PRI’s Executive Director, Alison Hannah, attended the Nigerian Bar Association annual conference last week in Abuja. She was interested to hear the President’s call for lawyers in this populous country to champion the rule of law and tackle corruption, and says that lawyers can also play their part in ensuring that the rule of law includes equitable access to justice for everyone. She comments:
It’s not every day that a head of state calls on lawyers not to protect or defend ‘the looters’. But at the Nigerian Bar Association conference in Abuja (August 21 – 28) the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, issued just such a call for action to the legal profession. This was echoed by many others speakers throughout the conference, pledging to help fight the corruption that is undermining Nigeria’s economy and governance. The President made it clear that corruption is linked to human rights – it prevents children being able to go to school, limits the supply of clean water and diverts money meant to benefit the millions to the pockets of a few. Corruption also plagues criminal justice systems in many countries, affecting every part of the judicial and penal process, with citizens’ ability, for example, to get legal representation, get a lift to court, or receive basic supplies or even visitors in prison, dependent on the quality of their connections and the depth of their pockets.
The reason I attended the conference was to speak at a panel session on the case for penal and prisons reforms in Nigeria at the invitation of a PRI Board Member and senior member of the Nigerian Bar Association, Olawale Fapohunda.
Like many countries, prisons in Nigeria are overcrowded, operating at 113% of their official capacity according to recent estimates, and a number of speakers on my panel spoke from first-hand experience about conditions inside prisons and the need for reform. A chief driver of prison numbers is, however, the high rate of pre-trial detention: 69.3% of all prisoners in Nigeria are awaiting trial. For the sake of comparison, the average proportion in Africa as a whole has been estimated to be 34.7%. Many of these detainees pose no risk of flight, or to public security, and could safely be released pending trial. There are many reasons why they are not: the creaking justice system where corruption is common (a Nigerian high court judge has been quoted saying that ‘corruption is the only reason that can explain the snail’s speed at which the administration of criminal justice works’), and a lack of comprehensive legal aid.
In terms of legal representation, while the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems adopted in 2012 make it clear that responsibility for legal aid services lies squarely on the shoulders of the state, Nigeria’s lawyers have a role to play too. Many at the conference expressed their commitment to providing pro bono support, but this can only meet part of the need for legal aid.
Nigeria has a thriving legal profession – over 8,000 participants were registered for the conference, making it one of the biggest in the world. They can be powerful advocates for encouraging the government to develop a national legal aid system based on high-quality representation and a professional ethic to provide legal services without discrimination. The commitment and enthusiasm I observed among the lawyers at the conference is also essential to help root out the corruption that interferes with the proper and fair administration of justice and contributes to prison overcrowding − and to support the Rule of Law, economic development and restore integrity to Nigeria’s public life.
More about the 2012 UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems: read our briefing
For more about the impact of corruption on human rights and the administration of justice, see: