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How technology is helping Nigerians get speedy access to justice

How technology is helping Nigerians get speedy access to justice

Last December, the Nigerian government confirmed that nearly 70 percent of inmates in prisons were awaiting trial. Now a number of tech-driven nonprofits and social media movements have appeared across the country to counter this trend.

A woman walks past a court in the Yaba suburb of Lagos. Technology is helping Nigerians gets timely access to justice as courts grapple with a backlog of cases
A woman walks past a court in the Yaba suburb of Lagos. Technology is helping Nigerians gets timely access to justice as courts grapple with a backlog of cases (TRTWorld)

On a cold Friday morning in late December, businessman Niyi Adebayo was walking to his wine store when he saw police officers rounding up women who sold alcoholic drinks in Mowe, a small town in the southwestern Nigerian state of Ogun, an hour’s drive from Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos.

Adebayo had heard that the previous night, an end-of-the-year party ended in heavy fighting among cult groups. One of the six women arrested was a single mother of four who bought sachet distilled liquor from his store. She has tuberculosis and is struggling to cater for her children.

“She was helpless as they pulled her away,” he remembers. When he got to the police station to see how he could help, he was shocked to learn that the women had paid 3,000 naira for bail. However, bail is free in Nigeria and since last year the police have been campaigning to tell people not to offer compensation in order to receive bail.

“I have heard about Segun’s work on Twitter and when I called him he picked and requested that I gave the phone to the police investigation officer,” he says. “After speaking to him the police officer immediately returned the money to the women and asked them to go.”

Segun Awosanya, a Nigerian civil rights advocate, is the man behind a social media-driven movement to end police brutality and secure quick access to justice for Nigerians who rush to him for help.

Awosanya combined forces with other activists to launch the #EndSARS campaign last year to document allegations against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a gun-wielding unit of the police that barely wear police uniforms and are saddled with tackling violent crime.

Know Your Rights app I
Know Your Rights app I (Linus Unah / TRTWorld)

2016 report by Amnesty International accused SARS officers of torturing detainees and accepting “lucrative bribes” to let them go. Former detainees recounted how they were beaten, starved, shot, hanged and sometimes made to face mock executions.

Using the hashtag, #EndSARS Nigerians shared videos and testimonies of their ordeals at the hands of SARS, most of which bordered on harassment, extortion, severe torture, unlawful arrests and in a few cases, murder.

The campaign went viral, forcing the police chief and later Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to order the reorganisation of the unit.

“People don’t usually want to send an email and wait for a response two months later, they want a case where they say something and you respond immediately,” Awosanya tells TRT World.

“A lot of people now trust us more than they trust the police, they are telling us what is happening to them and we are getting justice for them.”

And this — the power of social media — is opening doors to help Nigerians seek redress for human rights abuses.

Delays in administering justice, corruption, and the long adjournment of legal proceedings conspire to frustrate people seeking justice. Courts are grappling with a backlog of cases. A corollary is that prisons across of the country are overcrowded with inmates mostly awaiting trial.

Nigerian lawyer Adeola Austin Oyinlade gave out copies of the Nigerian constitution to people in the streets of Lagos in 2010
Nigerian lawyer Adeola Austin Oyinlade gave out copies of the Nigerian constitution to people in the streets of Lagos in 2010 (Linus Unah / TRTWorld)

Nigeria currently has 75,772 prisoners as of December 3, according to the Nigerian Prisons Service. Of this number, 51,384 (68 percent) are waiting trial, compared to just 24,388 prisoners (32 percent) who have been convicted.

Fortunately, some civic organisations are looking for change and are using technology to help people secure timely access to  justice.

During his years in a private practice firm, Nelson Olanipekun was angered by the use of delaying tactics by lawyers to stall court proceedings, especially when they have no defense.

In May 2017, he started Gavel, a civic tech organisation that is helping Nigerians get access to speedy justice and providing free legal support for victims of police brutality or extortion and human rights abuses.

With a network of about 100 lawyers in 15 out of Nigeria’s 36 states, Gavel is committed to making sure poor and marginalised people in particular are not cut off from getting justice.  Most people seeking the organisation’s support get in touch via Twitter and their website, Olanipekun says. Once they receive a complaint, the team at Gavel assess the case and, if it falls within their remit, connect the person seeking redress with a nearby lawyer.

“We are like [the] Uber for justice,” he adds. Gavel’s website features a ‘justice clock’ which tracks pre-trial detention and court cases to see if they are in sync with the timeline provided by local laws.

