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The Nigeria-UK obnoxious prison agreement

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Nigeria Prison

A report the other day that the United Kingdom, in line with an agreement made with Nigeria back in 2014, would build a new £700,000 worth of a wing at the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prisons to enable Nigerians who are serving (prison) terms in British jails could be transferred back to their home country is disturbing and unwholesome.

This is the origin of this sad tale: as at 2014 when the Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) was made, the number of Nigerians in UK prisons amounted to 752. Given the challenge of overcrowding with which the Nigerian prison system is already saddled, the United Kingdom said then that it had to intervene by building a prison wing so that the goal of its PTA with Nigeria could be achieved.

While this generous offer may seem wholly positive to many as a straightforward promise of addition to the (prison) infrastructure of Nigeria, there are still a few things to be worried about.

The first concern of the arrangement borders on the issue the country’s sovereignty. It raises the question of what kind of a country allows another country to build a prison in its own yard? True, Nigeria is facing some serious challenges in its penitentiary system, and top of the list of the challenges is overcrowding in the prisons. Nevertheless, looking to another country to swoop in and save the day is uncalled for, especially when the resources and the ideas needed to solve the problem abound within Nigeria.

Not long ago, this newspaper dealt specifically with the malaise of overpopulation in Nigerian prisons, identifying both the surface and the underlying reasons for this condition and prescribing some ways in which the situation could be ameliorated. It is not too surprising that a government which routinely jeopardises its nation’s sovereignty by accepting all manner of loans from even developing but healthy economies in Asia and other places would, rather than fix the leakages in its own social and legal justice system, look to a foreign country to partly address its prison challenges. But it is only normal, only sensible that if Nigeria wants to retrieve its citizens from British prisons, it should be because it has the capacity, on its own, to take care of them.

Let those who are involved not be deceived: criminals put in prisons built with British money, whether in London or in Lagos, are still in British prisons. That should be clearly noted.

Perhaps the United Kingdom would claim to be donating this prison wing based on the bond of the Commonwealth. But even then, one must begin to wonder why that country is keeping the assets while seeking to transfer the liabilities.

Specifically, why is the UK not offering to build schools and hospitals and transferring Nigerian doctors, nurses, and teachers back to their home country? Why only prisons and prisoners? Or is it that the Nigerian healthcare and educational systems do not need to be revamped? The answers to these questions can be reduced to a two-word phrase: economic considerations. While Nigerian lawyers, engineers, doctors, nurses, and teachers in the United Kingdom are considered as positives to the economy of that nation (they work and pay taxes), prisoners are to be serviced from the economy rather than servicing it. They have to be fed, clothed, and medically attended to, and nobody really cares whether they once added value to the British state when they were free.

But even if altruism can be ruled out on the part of the UK in its involvement with this prison deal, the greater indictment in this regard must still fall on the Nigerian state for making itself susceptible, or amenable, to British manipulation. Like every other sovereign state, the U.K reserves the political if not moral right to want to shore up its economy against what it considers as fiscal leakages, at the expense of any other nation. This is realpolitik. It is now the responsibility of the Nigerian government to be strategic in its response to offers that are denigrating and/or manipulative. Unfortunately, of course, what Nigeria has is a government whose perspicacity is drowned in venality, a government eager to accept any offer in which the prospect of “free” money is involved.

One can also begin to wonder why a capital expenditure of £700,000 is more desirable for the United Kingdom than keeping the prisoners and seeing to their welfare on a minimal budget? The answer to this question lies perhaps in the different levels of conscientiousness at which the prison systems—and indeed everything else—are run in a country like Britain and one like Nigeria. This nation, the UK, is operating on the soundly humanitarian basis that it has to take adequate care of even its foreign prisoners, the running cost of which would, in the end, amount to much greater than the £700,000 with which it would build Nigeria an extra prison wing. Sadly, it is difficult to speak of such humane computations when it comes to the Nigerian approach to running its own penitentiaries.

This is a place where prisoners are held like sardine pieces in spaces that are only reminiscent of the barracoons of black slaves, and treated as if their incarceration is a definite prelude to their end.

In the main, there is need to consider the pertinent question of equality. Given the already deplorable state of Nigerian prisons in general and that of the Kirikiri prisons in particular, what then will be the standard of the new prison wing that Britain wants to build?

If the new prison wing is of British standards, built to resemble the facilities from which the intended occupants are being transferred, there is then going to be the problem of parity between local prisoners and the imported ones. In the same prison environment, and perhaps within eye- and earshot of one another, some prisoners will be living fine and some will continue to languish in hell, bringing about a nonsensical scenario of the Orwellian sort: “All prisoners are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Or should the standards of the British prison wing be lowered to agree in style and performance with the Nigerian reality? It is obvious that this is also not too desirable. What might be less obvious, however, is that the presence of this dilemma points to a moral or strategic gap somewhere in the reasoning of the facilitators of this agreement.

The truth is that Nigeria does not need any hand-out from the United Kingdom or any other nation to solve the problems in its penitentiary system, or to accommodate, if it so wishes, its UK-based consortium of criminals. What the country needs is the political will to reinstate justice in its social and legal system, deal with the massive corruption that has enveloped both its prison and immigration services, and refocus the minds of its citizens, mostly through the example of leadership, on the eternal values of hard work and a good name. These will free up a lot of space in the prisons, and reduce the country’s exportation of unscrupulous and undesirable persons to other parts of the planet.


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