AKEEM NAFIU writes that lawyers are pushing for non-custodial sentencing for thousands of Nigerians arrested across the country by the police for allegedly looting COVID-19 palliatives so as not to put the prison decongestion policy of the Federal Government in jeopardy
Some senior lawyers have expressed deep concerns over the mass looting of COVID-19 palliatives in many parts of the country which has resulted in massive arrest of people across the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory.
Warehouses for the COVID-19 palliatives donated by a private sector organization, Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID) were massively looted in Lagos, Osun, Kwara, Cross River, Kaduna, Plateau and some other states. Food items carted away included garri, rice, spaghetti, Indomie and vegetable oil.
To the lawyers, though people’s action in looting the palliatives might be criminal in nature, state governors should also share in the blame as there was no basis for the keeping of the items when majority of Nigerians were languishing in poverty.
The lawyers also expressed fears about a possible spike in the number of inmates in Correctional Centers across the country should those arrested found their way to prison. They believed this might put the Federal Government policy on prison decongestion in jeopardy.
They consequently suggested non-custodial sentencing for those found culpable among the looters. State governments had in the wake of the massive looting of warehouses where COVID-19 palliatives were kept embarked on imposition of curfew, while also ordering police crackdown on the looters.
Some governors also issued ultimatum to looters for the return of looted items. Justifying their actions, the governors said the items were kept for vulnerable members of the society and in preparation for a possible second wave of COVID-19 pandemic.
In its reaction to the development, CACOVID explained the reason behind the delay in distributing the palliatives by state governors. It said the very large size of the order and the production cycle required to meet the demand, caused delays in delivering the food items to the states in an expeditious manner and this also caused the delay in delivery of the food palliatives by state governors.
A statement issued on behalf of CACOVID by the Acting Director of Corporate Communications at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Osita Nwanisobi, indicated that the first deliveries could not start until June while a sizable portion of the items had been delivered but yet to be distributed by the governors by October.
He noted with regret that with the looting incidents, some intended beneficiaries have been deprived of the opportunity of benefitting from CACOVID’s good intentions.
The statement reads: “At the time CACOVID embarked on the palliatives effort in April, we decided to procure the food directly from the manufacturers, to avoid a distortion of prices in the market.
The food package was designed such that each of the nearly 2 million vulnerable families received: 10kg bag of rice, 5kg bag of garri/ maize flour/semolina, 1 carton of pasta, 2 cartons of noodles, 5kg of sugar and 1kg of salt. The food relief items were to be delivered to almost two million most vulnerable families across the 774 LGAS in the country, as part of the private sector’s support to the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Unfortunately, the very large size of the order, and the production cycle required to meet the demand, caused delays in delivering the food items to the states in an expeditious manner; hence the resulting delay in delivery of the food palliatives by the state governors.
For instance, rice had to be milled, semolina and maize flour had to be processed, noodles and pasta had to be manufactured, and sugar had to be refined.
“Given that the states and local government authorities oversee all relief efforts in their jurisdictions and know their citizens best, we had worked with each governor and the Minister of the FCT, utilising a combination of our protocols and their existing structures and processes to ensure food items reach the intended beneficiaries.
We also appointed an independent monitoring team to ensure that the items would be delivered as intended.
“Although various states and the FCT had commenced flag-off of the distribution of the food items since early August, some could not conclude the distribution as they were yet to receive complete deliveries of the items allotted to them. In the interest of transparency and accountability, CACOVID will, in due course, be providing the full delivery schedule and flag-off dates by each state”.
FG’s prison decongestion policy
Following the outbreak of COVID- 19 in Nigeria, the Federal Ministry of Justice, in conjunction with the Ministry of Interior and the Presidential Committee on Correctional Service Reform and Decongestion (PCCSRD), had embarked on a nationwide decongestion exercise aimed at curtailing the spread of the virus in the various correctional centres across the 36 states and the FCT.
In a statement, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), revealed that about 3,751 former inmates, mostly adults, secured their freedom during the exercise.
The AGF said beyond the issue of tackling the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, the measure also represents a fundamental contribution to the ongoing justice sector reform by his ministry.
Malami added that the decongestion exercise is also a step towards the implementation of the Federal Executive Council’s mandate at decongesting Correctional Centres and reforming the justice sector.
Recently, at a virtual session which centred on implementing amnesty and decongestion for juveniles deprived of their liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, the AGF had announced plans for the second phase of the nationwide custodial decongestion, as a way of leveraging on the achievements recorded during the first exercise.
He said the focus of the second stage would be on implementing amnesty and decongestion for juveniles deprived of their liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond through the collaborative efforts of the state
attorneys-general, heads of courts in the 36 states and the FCT, the Ministry of Women Affairs, the Nigerian Correctional Service, Non-Government Organisations, like the United Nations Children’s Funds (UNICEF), as well as other critical justice sector stakeholders. Lawyers speak Following Federal Government’s prison decongestion policy, some senior lawyers have thrown their weights behind non-custodial sentencing for thousands of Nigerians arrested for allegedly looting COVID-19 palliatives who are facing prosecution.
The lawyers while baring their minds on the issue at the weekend lauded Federal Government’s effort at decongesting the various Correctional Centres across the country saying nothing must be done to jeopardize it. While noting that the mass looting in many parts of the country is a sociological issue that must be addressed holistically, the lawyers believed the issue of arrest, prosecution and the ultimate price to be paid by the alleged looters must be handled with caution.
Speaking on the issue, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Mike Ahamba, suggested that to avoid a situation of congestion at Correctional Centres, every alleged looter to be prosecuted should be admitted to bail immediately after arraignment.
