INVESTIGATION…. Justice for Sale (III): Inside the courts and prisons where officials extort suspects, and even relatives
In this third and final part, DAMILOLA BANJO went undercover to unearth the sleaze, corruption and extortion ring in some Nigerian courts and the Correctional Centres were citizens languish because the justice system has been compromised
At every point in the Nigerian justice system, there is a corrupt government official brazenly ripping off innocent Nigerians. The prison wardens, like the police and the judicial officers, also weave an illegal extortion racket around the inmates they were employed to protect. The illegal operation is so blatant it is carried out in the full sight of the Lady of Justice, within the premises of the court.
Every court has a holding cell where inmates produced from prison custody are held. At the Ogba, Ojo and Ikorodu magistrate courts, the holding cells have no toilet and sanitation facilities – and this is particularly bad for women. The absence of cross ventilation locks up body odours that create a stench perceived from miles away.
“If you can no longer hold your urine, you have to relieve yourself in the cell. The other inmates understand because they too will do the same,” Chizoba Okoli said while narrating his experience in Ojo holding cell.
The wardens are not bothered about these filthy cells because they profit from the inhumane conditions these inmates are subjected to. For many newly arraigned suspects, staying in the holding cell while their bail conditions are being perfected is unimaginable.
“I cannot stay in the cell,” Chukuemeka said. “Apart from the scary people locked in that cell, the smell from the cell alone is unbearable.”
Chukwuemeka is a typical Nigerian ‘big man’ who could afford to pay his way through the corrupt legal system. He paid N5,000 to the wardens to stay out of the holding cell. He and others who could pay for “the fresh air” sat on a long bench away from the filth and stench of the holding cell in Ogba Magistrate Court.
N3,000 to visit detainees
This form of extortion is just one way the prison wardens fleece the suspects and their family members. Requesting to see the inmate is another way. Relatives are forced to bribe the wardens before they are allowed access to the inmates.
Babajide was brought to court on May 6. He had been in prison, having been unable to perfect his bail conditions. His wife said she visited him at the Kirikiri prison once. The elaborate pockets of extortion at the prison discouraged her. The court was her only means to see him and update him on the difficulties in getting him out of prison. But the prison warden would not allow any such interaction.
She approached one of the wardens to allow her see her husband.
“If you want to see him it is N1000, if you want him to come out and sit here, you’ll pay N3000.” Gabriel, one of the wardens at Ogba Magistrate court gleefully said.
Gabriel was later given N1,500 for Babajide to be allowed out of the holding cell he shared with over 30 other inmates.
This extortion is a practice across all the holding cells in the magistrate courts. At Ikorodu and Ojo Magistrate court, some prison wardens were seen extorting relatives who wanted to see their relations.
N5,000 to sign Release Order
The secretary of magistrate Fashola had informed the family of Babajide that the wardens would demand some money before they acknowledge receipt of the release order. This was just as she took her own share of N2,000.
“You will take the document to the wardens downstairs. They will request some money from you,” she explained, showing that the racket was an open secret within the court. “I am not sure how much, but it should be between N3,000 and N5,000”.
It was almost the close of business when the release order was presented to warden Gabriel. He refused to receive it.
“N5,000 is the least I can collect from you,” he charged. “If you don’t have it, take it to the prison yourself and see if you won’t pay more.” As he named his price, he then walked away from the wife who was pleading with N3,000.
He refused to receive the order, despite pleas from the family members, until he was given N5,000. He would also collect an additional N500 as the transportation fee for Babajide.
Inside Kirikiri Prison
The Nigeria prisons are overcrowded; available data has shown. According to the statistics provided on the website of the Nigerian Correctional Service on January 20, 2020, 70 per cent (50,856) of the 72,987 inmates in the centres are awaiting trial.
The Network of University Legal Aid Institutions, a non-governmental organisation promoting clinical legal education, legal education reform, legal aid and access to justice in Nigeria, said 50% of those awaiting trial are young people under the age of 30.
The difficulty of meeting bail conditions is one of the reasons for the high number of people awaiting trial, said Charisa Kabir, the organisation’s monitoring and evaluation officer.
“Once a person has been remanded in prison, bail is usually supposed to be based on certain amounts. Sometimes, N4,000to N5,000. But if these people don’t have that money, or anyone to support them, they are forced to remain there for a long time,” Kabir was quoted in a news report in September 2018.
Thousands of young people rounded up in random raids by the Nigeria Police Force remain in detention partly because they are unable to cough out the humongous, illegal fees required to perfect bail conditions.
Ganiyu Bankola, 22, said he was raided by policemen from Idimu Police Station, and transferred into the custody of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), where he was detained for about four months. Unable to pay the bail fees being demanded by his IPO, identified simply as Supro Banti, he was charged to court in January 2019.
The young man was granted bail but again, could not meet his bail terms; then, he has no relatives to stand surety and could not afford to hire a professional surety, nor pay the prosecutor. As at May 2019, he was still held at the Kirikiri Medium Prison, uncertain if he would ever make it out from prison.
“Please, help me out of this place, I don’t have anyone,” Bankola pleaded with this reporter during an undercover visit to the prison.
