Wednesday, 18 September 2019 06:03

Inside the world of Nigeria’s child prisoners - Report

Inside the dormitory of the Minna Remand Home in Niger state, not up to the size of a normal room, without mattresses and fans to reduce the effect of the scorching heat in the month of March, about 30 children are held in chains for various offences.

An overpowering stench from the crowded dormitory welcomes any first time visitor. With their emaciated bodies in torn clothes, they hurried to their open bathroom taking turns for ablution for the 4.00 p.m. Muslim prayers.

At mealtime, they scooped cooked rice from the little bowl on the floor.

“We are suffering here,” said Suleiman Adamu, a 12-year old boy and pupil of Alfitrah Primary School, Tunga, Minna, who was brought to the home in March 2019 over loss of parental control.

 

“I was brought here by my father whom I was living with together with my step-mother. My step-mother accused me of stealing her wrapper. Immediately I got here, I was put in chains so that I do not runaway; you can see I’m still in chains and I don’t know who will rescue me from this problem.”

Most of the under aged inmates standing criminal prosecution by the police have not been taken to court for trial.

Harande Buba, 13 who was remanded for alleged culpable homicide based on the orders of the chief magistrate court 1 in Minna on April 12, 2017, said he had not been charged to court.

Narrating the incident that led to his incarceration, Harande said what started as a mere child’s play soon developed into a serious fight that led to his victim’s death.

“The boy I was fighting hit me with a stick and in retaliation, I used a machete on him which led to his death,” he said.

 

“Since I came to this home in April 2017, I have not been to court. Nobody cares to check on me. We do not feed well here, because we don’t have food. We wash our clothes without soap, and that is why our room smells. Life is so difficult here.”

Located in the heart of Minna capital city, the remand home brims with children whose hopes and dreams have been dashedfor alleged violation of the law.

WORST EXPERIENCE OF LIFE

For Usama Haruna, a 12-year-old boy who aspires to be an engineer, the thought of being held in shackles at the home is the worst experience of his life.

“Though my parents are poor with mother doing menial jobs such as dish and clothe washing in private homes and restaurants, and my father a scavenger, it is my dream that someday I will work hard to become an engineer, then I will take care of my parents and siblings.

“ I regret the offence that has brought me into this remand home. My parents do not know my whereabouts. We were arrested by the police from Suleja and brought to Minna. Please go to Suleja and inform my mother that I’m being held here,” Usama appealed to the reporter as tears welled up his eyes.

On visiting Suleja a satellite town of about an hour 30 minutes’ drive from Minna, due largely to the deplorable state of the Minna-Suleja highway, our correspondent met Usama’s mother, Fatima Huruna, in Suleja at Saida Low Cost Housing Estate, where the family resides in one – room gatehouse.

“One evening in March 2019, we waited for Usama to come home because he used to accompany his father to his scavenging work. He was nowhere to be found, we began to ask after him. Someone told us that he might have been arrested by the police and taken to Minna.

“But we have no money to travel to Minna to look for him. That is why we are praying to Allah that one day he would return home,” Usama’s mother told the reporter.

EVEN THE GIRLS ARE NOT LEFT OUT

Usama is being tried at the Magistrates’ Revenue Court 3B of Angwan Daji in Minna for the alleged defilement of 6-year-girl. An offence he allegedly committed in Suleja in February 2019.

But Haranda, Suleiman and Usama are lucky as they are at a remand home, not locked up with adult inmates in a regular prison system. Not so for Happiness Kure, a 16-year-old girl, who is languishing at the Suleja Medium Prison, Niger State.

The children locked in a room

The Suleja Medium Prison, which is sandwiched by residential buildings, was built in 1914, according to prisons authorities.

Though our correspondent was not allowed into the female section of the Suleja prison, Happiness told our reporter that she shares her prison cell in the awaiting trial inmates’ block with eleven other adult inmates.

 

“Our condition of living here is miserable. When I first got to this prison in February last year, we were initially five in our room; I had my own separate mattress from other women. But later, one after the other, we are now eleven in the same room that is meant for five of us, including my mother who is breastfeeding my kid sister.

“Our toilet and bathrooms are very dirty with broken pipes. Water is a big problem for us. We don’t feed well. Whenever my kid sister falls sick here in the prison, there is no clinic to take care of her. Some of the prison warders often help us to buy drugs from outside, and whenever lawyers visit, that is when they bring some drugs and food items for us. The situation we are facing at Suleja prison is terrible,” Happiness lamented.

Her tortuous journey to incarceration began in February, 2018 following the alleged murder of her father by her fleeing boyfriend, the embattled teenager told our correspondent.

Though standing trial alongside her nursing mother, Asabe Kure, at an Abuja High Court at Gwagwalada, the police is yet to call a single witness in the case.

