President Buhari has called for urgent measures towards the speedy trial of cases and decongestion of custodial centres in the country in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a letter to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, the President drew His Lordship’s attention to the recent call by the United Nations on all countries “to consciously reduce the population of prison inmates since physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible.”
According to President Buhari, “From available records, the inmates population at various custodial centres across the country presently stands at about 74,127 out of which 52,226 are Awaiting Trial Persons (ATPs).
“Most of these custodial centres are presently housing inmates beyond their capacities and the overcrowded facilities pose a potent threat to the health of the inmates and the public in general in view of the present circumstances, hence the need for urgent steps to bring the situation under control.
“It has become imperative for Your Lordship to request State Chief Judges to embark on immediate visit to all custodial/correctional centres within their respective States to identify and release deserving inmates where that has not been done already,” he said.
He noted that during such visits, “the Chief Judges are enjoined to consider conditional or unconditional release of ATPs who have spent 6 years or more in custody. ATPs who have no confirmed criminal cases against them, aged inmates and terminally ill may be discharged.
“It is expected that particular attention should be on the aged, those with health issues, low risk offenders, those with no sufficient legal basis to remain in custody, inmates convicted for minor offences with or without option of fines and inmates who have less than 3 years term left to serve having served a substantial term of their service for offences that attract 5 years and above.
“Payment of fines may be made in favour of inmates convicted of lesser offences with option of fine, who are in custody because of their inability to pay such fines.”
President Buhari said a Report on the proposed visits is expected to be forwarded to the Presidential Committee on Correctional Service Reform and Decongestion Secretariat, Federal Ministry of Justice, Abuja for compilation and onward transmission to his office.
He also suggested to the Hon. Chief Justice of Nigeria to “at this stage, consider taking immediate steps as appropriate to ensure the setting up or designation of Special Courts in all States, including the FCT, “ to try cases of armed robbery, banditry, kidnapping and other serious offences, in order to facilitate speedy trials.
“There is the need to ensure that the Chief Judges of States and FCT High Courts direct lower courts to comply with requirements of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act/Law in issuing remand warrants in criminal cases especially in cases which are not within their jurisdiction,” he said.
According to the President, “this will regulate the volume of entry of Awaiting Trial Inmates into custodial centres.”
Prison decongestion has been a major topic in the Nigerian political and social space. Year after year, human right organizations call on the Nigerian government to administer principles of criminal justice law as the courts and law enforcement agents carry out their duty.
In November 2019, the Cleen Foundation in collaboration with the McArthur Foundation deliberated on how to decongest Nigerian prisons, at the ACJA/L working group meeting held in Kaduna. The discussion became necessary because the number of inmates per prison continued to outgrow the prisons’ capacity – and that’s the case with every prison in Nigeria.
The push to effect the needed change in the prisons always ended on the table of discussion, and life continues; more people get added to the already choked walls. With the courts overwhelmed with cases and the police on rampage of indiscriminate arrests of citizens, there has been every day addition to the problem.
In March, the Minister of Interior Rauf Aragbesola, spurred by WHO’s advise to decongest prisons over coronavirus, called on stakeholders to facilitate measures to minimize the number of inmates in the Nigerian Correctional Services (NCoS) to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The push has been ongoing since then as part of governments’ efforts to quell the spread of the outbreak. Buhari’s directive to the Chief Justice of Nigerian on Tuesday has been the greatest move by the Nigerian government to decongest the prisons.
It is seen as one of the positive developments that have emanated from the outbreak of COVID-19 in Nigeria. There is hope that the pandemic will force the government to address other issues that Nigerians have been complaining about.
The Many Deaths in Kano
As the Kano State Government battles to curtail the spread of COVID-19, an unknown illness has reportedly killed more people in the state than the dreaded pandemic.
Daily Trust reported that on Friday and Saturday last week, over 150 people were reportedly killed across many Local Government Areas of the State. The eight LGAs affected are Nasarawa, Gwale, Dala, Ungogo, Fagge, Tarauni, Kumbotso and Municipal.
It was a tale of horror as grave attendants and undertakers recount the events. “This is worrisome, we are becoming overwhelmed by what we are seeing here these days because to me, the way people are dying is not ordinary,” Bashir Mohammed, of the undertakers at the Dandolo Cemetery in Goron Dutse, Dala LGA said.
