Minister of Interior Rauf Aregbesola made a very ambitious promise on Wednesday last week of the kind that often comes back to haunt top officials. He promised that Nigerian prisons, now renamed correctional facilities, will be decongested in next six months. Aregbesola made the sweeping statement soon after President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Nigeria Correctional Services Act on August 14.
We say Aregbesola’s statement is ambitious because every government in the last 20 years had instituted one prison reform or the other, with little or no result. From June 2001, for example, former President Olosegun Obasanjo set up six different inter-ministerial, presidential and working group committees on prison reform. The situation got so unwieldy that in 2007, the same government set up a committee to harmonize the reports of the various committees.
While the various governments dither, the prison population continues to grow exponentially. It rose from 29,000 at the beginning of the Fourth Republic to 75,000 at present. About 80% of the inmates are on the awaiting trial list. They are held for minor and bailable offences but they are often never taken to court again after their first appearance. Therefore, they stay in over-crowded prisons for years, far more than the period they would have served if they had been taken court, tried and convicted. They live in overcrowded and degrading conditions, ravaged by disease and hunger and psychologically ruined.
Therefore, Minister Aregbesola’s assurance that this blot on the conscience of the nation will be dealt with with despatch is welcome. For sure, some of the provisions of the Act signed by President Buhari recently are far reaching, like Section 12 (2) which provides that after exhausting legal procedure for appeal and a period of 10 years has elapsed without execution of the sentence, the Chief Judge may commute a death sentence to life imprisonment. Also important is the non-custodial aspect of the Service which allows for parole, restorative justice measures – victim-offender mediation; family group conferencing and community mediation, among others.
However, Section 12 (8) of the Act which empowers the state Comptroller of the Service to reject more inmates if the capacity of the facility is exhausted is problematic. The minister did not state what will happen to the remanded person at that point. Statistics today show that all the prison facilities in Nigeria are over-crowded. If a judge commits a person to prison custody and the prison rejects him, where then will the person be taken to?
Overcrowding of the jails that we have today summarises the crisis in the criminal justice system over the years. The police are in the centre of this mess. They own the suspects and have the sole power of investigation and prosecution; in most cases they fail in this task. The judiciary, too, is bedeviled with problems of delay. Suspects therefore remain in prison custody for ages when their cases get stuck in the courts.
So many things need to be done and hurriedly too, if the six months target set by the government to decongest the prisons and bring relief to victims of state inefficiency is to be met. First, the Act should be gazetted. This shouldn’t take until eternity to accomplish. Also, eighty percent of the cases are state cases, according to Aregbesola, for which reason he said governors will be brought on board. This should not be difficult since they are in Abuja most of the time.
The federal and the state governments must accelerate the phase of prosecution which is painfully slow at the moment. There must be diligent investigation and prosecution. It is heart-warming that the government has set targets for the attainment of this goal. We hope that Aregbesola deliberately set a short target period because a lot of spade work has been done. The reputation of the government and the president that heads it is at stake. The government should redeem itself. Ten days have passed since Aregbesola’s six-month pledge. The clock is ticking.