“Since I came to this prison in February 2018, my education came to an end. You can see that my mother and little sibling who is just twelve months old are also being held here for the same alleged offences. Our condition here is unbearable. The most painful part of our situation at the Suleja prison is the fact that I cannot go to school. Does that mean our lives are over?” Happiness wondered in a cracking voice.

From Minna to Suleja, Markurdi to Port Harcourt, there is not much difference in the conditions of the children who are languishing in prisons/borstal institutions across the country; without education in most cases and locked up in adult prisons contrary to constitutional provisions.

According to a Prison Census report of 2016 by the Prisoners Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (a non-governmental organization) with over two decades of critical interventions in prisons reforms in Nigeria, child prisoners make up 43.2 per cent in Enugu, 25.9 per cent in Kano and 30.9 per cent in Lagos prisons respectively.

WHAT THE CHILD’S RIGHTS SAYS ABOUT IMPRISONMENT

The Child’s Rights Act of Nigeria enacted in 2003 makes ample provisions for children who are in conflict with the law. According to Part Two Section 11 of the Act, “Every child is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person and accordingly, no child shall be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treating or punishment, held in slavery or servitude, while in care of a parent, legal guardian or school authority or any other person or authority having the care of the child.”

 

Similarly, Section 15 dwells on the Right of a Child to Free, Compulsory and Universal Primary Education. It says, “Every child has the right to free, compulsory and universal basic education and it shall be the duty of the government in Nigeria to provide such education.” While Section 212 borders on Detention Pending Trial, Sub-section (2) provides that, “While in detention, a child shall be given care, protection and necessary assistance including social, educational, vocational, medical and physical assistance, that he may require having regard to his age, sex and personality.”

When asked why fetters are put on the inmates’ feet, the Officer-in-Charge of the Children Remand Home in Minna, Hajiya Hadiza Mohammed, explained that it is to prevent them from absconding.

“We do this to especially new children that are brought into the home, because we are not familiar with them. We also put the chains on stubborn and badly behaved inmates. But after a while, when we must have observed that the inmates have improved in their behavior, let them off the chains,” Hajiya Mohammed said.

While the child inmates in Niger State are chained, the situation is different at the Port-Harcourt Remand Home in Rivers State as they are allowed to move freely within the compound located at Nembe Street, Borokiri.

The home, according to the Officer-in-Charge, Mrs. Joy Ololube, is however overwhelmed by the daily challenge of inadequate feeding and others.

“We are overwhelmed by the challenges of difficulty of conveying the children to court during the hearing of their suits. Most of these inmates have not been to court for trial for the past two years. Also, the Approved School which is supposed to provide education and skills for the children has since closed down due to lack of resources to run the school,”

She also disclosed that when inmates fall sick, there are no healthcare facilities to deal with emergencies.

“We rush them to the nearby Naval Base hospital which is directly opposite our home. But at a point, the Naval authorities became tired of our problems and they began to reject our children. These are the challenges we battle with every day,” Mrs, Olulube said.

An 18-year-old inmate, Daniel Okon, said he was remanded at the home in 2015 for murder charges when he was 14 years old by the Juvenile Court 2, Port-Harcourt, and since then had not been to court due to non-availability of a vehicle that would convey him to court.

“I was a JSS 2 student of Community Secondary School, Udung-Uko in Akwa Ibom State. But since I came to the remand home, my education has stopped. Now, I do not know what to do. I want to appeal to both the governors of Akwa Ibom and Rivers States to come to my aid. I need to go back to school and complete my education,” Okon pleaded.

Another inmate, Tuanwii Joseph, a 17-year-old was only 14 years old when he found himself in the remand home in Port-Harcourt.

 

“I came into the Port-Harcourt Remand Home in 2016 as a result of murder case. The problems we are faced with here is the fact that our trials are stalled and we don’t have the opportunity to continue with our education. I got here when I was Junior Secondary School 3. But since I was remanded by the Juvenile Court 2, I have not been to court and there is no school for me to attend in the remand home. Life is so difficult for us here. You can see for yourself that this home is a place of suffering. We need help,” Joseph stated.

A GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL SPEAKS

Asked why the Port-Harcourt remand home was left unattended to by the Rivers State government, InimaAguma, Commissioner for Social Welfare, explained that arrangements were being made to reposition the facility for better service delivery.

“ Before I was appointed commissioner, there were issues of feeding and lack of vehicles to convey the inmates to court, I have ensured there is proper feeding. I have also ensured that a doctor comes in once in a while to examine the children. Also, the Rivers State government is working assiduously to get the Approved School back on stream for the inmates,” Mrs. Inima disclosed.

The plight of inmates at the Benue Remand Home in Gboko, is equally heartrending as the children also lack access to both formal and informal education.

