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Wasteful 15-year detention of crime suspects

By Editorial Board
25 January 2022   |   2:44 am
Nothing could have demonstrated the travesty of justice commonly attributed to the justice system in the country better than the reported case of 19 persons arrested,

Nothing could have demonstrated the travesty of justice commonly attributed to the justice system in the country better than the reported case of 19 persons arrested, detained, variously prosecuted and eventually released in the South East recently. But their travails took 15 years to resolve, and even then, they were acquitted because charges against them could not be substantiated.

Fifteen years are inordinately long for the trial of suspects ordinarily, and the fact that the handlers of the cases failed to carry out their duties diligently makes their position worse and unconscionable. Surely, the law officers of the states concerned should not only be worried about this episode, but they should also put in place measures to prevent a recurrence of similar events, as well as arrange substantial compensation for the victims who have needlessly wasted 15 years of their prime.

Cases of unlawful detention, malicious prosecution, torture and brutality perpetrated by some officers/units of the Nigeria Police Force are not new, and in fact, constituted the bane of the #EndSARS protest in October 2020, which brought the nation to its knees for all the wrong reasons.

The outcome was the destruction of properties worth billions of naira, the killing of many innocent citizens, including the alleged killings of many young Nigerians by men of the Nigerian Army. The level of casualty is still being disputed and a sore subject to this day. However, whenever these stories make the news, they are just as distressing and mind-boggling as the last; and so it is with the report of what could be termed the unlawful arrest, detention, torture and trial of the 19 youths from the South East who were reportedly going about their lawful businesses. They were accused of being members of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and charged for offences such as treason and terrorism.

After 15 years of being incarcerated, they were discharged and acquitted by Justice Nicholas Oweibo of the Federal High Court sitting in Awka, holding that the prosecution had failed to establish the charges against the accused persons.

Only a few weeks ago, the story of Peter John, a 23-year-old security man arrested on his way to work during the height of the #EndSARS protest was reported. He was arrested, arraigned on charges of destruction of public and private properties, and remanded in prison custody; he only regained his freedom 15 months after the court had struck out his case. There are reports that many young Nigerians detained during the #EndSARS protest are yet to regain their freedom. Many more of such cases go unreported.

How long must Nigerians suffer such excruciating circumstances in the hands of their law enforcement agencies? Innocent citizens were incarcerated on trumped-up charges or for the failure of the police to undertake a diligent investigation, and the cases were made worst by the nation’s epileptic judicial system. A visit to most Magistrate Courts will reveal a high volume of criminal cases instituted by the police without proper investigations. These cases which constitute a clog in the wheel of the justice system are more often than not struck out for want of diligent prosecution, however not before these innocent Nigerians have been unjustly remanded in prison custody for years, a violation of their right to liberty and denial of economic opportunities, without any compensation from the state. These are beside government resources expended in the investigation, prosecution and preservation of these persons while in custody.

The Police are the first line of contact in the administration of the justice system and if the government is serious about addressing issues with the system and cases of insecurity currently plaguing the nation, more attention should be paid to the process of investigation as undertaken by its security agencies, particularly the police. Poor and shady investigation procedures deny the nation of adequate data and intelligence reports to address crime, our court systems and by extension, correctional centres that could be saved the trouble of congestion if proper investigation is carried out by the police before the institution of most charges.

While more should be invested in the education and training of officers in charge of investigations, a reward and punitive system should equally be upheld to measure the performance of these officers. Many cases of arbitrariness prevail in the nation’s system because those responsible often go unpunished. In the case of the 19 youths, someone was responsible for the investigations and prosecution, if any. Was the advice of the Department of Public Prosecution sought, if yes on what basis was the advice for prosecution given? How are the performances of the prosecutorial authorities monitored and measured? In the long run, police machinery needs to be overhauled and decentralised for better efficiency.

Owing to the poor manner with which criminal prosecutions are handled, should the police be allowed to continue the prosecution of criminal charges? Perhaps, officers from the respective ministries of justice in each state and the federation should be made to oversee all criminal prosecutions as has been suggested by stakeholders. These arbitrary cases have shown over time that due to the poor training of most police prosecutors, the liberty of average Nigerians should not be left in their hands.

The attorney general of the federation and its state counterparts are chief officers of the law and should do more in ensuring that no Nigerian is unjustly held behind bars outside of the provisions of an order of the court. This they can achieve by undertaking periodic investigation on cases of awaiting trial inmates; and where there is no sufficient evidence to secure a conviction and where no proper investigation has been conducted, such cases should be withdrawn. The nation’s justice system should not be made a tool for the perpetuation of injustice. If any lesson was learned from the #EndSARS protest, it is that Nigerians are fed up with the brutality and high handedness of the police and if these issues are not conclusively resolved, the nation is only postponing a major crisis on injustice in the polity, in no distant time.