Nigeria and the detritus of detention

Kenechukwu Obiezu

Kenechukwu Obiezu

Nigerians have a troubled history with their criminal justice system. Whether it is loud complaints that the system accommodates yawning cracks through which master criminals escape, to suspicions about the competence of those who run the system to outright outrage when those who know nothing about heinous crimes go in while the guilty escape, the entire criminal justice system seems to be one big booby trap.

Many Nigerians cite the struggles of the criminal justice system as the chief reason why the country continues to lurch from insecurity to insecurity cutting down many people in the process.

How, many ask, would bandits, Boko Haram or ISWAP for example freely operate if their kingpins and foot soldiers are clinically and constantly arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated?

Surely, many argue, Nigerians would be assured of greater economic and financial security if those who plunder the public purse by reason of wanton corruption are timeously and expertly divested of their loot and made to cool their heels in some correctional facility away from the ostentation that their theft hitherto promised.

But as with most of the challenges faced by Nigeria as a country, the root causes are as much about the matters as they are about the men who manage the matters as it is about the matters themselves. The problem is in many ways systemic and if it is to be soluble, wholesale changes have to be made.

Amidst the chaos in Ukraine, the Nigerians who have clearly stated that they absolutely would rather remain in Europe as refugees bring to mind how a Nigerian man who had tasted detention in a North African prison unreservedly announced that he would rather remain a prisoner there than come back to Nigeria and walk free, many years ago. His reason was that in the prison, one was sure of regular meals, an education and even newspapers. In a nutshell, he said that detention there did not mean one was forgotten as life thrived even behind high prison walls.

What is detention like in Nigeria? Horror stories abound. Those who had tasted it have told stories of detention cells at the police station sticky with squalor; of extremely poor sanitary conditions, and of the cruelest attempts to divest people who find themselves there of humanity and dignity.

The cruelty of detention begins from police stations and continues in correctional facilities. The absurdity of it all is that the conditions are not empowered to make a distinction between those who have already been convicted of heinous crimes and those who are simply awaiting trial.

Where does life begin and end for many Nigerians? There can be no genuine advancement along the path of development without human dignity? It is simply impossible.  But what happens when the conditions are not in place and those who command them are simply not ready to command the right conditions in the detention facilities?

For many Nigerians, life ends on the day they are arrested and detained for anything at all be it genuine suspicions of crime or trumped-up allegations by those who would rather see that they lose their freedom. The experience is always so jarring that those who undergo it and somehow escape never wish for a repeat. A humane society remains one where everyone is treated with humanity and dignity in spite of the circumstances. Treating people with humanity and dignity helps to found the basis of any just society.

This necessarily means that all stages of the criminal justice system from arrest to detention to prosecution and beyond must conform to all the dictates of dignity. To do less is inimical to true progress in every way possible.


Kene Obiezu,

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