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From prison to freedom: How a firm is helping detainees get justice

MUBARAK Alate was arrested while walking by a police van. He spent close to two years in prison, and eventually regained his freedom with the help of the Headfort Foundation, but not before his mother had spent N300,000. Mustapha Usman reports Alate story and many other detainees and their journey to freedom.

In June 2019, Mubarak Alate, then 23, was arrested on his way to a mechanic shop where he was an apprentice.

He was arrested that morning along Saint Giz road in Lagos state by Nigerian policemen.

He remembered that the security men took him after someone in their van had pointed at him.

He also recalled that at the station, the Divisional Crime Officer (DCO), whom he called Kehinde, accused him of being part of the people troubling the community.

Alate, alongside some other suspects, would later be transferred to the SARS office. From there, he would spend a year and nine months in detention before a court acquitted him.

While Alate was in detention, his mother, Shakirat Iyabode Alate, 62, approached Headfort Foundation – an organisation that runs pro bono cases for people who are behind bars –  for help after she had made many unsuccessful attempts to get him released.

In the process, she even got a lawyer, who she alleged duped her of N300,000.

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“At first, the judge said we should bring two people who haven’t collected any loan before and would be willing to stand for him. We brought the two people, but he rejected them.

Mubarak Alate with a Headfort Foundation staffer after he was released from prison. PC: HF”After that, our lawyer didn’t show up again in court. I was gutted because that would be the third time she would be doing that. It was in that court that someone hinted me to use a human rights organisation. During this period, I fell ill. I had a stroke and my eyes were almost pulled out,” Shakirat told NewsNGR.

With the help of Headfort Foundation, she was eventually able to secure her son’s release on March 30, 2022.

“Only Mubarak was charged to court with conspiracy and cultism as the other guys ran away. He was remanded in prison and his parents didn’t have enough money to perfect his bail. We took up the matter and assigned it to our lawyer, who began representing him and later got him out,” said the spokesperson of Headfort Foundation, Itunuoluwa Awolu.

An individual taken into custody by the police or remanded in prison custody by the court is legally presumed innocent by virtue of section 36 (5) of the Constitution because he or she has not been convicted of any criminal wrongdoing.

In 2019, the then Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS), Ja’afaru Ahmed, said, over 70 per cent of people in the prisons are awaiting trial.

He said only 22, 773 of the total 73,726 inmates have been convicted.  The remaining 51,983 were held without trial. This invariably means seven out 10 inmates in jail have not been convicted.

The Headfort foundation spokesperson Awolu said victims had no access to justice because of the “poor system and arbitrary arrests by Nigerian law enforcement agencies.”

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Motunrayo Arije is another victim said to have been arrested by the police for allegedly killing her boss, Josephine Kofoworola Makanjuola.

On March 22, 2021, Makanjuola sent Arije to purchase medicine from a pharmacy. According to Arije, it was on her return that she found her boss lying down on the couch with blood coming out of her. She alerted her boss’ children and neighbours immediately.

She was arrested the next day by the police and taken to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Yaba, Lagos.

“I spent about three months in the police cell after which I was charged to the Yaba magistrate court. It was while I was in prison that someone referred me to the Headfort Foundation,” Arije told NewsNGR.

After seven months in custody, she was released on October 13, 2021 after she was discharged by the court on the advice of the Lagos State Director of Public Prosecution.

The organisation spokesperson Awolu said Arije’s brief was taken on her second arraignment in court in August, after which she was represented by the organisation’s lawyer and the case was concluded within two months.

How Headfort foundation came to be…

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The organisation was founded by Oluyemi Orija, an indigene of Ekiti State, who said she got the idea after a court appearance at a Lagos State magistrate court in 2013.

Orija narrated, “I was called to the Bar in 2013, and it was my first time in court as a lawyer. One fateful day, I got to defend someone in court in a civil case and that gave me the opportunity to witness other cases.

“I realised that it is possible for someone to be in prison for a very minor offence. I witnessed a case at the time arising from a guy quarrelling or arguing with another person at a roadside, where they make noodles, on Lagos highland.

“During the argument, he broke some crates of eggs and the owner of the shop reported him to the police, and from there, he was charged to court. I was in court when the case was being held and the magistrate asked the guy what happened, which he explained. The worth of these eggs at the time was N2,000 but the court was about to remand him in prison.

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Founder of Headfort Foundation, Oluyemi Orija. PC: Oluyemi     

“This prompted me to stand up in the courtroom and seek the indulgence of people to raise the money. I pleaded in the courtroom for people to contribute the money – and that would be the end of the case – instead of remanding him in prison. Luckily, the court agreed with me, and people started to donate, and before we knew it, we had N2,000. We then gave it to the owner and the guy was let go.

“After the incident, it dawned on me that a lot of people are actually going through this, or through something similar and have no one to help them. I sensed that if lawyers were on their cases, the cases would have been resolved or they wouldn’t have spent so long in prison. At the end of the day, it stretched to poverty as they couldn’t afford legal representation.”

In 2015, Arije started her law practice, Headfort Chamber, which would later grow to include the Foundation.

