono (free legal services),” he said.
Days after speaking with our reporter, the NBA Human Rights Committee chaired by Mike Ozekhome, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, directed its members to regularly visit police stations to see suspects detained for minor offences were granted bail.
The directive was contained in a memo signed by the committee’s secretary, Bernard Onigah, and addressed to all NBA chairmen and vice-chairmen.
“You should intervene and ensure that suspects involved in minor offences and petty crimes are granted bail on liberal terms, pending the calling off of strike by JUSUN,” the memo dated April 28 read in part.
“You should work closely with the Divisional Police Officers and police counsel to ensure the protection of the fundamental human rights of Nigerians and also provide advice to the police when necessary and needed.
“This exercise is to continue throughout the duration of the strike as further directed by the chairman,” it added.
After a meeting with the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammad, last week, JUSUN vowed to continue the strike until its demands are met.
The nationwide strike started on April 6 to press for the judiciary’s financial freedom from the executive.
PREMIUM TIMES reported that the strike has stalled the trial of 47,416 inmates held in pre-trial detention across the correctional services’ facilities in the country.
This figure constitutes about 72 per cent of the total 65,781 inmates in the country’s correctional facilities as of April 6 when the Nigeria Correctional Service (NCS) posted the last update on its website.
The correctional services would not accept any inmate without a court order, a condition that saves it of additional burden of congestion during the court strike, but the protracted industrial action dampens the prospect of government’s efforts to reduce overcrowding mainly constituted by awaiting trial inmates in the facilities.
The strike, which entered its fifth week on Tuesday, has no end in sight, as government authorities, particularly state governors, who are the main target of the strike, have not held any meeting with the leaders of the striking union after the last scheduled one failed to hold.
Section 121(3) of the Nigerian constitution provides that heads of various courts and legislature at state levels should receive their monthly allocation directly from the consolidated revenue account of the federation, but governors would rather receive the funds meant for their states and only release money to the other arms of government as they please.
The governors have remained defiant in disobedience to a couple of court judgments delivered in 2014 ordering the government to comply with the constitutional provisions.
President Muhammadu Buhari in May 2020 signed an executive order for the enforcement of the constitutional provision but failed to commence its implementation after the 36 state governments rallied themselves against it.
“My appeal to the state governors is that they should ensure that the judiciary is completely autonomous. There is a court judgment as well as a presidential order to that effect (the Executive Order 10). So, the judicial arm of government should be financially independent,” Mr Ayodele, a lawyer in the police legal department, said.
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