The human rights community disagrees with the Lagos State Task Force on Environmental and Special Offences on the daily mass arrest, summary trial and prison remand of the army of homeless young people and petty traders hustling for daily bread by roadsides and in traffic. The state says the arrest is to rid the city of nuisances and ensure security, but the human rights community argues that such arrest amounts to criminalising poverty. OLADIMEJI RAMON examines the issues
Monday, March 25, was a typical day at the Oshodi office of the Lagos State Task Force on Environmental and Special Offences, popularly known as Lagos Task Force. There was an army of agitated or distraught men milling about the main entrance gate. Among them were commercial motorcyclists, popularly known as okada riders, whose motorcycles had been seized. There were roadside traders or street hawkers whose goods were confiscated in a raid conducted earlier in the day, as well as commercial drivers whose buses were impounded.
Every day, inside the expansive premises, there is a beehive of activities. The visitors’ waiting shed, near the entrance gate, is often filled up with people – some waiting for their arrested loved ones; some waiting to negotiate the release of their confiscated motorcycles, vehicles or goods.
Near the cell, an army of arrested suspects, mostly young people, are being processed under a canopy. Farther down, confiscated motorcycles are being unloaded carelessly from operation trucks and thrown into two large stores. With thousands of such motorcycles, the stores are nearly spilling over.
At the far end of the premises is the mobile court. At about 10.30m when this reporter arrived at the mobile court, the roving magistrate had sat and risen for the morning session. A female private lawyer said the magistrate, Mr Owolabi, left for the Ikorodu mobile court to treat cases waiting for him and that he would return to Oshodi later for the afternoon session.
Since its creation in 2016, the Lagos mobile court had managed to escape media scrutiny. I decided to wait and watch the afternoon proceedings.
Hurried court proceedings
At about 2pm, the mobile court came alive with a flurry of movements. A truckload of seized motorcycles and suspects had arrived. Under the watch of a uniformed task force official, seven young men were furiously unloading the motorcycles. Two stood on the open-back truck practically throwing down the motorcycles to the ground with heavy, shattering bangs, while the five others dragged what remained of the motorcycles into the warehouse.
As this went on, an army of arrested youths were marched into the small courtroom and seated on the bare floor. Smell of stale sweat and noise immediately overpowered the small courtroom.
“If you are not a lawyer and have no business in court, leave now!” the female registrar, called Alhaja, said repeatedly just before the suspects were ushered in.
Having been warned by a lawyer friend that the mobile court was not well disposed to spectators, I had dressed in a suit and a tie so as to easily pass for a lawyer.
But I later realised that even so, a lawyer might not be permitted in the court except he has a client or is one of the familiar clients-seeking private lawyers who daily resume at the court to await the suspects being brought in droves by the task force men.
Indeed, moments earlier where I sat quietly in a corner in order not to attract attention, I had overhead an argument between the registrar and a man dressed in a lawyer’s jacket. The man was saying that as a lawyer, the court was open to him and that he did not need to have a client as a ticket to be there but the registrar disagreed, prompting the lawyer to dare her to report to him to the magistrate. However, the man left the room before the court session began.
Perhaps due to the time of the day and the large number of suspects the court was confronted with, the arraignment was conducted in a hurry and without attention to details. No sooner had the magistrate, who appeared to have had a busy day, entered the courtroom and taken his seat than the registrar, holding a charge sheet, began to invite the defendants into the dock for their arraignment.
“Tinuade Tunde! … Where is Tinuade?” the registrar demanded; but she was greeted with no response.
“It’s Tonade, not Tinuade!” the magistrate interjected.
Taking the correction, the registrar called again: “Tonade Tunde!” Now, a young man stood up from the floor and walked into the dock.
After the registrar had invited 14 of the suspects into the dock, she began to read the charges to them thus: “All of you, on the 25 of March – Hey, stop crying! – on the 25 of March 2009 (sic) at about 2 hours at Itire, Lagos, Lagos Magisterial District, did conduct yourselves in a manner likely to cause the breach of peace and thereby committed an offence.
“Count two: On the 25 of March, 2019 at about 2 hours at Itire, Lagos Magisterial District, did conduct yourselves in a disorderly manner and thereby committed an offence. Do you all understand the charge (sic)?” Alhaja asked the defendants.
This reporter observed that as opposed to the standard practice of reading to the defendants the particular law(s) they were accused of violating, the registrar here merely told the defendants “you thereby committed an offence.”