He added that between Saturday and Sunday, over 30 bodies had been buried in the cemetery raising serious concern as it is well over the maximum 10 burials allocated to the cemetery. Mohammed noted that those buried were aged people across sexes.
In another cemetery in the state, Abattoir, near Kofar Mazugal, 61 persons were buried at the same period. The areas of the state affected were Zage, Darma, Sharifai and Gabari as well as Zangon and Barebari communities of Kano Municipal.
While the actual cause of the deaths remain unknown, it has been attributed to severe fever, malaria and typhoid fever related illnesses. The residents of the areas said the situation became that bad because of the closure of private clinics in the communities, making it difficult for most of them to access medical help when they are ill.
The situation has thrown the communities into fear that they are now begging the state government to intervene. The Chairman of Fagge Cemetery Committee, Sheriff Hadi Kabir, who said that he lost his old father alongside 13 others who died in his neighborhood, added that the “terrifying” situation needs urgent government action.
He said in his neighborhood at zangon Barebari in Kano Municipal LGA, the cause of the deaths is suspected to be malaria and Typhoid fever, a situation he attributed to rainfalls that helps mosquitos breed.
“This is not coronavirus as speculated; it is severe malaria because of our exposure to mosquito bites. We have been battling this kind of experience almost on yearly bases around this time. So we are praying to the government to come to our rescue because this malaria is more deadly than COVID-19,” he said.
Residents of the affected areas and family members of the diseased have attributed the development to nothing else but malaria. They said their communities are prone to malaria due to the prevalence of mosquitos.
“My mother started having severe fever last week. My brother took her to the hospital and they conducted some tests on her and the result showed that she was having malaria. Her condition continue to deteriorate until Sunday when she passed away,” Hajiya Amina, the daughter of the disease said.
Another resident of the community, Malam Hafeezu Adamu, said doctors confirmed that his brother died of malaria even though he is diabetic.
“My brother was diabetic, but about five days ago, he started complaining of fever and headache. He was diagnosed of malaria and was later admitted in the hospital where he eventually died on Saturday,” he told Daily Trust.
In reaction to the development, the Kano State Ministry of Health said an investigation has been launched to unravel the cause of the deaths. In a statement signed by the information officer of the ministry, Hadiza M. Namadi, the ministry acknowledged the report and promised to carry out necessary inquiry.
“The attention of Kano State Ministry of Health has been drawn to a post being circulated on social media platforms on purported death of number of people within two days and buried in some cemeteries within Kano metropolis.
“As the ministry could not immediately verify the veracity of the claim going round, the state Commissioner of Health, Dr. Aminu Ibrahim Tsanyawa, hereby assured the general public that investigation into the matter is ongoing to verify the claim and possible causes of the deaths. Dr. Tsanyawa also assured that the public will be informed on the outcome of the investigation,” the statement said.
But in another reaction, the Secretary of Risk Communication Sub Committee on COVID-19 in Kano State, Alhaji Auwalu Abdu Fagge, has refuted the claims calling it rumor. He said it has been investigated and found to be false and warned people, especially those with social media influence to stop peddling fake news.
“This particular rumor has been investigated and found to be untrue. I beg of you with massive social media followership to help in clearing the air,” he said.
The contradicting statements from the Kano State Ministry of Health and COVID-19 Sub Committee among other things, give reason for concern. The affected communities happen to be in rural areas of the state where adequate medical facilities are lacking, making it difficult to ascertain the true circumstance of things without thorough investigation.
Moreover, the number of coronavirus cases has been on the rise in Kano, giving reason for many to suspect that it could be the cause of the reported deaths. Kano has recorded 59 cases of coronavirus with one death. The age range of the diseased in these communities has also made many to believe that it could be coronavirus.
But Aminu, a kano resident said it has always been the case in the state, only that people were not paying attention due businesses.
“People die every day in Kano even before this COVID-19 pandemic. Kano is a big city, it’s because the city is crowded that’s why people don’t observe the daily deaths. But now because of the lockdown, people tend to observe. So please let’s not turn natural cause into politics,” he said