She said, “On the first day of Headfort Chamber’s prison visit (in 2017), I had to call a friend of mine and my two sisters who are lawyers to join me in going to Ikoyi Prison. When we got there, we took about 40 cases of people who had no lawyers and didn’t have money to contact the service of lawyers.

“It took us about three months before we were able to take the first person out of prison after our first visit. Our first beneficiary (Dare Ojo) was discharged at the Ogudu magistrate court.”

Orija said the police had arrested Ojo and 20 others in a raid on a mechanic workshop in Ikorodu, where he was an apprentice.

“After that experience, I was so elated looking at the guy’s face, the smile on his face. He had no slippers on, he had nothing, no transport fare from Ogudu back to Ikorodu. I had to give him money to go back home. He spent six months in prison for doing nothing.

“When we left the courtroom, I did a story and put it on Twitter and other social media platforms and lots of people resonated with that story. Some people even sent me money to give the guy for his healthcare. We sent him N15,000 to take care of himself,” she said.

After getting more people out, Orija decided to turn the prison intervention, which was till then just a social responsibility arm of the law firm, into a foundation. As such, Headfort Foundation was birthed and registered in 2019.

Beyond freedom…

In 2021, the foundation secured the release of  Amara Ugochukwu and Amanegbu Ikechukwu after which they set up a crowdfunding campaign for  Ugochukwu to start his business.

He had lost everything during his incarceration period of two years in an Ikeja correctional centre for allegedly defrauding a guy, who he maintained he had never met.

Ugochukwu and Ikechukwu were arrested at a restaurant in Ikorodu in 2019 after they were accused by a man who said they defrauded him.

Unable to pay N20,000 bail each, they were remanded at the Ikoyi Prison after being charged to court.

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Ugochukwu receiving the money to start his spare parts business from Headfort Foundation. Photo – Headfort Foundation. 

It still seems like a nightmare Ugochukwu told NewsNGR.

He said, “at the station, the police identified the third guy who joined us at the restaurant as the complainant. The police alleged that we both defrauded the third guy of his money and would not release us on bail until we pay N20,000 each, which we could not afford.”

Headfort Foundation waded in and the two men were released.

He was given N150,000 to start his business.

The foundation boss, Orija told NewsNGR their success is also due to their ‘Lawyers without border’ initiative. This she clarified is not affiliated with an international Non-governmental organisation with the same name.

Their lawyers without border is an initiative that focuses on granting easy and free access to justice for indigent and under-represented people in Nigeria. This is implemented by installing mobile offices on the premises of courts in Lagos and other states where they operate.

More than 175 inmates have been freed through the project since the initiative was launched during the COVID-19 lockdown, Orija noted.

“Lawyers Without Border offices are container-like offices. Now we have four courts – two in Lagos  – one in Ebute Meta and the other at the Ogba court. There is one in Isabo, Ogun State, and the last one is in Ado Ekiti, Ekiti State,” she said.

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An office of Lawyers Without Border installed at a court premise. 

The Hurdles…

Earlier this year, Nigeria’s Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, said the delay in justice delivery in Nigeria was alarming and must be reversed.

To buttress these assertions, many of the victims interviewed by NewsNGR said that despite the many months or years they spent in prisons, they were never put on trial.

On paper, Nigeria’s justice system is aimed at quick dispensation of justice. To this end, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), provides that the determination of cases should be done within a reasonable time.

It states further that the delivery of judgment shall not be later than ninety (90) days after the conclusion of the evidence and final addresses, among other such provisions.

To accelerate the country’s justice delivery, The Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) was signed into law in 2015. The main objective of ACJA is to ensure a speedy trial.

The Act further provides for electronic recording of confessional statements, in section 15 (4), and issuance of legal advice within 14 days, among other provisions.

This has had a negligible effect as many people are still awaiting trial.

According to a legal practitioner, Mutiu Mikail, delay of justice can be majorly attributed to the law enforcers, judges and courts of law.

Mikail said, “It can be caused by the court or the judge, by not attending the case after the first hearing of the case. The judge might delay the case if the court has many cases to deliver or give hearings to. Sometimes, these people are not being attended to because they don’t have lawyers.”

Headfort foundation boss Orija raised concerns over what she alleged was the corruption in the judiciary system.

“One of the challenges we faced is corruption. You could imagine a staff member lamenting to me from our branch in Ogun that they (court officials) were asking her for money. She would want to do research on cases and they would be asking her for money. Ideally, we are not doing paid services; it’s pro bono work. But if we tell them, they will tell us that if we don’t have money, we won’t be doing cases for free. They don’t even beg, and if she doesn’t pay, that will obstruct her delivery. The corruption thing is so big, they now see it as a right, as an entitlement. It’s even reducing in Lagos, but in other states, it’s alarming.

“Funding is another challenge. Most of the work we do, we raise funds from individuals, and these aren’t major donations. We also partner with a few individuals to achieve some of our projects. These funds from individuals do not come steadily. The Headfort Chamber then serves as the backbone for Headfort Foundation as 25 per cent of its funding is being taken care of by the chamber,” she said.

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