With the roofs of the main building meant to house the inmates blown away, the sixteen children are crammed into a small room where they share one bathroom and toilet.

Apaa Dorathy who is the Officer-in-Charge of the Home, noted that the facility lacks water, electricity supply as well as a vehicle to ferry the inmates to court for trial.

She explained that trial of inmates had been stalled due to lack of legal representation.

While there is a furnished classroom stocked with books for the inmates, there are no teachers to impart the desperately needed knowledge that the children yearn for. This situation, Mrs. Apaa said, was caused by the precarious security situation in state, which has prevented the posting of members of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) to the home.

“This is the only correctional centre in the state that caters for the 23 local governments. We are being confronted by a number of challenges that require urgent intervention given the fact that these children who have come in conflict with the law are the future of the society, and therefore should be properly rehabilitated and reintegrated into the society.

“However, that is not the case as our mandate is hampered by the lack of resources like mobility to convey the inmates to court for trial. We lack water and electricity here as you can see. Our school lacks teachers, and therefore, it’s not functioning. So, how do we cater for the needs of transforming these inmates into better citizens,” Mrs. Appa said.

 

An inmate the Gboko remand home, ThankgodUnogwu (14), a JSS 2 student of Jesus Comprehensive College, Eke-Olengbecho in Okpokwu LGA of Benue state, was remanded at the home last October over cultism related offences.

“Life is difficult for us here. We just stay here without going to court, let alone going to school. Even feeding and water is big problem here. Only God can deliver us from what we have found ourselves. I regret the crime I have committed, but I need a second chance at life to become a better person,” Unogwu said.

The problems were corroborated by the Benue State Chief Judge, Justice Aondaver Kakaan, who described the conditions of the children as “horrible”.

“What the children need is reformation, but that is not the case. The state government has not been forthcoming in that regard. It is so sad that these inmates have to live in subhuman conditions.

“We have been making efforts to establish the Family Court as required by law. However, we don’t have the funds to execute the mandate. The issue of juveniles can only be tackled through reformation,” Justice Kakaan said.

However at the Borstal Institute in Kaduna State,the school authorities said their inmates have facilities for both formal and informal education.

“Our inmates have most of the facilities for formal education and skill acquisition. Our inmates take the Senior School Certificate Examination (SSCE). However, we have some challenges that require government interventions such as expansion of facilities in the institute,” a staff who pleaded anonymity told our reporter.

The staff who also declined to comment on the number of inmates being held at the Borstal Institute, equally turned down the request by our correspondent to go into the inmates’ dormitories to speak with some of the inmates.

“You know we don’t allow outsiders into the dormitories or interact with the inmates,” the warden said.

Upon arriving at the heavily guarded facility, located at Barnawa in Kaduna, the huge buildings and spacious premises give an impression of a fully functional home for children. However, a couple whose child was being held at the institution, was seen with a sack of food items like garri and provisions, among others.

When asked why they were at the home, the mother of the inmate who pleaded anonymity, said: “My husband and I come regularly to donate food items to the institution as a way of supporting them for better service delivery, because the children are too many and, as a result, they do not feed well. We can only appeal to the government to help us take good care of the children in the home by providing a suitable environment for their education.”

CONSTITUTIONAL PROHIBITION AGAINST DENIAL OF BASIC EDUCATION

The federal high court sitting in Abuja, presided by John Tsoho in February 2017 held that children have the right to free, compulsory basic education.

Although the right to free education in Section 18(3)(a) of the Constitution was ordinarily not enforceable like all other rights provided for in the Chapter 2 of the Constitution, the Compulsory, Free Universal Basic Education Act of 2004 enacted by the National Assembly has elevated the right to an enforceable status.

This provision was the basis for the judgement of Justice John Tsoho of the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja.

In his verdict, the judge held that both the federal and state governments were constitutionally required to provide adequate funding for the free education scheme.

The judgment followed a suit filed by a group, the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP).

Tsoho held that the failure of any government at the state and federal levels to fund the scheme would constitute a breach of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

EXPERT VIEWS ON THE ISSUE

Uju Agomoh, executive director of PRAWA, decried the conditions in which under-aged children are being held.

“The current conditions of these homes are deplorable as they are consistently deteriorating. An urgent and sustainable intervention must be made by both the government and private individuals to reposition these homes for better service delivery. Anything short of that the society will pay for it dearly. The children must be rehabilitated in all ramifications,” Agomoh said.

Existing Borstal homes in Nigeria include: Borstal Training Institution in Barnawa, Kaduna State, Borstal Training Institute Ganmo, Kwara State and the Borstal Training Institute Abeokuta, Ogun State.

The Borstal Institutions and Remand Centres Act 1962 mandates the remand of offenders between the ages of 16-21.