Most of the defendants were unfamiliar with the court process and had no lawyer. Majority appeared scared and some were weeping.
“Keep quiet!” Alhaja shouted at one of the crying defendants. “If you cry, you will be charged with contempt of court,” she said.
Alhaja then proceeded to interpret the charges in a mixture of Yoruba language and Pidgin English.
After this, she began to call upon the defendants, one after the other, demanding whether they were guilty or not.
But to many of the defendants, the question demanded more than a mere yes or no answer. One, who had all along been raising his hand, trying to get attention to say something but was ignored, responded that he was guilty but with an explanation. Another pointed out that he was not arrested in Itire, contrary to the charges. To this, Alhaja simply suggested that Itire was as good as “anywhere around Lagos.”
In the end, majority of the defendants pleaded guilty while a few entered a no-guilty plea.
“Who defends these gentlemen?” the magistrate called out.
A male private lawyer, Odekunle, announced appearance for two of the 14 defendants. The remaining 12 had no legal representation. A lawyer attached to the mobile court by the Office of the Public Defender, Yakubu, routinely announces his appearance for such defendants with no lawyer.
“Odekunle, you apply for bail,” the magistrate said, preempting the submission by the lawyer.
“Very well, sir,” the lawyer said.
The OPD lawyer also applied for bail on behalf of the remaining 12 defendants, whom he had never interacted with.
The prosecuting counsel for the state, Ope, as a matter of routine, raised no objection to the oral bail applications.
Ruling, the magistrate said, “I admit the 1st to 14th defendants to bail in the sum of N50,000 with one surety. The surety to deposit the sum of N10,000 with the mobile court. Case adjourned till 6/5/19 for mention.”
The defendants were herded out of the dock and led away by the task force men for onward journey to the prison. Then the registrar began to call the next set of defendants, 10 in number.
The defendants, said to be arrested in the Ikotun area at about 2am on March 25, 2019, were similarly arraigned on two counts of “conducting yourselves in a manner likely to cause the breach of peace and you thereby committed an offence.”
Regardless of their pleas, the magistrate similarly admitted each of the 10 defendants to bail in the sum of N50,000 with one surety.
The surety, the magistrate said, was to deposit N10,000 with the mobile court and adjourned the case till May 6, 2019 for mention.
The second set of defendants were also herded out of the dock and led away by task force men for onward journey to the prison.
Then the registrar began to invite the third set of defendants. At this point, the magistrate began to complain that the remaining suspects were more than 10 contrary to what he had been made to believe.
“The people here are more than 10! After this, I’m going,” the magistrate declared.
“There are two more charges,” the registrar announced.
“Two more new charges!” the magistrate interjected. He stressed his resolve to call it a day after that round, with instructions that the remaining defendants had to be brought before him the following morning.
The registrar proceeded to invite the third set of defendants into the dock. While she was at it, the woman sitting directly in my front caught the magistrate’s attention.
“What’s your problem, madam? Come!” the magistrate beckoned to her menacingly. The woman, whom I guessed was a relative of one of the suspects, stood up and approached the bench.
“Madam, is there any problem?” the magistrate demanded. It was not clear what the woman’s response was but the magistrate asked: “And so? What’s your name? Fatima. What are you doing in your eye like this (sic)?”
The magistrate ordered her to pull her ears and get out of the premises as fast as possible.
I was not sure what her offence was and after she left, I came into the magistrate’s full view. As I sat there gingerly, I hoped I would not be spotted out and summoned for questioning.
By now, the registrar had finished reading the charges to the third set of defendants and they had taken their plea.
“They all pleaded not guilty, Your Honour,” she told the magistrate. But one of the defendants disagreed, saying repeatedly that what he entered was a guilty plea.
Then, the magistrate noticed an underage among the defendants. On realising that the juvenile did not understand English language, he called for an interpreter, through whom the boy gave his age as 17 years. The magistrate set him free, warning him against crimes.
The rest of the defendants, like those before them, were each admitted to N50,000 bail, with one surety to deposit N10,000 into the mobile court’s coffers.
With their case adjourned till May 6, they were equally herded out for onward dispatch to the prison.
By the time the afternoon session finished, the mobile court had sent a total of 33 persons to the prison.
And this is an everyday ritual that happens morning and afternoon, not just in Oshodi mobile court but also in Ikorodu as well as other regular magistrates’ courts in the city.
