Nigeria’s criminal justice system is failing minoritized communities and women

Over 70% of prison inmates in Nigeria are pre-trial detainees who have not seen a day in court. Law clinics can improve access to justice for minoritized communities and women, why aren’t they more commonplace?

Illustrated by Somtochukwu Uchendu/Minority Africa


Rebecca Baba* is a 37-year old midwife from Anyigba, a small community in Kogi State, North Central Nigeria. For ten years, she had been helping indigent women deliver babies at the community clinic. On March 9, 2019, tragedy struck when a child she had just delivered was stolen from the clinic. She was immediately detained and sent to jail where she awaited trial for six months.

“I’ve been working in the clinic for a long time. I’ve helped lots of women give birth and none of them had ever lost a child. But nobody listened to me or even asked me what happened. They just concluded I was a baby thief.”

A shudder that had nothing to do with the balmy September weather racked her tiny frame. Rebecca was wearing the days she spent in prison on her body – her eyes were sunken, her lips cracked and tiny bumps from what looked like insect bites were scattered around her arms and neck. Her fingernails were lined with caked blood from itching. Occasionally, she would start another itch, reopening a healing bite.

“Immediately they couldn’t find the baby, the mother started shouting. She said I had stolen her child. And before I could close my eyes and open it like this”—she closed her eyes for a few seconds and opened them back—“Police had come and carried me away. I slept in the police station and the next day, they brought me here. Since then, I’ve been here.”

“You have not been to court?” we asked. She shook her head, signifying a desolate no.

The Nigerian Prison (now Correctional Centre) is ordinarily supposed to be the last stop in the administration of criminal justice, which should include investigation, charging, arraignment, trial, and finally, judgment.

However, due to what has been described as a manifestation of the ‘Nigerian factor’, which strives to ensure that all set rules and guidelines are thwarted, pre-trial processes become subject to manipulation and stages of criminal justice administration moves from arrest to outright incarceration.

Rebecca is not alone as over 70% of prison inmates in Nigeria are pre-trial detainees who have not seen a day in court.

She gestured at us, “People like you come here at least every month. They say they’ll help us. We tell them our stories and they’ll write and write in their big books. But they never come back.”

“We will come back,” I almost said, but I didn’t.

The first rule of professional ethics, our coordinator had told us the day before, is to never promise anything, no matter how much you believe it to be true.

I smiled instead, in the reassuring way we were taught to.

“You people have to help me.” She spread her hands before us. “Look at me. I am a mother. I have two children and my husband is dead. My husband’s family, they hate me. I’m the only one my children have. I can’t steal a pin, talk more of a human being. I swear to God, I am a good person.”

We nodded. And again, I almost told her that she needn’t be a good person to be deserving of justice. And she needn’t strip herself of her secrets to be deemed worthy of aid.

Rebecca’s case typifies the plight of indigent prisoners, especially women, in Nigeria.

Women make up 1.9% of the Nigerian Prison population. An overlooked effect of this is that there is little to no gender-sensitivity in the prison service and the system mostly caters to the larger male population. A study has shown that women in prisons are sexually exploited by prison guardsmen in exchange for necessities and promises of freedom.

In Dekina prison where Rebecca was incarcerated, she was the only female prisoner. Essentials like pads and soap, she said, were not provided by the facility.

“I’m a midwife, so I know the kind of diseases one can pick up from here,” Rebecca lamented. “Whatever the end of this whole misfortune may be, I know I would never be the same person I once was.”

Equally worrisome for Rebecca was the stigma that would be associated with her when she leaves.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re guilty or innocent. What matters is that your eyes have seen the inside of a prison. Nobody will ever look at you the same.” She shrugged slightly and continued, “What am I even saying? I will be lucky to leave this place alive.”

For her and many others, the uncertainty and fear that comes with being a victim of the extremely flawed criminal justice system is a reality that has not only taken from them the dignity of a normal life but one that could very well kill them too.

Nigeria does not have a shortage of laws that protect and promote the rights of its people. Chapter IV of the Nigerian Constitution provides for right to dignity of person, freedom from discrimination…right to fair hearing…and legal aid.