During a recent visit to the Nigeria Prisons Akwa in Anambra State, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), disclosed that about 523 children were being held at the facility.

During the commemoration of the 2019 African Pre-trial Day themed: “Decriminalisation of Petty and Minor Offences,” the Anambra State Coordinator of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Mrs. NkechiUgwuanyi, decried the high number of underage inmates at the prison.

ILLEGAL TRIAL OF INMATES

According to the trial magistrate at the Rivers State Juvenile Court, Mrs. Ibiere Foby, the current circumstance where underage inmates are tried using the Child’s Rights Act with a properly constituted family court as prescribed by the law, constitutes a gross violation of the rights of the defendants to fair hearing.

She explained that an ideal family court should have a magistrate and two assessors to hear and determine suits concerning children who come in conflict with the law. But that is not the case.

“You can see I am the only magistrate sitting in the Juvenile Court here.”

When asked on the legal implications, Foby said, “If matters tried by the Juvenile Court go on appeal, they will be dismissed on the grounds that the trial court is not properly constituted as required by the Child Rights Act. Here in Rivers we have the Young Persons Law, which is an archaic piece of legislation.”

Similarly, an official of the Rivers ministry for social welfare, who did not want his name in print said: “The remand home is basically for children whose parents have lost parental control over them, and children who are convicted of minor offences to be held for not more than six months. While the borstal home is a juvenile prison.

“So, what we are doing in terms of children who are in conflict with the law, is unconstitutional. But due to the non-availability of resources to do the proper things, we have to make do with what we have.”

COMPOSITION OF THE FAMILY COURT

Section 153 (3) of the Child’s Rights Act provides that, “The court at the Magistrate Level shall be duly constituted if it consists of – a Magistrate, two assessors, one of whom shall be a woman and the other person who has attributes of dealing with children and matters relating to children, preferably the area of child psychology education.”

The Child’s Rights Act of Nigeria enacted in 2003 makes ample provisions for children who are in conflict with the law. According to Part Two Section 11 of the Act, “Every child is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person and accordingly, no child shall be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treating or punishment, held in slavery or servitude, while in care of a parent, legal guardian or school authority or any other person or authority having the care of the child.”

Similarly, Section 15 dwells on the Right of a Child to Free, Compulsory and Universal Primary Education. It says, “Every child has the right to free, compulsory and universal basic education and it shall be the duty of the government in Nigeria to provide such education.” While Section 212 borders on Detention Pending Trial. Sub-section (2) provides that, “While in detention, a child shall be given care, protection and necessary assistance including social, educational, vocational, medical and physical assistance, that he may require having regard to his age, sex and personality.”

FIDA NIGERIA’S REACTION TO THE ISSUE

The International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Nigeria described the plight of underage inmate in the country “disturbing.”

FIDA Nigeria’s President, Rhoda Prevail Tyoden, while reacting to our findings, said the country’s Child’s Rights Act which is meant to help children who come in conflict with the law, is not being implemented.

“We have the Child’s Rights Act that is meant to tackle the issue, but it is not being implemented. If the Act is fully implemented you won’t have a situation whereby children are locked up in prisons with adult.

“The Child’s Right Act and the Young Persons Law spell out how this group of people should be treated. But we have a system where these laws are not well implemented. The Act says we need to have Family Courts; comprising of Magistrates and assessors. The Family Court should be functional to address these issues, but it is unfortunate the courts are not working.

“Secondly, we should have borstal homes across all the states of the federation, but only three or four states have such facilities; when we have children in conflict with the law in all the states of the country.”

“FIDA Abuja which I belong as a branch; we go to Suleja Prison and we see teenagers there, and we try to get them out if it is a bailable offence. Sadly, these children are locked up together with adult prisoners. We often say the youth are the fulcrum of every national development, but when children are locked up in prisons, then where is the future of the country,?” Tyoden queried.

“Children who are in conflict with the law should not be dealt with as criminals, because they are supposed to be in a place where they would realise their mistakes and you take them through the process of rehabilitation.

“We have enough laws that can cover every kind of offence in Nigeria but the issue we have is the implementation of the law, the government has simply refused to implement this law.And that is why we are now advocating for the adoption of the VAPP Act. We now have ten states that have adopted it.”

The association recommended the sensitisation of Nigerians on the prevalence of social ills in the society as a way of helping to guide children away from crime.

“It is not enough to have the laws; we should rather go round sensitizing people through awareness programmes on the societal ills that our laws have failed to effectively tackle, because we have the laws but the laws are not effective.

“The political will to get the child right act implemented is not there. The law covers everything; the dignity of the child, everything should be done in the best interest of the child,” the FIDA President said.

By AMEH EJEKWONYILO

* This investigation was supported by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR, and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR

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