FATTEH HAMID writes about the harrowing experiences of Nigerians sent to prison on trumped-up or spurious charges only for their innocence to be established after they had languished for years in jail and the course of their lives altered
The balance in the life of Femi Ariyo, a Lagos-based transporter, was upset on February 28, 2018 when he received a phone call from the now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad department of the Nigeria Police Force.
That unexpected phone call would mark, for him, the beginning of a journey to Kirikiri Maximum Prison, which lasted over four harrowing years.
Ariyo, who was married and had children, would lose his wife, who left and abandoned his children. Yet, he never committed the crime he was accused of and for which he was made to go through all that trouble.
In a chat with our correspondent, the transporter recalled the voice on the other end of the telephone telling him that his attention was needed at the police station because his bus, which he gave to someone else to drive, had been impounded at Oshodi.
Ariyo said, “I gave my bus to one my junior colleagues who also worked for me and about 6am on February 28, 2018, I received a call from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, Ikeja, Lagos State. They stated that my bus was seized at Oshodi and I should show up.
“It was confusing and immediately, I left for the station. When I got there, they told me that my bus had been reported for robbing a lady and before I knew it, I was beaten to stupor. A lady who claimed to have been robbed came around but she said she couldn’t identify me or my colleague to be among the persons who robbed. Notwithstanding that, the police locked us up all the same.”
Ariyo said one thing led to another, the case got complicated and much to his surprise, he found himself taken before the Lagos State Magistrates’ Court in Ogba, where he was confronted with armed robbery charges. The matter was later transferred to the Lagos State High Court on the Lagos Island.
He stated, “The case dragged on and became protracted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then the #EndSARS protest, which grounded everything and prevented them from taking me to court for hearings.”
Ariyo said his problem became compounded when his lawyer withdrew from the case, as he couldn’t pay for legal services.
But luck smiled on him again when a non-governmental organisation provided him with a lawyer to defend him in court.
“When the new lawyer started representing me, the judge asked the prosecutor to provide the lady who was robbed; but they couldn’t provide her. The judge gave them an ultimatum, threatening that the case would be struck out if the prosecution failed to produce the woman.
“On June 14, 2022, when they failed to produce the woman, the judge delivered a ruling, declaring that the charge against me was trumped-up. That was how the court discharged me. But I had spent four years and four months in prison for a crime I knew nothing about,” Ariyo lamented.
“By the time I got out, my wife had left to marry another man leaving our children with my older sister. I lost everything and I had to pick the pieces of my life and start afresh,” he said regrettably.
Unjust incarceration in Nigeria
Ariyo’s travail provides a glimpse into the world of thousands of poor Nigerians who are being steadily railroaded to prison for crimes they never committed.
According to the United Nations Development Programme, wrongful convictions are largely due to the ever-widening poverty gap in Nigeria. Those who are ‘unconnected’ and lack influence can sometimes spend years in prison for crimes they know nothing about.
Criminal justice experts say wrongful imprisonment is prevalent in Nigeria. They link it to poor investigation by the police and and a judiciary lacking in circumspection. But the consequences of wrongful imprisonment are dire. The victims are deprived of their liberty; subjected to humiliation, their lives are suspended and their families suffer.
In August 2021, the Chief Judge of Lagos State, Justice Kazeem Alogba, painted a clear picture of the situation during a two-day workshop when he stated that about 50 per cent of homicide cases in the state were trumped-up charges.
He, therefore, urged expedited treatment of coroner’s inquests in criminal cases in the state. The Chief Judge also advocated compensation for victims after their release.
Justice Alogba said, “Fifty per cent of the homicide cases in the state are trumped-up charges. Even when these victims are eventually acquitted of the trumped-up charges, no law provides people like them with compensation.”
Musician robed with murder
A one-time up-and-coming musician and currently a private tutor in Lagos State, John Edward, was a victim of wrongful imprisonment. He was jailed for murder, a crime he knew nothing about.
Recounting his ordeal to our correspondent, Edward said: “On June 1, 2016, I was returning from a hip-hop video shoot and had my costumes tucked in my bag. On my way home, I ran into some policemen conducting a stop-and-search operation. They stopped me. I was searched; they found nothing on me but they ordered me to follow them to their station. I obeyed their order without questioning.
“When we got there, I called my producer and my sister; this was in Makurdi, Benue State. When my producer came, he showed them my video and on the second day, I was bailed with a sum of N20, 000. As of then, the Investigating Police Officer was not around and I left for the Air Force Base with my sister without my phone, a Blackberry Z30.
