Edited by: Zubaida Baba Ibrahim
IKEJA, LAGOS: Lucky Godstime, 28, would have never imagined being betrayed by his close friend but more importantly, he had never pictured himself being locked up behind bars and spending months in a prison cell.
But on the evening of April 13, 2022, a day he describes as a ‘good day turned unfortunate’ he was arrested for allegedly stealing a cardigan from his friend, Blessed Joseph, before he could inform his family of what was happening.
Godstime story is not an isolated one, many Nigerians in correctional facilities across the country are being detained for months and years without trial or court order. In most cases, they are held for offences they never committed.
Data from the Nigerian Correctional Service shows that there are 52,745 total awaiting trial inmates in 2022 while the number of total convicted inmates in 2022 is 22,890.
Additional data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) shows that at least three-quarters of Nigeria’s total prison population are inmates serving time without being sentenced. The latest NBS report on prison statistics from 2011-2016, notes that the prison population in Nigeria moved from 55,038 in 2013 to 68,686 in 2016.
However, Hope Behind Bars Africa, a non-profit organisation that seeks the reform of the Nigerian justice system, is providing legal support to those arbitrarily detained while working collaboratively with the Nigerian correctional service to assist with interventions, empowerment, and rehabilitation for those sentenced.
Godstime lack of luck
Godstime who resides in Benin, the capital city of Edo state in the south-south region of Nigeria recounted how a series of events happened to him on the ill-fated day that led to his stint in prison. First, he recalled that it had rained heavily and he did not have much luck getting passengers that day. And then he eventually hit his car in a minor road accident which led to a fault in the vehicle.
Godstime resorted to calling his employer who ordered him to take the car to a mechanic who the boss knew for years. Upon arrival at the workshop, Godstime saw that the car repairer was Joseph, a long-time friend.
Because it was raining, he was soaked in rainwater and Joseph offered him a cardigan which he wore before stating what the problem with the car was, but then Joseph charged him N150,000 for repairs, an amount that was above Godstime and his boss’s budget.
Godstime negotiated the cost but Joseph insisted. The whole situation concluded without an agreement.
It would be days later after Godstime had put the entire episode behind him including the cardigan which he had left at the workshop before leaving with his unrepaired car, when Joseph visited and requested his cardigan back.
“I told him I left the cardigan at the workshop but he did not believe me,” Godstime told The SolutionsPaper.
“He [Joseph] accused me of stealing his cardigan and using it for ritual as he had been sick since the day we first met. We [argued] and he promised to punish me.”
Godstime felt that Joseph was only angry because he had not fixed the car and paid the amount he asked for. Later that day, Godstime was arrested.
Like Godstime, like John
Christian John’s voice cracked as he narrates his pitiful ordeal at the hands of the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (F-SARS) in Abuja for five months before spending five years at the Kuje correctional facility for a crime he was neither guilty nor convicted of.
“It felt like hell. I spent five years of my life in prison and it was like hell,” he told The SolutionsPaper.
John’s life took a drastic turn in August 2014 while he was on his way to Kaduna state from Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. He was studying Tech Science at the Kaduna State College of Technology at that time and the vehicle he had boarded broke down on a highway stretching from Kubwa, a district on the outskirts of Abuja.
All passengers of the vehicle called on the driver to get it fixed. During this process, men of the F-SARS Abuja appeared suddenly and arrested all the passengers. “Before I knew it, I was paired up with a man I did not know from Adam and accused of conspiracy and stealing.”
“The police wrote my statement and I was taken to court with the other person, We were given bail but the lawyer only stood as a surety for the other person while I remained in prison,” John said.
His experience is one of horror, confusion, and frustration in the Kuje correctional facility. He, however, found optimism through interventions from various non-governmental organisations, churches, and individuals who donate food and other items.
Several media reports and investigations have spotlighted how countless detainees spend years in prison without trial, altogether forgotten. Data also reveals that the population of inmates is four times higher than the prisons can accommodate. An analysis of the disparity of the prison capacity versus its population shows a total of 17,883 overpopulation in the prison.
