Friday, December 05, 2008

The President and the prisons

PRESIDENT Umar Musa Yar'Adua recently pardoned one Ibrahim Aliyu, a 57 year old man who had languished in the Kirikiri Maximum Prison for the last 25 years, 22 of them on the death row waiting for the hangman who never came. Besides, the President also requested the Rivers State governor, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, to extend a similar gesture to 90-year old Nze Ikenemawa who, has been in the Port Harcourt prison for nine years including two on the death row.

The President's gesture is in line with his constitutional powers, but it is even more commendable for its humanness. It is unlikely that Governor Amaechi would not accede to the president's request with regard to Nze Ikenemawa. But the stories of Citizens Aliyu and Ikenemawa to all intents and purposes, represent the experience of thousands of Nigerians, young, old, male and female, who are languishing behind prison bars all over the country, some for the most trivial breaches of the law, or, as is often the case for no reason at all, or for the wrong reasons. For example, the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Rivers State branch recently disclosed that more than 100 under-aged persons are currently awaiting trial in the Port Harcourt Maximum Prison. The right place for under-age persons is a Remand Home, not maximum prison custody.

The Rivers State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Ken Chikere says the state government is worried about this. Nigerian public officials are always very good at worrying about things and often so remiss in doing the right thing. A lot is wrong with a justice system that keeps an accused person in prison custody, and without trial for days, weeks, or, in the worst scenario, months, and years. Justice is delayed and denied and the right of the accused person to fair hearing is violated. Nigerian prisons, police stations and detention centres are full of awaiting trial persons who seemingly have been forgotten by the system.

In a fair and just society, where the rule of law holds in words and in deed, no man should be treated so unfairly. This is the spirit and import of Section 36(5) of the 1999 Constitution. When a person is proven to have committed no offence, to merely set him free after years in detention, cannot be said to have sufficiently served the course of justice, in the fullest meaning of the word.

It is assumed that, in accordance with Section 175(2) of the 1999 Constitution, the President pardoned Mr. Aliyu after due consultation with members of the National Council of State, and the Committee on the Prerogative of Mercy. But, for every Aliyu who may have been plain lucky or is well connected, there are others who are not so opportune to have their cases brought to Presidential attention. They remain in prison and suffer endlessly. It is in this context that we find more meaningful the President's directive to the Attorney General and Minister of Justice to bring similar cases to his attention. Ordinarily, the Attorney-General need not wait to be prompted before identifying such cases. He is the Chair afterall, of the Committee on the Prerogative of Mercy. That Committee should begin to work.

Before now, there have been reports of state Chief Judges visiting the prisons to ensure the release of persons unduly awaiting trial, or infirm and old inmates. Many prisons are full of under-aged children also who may not be minor offenders, but who may have been born in prison by female inmates. Such children do not deserve to be punished along with their mothers.

Official visits to the prisons should be more frequent. State Governors should also pay close attention to possible violation of rights in their areas of jurisdiction. Few governors exercise the prerogative of mercy and when they do, political considerations tend to be more paramount. So far, however, official attempts to decongest the country's prisons are at best episodic, fire-brigade responses to a legal and moral malaise. They remain mere palliative measures initiated after much damage has been done to human and constitutional rights, and personal lives ruined and dreams broken. Nigerian prisons are exceptionally unpleasant; they are destructive rather than correctional. They need to be renovated and upgraded, and prison officials need to be retrained. The condition of inmates in terms of feeding, sleeping and healthcare arrangements also needs to be improved.

Why are our prisons congested with people who should not be there? We urge President Yar'Adua to sustain the present momentum by doing two things. First, order an audit of Nigeria's prison system in order to have relevant data with which to plan a corrective strategy. Retired judges may be recruited to assist in this process. Prison officials are also in a position to make recommendations to the authorities.

Second, to arrive at the right answers, government must adopt a comprehensive strategy to address the violations of human rights in the prisons and the failures of the justice administration system. A holistic approach would be more worthwhile and yield a longer-lasting solution to the problem at hand.