“On the following Monday, I returned to the station to pick up my phone and met with the IPO. I told the IPO that I wanted to collect my phone. He asked me to sit down and I was there for about four hours. In my presence, he wrote a report and later brought out of a file pictures of someone that was butchered. He then asked for my full name, which I told him without knowing what was going on. Before I knew it, he brought out handcuffs and two cellmates and he labelled me as the “ring leader”. He said my offence was criminal conspiracy, robbery and murder.”
Edward said amid the confusion, he was lumped with the two men from the cell. They were driven to the State Criminal Investigation Department, Makurdi, Benue State.
“When we got there, I tried to explain that I had absolutely no idea of what they were talking about. I pointed out to the officers there that it was by myself that I went to Zone B, Makurdi, to collect my phone. But they wouldn’t listen to me. They ordered me to sit down.
“When my sister and producer came to the police station to show them the hard copy of my music video in order to convince them that I wasn’t a criminal, they told to go get a lawyer to defend me.
“Right at the police station, a lawyer approached my sister and told her that what I faced was a capital offence.”
Edward said his family and friends became worried for him. According to him, his detention by the police sparked a protest my students while a popular musician, Micheal Stephens, better known as Ruggedman, also took to the social media to raise the alarm over the matter.
“The following week, I was taken before the Modern Market Magistrates’ Court, Makurdi, Benue State. The hearing lasted only a few minutes before the magistrate ordered that I should be taken to the prison.
“I went to prison on June 13 but my lawyer was able to get bail for me. So, I regained my freedom on June 30, after spending about two months in prison.”
Edward said the case suffered several adjournments till it was finally dismissed in April 2017 for lack of substance.
He said had he not been lucky to get bail, he would have been in prison and suffer for a crime he never committed.
Speaking about the impact of the troubling incident on his life, Edward, in an interview with our correspondent, reflected: “ Since that incident, I have only a dream: to become a governor, so I can help many innocent persons languishing in prisons. If I become a governor, I will ensure that no innocent person spends time in prison.”
Clinton Kalu, a native of Imo State, regained freedom from the Port Harcourt Maximum Prison in 2019. The 56-year-old consultant criminologist had spent 27 years on death row before the Supreme Court set aside his conviction, quashed the spurious murder charges against him and handed him his freedom. Today, he wears a smile that bellies his pains and loses.
Thirty-year-old Jide Odusanya is another Nigerian with a sad tale of being unjustly sent to prison. His ordeal started in 1991 when he got into a fight with a mechanic. In the ensuing struggle, Odusanya’s friend struck the mechanic on the head with a plank. But after being arrested, the police confronted them with armed robbery charges, which carries death penalty or life imprisonment.
“The Investigating Police Officer went to my house and found a knife which I normally used to slice bread. They filed trumped-up charges against me. I was convicted in court and sent to jail. I spent 26 years in prison before I regained my freedom in 2018,” he said.
Damaging effects of wrongful imprisonment
A researcher, F.A. Olalere of the University of Ibadan Postgraduate College, noted that “wrongful conviction causes social, psychological, physical and financial harm to the victims.”
He said this in the report of a study titled: “Legal Implications of Wrongful Conviction Under the Nigerian Criminal Justice System.”
Olalere identified the leading cause of wrongful convictions and imprisonment in Nigeria as inefficient investigation by law enforcement agencies.
He stated further, “It (wrongful conviction) ruins victims’ lives, destroys their careers and leads to their separation from family. Even after exoneration, victims of long-term wrongful imprisonment find it difficult to fit back into society due to the resultant permanent physical, psychological and emotional disorders.”
The researcher declared that wrongful conviction and incarceration are simply a violation of human rights.
“Consequently, citizens lose confidence in the criminal justice system. Wrongful conviction occasioned by criminal justice actors’ misconduct and forensic inefficiency impact negatively on victims’ lives, break family bonds and undermines the Nigerian justice system. There is a need to increase access to modern forensic tests in crime investigation, ensure the preservation of evidence, properly apply relevant laws and introduce compensation schemes for victims wrongfully convicted.”
Borrowing the American example
In a 2019 annual report of statistics of wrongful convictions, the percentage of wrongful convictions in the United States of America was stated to be between two and 10 per cent.
According to the National Registry of Exoneration, since the introduction of DNA testing in the US in 1989, over 2,400 persons wrongfully convicted of crimes had been exonerated.
Already, 36 states in the US have laws offering compensation to victims of wrongful conviction, according to the Innocence Project. It is said that using the federal standard for compensation, such victims get a minimum of $50,000 per year of incarceration. There is an additional amount for each year spent on death row.
A human rights and public-interest lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, told our correspondent that Nigeria does not yet have a law providing remedy in form of monetary compensation for victims of wrongful conviction or imprisonment.