There are several hapless others, like Bankola, languishing in Nigerian prisons. Young male adults rounded up from their homes overpopulate the prison. Consequently, the facilities are overstretched and inmates have to struggle, and in most cases, pay to access the most basic amenities.
“When you get into the kirikiri prison, you’ll be asked to pay if you will like to stay in a comfortable spot,” Babajide said while narrating his experience in the prison. “When I got there, I was asked to pay N20,000 but I could not afford that. I paid N10,000”
The N10,000 afforded Babjide a spot beside the cell marshal, the most senior inmate in his cell.
Abandoned and Forgotten
A good number of inmates in Kirikiri prison do not have contact with any of their family members. They were arrested, arraigned and thrown in jail, oddly cut off from families and loved ones. This was the case with Daniel Johnson, a 26-year-old hairstylist, who has remained in prison since June 2018 when he was arrested.
“We have not seen him in a long time,” his grandmother told this reporter. “He does not live here anymore and he does not visit often. We did not know he is in prison.” Johnson is an orphan. He lost his parents when he was only a child. His only immediate relative is his teenage sister who lived with their grandmother at Alakuko in Sango area of Lagos state.
For a year, neither the police nor the prison service contacted his grandmother. Until this reporter contacted the family in mid-May, 2019, none of his relations knew he was in prison.
Johnson, a barber was arrested on June 19, 2018, he said. He was on his way from a client’s home where he rendered home service.
“I was raided at night when I was coming from where I went to barb hair for my client [haircut],” he recalled. “I did not steal anything. I am a barber,”
When Johnson got to Kirirkiri prison, his dreadlocks were shaved off. He gave the home address of his relatives but no one paid him any attention. He had no legal representation in court too.
“I am here all alone,” the downcast young man said.
Johnson’s version of how he got to prison differs from the state’s. The Commissioner of Police charged him for stealing. He allegedly stole some items from the dormitory of Girls Grammar School in Ogolonto. A staff of the school, identified simply as Kamala, claimed that he caught him and handed him over to the school’s security.
According to Kamala, when he gave testimony for the Ikorodu Magistrate Court, Johnson allegedly stole mattress, a gas cylinder and burner from the school premises.
“He had placed the items on the fence and was going to run away when I caught him.” Kamala told the magistrate.
The prosecutor, Mary, said there is a confessional statement wherein Johnson confirmed Kamala’s story. The statement was presented before the court. But Johnson denied writing any statement. He said he was only made to sign a piece of paper. Unfortunately, Johnson cannot adequately defend himself. He could not afford a lawyer. When the pro bono lawyers from the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) took up his case, he had already spent about a year in prison.
Children in Adult Prisons
17-year-old Emmanuel Iroakazi had spent one week at the Kirikiri prison when he met with this reporter. Like Bankola, he was randomly arrested during a raid on his way home.
“I hawk bottled water,” he disclosed. “I was coming home, I did not know police were raiding at Maza Maza [an area in Lagos]. They arrested me and threw away my bowl.”
Iroakazi was eventually arraigned before a magistrate court at Orege. He was granted bail but like many other teenagers raided on the streets or in Lagos traffic where they hawk water to survive, Iroakazi could not meet his bail conditions of N50,000 and a surety in like sum which were imposed by the magistrate.
“I don’t have money and nobody will stand as surety for me,” the 17-year old boy said. “They brought me to court because I don’t have money. They released the other people they arrested me with when they paid for bail.”
These kids are many in Nigerian prisons. Homeless kids who were picked on the streets or arrested for hawking on restricted roads.
Afeez Buhari, 15, said he was raided but charged to court for stealing. Buhari had been in prison for six months. Neither his parents nor any of his relatives knew he was arrested. He was arrested alongside Daniel, who he described as his casemate.
When this reporter called Daniel, he dropped the call the moment he realized it concerned his court case.
We are not pleased with the bad reputation, says Lagos Chief Registrar
This reporter approached the Lagos State judiciary with evidence of extortion gathered during the investigation. The Lagos State Chief Registrar, Taiwo Olatokun, condemned the conduct of the clerk at Justice Fashola’s courtroom during a sit-down session with her alongside the Deputy Chief Registrar and the Director of Public Affairs.
Olatokun promised that the matter would be forwarded to the Personnel Management Board (PMB Discipline) for investigation.
She said the leadership is also bothered about the reputation of the judiciary and encourage Nigerians to report officials caught enriching themselves unlawfully.
Police Keep mum
This reporter also reached out to the spokesperson of the Lagos State Police Command, Bala Elkana, but the messages and calls to his known number went unanswered.
Messages sent to his WhatsApp messenger on January 17, 2020, got no replies.
On two different occasions, this reporter went to his offices at Oduduwa Way in Ikeja GRA and the Command headquarters, the junior officers met said he was not “available”.
We will investigate, Says Nigerian Correctional Service
The spokesperson for the Nigerian Correctional Services, Francis Enobore, said the indicted officers will be investigated.
“We cannot deny that there will be some unscrupulous people in the service that are acting outside the law and this is the same in every organisation. However, what is important and should be of paramount importance is whether the institution concerned condone such behavior or whether they have the capacity to address such error”, he stated.
Enobore assured that indicted officers would be dealt with if found guilty.