New data from Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics suggests Nigerian prisons may hold more innocents than guilty criminals. The report, covering data from 2011 to 2015, shows that 72.5% of Nigeria’s total prison population are inmates serving time while awaiting trial and without being sentenced.
The alarming figures highlight key flaws in Nigeria’s criminal justice system with proceedings often going on for years without conclusion. While lawyers often cite a large number of cases being tried as a reason for long drawn-out trials, the charged inmates on the other side of the divide often spend years waiting to get convicted or win back their freedom. In one instance, an inmate accused of murder spent 16 years in a prison in Nigeria’s southeast without being tried.
While lengthy court proceedings are an obvious problem, the figures in the NBS report also highlights a worrying culture of arbitrary arrests by Nigerian law enforcement agencies. Local police officers have been known to arrest people randomly for frivolous offenses such as “loitering”. To secure their release, family members of those arrested are expected to pay bail fees dictated by the police in an elaborate racket. In other cases, inmates land in prisons only due to the suspicion of having committed a crime, and not an actual conviction. Arrests over petty crime such as shoplifting and traffic offenses also often see people land in maximum security prisons without being charged.
In total, NBS data suggests Nigeria officially has a low incarceration rate with a total prison population of 62,260—much less than 1% of the total population. Compared to countries with populations between 100 and 350 million people, Nigeria has the lowest prison population rate per 100,000 citizens.