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

 

Mubarak Alate with a Headfort Foundation staffer after he was released from prison. PC: HF

 

For just walking past a police van, Mubarak spent close to two years in prison.

However, with the help of Headfort Foundation, he regained his freedom, but not before his mother had spent about N300,000 despite her having a stroke and eyes almost pulled out. Mustapha Usman reports

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, 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 Akate 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.

“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.

“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,” Mrs Alate told The ICIR.

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

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“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 head of the communication department 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.

A report by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics covering data from 2011 to 2015, disclosed that 72.5 per cent of Nigeria’s total prison population are inmates serving time without being sentenced. The report spotted flaws in Nigeria’s criminal justice system,  with proceedings often going on for months/years without conclusion.

Also in a report published by Premium Times, the immediate past Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS), Ja’afaru Ahmed, said, 51,983 inmates were awaiting trial out of the prison’s total population of 73,726 inmates.

According to this data provided by the correctional authority, 7 out 10 inmates were in jail without being convicted.

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

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

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On March 22, 2021, Makanjuola had 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, and she alerted her boss’ children and neighbours immediately.

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

She was charged with murder and conspiracy the next day.

“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 The ICIR.

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.

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.

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Founder of Headfort Foundation, Oluyemi Orija. PC: Oluyemi                                                                                                                                                          How Headfort Foundation came to be… 

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.

“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 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, to a Foundation. As such, Headfort Foundation was birthed  and registered in 2019.

Beyond Freedom

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Ugochukwu receiving money to start his spare parts business from Headfort Foundation. PC: HF

After Amara Ugochukwu was released with Amanegbu Ikechukwu in 2021, the Headfort Foundation had set up a crowdfunding campaign for him to start his business afresh because he 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 a man was said to have called the police to nab them. That was the first time the two unfortunate men would meet, individually intending to eat and then watch football.

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

It still seems like a nightmare to Ugochukwu. 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.

Ugochukwu was called to Lagos from Ebonyi State and was given a sum of N150,000 to start his business afresh. Before he was arrested, he was partnering with someone in selling car spare parts.

Awolu told TheICIR that the help was part of the Headfort Foundation project.

She said, “One Saturday, our monitoring team was at the Trade Fair on a visit to Ugochukwu who was raided and wrongfully incarcerated because he was too poor to pay the unprofessional fees requested by police officers. He used to work with someone before he was raided and, now, he needed N1 million to get a space and stock it up.”

Orija told TheICIR that Headfort Foundation’s success story could be traced back to one of their projects, Lawyers Without  Border.

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An office of Lawyers Without Border

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 having mobile offices in the premises of all the courts in Lagos State. More than 175 inmates were said to have been freed through the project. The initiative was launched during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“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.

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. Also, an appeal court in the United Kingdom described the reputation of the nation’s legal system as “a catastrophic delay.”

To buttress these assertions, many of the victims interviewed by TheICIR 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 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 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.

Despite this, many accused persons are still subdued to wrong rulings, while some are not even tried.

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.”

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 a 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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