He stated, “Unlike in the United States where victims of wrongful convictions can actually maintain an action to seek compensation, there seems to be no sufficient law to protect them in Nigeria.
“However, under our civil law, we have provisions for malicious prosecution. This arises when a person sets the law in motion or activates the machinery of the state against another. An example is when someone goes to the police station to lodge a complaint and the police file charges against the suspect. If at the end of the day, the case lodged by the police does not end up in conviction, whether on account of acquittal or discharge, the person wrongly accused has a right to sue the nominal complainant and that person can be compensated. However, that person must be able to prove that the law was set in motion against him.”
The lawyer said there was a need for legislative intervention to create a definite and clear path through which victims of wrongful conviction and imprisonment can seek and get compensation.
He said, “I will support a legislative intervention to address the plights of victims of wrongful conviction. If somebody is wrongly convicted and the person spends several years in custody, the person has lost many years of his or her life and career. It should be possible for such a person to seek redress and be compensated in one way or the other. I will totally support a legislative intervention in that regard.’’
Another human rights lawyer, Festus Ogun, blamed wrongful conviction and imprisonment on inefficiency in the nation’s justice system.
He said, “If you are not rich in Nigeria, you’re going to be a direct victim of the Nigeria justice system which unfortunately inflicts pain on many innocent citizens.
“If a person gets executed for a wrongful conviction as a result of the inept justice system, and it was later found out, then you realise that we are in deeper trouble. Unless and until we find ourselves a system that really reflects justice and not just court judgement, then we can’t have peace and tranquility as a country.’’
Ogun urged victims of illegal convictions and imprisonment to come together and demand justice.
Another lawyer, Maleek Akanbi, said there was a need for the court to be more circumspect when handling criminal cases in order to stem the trend of sending innocent persons to prison.
The lawyer said it remains valid that “it is better to let 99 criminal go free than to imprison or punish one innocent soul.”
He said, “One of the pronouncements that have become a common saying among criminal law experts is: It is better to let nine guilty individuals go than to convict one innocent person.
“In a case where a person is wrongly convicted, the conviction can be overturned on appeal. If the defendant however feels aggrieved about the earlier conviction, he can ask for cost in the upper court (awarded at the discretion of the court) or in exceptional circumstances, he can institute an action in a civil suit against the prosecuting authorities. But this is seldom the case because the initial criminal trial must have been based on malice to enable him to institute an action for malicious prosecution.”
The Director, Access to Justice, Mr Joseph Otteh, described the situation as complex.
He said, “Unfortunately, these wrongful convictions happen. The use of forced confessions and brutality to make people agree to crimes they never committed is actually a bit rampant in our society.
“It’s unfortunate that we do not have enough strength in our justice system to ensure that the errors are corrected. It is not too late if such persons are keen to re-establish their innocence. It might be possible for the person to file an appeal to prove their innocence.
“Until the conviction is declared to have been wrongly made, the issue of compensation cannot arise. It is not something that we have successfully done in Nigeria where a judgement is set aside and compensation is awarded for wrongful conviction.
“Victims need to first appeal and if the Court of Appeal looks at the judgement on the merit and determines that the evidence used for conviction was totally discredited, in that kind of situation, a move must be made for assistance to remedy the injustices that happened.”
The Communications Manager of Headfort Foundation, Itunuoluwa Awolu, said wrongful convictions are an indictment on the Nigerian justice system.
She said, “It begins with the law enforcement agents because they have firsthand information of whatever the incident is and they make the decision whether to mediate or charge persons to court and the kind of charges to file.
“From experiences, we have seen that when the law enforcers realise that the persons they have in custody do not have people to pay their bail sum, they resort to charging them even in cases they could have mediated on. It is just like a business transaction for them.”
Awolu noted that most times, magistrates and judges were also not patient enough to carefully look into cases and determine those that are frivolous.
Commenting on the issue, Lagos State Police spokesperson, Benjamin Hundeyin, said police rely on and work within the limit of the available laws in the country.
He stated, “Before a case like armed robbery goes to court, it goes to the Director of Public Prosecution, who ratifies, scrutinizes the case file and determines whether the case should go to the court or not. All these checks and balances are available, however, if this is not enough, maybe there should be a new law which will put other checks and balances in place.
“I really don’t know if we should be deciding our own case. If the police are being accused of mismanaging prosecution, I don’t think we should be the one deciding, the lawmakers should make another law that will make things better.”
He added, “I’m not putting blame on the judiciary, but they also have a lot of cases on their hands without enough magistrate or judges. There are many issues in the criminal justice system that need to be looked into. It’s not just the police, not the DPP, not the court alone, there are a lot of things to look at.”