Prison authorities groan over congestion
The immediate-past Controller of Prisons in Lagos, Mr Tunde Ladipo (now an Assistant Controller General of Prisons), had repeatedly accused the Lagos Task Force and the mobile court of frustrating efforts to decongest the prisons.
The Lagos State Criminal Information System showed that though the five prisons in the state have a combined holding capacity of 4,087, they were housing 9,044 inmates as of March 2009.
The LCIS noted that 78 per cent of the inmates are awaiting-trial inmates. It pointed out that 56 per cent of the inmates have no lawyer.
Ladipo said the Badagry Prison that was built to house a little over 100 inmates was at time holding over 700 inmates.
He said majority of the inmates are petty offenders arrested on the street for breach of peace and “lack of means of livelihood.”
“In Lagos State, the problem has been that of the task force and the mobile court. Why we have congestion in the prison is that we see young men and women being arrested on the street for lack of means of livelihood. That speaks volumes.
“At a time, 47 cripples were arrested and brought to medium prison for breach of peace. These are vulnerable people begging for money to eat and you wonder what kind of peace they have breached,” Ladipo said in March at the public presentation of a report on decriminalisation of petty offences by a non-governmental organisation, Prisoners’ Rehabilitation and Welfare Action.
Mobile court’s routine demand for N10,000 deposit
One of the peculiarities of the mobile court proceedings, as observed by this reporter, was that the court seems to make no distinction between defendants who plead guilty and those who enter a no-guilty plea.
Irrespective of the plea, the magistrate routinely admits all defendants to N50,000 bail with one surety, who should deposit N10,000.
But since the category of defendants brought before the mobile court are hardly able to meet the bail conditions, most of them end up in the prison.
The LCIS stated that majority of the 7,054 awaiting-trail inmates as of March were languishing in the prisons for being unable to meet their bails ranging from N5,000 to N50,000.
It was peculiar that the magistrate routinely directed that all sureties must deposit 10,000 into the coffers of the mobile court as a pre-condition for bail.
While speaking on May 14, 2019 at an appraisal workshop on the Administration of Criminal Justice Law, human rights lawyer, Mr Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, condemned this practice and called for an amendment to Section116(2) of the ACJL, “which empowers a judge (magistrate) to require the deposit of money before bail is approved.”
He described the practice as “an attack on the poor.”
“It should be limited to the execution of a bail bond and not money, as this might impose hardship on the poor,” the activist lawyer said.
Victims of nocturnal police raids
Findings by this reporter indicate that majority of the people being brought before the mobile court for “breach of peace” are homeless persons arrested during raids by the police.
Earlier on the morning of March 25, while waiting outside the courtroom for the return of the magistrate for the afternoon session, this reporter encountered a group of four filthy, bare-footed, wretched-looking young men.
Curious at their filthy appearances, the reporter asked the most expressive of the boys in Yoruba language, “Do you work here?”
“No oh; they just came to drop us here,” the young man, who later gave his name as Muideen Olaosebikan, replied in Yoruba.
Reporter: From the prison? Is your case coming up in court this afternoon?
Olaosebikan: No; we have just been released.
Reporter: What did you do?
Olaosebikan: We were raided?
Reporter: Were you fighting?
Olaosebikan: No. They arrested us for sleeping outside.
Reporter: But you have now been released?
Olaosebikan: Yes, they have released us. We spent one month and four days in prison. They arrested us on February 20 and took us to Badagry Prison.
Twenty-three-year-old Olaosebikan said 18 of them were arrested in that raid. Alongside others arrested in other parts of Lagos, he was arraigned before the mobile court and 26 of them were remanded in Badagry Prison.
Olaosebikan, who said he was from Ogbomosho, Oyo State, said “some family issues” brought him to Lagos. He said since arriving, he had been working as a luggage carrier in the Mushin area and sleeping at the motor park.
His story was similar to those of the three others — Moshood Habib, 21 years old, from Ilorin, Kwara State; Michael Okon, 20, from Akwa Ibom State; and Samuel Adeniyi, 18, from Ibadan, Oyo State.
Habib and Okon, who worked as luggage carriers in Oshodi, said they were sitting in front of the park, which was their nightly resting place, when they were arrested in a police raid around 8.30pm.
Eighteen-year-old Adeniyi from Ibadan had been in Lagos for only one month, working as luggage carrier and sleeping in the motor park at Bolade, when he was arrested.
