Hundreds await trial in Nigeria’s prisons
Armed groups the world over prolong their struggles in an attempt to force governments to release prisoners. Nigeria's Boko Haram is no exception. There are currently hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of suspected members of the Islamist organisation, who have not yet gone to trial, in prisons across northern Nigeria.
Over 60 per cent of prisoners in Nigeria have either not been tried or did not have a fair trial, Amnesty International estimates in its report, Waiting for the Hangman, estimates .
Extrajudicial killings of suspected armed robbers and people thought to pose a threat to national security are commonplace.
“It is standard practice that police arrest bystanders and witnesses and then start investigating. In the worst case scenario those people end up getting killed while in custody,” says Muhammad Zubairu, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Council.
During the crackdown on Boko Haram in 2009, which led to the capture and subsequent death of Yusuf Mohammed, the group’s leader, while in police custody, hundreds of suspects were arrested in the northern cities of Bauchi and Maiduguri.
“We have women coming to us everyday asking after the welfare of their husband who they say was wrongfully arrested during the crisis [the 1999 crackdown]," a human rights activist, who asked to remain anonymous, complains. "We do our best to investigate, but all too often we find that suspects have been 'transferred', which we know is a euphemism for killed.”
David Lewu spent 14 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Nine of those years were on death row.
The police arrested him following communal clashes. He confessed after being tortured for three days. He is sure he would have escaped the ordeal if his relatives had had the money to bribe the police.
“Everything is about money," he says. "The police want money to let you off a crime, even if you didn’t commit it. Then to get on the list of prisoners to be considered for pardon, the prison guards have to be bribed.”
Prisoners get very little sympathy in a country where 80 per cent of the population live on less than two dollars a day. The playwright Wole Oguntokun is an exception. A trained lawyer, he was moved by what he saw on the occasions that he visited prisons. It was this period of his life that inspired him to write the play Prison Chronicles.
“When you have the backing of the government everyone else is a minion," he says. "Might is right in a place like Nigeria. Those people without the (financial) backing end up in prison for years, forgotten by society. That’s what Prison Chronicles is about.”
Wole Oguntokun’s play, Prison Chronicles is currently touring Nigeria.