Emmanuel Amakude had just dropped his West African Senior School Certificate Examination, or WASSCE, pen, only to pick it up again at Oba Prison in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria, to record a story of woe for himself.
With an amazing WASSCE result, the next step in his life was to register for the Joint Admissions Matriculation Board’s Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, which would qualify him for tertiary study.
However, a woman claimed that Amakude was among those who broke into her shop and stole her goods. The direct result was that he was imprisoned for more than five years, even when he was never found guilty of the crime.
He needed the intervention of an organisation in 2021 for him to be a free man again.
Paul King was a private home lesson teacher. Without his knowledge, some of his friends in the area who knew that he always went to the house made their way into the apartment and attempted to steal a generator.
When they were arrested, they said King was their friend. It was on that basis that he was arrested, charged to court, and found himself in prison.
But his case was never heard again in the Ilaro High Court. He had also spent more than five years in Ilaro Prison prior to the voluntary intervention that led to his release in 2021.
Amakude and King may have been among the unlucky 51,541 detainees (68% of whom are in various prisons across the country) awaiting trial in Nigerian prisons. They wait for the court to decide their destiny or for unselfish acts to save them.
While the country’s correctional facilities serve as a reality check for lawbreakers and criminals, many people wind up in prison for civil reasons or because their case files are missing.
To pull Amakude out of prison, this solution provider had to collaborate with the Centre for the Physically Challenged and People’s Rights, or CPPR, and the Centre for Advancement of People’s Rights.
He and many others would have remained in prison, suffering for crimes they didn’t commit and congesting Nigerian prisons without this foundation’s intervention.
The Foundation for Justice and Prisoner Rehabilitation is filling the void by regularly visiting correctional facilities across Nigeria to come to the aid of Awaiting Trial Inmates, or ATI.
Dr Kushinmo Olumuyiwa founded the organisation alongside a few other individuals who share similar empathy for ATI.
The organisation began as the Foundation for Social Justice in 2010 before becoming broader in scope a few years later.
“However, in October 2016, we rebranded it and registered it with the Corporate Affairs Commission, or CAC, a year later. We simply wish to assist these people. Most of them have no hope, no family, and no way out,” he told Prime Progress.
The organisation has grown over time to include 15 individuals, including lawyers, operations and logistics officials, and other volunteers.
Olumuyiwa was a member of the Committee for Defence of Human Rights, where he was a secretary for its Lagos chapter for eight years, overseeing police misconduct and criminal justice.
“I believe that police powers are so strong that they have the potential to bring the country down. We have been at odds with the police since the days of Aba Kyari as OC SARS,” he revealed.
He’s been moved by how many people he’s met on his journey who have been wrongfully remanded for crimes they barely commit.
“When these people are wrongfully arrested, they are imprisoned for long periods of time, and some of them are eventually released. They grow demotivated and end up committing the crimes they were earlier wrongfully punished for.”
Because these people have no case to answer or have been granted bail but are frustrated by the police and court officials landing them in prison, Olumuyiwa said most of them leave the prison with the intention of exacting retribution and find themselves back there before long.
How does it work?
The organisation visits correctional facilities on a weekly basis, constantly looking for ways to get innocent Nigerians who are awaiting trials out of such prisons.
“We have worked with the Lagos State prison controller to gain access to all of these facilities. So, once a week, we visit correctional facilities, primarily in Lagos and Ogun states, to scout awaiting trial inmates,” he said.
When the team visits a facility, they communicate with the inmates to learn what brought them there and if they have been charged. They will next call the organisation’s counsel to check if they have any options.
“I could remember vividly one man who stood as a guarantor for his friend who lent some money from a lending platform but absconded after paying only half of the money he lent,” Olumiyiwa explained.
His team met with him at Ilaro Prison and had his case heard at the Ilaro High Court. According to him, his organisation, along with the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, tabled and fought for him in court until he was released and cleared for lack of evidence.
Almost ten people have been set free as a result of the organisation’s assistance.
“We visited and approached the Lagos State government with nearly 16 case files sometime in 2022. They couldn’t find up to ten people’s case files at the High Court..”
He added that about two men were detained illegally and imprisoned. They never appeared in court again and had been awaiting trial since then, even when no one could locate their files.
It was the organisation’s intervention that prompted the Lagos State government to grant them amnesty.
The big victory
Concerned about how to ease prison congestion and unblock access to fair justice, the organisation invited every relevant stakeholder in the system to a stakeholder dialogue on criminal justice and made tangible impacts.
On May 23, 2019, it organised a stakeholder dialogue on policy advocacy and the administration of criminal justice law in Lagos State 2016 from a holistic perspective and had critical stakeholders, not limited to Anmesty International, the DSS, the Police, the Public Complaint Commission, and other stakeholders and human rights organisations at Ikeja Metal House, Lagos, Nigeria.
“We resolved that when the police arrest suspects, they must send all of the arrested persons case files to the Attorney General’s office every week. They will next await the Attorney General’s recommendation on whether to charge in court or whether the matter should not reach court.”
They did not stop there as mere lip services; the organisation, along with the other stakeholders they invited, sent out a memo to that effect.
The Lagos State Government established a committee to look into their response, and they came to the conclusion that before any criminal matter goes to court, the Department of Public Prosecution should review it.
“And then we follow up. Two cases were dismissed by the Ogba court because they were civil in nature,” Olumuyiwa said.
Before the organisation’s intervention, the police were the ones who prosecuted on the Attorney General’s behalf.
It is never easy
Olumuyiwa submitted that the organisation remaining an anchor person in the criminal justice realm has been utterly difficult because they are often frustrated by both the police and court officials.
Even when judges grant bails, there are numerous concerns from the clerk and other municipal employees that contribute to prison congestion.
“Some court officials request bribes before they can perform their constitutional duties. They frustrate bail applications and make our work unsavoury,” he said.
Additionally, touring Nigeria’s correctional facilities with the organisation’s meagre resources has remained challenging.
“It is exhausting to go to court almost daily. We don’t have enough money. Sincerely, touring prison to prison with our money has been very challenging. We lack adequate finance to push our wishes further”, he declared.
Inadequate finance has hindered the organisation from visiting Kirirkiri Prison, even though it is on their agenda to do so.
The coronavirus pandemic also affected the organisation’s operation because all the correctional facilities were closed during the period.
Not only that, it is also painstaking that some of the inmates they have fostered their release (who got in there because they cannot afford solicitors) do not want to be around the organisation to help push the noble cause.
“Some of them don’t want to be around us. They feel terrorised and pessimistic that we might call them back to prison. Even though we have some of them that still get back to us to thank us, we have many who just want to disappear from radar”.
The psychological and emotional baggage that they carry with them even after they are freed is one daunting challenge that the organisation is working tirelessly to overcome.
We won’t give up
In the coming few months, the organisation will begin a process of public enlightenment in Lagos State on the resolution of the 2016 dialogue.
“We also intend to grow across the country in the near future,” the founder told Prime Progress.