Your worship, magistrate’s courts the most important! (2)
Continued from yesterday
MAGISTRATE’S courts in Nigeria are the most important courts when talking about the criminal justice system, as more than 90 per cent of criminal cases that get tried commenced in the court and 80 per cent or more of those cases terminate in magistrate court. However, the same court that manages the bulk of criminal trials in our country is relegated to the background by the managers of the system, so much that the heaviest chunk of allocation to the judicial sector is spent on superior courts of record and magistrates have had to resort to the use of industrial actions in the past as a bargaining tool to get better conditions of service.
Beyond this, superior courts that receive the bulk of attention in terms of budgetary allocation and manpower do not fare better in the trial of criminal cases. It is believed that at present, it will take an average of 15 years to successfully prosecute a criminal case from High Court to the Supreme Court. One survey by the Nigerian Prison Service using some selected states as samples showed that in a period of six months, some states recorded less than three criminal convictions. The new government should extend the ‘gospel of change’ that it proclaims to address this imbalance and inefficiency.
The Buhari administration must do whatever is possible to put to permanent rest the incubus of holding charges by magistrate courts which are responsible for high pretrial inmates’ population in the Nigerian prisons. Something also has to be done about the inconsistency in sentences imposed by our courts. While the sanctions imposed in the criminal and penal codes infer deterrence, retribution and humiliation as the goal of these sentencing, judgments do not uniformly and comprehensively reflect this for the same classes of offences. Court judgments are discriminatory against the poor and politically unconnected. For instance, a magistrate’s court imposed a N2,000 fine on Salisu Buhari, the former speaker of the House of Representatives for forgery and perjury, while another magistrate court sentenced one Godson Onyeorozire to 17 years imprisonment without an option of fine for the same class of offence. One Federal High Court handed John Yakubu Yusuf, a former director in the civil service, a two year jail term, with a N250, 000 fine option after the latter admitted to taking part in the stealing of N32.8 billion Police Pension fund, while another court sentenced Kelvin Ighodalo to 45 years imprisonment for stealing a mobile phone belonging to a governor.
Like other component of the criminal justice system, the structure and operation of the Nigerian correctional services remains in a colonial time capsule. The prison services regulated by a 1972 Act are nothing but tortuously punitive medieval institutions. Congestion, human rights violation, abysmal health conditions, poor funding, improper management and ill-trained officials are all challenges facing the prison services in this country. And on top of that are prison complexes that are antiquated colonial heritages dating back to the early part of the 19th century such as the Warri Prison that was built in 1805, Azare Prison 1816, Ningi Prison 1820, Misua Prison 1827, Degema Prison 1855 and the Suleja Prison 1914.
And what society allocates more money to the feeding of prison guard dogs than to feeding prison inmates? What society imprisons citizens without providing appropriate healthcare and social facilities? Nigeria does, and does with style. Only few prison facilities in Nigeria are equipped with functional hospitals and appropriate medical staff, while a good number of them have nothing beyond first aid boxes manned by dispensary assistants. Recreational facilities are equally totally lacking in most of the prison facilities and where they exist, it is grossly inadequate. In the North-West Zone, about 60 per cent of prisons have no form of recreational facilities whatsoever.
Why is the judiciary operationally indifferent to the crisis of the awaiting trial inmates in the Nigerian prison beyond the worn ritual of sporadic visitation by state Chief Judges sporadic during which some inmates are released when the court system is culpable in prisoners’ unjustified incarceration? What is the incentive for the prison system to retain so many awaiting trial inmates? Why has 16 years of democratic governance not engendered a humane and human rights respecting criminal justice policy in Nigeria? Is the low prisoner per capita in Nigeria indicative of Nigeria’s low crime rate or asymptomatic of a non-functioning criminal justice system? What is the political economy of the criminal justice system in Nigeria today? These and some others are questions that the new government must answer correctly and expeditiously.
The monetary cost of the failure of the criminal justice system is huge and prohibitive. The cost of feeding awaiting trial inmates alone stands at more than N5.5 billion per year, which translates to about N72, 000 per prisoner at an average cost of N200 a day per prisoner. Furthermore, the system as at present constituted is a waste of human capital, the largest chunk of the Nigerian prison inmate is between the age bracket 26 and 50. The system has negative social effect in the areas of post release unemployment, poor health, weakening social identity, social alienation, poverty and the risk of reoffending.
Osasona is a Research Associate at the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives, Lagos, Nigeria. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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