However, indigent people across Nigerian communities do not have access to legal aid and are left to the discretion of the flawed system.

The Legal Aid Council of Nigeria was created in 2011 under the Legal Aid Act, which mandates that the Council shall provide legal aid, advice and access to justice to indigent parties. The essence of legal aid, according to the Act, is to provide pro-bono (free of charge) legal representation to the indigent, thereby ensuring that justice is delivered effectively to people who cannot afford to pay for it.

In Kogi State, the Legal Aid Council’s office is located in Lokoja, the state capital, over a hundred miles away from the state’s rural communities. This means that an application for legal aid by residents of these communities has to be sent to the state capital for consideration. Reasons for this, according to the Council, include lack of adequate funding, and an insufficient number of lawyers willing to migrate to these communities for pro-bono work. Whatever legal aid exists, it seems, is simply not enough to cater to the needs of rural This, however, is just one of the issues hindering access to justice in these communities. The Legal Aid Act, in stating the criteria for eligibility for legal aid, provides that legal aid shall only be accessible to a person whose earning does not exceed the national minimum wage.

The establishment of University-based law clinics to provide legal services for minority communities in Nigeria has not only improved access to justice for these groups but has also imbibed pro-bono culture amongst student clinicians. This is aptly captured in the Kogi State University Law Clinic’s motto – Promoting Social Justice While Learning.

The Kogi State University Law Clinic (KSULC), established by the Kogi State University Law Faculty in furtherance of public interest lawyering and the provision of free legal services to the indigent in the community, is closely linked to solving these inadequacies. Since its establishment in 2019, it has staged pretrial interventions, street law advocacy, gender-based and domestic violence campaigns and interventions and law reform advocacy to the State’s Ministry of Justice.

United under the umbrella of the Network of University Legal Aid Institutions (NULAI-NIGERIA), over 18 campus-based law clinics in Nigeria have provided services to more than 100,000 indigent people, supplementing government efforts and ensuring that the rights and interests of minorities are protected. These services are funded by organizations such as Partners-Global, Open Society Justice Initiative, Open Society Initiative (West Africa), MacArthur Foundation, etc.

Interventions staged by law clinics do not only enhance access to justice, but it also serves to diminish unequal lawyer to citizen ratio in rural communities.

In Kogi State, the Kogi State University Law Clinic is in Anyigba, a rural community surrounded by about twenty other rural communities. Some of these communities neither have courts nor lawyers resident within them. Anyigba itself has a population of about 10,000 residents, including the student community, with a presence of just about 20 lawyers. The clinicians provide legal services to not just Anyigba residents but also other neighbouring communities.

Law clinics, as a tool for community building and organizing, create a link between the rural communities and lawmakers and enforcers, constantly weaving conversations around law reform and enforcement and both providing information on laws and breaking it down in a manner easily understood by minority groups. This is exemplified in an ongoing project by the Kogi State University Law Clinic, which is aimed at translating the Kogi State Administration of Criminal Justice Law into local languages.

The clinical legal education movement and the establishment of University Law clinics mould a new generation of public interest lawyers who have been exposed to societal responsibilities alongside professional duties.

Through all the recorded successes, however, law clinics in Nigeria are still widely unknown and unheard of outside of their immediate communities. This lack of notoriety becomes a hindrance to law clinics as they are denied access to spaces where they can be impactful – for instance, intervention visits to detention centres and courts are delayed because of long wait periods for approval from governmental authorities.

Law clinics, as a solution-based establishment aimed at supplementing the efforts of the justice system, work on the front line to tackle problems of access to justice in minority communities.

For Rebecca Baba, the Kogi State University Law Clinic (KSULC) has been pivotal in her fight for justice. So far, the clinic has facilitated her bail and handled her defence in court.

“My case is not over,” she says, a year later. “But at least it is ongoing, I am not in prison and that is better than I had before.”

This story was first published on Minority Africa and appears with permission in this publication.

TheMiddleBelt Reporters

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Jairus Awo

Jairus Awo is a Nigeiran Muiltimedia public interest journalist. He believes in the power of the media as a catalyst to development and societal growth. You can tip him an idea on [email protected]

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