Had a pro bono lawyer not volunteered, 28-year-old Godspower Osaro would have added to the teeming inmates crammed behind Nigeria’s overcrowded prisons awaiting their day in court.
Anger boiled over quickly when Mr Osaro had an altercation with his friend in June 2018.
Having wriggled out of a strong chokehold from the friend, he picked a broken bottle and stabbed his opponent around the elbow, putting the fisticuff to rest, only that it was too late.
His friend was bleeding and three hospitals would not accept to take him in. He died on his way to the fourth hospital.
Mr Osaro was charged with murder and manslaughter.
With no money to hire a lawyer, he was always going to rely on sheer luck to turn around the case against him.
Fate smiled at him on the day he was arraigned when the sitting judge asked if anyone was willing to be his counsel.
Human rights lawyer Francis Paul stood up and volunteered to argue his case pro bono.
“He was about to be arraigned and the judge asked him if he had a lawyer. He said ‘no,’” the Port Harcourt-based lawyer told PREMIUM TIMES.
“The judge asked in open court if any lawyer wants to represent him. No lawyer volunteered, so I did (it) for free.”
On September 22, about three months after his arrest, the defendant was discharged and acquitted on the grounds of self-defence.
“He is a free man. It can only be God,” a joyous Mr Paul wrote on his Facebook wall.
Defending indigent inmates is routine for Mr Paul. At another time, he took up the case of a man charged with kidnapping and other related offences. The defendant was acquitted in November after three years.
It is his own gesture to not just ensure justice is served but also to free up the nation’s congested prisons.
About 73 per cent of the 64,642 prison population as of last December were awaiting trial, according to the prison data PREMIUM TIMES obtained in confidence through prison officials.
Correctional centres in Lagos accounted for the bulk of this population with 6,703. Rivers, where Mr Osaro was held, had 4,224. This was followed by Kano 2,368; Akwa Ibom 2,334; Imo 2,257; Ogun 2,015; Delta 1,792; Enugu 1,737; Anambra 1,579; Oyo 1,491.
On the other hand, Cross River with 504 inmates awaiting trial, Benue – 445, Ekiti – 363, Bayelsa – 336, Yobe – 324, Kogi – 266, and Borno – 185 had the least number of inmates awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, a total of 14,323 inmates had been convicted as of last December. About 1195 of them were in Kano, 877 in Lagos, 780 in Kaduna. Ogun held 660 inmates, Borno – 646, Plateau – 638, Adamawa and Bauchi – 618 each, Gombe – 610, Kebbi – 505 and Jigawa – 472.
Prisons in Benue – 160, Edo – 157, Cross River – 156, Bayelsa – 150, Kogi – 133, Abia – 124, Zamfara – 119, Ekiti – 107, Ebonyi – 96 held the least number of convicted inmates.
Down from 64,767 in the first week of last December, the correctional facilities in the country held a total of 64,642 — of which 62,697 were male and 1,238 females — as of the second week of last December.
Lagos – 7940, Rivers – 4927, Kano – 3716, Ogun – 3019, Akwa Ibom – 2698, Imo – 2495, Delta – 2502, Enugu – 2258, Kaduna – 2180, and Adamawa – 2122 were the top ten states with prisons holding the most inmates.
States with the least number of inmates included: Cross River – 721, Zamfara – 714, Yobe – 650, Benue – 614, Bayelsa – 487, Ekiti – 470, Kogi – 400; the borstals in Abeokuta, Kaduna and Ilorin respectively have 318, 231 and 158 inmates.
Congestion means prison facilities are overstretched and authorities are unable to ensure prisons are truly “correctional centres.”
In the prison Mr Osaro was held in, over a hundred inmates were crammed into a cell, sharing toilets and diseases, his lawyer told PREMIUM TIMES.
“Prisoners die there from treatable ailments due to the poor health facility,” Mr Paul added.
By the time Mr Osaro was released, he had been so frail that he was hospitalised for weeks.
“The prison condition is a total mess. Feeding is very poor and the health facility there is basically not functional, save for the doctors and nurses that can come once in a while,” his lawyer said.
Abandoned in custody
Even for those not on death row, the harsh conditions of Nigerian inmates can be tantamount to a death sentence.
Jude Edude, 21, attested to this. Accused of stealing his girlfriend’s phone and collecting N53,000 from a POS agent without paying back, he was charged for theft and obtaining by false pretence in July.
“I just want to get out of here. The conditions are very bad, the food is nothing to write home about,” he said, his voice trailing off between frustration and resolve to be freed. As he spoke, his awaiting trial colleagues, ten of them, nodded in agreement.
To book a call, the inmates have to pay N50 per minute to wardens, he said. Visitors are also charged ‘visiting rights’ fee by the wardens to see their loved ones.
Like Mr Osaro, Mr Edude was held without trial for months. Held at the old Keffi prison at the outskirts of Nasarawa State, he, too, had no counsel to defend him in court.
Luck smiled at him when an Abuja-based lawyer, Adeniyi Aderinboye, took interest in his case.
Mr Aderinboye prayed to settle the complaint out of court or have the case struck out.
The POS agent dropped his case but he wanted a refund.
The non-appearance of the plaintiff, however, stalled the hearing twice in August, and it was adjourned to September 8.
At the holding room before the hearing at the Grade 1 Area Court in the Kabusa area of Abuja, Mr Edude owned up to this reporter, saying he did what he was accused of because he “needed money.”
Not new to being taken into custody, one of his brothers told his counsel, it was the reason his family members abandoned him.
Citing sections 351 and 353 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, Mr Aderinboye argued in court that the defendant should be discharged “in the interest of justice.”
“He is young and remorseful and he has also been detained since July,” he urged the judge, as he gestured towards a straight-faced Mr Edude who wore a white top with ripped blue jeans and a saggy brown mask.
But again, the plaintiff was absent in court.
The defendant was granted bail in the sum of N400,000 with a reliable surety, and the case was again adjourned to September 22.
But before the adjourned date, Mr Aderinboye left the country for Belgium to begin his Master’s programme.
“I haven’t heard from him (since then),” Mr Aderinboye said in December, adding that Mr Edude would be taken back into custody “if he jumps bail, or if the matter continues on the merit he’s found guilty.”
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