The Nigerian public was outraged in July 2001 when newspapers reported that police in the capital city, Lagos, had arrested a four-year-old boy for breaking the windscreen of a neighbour's car. The law enforcers not only kept the infant in the police station for two days, but also forced him to do manual labour.
For experts and lay people alike, this act underlined the level to which the administration of juvenile justice had sunk in Nigeria: it had become a system in which rules and regulations were being breached by those very people responsible for enforcing them.
Despite Nigeria's legal framework and stated commitment to international charters and conventions to protect young offenders, rights activists are worried that their rights are being consistently negated. More and more children who should have been reformed are either traumatised or hardened in crime.
"In Nigeria children are tried like adults," said Clement Nwankwo, head of the Constitutional Rights Project (CRP), a leading local human rights group. "They are jailed and incarcerated with adults instead of being given more reform-oriented, non-custodial forms of sentencing," he told IRIN.
This is not how the treatment of young offenders was envisaged in the country's law.
The earliest surviving law on juvenile justice in Nigeria is the Children and Young People's Act (CYPA) passed by the British colonial government in 1943. The act was later revised and incorporated into Nigeria's federal laws. Under the law, a child under the age of seven years is not criminally responsible. At 12 years of age, a child cannot be held criminally responsible unless it is proven that he or she has the capacity to understand the implications of the action in question.
However, legal provisions fall short of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, and United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice.
Nigeria's law classifies people under 17 years as juvenile offenders, who should only be tried in juvenile courts, whereas, under international instruments, the maximum age for trial in a juvenile court is 18. Moreover, juvenile courts are supposed to be held outside the view of the public and in separate buildings from where normal court proceedings are held, but a lack of facilities has prevented the implementation of these provisions.
Similar constraints have meant that prescribed standards are not met for children held on remand. A study conducted by the Nigeria office of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) found that remand homes, approved schools, borstals or prisons “are not equipped to serve their statutory functions”. The result is that the stated objectives of rehabilitation and reform are defeated.
Official figures show that of more than 40,000 people held in 147 prisons and borstals across the country, over 60 percent are awaiting trial. Prison sources say between 10 and 20 percent of these are children under 18 years, but this is not reflected in official data.
In fact, one of the clearest indications of the neglect from which the criminal justice system has suffered is the fact that official figures are deficient and obsolete. The latest figures obtainable from the Federal Office of Statistics are for 1993 and cover only two-thirds of the country. They show that there were 6,496 people in prison aged between 16 and 20, while 709 were under 16. The prison population then was under 40,000.
According to UNICEF, at least 73 percent of the children in custody are first offenders. The prisons are congested so juveniles are usually not separated from adult, hardened criminals, contrary to the provisions of the law. They also face all the hazards and dehumanising conditions of
incarceration, including poor feeding and clothing, exposure to disease, and the risk of physical and sexual abuse.
Another study on juvenile justice administration conducted by CRP with the assistance of Penal Reform International (PRI), found that police officers often falsified the ages of juveniles to pass them off in court as adults, in order to avoid adhering to the legal requirements for their treatment. This, the study said, was often the case in parts of the
country where borstals or remand homes were not available.
"Some (children in prison) claimed that the police never asked them about their ages, others said they were compelled to exaggerate their ages and, when they refused, the police just inserted any age above 20 years for them," the CRP report said. "Others claimed that the police refused to accept their ages and insisted that they were above 18 years and wrote their ages as such."
Another set of children whose presence in Nigerian prisons gives cause for concern is those who were either born in jail or were taken along by jailed parents because there was no one outside to look after them. They usually lack educational and recreational facilities, proper health care and the special diets that infants and nursing mothers require. Matters are compounded by the fact that their presence in prison is not legally recognised by the authorities.
The recent introduction of Islamic or Shari'ah law in parts of northern Nigeria has created new deficiencies in the administration of juvenile justice. Under Shari'ah, the age of criminal responsibility is taken to be either 18 years or puberty. In cases involving fornication or adultery, which may attract flogging or the death penalty respectively, the age of
responsibility is set at 15. The implication is that, in cases where children reach puberty earlier than 18 years, no distinction is made between them and adults in dispensing Shari'ah punishments.
In January 2001, a young girl, Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, whose age was variously put at between 13 and 17 years, was subjected to 100 strokes of the cane in public in Zamfara State, after she gave birth to a child without being married.
In recognition of the scope of the problem posed by the state of
juvenile justice in Nigeria, the National Human Rights Commission organised a workshop in July (in collaboration with CRP, PRI and UNICEF) to consider the initiation of a reform process.
Nigeria's Chief Justice, Mohammed Uwais, acknowledged at the forum that "the corrective institutions set up to reform young offenders are now overstretched." Thus, he said, "the need for a critical examination of the existing framework for redress as well as embarking on a pragmatic programme of action to achieve desired changes is long overdue".
The consensus at the workshop was that the CYPA was outdated and no longer in conformity with international conventions which Nigeria has signed. In its place, delegates said, the government will need to sign into law a long-delayed Children's Law that conforms to international standards and practices, in order to provide an overall framework to protect and respect children's rights.
"The next requirement," said one participant, "will be the political will to implement the law."