He said: “If there’s a prison decongestion policy and something happened that warrant people to be arrested, I don’t think government should fail to do so. The thing to be done is for government to ensure that those arrested were either immediately admitted to bail after their arraignment or finish their prosecution promptly.
They can even be given an option of fine rather than being sentenced to prison. “I am not happy about the looting spree. It amounts to stealing in whatever way we looked at it.
Though, I agreed with the assertions that keeping such palliatives by state governors when there is a high level of hunger in the land is an height of irresponsibility. I also believed that the EndSARS protests have brought a lot of things to the fore.
But, breaking into warehouses where palliatives are stored is not the right step to take, rather, people can protest about it to express their displeasure.
So, in as much as I blamed governors for keeping those palliatives, I also did not support people’s action in looting them because that is criminal”.
Another silk, Dr. Biodun Layonu, said those convicted should be sentenced to open imprisonment. “Those convicted should be sentenced to open imprisonment and be made to undertake diverse community service for the length of the sentence”, the silk said. A former Vice-President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Monday Ubani, suggested that those arrested can be granted administrative bail while their prosecution continues.
He said: “I have no problem with anyone arrested for committing crime, but the issue is that such an individual is presumed innocent until the contrary is proved in court. To avoid prison congestion, those arrested can be granted administrative bail while their prosecution continues.
This is a better alternative rather than keeping them in prison. If I am in the position of government, I would only caution those that looted the palliatives out of hunger, while those that broke into private property will be prosecuted”.
Dr. Fassy Yusuf said most of the looters of palliatives are poorest of the poor who deserve to be pitied by government. He also threw his weight behind non-custodial sentencing saying the number of those arrested is alarming and feeding them in detention is going to be an issue.
“The mass looting in many parts of the country is a sociological issue that must be addressed holistically. There appears to be a correlation between poverty and crime aside the aspects of perversion and greed. Most of the looters are poorest of the poor and or miscreants and hoodlums.
“Their trial would be a test for the judiciary (magistracy). To jail, give non-custodial sentences, fine or caution and release those found guilty would test the responsiveness and sensitivity of our judicial system. The number of those arrested is alarming and feeding them in detention is going to be an issue. It will overwhelm the police authorities and the correctional service.
“Our correctional facilities cannot accommodate them. Moreover, accommodating them in our correctional facilities will expose the first offenders to hardened criminals and the society would be the worse for it. A way out, is for the police authorities to profile those arrested and recommend for caution and release, those who looted out of want/poverty, and prosecute others and if found guilty should have non-custodial sentences.
“Those caught with weapons can have their full day in court. Magistrates can be posted to detention centres to try the petty looters. Finally, government should declare poverty a national disaster and device strategies to deal with it to prevent the Ides of March.
Mass mobilisation and national orientation are also needed”, he said. To Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu, the mass arrest of looters of palliatives may constitute serious setbacks on the Federal Government’s policy on prison decongestion if not properly handled.
He said: “The mass and, if you like, indiscriminate arrests of Nigerians across the states on allegations of looting and theft of palliative materials will certainly constitute serious setbacks on the prison decongestion policy of Federal Government and the concerted efforts of partners. Already, we have not seen the speed in investigations and profiling of suspects leading to early abuse of the fundamental rights of arrested persons to liberty and movement.
“Some of the arrested persons have complained and denied any involvement in the so-called looting except for that the general raid and indiscriminate arrests of any and every person on sight and within reach. Five, six days after, persons arrested have not been arraigned for lack of evidence which is why state governments are appealing to their citizens to voluntarily return the goods/items. “They should profile them and release those deserving release.
Grant bail to the rest and resort to the non-custodial sentencing to deserving persons under the relevant administration of criminal laws of the states and even the Police Act, 2020”. A rights activist, Mr. Kabir Akingbolu, decried the level of looting saying perpetrators must be brought to book.
“It is unfortunate that people took advantage of the EndSARS protests to foment trouble and cause serious crisis across the country. They took the unsavoury advantage of the melee to steal, loot, plunder, maim and destroy many public infrastructures, forgetting to realize that a day of reckoning will come.
“Although, there is tension in the land and the prisons are congested to the brim, there is no society that will condone lawlessness. This means that the government will bring all the perpetrators of the carnage that ensued after the EndSARS protest went awry. No doubt, the prisons are congested but the government will not allow anyone to escape justice in the name of prison congestion.
The impostors really hurt the Nigeria and her citizens and must be made to face the music no matter what happens”, he said. To Mr. Ige Asemudara, state governors should bury the idea of keeping the alleged looters in prison to avoid over-congestion due to their large numbers.
He said: “For me, the Federal and State governments are just kidding to be arresting looters of COVID-19 palliatives. It is their irresponsibility and unnecessary bureaucracy that led to the looting of those food items. You mean you keep foods in store when people are hungry? The looting were mass actions done by mob and if you decides to arrest and detain them the prisons will be over-congested, the courts will not also be able to accommodate them.
Those are huge number of persons. “Beyond that, the government should take the looting of COVID- 19 palliatives in good stride and move on especially when the foods were meant for those who looted them except the government had a different hidden agenda. On the other hands, there are some criminals who looted and robbed private property and set ablaze some public and private property for no reason, those ones should be brought to book”.
Prince Okey-Joe Onuakalusi believed the masses have taken what belonged to them and that government has no case. “My position on this may sound obnoxious , the masses took what belong to them.
The government failed completely and therefore the masses should be pardoned. It is a hard lesson for the government. The government should discountenance this war war mentality rather embrace jaw jaw methods to the problem”, he said.