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Nigeria Table of Contents


Crime and Punishment

Nigeria had a dual prison system for more than a half century until the consolidation of the federal and local prisons in 1968. The Nigerian Prison Service, a department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was headquartered in Lagos and headed by a director responsible for administering nearly 400 facilities, including regular prisons, special penal institutions, and lockups. All of these facilities since 1975 came under federal control. Each state had its own prison headquarters under the supervision of assistant directors of prisons, and the prisons themselves--depending on type, size, and inmate population--were variously under chief superintendents, superintendents, or assistant superintendents.

In 1989 the prison staff was reported to be 18,000, an apparent decrease from the 23,000 level in 1983. The average daily prison population in 1976 was nearly 26,000, a 25 percent increase from 1975. Ten years later, Nigeria's prison population was about 54,000. Lagos State accounted for the largest number, about 6,400; Anambra, Borno, and Kaduna housed more than 4,000 each; and Kwara, Niger, and Ondo, with fewer than 1,000 each, had the smallest inmate populations. By 1989 the prison population had increased to 58,000.

Prison admissions increased steadily from about 130,000 in 1980 to more than 206,000 in 1984. The most common offenses were theft, assault, traffic violations, and unlawful possession, which together accounted for 53 percent of prison admissions between 1982 and 1984. Thieves represented the largest single category of offenders, accounting for between 37 and 46 percent of prison admissions between 1982 and 1984. Admissions to prisons in Kaduna, Lagos, Borno, Kano, Plateau, Gongola, and Benue exceeded 10,000 in 1983. This figure did not reflect the geographical distribution of crimes, however, because more than 10,000 prisoners each were from Anambra, Benue, Borno, Cross River, Gongola, Imo, Kaduna, Kano, and Sokoto. People between the ages of twenty-six and fifty consistently constituted the largest category of prisoners, ranging between 53 and 78 percent between 1980 and 1984. In 1984 Christians and Muslims accounted for 45 and 37 percent of prison admissions, respectively, and women for almost 4 percent. In the same year, only 32 percent of prisoners admitted were convicted, whereas the rest were on remand or awaiting trial. Among those convicted, about three-fourths served terms of less than two years, while 59 percent were first-time offenders and 41 percent were recidivists. Foreigners constituted an unknown proportion; in 1989, for example, about 2,000 aliens from other West African states were held in Kaduna's federal prisons for illegal emerald mining.

Although prison policy called for provision of legal, religious, educational, vocational, and social welfare services, Nigeria's prison system, as in most Third World countries, was grossly inadequate. There was no systematic classification of prisoners, so that young and old, and suspects for minor offenses--most of whom were pretrial detainees and first-time offenders incarcerated for extended periods and eventually released upon acquittal--were intermixed with dangerous and deranged criminals or repeat offenders. Despite ever-increasing prison admissions and an inmate population more than double the prison system's capacity, after a development project allocation of N50 million in 1983, capital expenditures for prisons between 1985 and 1988 ranged only between N3 million and N11.6 million. Overall, by the late 1980s the overcrowding rate of the prison systems exceeded 200 percent, with 58,000 inmates housed in facilities designed to accommodate 28,000; in some prisons it was much worse. Although the government had announced a prison construction program, little progress was evident and conditions were projected to worsen; by the year 2000, Nigeria's prison population was expected to be almost 700,000.

Apparently unable to deal with the prison crisis systematically, the government resorted to periodic amnesties to reduce the inmate population, usually on the occasion of a regime anniversary or a national holiday. General Buhari freed 2,500 prisoners, including 144 political detainees, in early l985; the AFRC directed state governors to release old, sick, underaged, and handicapped prisoners on independence day in 1989; and the government granted general amnesty in 1990 to more than 5,000 inmates who had served three-fourths of their sentences, been jailed for minor offenses with terms that did not exceed one year, or who had served at least ten years of a life sentence.

The criminal justice system was so backlogged that at least three-fifths of the country's prison population consisted of pretrial detainees rather than convicts. Reform and rehabilitation programs were nominal, and the prisons were aptly dubbed "colleges for criminals" or "breeding grounds for crime." For example, in the late 1980s the majority of the 2,000 inmates awaiting trial at Ikoyi spent nine years in detention for minor offenses which, on conviction, would have carried prison terms of less than two years. The egregious conditions at the Kirikiri maximum-security facility were highlighted when Chief Ebenezer Babatope's 1989 prison memoir, Inside Kirikiri, was published. In mid-1990 the government was considering an advisory committee recommendation to separate detainees from prisoners.

Most prisons had no toilet facilities, and cells lacked water. Medical facilities were severely limited; food, which represented 80 percent of annual prison expenditures, was inadequate, despite a prison agricultural program designed to produce local foodstuffs for the commercial market. Malnutrition and disease were therefore rampant. In March l990, the minister of justice said that the prisoners' feeding allowance had been increased from N1.5 to N5 and that health and other problems were being studied.

Mistreatment of inmates was common, abuse frequent, and torture occasional. In May 1987 at Benin prison, armed police killed twenty-four inmates rioting over food supplies, and in 1988 a "secret" ten-year-old detention camp on Ita Oko Island, off Lagos, was exposed and closed. Nearly 300 prisoners died of "natural causes" in 1984, and 79 committed suicide, a dramatic increase from the average of 12 suicides per year between 1980 and 1983. Ikoyi alone recorded more than 300 deaths in 1988, and 42 deaths in the first three months of 1989. In June 1989, the Civil Liberties Organisation filed suit on behalf of 1,000 detainees held without trial at Ikoyi, charging the government with mistreatment and urging that the 113-year-old prison be closed.

Data as of June 1991

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