“The Administration of Criminal Justice Act provides for a 180-day trial period for criminal trial, however, we all know that in Nigeria, justice delivery is painfully slow,” Olanipekun says.

Gavel receives anywhere between 50 to 80 complaints on Twitter alone every month. It recently instituted a class action on behalf of 500 prisoners awaiting trial in the city of Ibadan, the capital of Oyo state in Nigeria’s southwest. One of the inmates has been languishing in prison for eight years.

“The suit was meant to compel the relevant prosecutory agencies to either charge these persons to court or to release them if they have no case to answer,” Olanipekun explains. “This is premised on the principle of law that all persons are presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

Gavel also supported the campaign to end police brutality and worked with Awosanya to  keep an account of all donations received to fund transportation, allowances for lawyers and handling logistics. Gavel receives support from private donors interested in their work as well as the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and independent foundation TrustAfrica.

Besides Gavel, there is a phone-in radio programme airing on the University of Lagos campus radio station. Adeola Austin Oyinlade, human rights lawyer and lead partner at Lagos-based law firm Adeola Oyinlade & Co, started the radio show to teach people about their rights and brought lawyers to the studio to educate listeners.

“I grew up in an environment where people’s rights were encroached upon at will while the victims were helpless and ignorant of steps to take to get justice,” Oyinlade says.

Know Your Rights app II
Know Your Rights app II (Linus Unah / TRTWorld)

Listeners phone in to ask questions and talk about issues like rape, assault, arbitrary arrest and extortion by police officers. In some cases, Oyinlade follows up and helps listeners get justice. He has invited top police officers and high-profile judges and justices to have a chat with his listeners, too.

Two years later, on December 10, which is celebrated worldwide as Human Rights Day, he worked with a team of 20 lawyers on the streets of Lagos to talk to people about their rights and share copies of the Nigerian constitution. In 2012, he registered the nonprofit Constitutional Rights Awareness and Liberty Initiative (CRALI) to become the umbrella organisation for all his activities.

Between 2012 and 2015, CRALI got more than 30 legal experts on Twitter to discuss human rights issues and offer help to people in need.

Within this period, they were able to help about 9,000 people who sought legal advice on human rights issues. The organisation’s weekly radio show reaches up to two million listeners and has responded to tens of thousands of human rights-related complaints. It has expanded to include a website and a TV programme in northern Nigeria.

CRALI launched its flagship initiative, ‘Know Your Rights Nigeria’ in 2016, to reach more Nigerians and break barriers posed by language and location.

The ‘Know Your Rights Nigeria’ app is available on Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS app stores. It covers fundamental human rights provided by the constitution, including personal liberty, property, fair hearing, freedom of expression and movement and discrimination.

Under each right, the app tries to ask questions that address everyday challenges and concerns among Nigerians. For example, under “My right to property”, one of the questions is: what are my rights as a tenant in Nigeria? Once a user taps this question, a detailed explanation pops up.

There is an option to chat with about 50 lawyers on the app who are available to take questions and follow-up on complaints. Users can report abuse of rights, and even choose to access the content in English or pidgin (which is widely spoken in West and Central Africa), and in major local languages like Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.

“Since we unveiled the ‘Know Your Rights Nigeria’ app and the web version in Nigeria, it has proved very effective for its free access, speedy dissemination of rights information and free legal advisory,” says Oyinlade, who received funding support from the US Consulate in Lagos in 2016 and 2018.

In November, he won the 2018 International Bar Association Human Rights Award for his work across Nigeria.

As more organisations step up to help Nigerians have timely access to justice, the future looks promising.

Awosanya also has a team of more of 100 lawyers and representatives in every state in Nigeria known as ‘state ambassadors’. The movement is deeply invested in reforming the police and has thrown its full support behind a police reform bill in parliament that aims to repeal the existing Police Act of 1943.

The movement is hoping to be a fully-fledged group known as the Universal Institutional Reforms Advocacy Foundation (or UIRAF), which would, Awosanya says, work to build stronger institutions in Nigeria.

“Every institution needs to be strengthened,” he says. “That way Nigeria will work again.”

For businessman Niyi Adebayo, watching the police officer return the money she took from the women in Mowe to get bail is a turning point in the fight against injustice and long-standing human rights abuses.

“I am just an ordinary businessman but I feel someone must talk about police impunity,” Adebayo says. “I can’t just take it anymore, we must talk.”

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