How Hope Behind Bars Africa comes to play
On Monday, July 18, 2022, Emmanuel Okorie, a human rights lawyer and the Edo state coordinator for Hope Behind Bars Africa went to the state magistrate court, Euvboriaria, Benin City to file a process. There, he met Godstime, “his head was bowed down in hopelessness,” Okorie told The SolutionsPaper
Okorie decided to inquire into Godstime case and found out he had no legal representation. “I was informed by an officer of the [Oko] correctional facility and the registrar of the court that the defendant [Godstime] was charged with the offence of stealing a cardigan,” he said.
“With the leave of the court, I took up the matter and had about a five-minute client interview with the defendant [Godstime]. I also observed a witness, the individual police officer (IPO) in the case was already testifying. At the end of the cross-examination, it was clear that the evidence of the IPO was defective and unreliable,” Okorie added.
The Edo state magistrate court, Euvboriaria eventually discharged Godstime.
John’s walk to freedom, like Godstime, started when he met the founder of Hope Behind Bars, Funke Adeoye in January 2019 during one of her visits to the correctional centre at Kuje, where he had been arrested five years ago. She began speaking to the inmates and Christain shared his story with her.
“I met Hope Behind Bars Africa and they asked me to narrate what happened, which I did. They asked if I was being truthful and I reassured them. They went ahead to carry out their investigations and found out I was sincere and truly innocent” John said.
“Hope Behind Bars Africa took up my case and represented me in court on the day of my next appearance, which was April 2019. After the trial, I got discharged and acquitted.”
The organisation has volunteers across different states in Nigeria that render legal service pro bono (free of charge and for the public good). They also have contacts of officers in various correctional facilities nationwide who reach out to them with cases.
The organisation’s voluntary lawyers also visit detention centres and correctional facilities regularly to chat with incarcerated persons and take up their cases where necessary.
Adeoye stated that the aim is to make sure that everyone, irrespective of their socio-economic class or status has access to justice including those that have already been sentenced.
“Another thing that we are trying to address is the welfare of inmates, and that’s where human rights come in, ensuring that their human rights are preserved even though they are in prison,” Adeoye said.
Hope Behind Bars Africa has reached about 287 inmates since it was founded in 2019, however, according to Adeoye, a major problem they face is the issue of following up with discharged inmates to make sure they are not involved in other social vices.
Adeoye says that a way they have thought of solving this problem is to introduce a vocational skills platform that will empower them and keep them engaged.
“We are trying to give a second chance to people who have found themselves in the criminal justice system by ensuring that when they come out of prison, they don’t go back to crime, and you have something to fall back to.”
“We tried to partner and collaborate with other organisations but funding is one major challenge,” Adeoye told The SolutionsPaper.
Adeoye added that the slow-paced justice delivery system in Nigeria affects a significant part of the organisation’s work, adding that the Hope Behind Bars only stands as a support system and not the main body implementing justice.
“When you try to solve one aspect of the problem, you see more. For instance, access to justice alone, when you look at it as a challenge, has deeper challenges.”
“Some people are in prison awaiting trial for three years for an offence that if they had been convicted, they would have rounded up in a year or two. Why? This is because the courts are slow. So, how much work can we really do to ensure the courts are faster or ensure that there is less delay in getting justice delivered? It’s a whole lot.”
Evans Ufeli, a constitutional lawyer said the quality of policing in Nigeria is quite poor and the many irregularities such as indiscriminate arrests and other unprofessional conduct must be tackled if the justice system is to be cleansed.
“Until the federal government remodels the entire police force and judicial system, the problem will be there for a long time,” Ufeli told The SolutionsPaper.
After helping him gain his freedom, John, who is now married with a child, volunteers with Hope Behind Bars to help other innocent and arbitrary incarcerated inmates obtain justice.
Busola Aro is a journalist with TheCable covering the business beat. She is passionate about telling stories of people doing great things to make the society better.
Busola holds a Diploma Certificate and a BSc Degree in Mass Communication from Kogi State University, Nigeria. She has over two years of working experience which cuts across media and journalism.