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Rights Groups Allege Abuse in Nigerian Prisons

  • Heather Murdock

Rights organizations in Nigeria allege that conditions in the prisons are appalling and say they are investigating allegations of overcrowding, beatings and killings.

“It’s a national problem," said Suleiman Shuaibu, president of the African Youth for Conflict Resolution. "Everywhere in Nigeria inmates are suffering. Too much of population -- the prison yard is congested. The nature of where they sleep, the atmosphere is not conducive. They don’t have blankets to lie on.”

Shuaibu's group is investigating reports of abuse and overcrowding in prisons in Zamfara State. Authorities in Zamfara say these allegations are untrue.

Amnesty International says hundreds of people died from neglect or mistreatment in Nigerian prisons in 2013.

Small incarceration rate

But Nasir Abbas, the secretary-general of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, said when prisoners die, it's not necessarily because authorities actively abuse or neglect them.

“The condition of dehumanization of the human person in the prison will make him die,” he said.

The International Center for Prison Studies says Nigeria has one of the 10 smallest incarceration rates in the world, with 32 out of every 100,000 Nigerians in prison.

But Abbas said Nigeria’s relatively low rate of incarceration can be partly explained by extra-judicial killings.

Human Rights Watch said Nigerian security officers have killed hundreds of suspects in its fight against Islamist militants known as Boko Haram, who have killed thousands of people in the past four and a half years.

Abbas said another reason Nigeria has a relatively low number of inmates is that Nigerian prisons are already full. Many of the inmates crowding the prisons, he said, are detainees, waiting months or even years for trials.

“The judicial system is a slow process," he said. "The way we dispense justice in Nigeria is quite slow. And at times you tend to find out that there is the prosecutors at times have transferred or maybe decide to say, ‘So okay, the case file is missing.’”

Working toward reform

The Nigerian government says it’s committed to prison reform as part of President Goodluck Jonathan’s “transformation agenda.” But some analysts say there’s no money for it.

Nigeria’s proposed 2014 budget indicates that if reforms are going to happen, they won’t be happening soon.

Of the nearly $290 million allocated for Nigerian prisons in the budget, less than 5 percent will go to new programs and improvements. Most of the money will be for salaries and maintenance.

Clement Nwankwo, the director of the democracy and Legal Advocacy Center in Abuja, said reform is not possible without more investment.

"Comparatively the Nigerian prison population is low," he said. "If you have about 60,000 prisoners in a population of 160 million to 170 million that’s really almost insignificant. So it worries me that you don’t have proper prisons that could be humane.”

Many African countries join Nigeria with low prison rates compared to statistics from the Americas, Asia and Europe. The United States has the world’s highest prison rate with 716 prisoners per 100,000 citizens.

Ibrahima Yakubua contributed to this report from the Niger Delta.