Behind the bolted doors of Kurmawa central prison in Kano State, Nigeria, an old wooden board hangs high on the wall of the warden’s office, keeping count of the inmates inside the prison. Written in white chalk, the board shows that over 1,000 men are held in this jail – a building that is intended to house no more than 750 –most of whom are not convicts at all. These men await trial.
Among those waiting was a young man, about 5.4ft tall, by the name Abdulrazak Suleiman. Abdulrazak (21) remained in pretrial detention for eight years, after military officials arrested him in 2010 for alleged rape and abetment on a Thursday when he was about to ablute for his evening prayers. At no point in those eight years was a court date set. “I can do nothing about my situation,” he said to the Public Defender’s Office (PDO) paralegal staff on a monthly prison visit.
After hearing his story, the PDO filed for a court declaration that his rights were violated and a ruling was made in his favor. It declared a violation of his rights and required his immediate release.
When Abdulrazak Suleiman saw his name taken off the prisoner list, his gaze quickly drifted downwards to the bare floor. “Some spirit of discouragement started getting into me and I was asking, ‘when will I leave?’ he said to the PDO lawyers who secured filed his claim. After a few seconds he glanced up with a wide smile and a grateful heart. “But unexpectedly I was released.” His prolonged stay in prison had finally come to an abrupt end.
Public Defenders Office Kano
In Kano, as in many parts of Nigeria, access to justice is limited. Most residents in Kano, specifically indigent persons, cannot afford the exorbitant legal fees charged by private lawyers. The Legal Aid Council of Kano currently employs only four lawyers, and the majority of people in Kano do not know that these services exist. The average vegetable vendor or market woman living outside of the Kano City metropolis finds it difficult to access these services.
The PDO’s goal is to address this gap and make the judicial system more accessible to the average person. The PDO employs 10 lawyers who handle criminal, human rights, and mediation cases for indigent and marginalized persons in need of legal aid in Kano state. Since its launch in June 2017, the PDO has contributed immensely to legal service delivery by providing pro bono legal representation to over one hundred indigent persons in Kano and has recorded critical early successes. These include the case of Baby Khadija, Idris Nuhu, and Iliyasu Baduku (alias Chindo).
Like Abdulrazak Suleiman, Chindo’s case was referred to the public defenders’ office by prison warders after a visit by the PDO staff to interview inmates who had been detained in prison beyond the allowed constitutional time. Thirty-six year old Chindo was accused of armed robbery and detained for seven years without being arraigned before a court with jurisdiction—a length of time far beyond the constitutionally allowable period. The PDO sought his unconditional release by filing a fundamental right enforcement. The respondent in Chindo’s case, a Kano police officer, informed the court that Chindo was arrested based on suspicion but that there was no evidence connecting him to the alleged offence. The respondent therefore concluded that he had no objection to granting the PDO’s application. Chindo was released unconditionally from prison in November 2017.
Prison warders also referred Idris Nuhu’s case to the Public Defenders Office. Idris (35) was accused of the rape of a 15 year old girl. He claims he was asleep at home, when the police woke him up and took him to the police station. He initially denied the accusation, but after much torture was forced to admit to the offence.
The PDO filed a fundamental right enforcement on behalf of Idris Nuhu on the grounds that he was detained for seven (7) years, a period far above the constitutional period allowed without arraigning him before a court with jurisdiction. Idris Nuhu was released on the sane day and repatriated back to his family in Dawakin Tofa by the Public Defenders Office.
Setting a Monumental Precedent for Child Rights
Baby Khadija’s case against Muttaka Muhammad was reported to the PDO in June 2017. The family alleged that in May 2016, six-month old Khadija was sexually abused by Muhammad, a neighbor and close confidant of theirs. Her mother claims she asked Muhammad’s wife to watch Khadijah while running an errand. Upon returning, she found her daughter crying profusely and discovered injuries and blood in her genital area.
The case, filed in August 2017, was a joint action between the PDO and Khadija’s father versus Muhammad and his wife. On November 15, the Acting Chief Judge granted all the relief in a landmark ruling, and awarded compensation of ten million Naira as special damages for the expenses to Khadijah’s family for her health since the incident. This judgement was the first of its kind in Kano state.
Ingredients of Success for Public Defense
While there is a lot more work to do, there are a few key ingredients to the PDO’s future success. These include creating awareness, engaging in collaborative advocacy with strategic stakeholders, and continuously improving the capacity of PDO staff.
Apart from monthly prison visits designed to ensure that people know of the PDO and utilize its services, the PDO raises awareness among indigent persons in Kano through public education programs and law clinic services in local communities. The project has also developed posters, fliers, and jingles in English, Hausa, and Pidgin. The jingles are currently being aired by major radio stations in Kano, including Freedom Radio, Arewa FM and Wazobia FM. As a result of these awareness campaigns, there has been an influx of requests for legal representation from the PDO.
In a recent visit to the Emir of Kano, PDO staff informed the Emirate Council of the office’s activities. The Emir, His Royal Highness Muhammad Sanusi II, promised the full commitment of the Emirate Council to the PDO and assured his support. This kind of relationship with the emirate council allows future cases to be referred to the office.
In the efforts to build capacity of staff members and to further improve the efficiency of Kano’s judicial process, PWAN conducted a training program on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) for PDO staff and lawyers of the Ministry of Justice. The PDO often encounters cases that do not necessarily require litigation; rather, they can easily be resolved through third-party intervention such as ADR and mediation. Increasing staff capability on these matters will improve the overall effectiveness of the PDO.
The Public Defenders’ Office (PDO) is a project of Partners West Africa Nigeria (PWAN), PartnersGlobal and the Democratic Action Group, and is funded by the International Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement at the US Department of State (INL).