The stories of the four young men were similar to those of James Ejembi from Benue State; Alex Samuel from Kogi State; and Ernest Ezekome from Edo State, whom this reporter ran into during a follow-up visit to the task force office on April 8.
The three grubby and wretched-looking men, after being freed alongside others, hurriedly walked out of the task force office premises and were heading in the direction of Ikeja when this reporter ran after them.
“We did not commit any crime; we were arrested during a raid by the police at Okoko,” Ejembi, who described himself as a bricklayer, told this reporter when accosted.
“I came to Lagos in 2015. I work as a bricklayer at Agege. I work with a group; we join a vehicle taking us from one place to another to find mason job at Ile Pako Amao. That day, we closed very late, so I could not go home because my landlord had warned me not to come home and knock on the door once it is late. So, I decided to pass the night at Okoko among the Hausas. I didn’t know police arrest people there and at night they came and raided us. They came at about 1am or 2am. Then they brought us to the mobile court, 39 of us, and the court sent us to Badagry Prison,” Ejembi said.
Samuel from Kogi State, who described himself as a tailor, said he came to Lagos in search of work opportunities but was arrested and sent to the prison one month after arriving.
Forty-year-old Ezekome from Edo State, who described himself as a lecturer at Computer Village, Ikeja, said, “That unfortunate day, I decided to pass the night at my friend’s house around Ikeja Along. We slept outside. Around 2am, policemen came, woke us up, arrested us and handcuffed us.”
Ejembi explained that he and others were first detained in the police station for five days where they were asked to bail themselves with money.
“Those who were able to pay were freed. They paid whatever they had, some N2,000, some N4,000, some N5,000 and they were released. Those of us who had no money for bail, they brought us to the mobile court and the court also gave us bail. It was policemen from Railway Police Station that arrested us. We spent five days in the cell at the Railway Police Station. And since they did not find any money on us and nobody came for us, they took us to the mobile court. Two people among us were underage, the mobile court freed them and the rest of us were sent to prison,” he said.
Overcrowded prison where inmates eat ‘discipline soup’
Olaosebikan, Habib, Okon, Adeniyi, Ejembi, Samuel and Ezekome described their experience in Badagry Prison in grim terms.
“Badagry Prison is not a place that a human being should go. They kept 27 of us in a room, one person’s head here, another’s leg there — you know how they arrange fish inside carton — and at night when you sleep, you cannot turn. In fact, if anyone offends me, no matter the gravity of the offence, I will never send the person there as a punishment,” Ejembi said while recounting his prison experience to this reporter.
Speaking for himself, Habib, Okon and Adeniyi, Olaosebikan told this reporter that, “What our eyes saw, our mouth cannot tell it all.”
He said though they were fed three times a day “prison food can never be like normal food.”
“Beans in the morning; garri in the afternoon and eba in the evening.
“The eba is served with ‘discipline soup’.
“The quantity of garri given to be soaked in water for lunch would not fill a tin of milk. The discipline soup they gave us is not fit even for a dog,” Olaosebikan said.
When asked if fish was served as part of the meal, they young men chorused, “Fish! There is nothing in the soup.”
“No salt, no ‘Maggi’ (seasoning), no pepper. The discipline soup is made from ground beans; half-cooked; no pepper, no salt, no Maggi; nothing,” Olaosebikan said.
He added that they were told by the “kitchen boys” that ‘largactin’ — a medication for mental/mood disorders — was added to the meals “to weaken our bones.”
Unending traffic on road to prison
According to Olaosebikan, every day that he was in Badagry Prison, between 12 and 30 new inmates were brought in on a daily basis by the Task Force.
“If they use the small vehicle, they bring about 12 people, but if they use the large vehicle, over 30 people are brought. In my own case, 26 of us were taken to the prison. People are brought to prison every day,” he said.
Following an outcry by the Head of Legal Team, Fountain of Life Church, Mrs Modupe Olubanwo, a former Lagos State Chief Judge, Justice Olufunmilayo Atilade, in September 2017 released from Badagry, Kirikiri and Ikoyi Prisons, a total of 252 juveniles, majority of who were arrested for “breach of peace and lack of means of livelihood.”
Task force, mobile court activities are revenue generation-driven, activists allege
There is a perception among human rights activists that the activities of the task force and the mobile court are revenue-generation driven.
For instance, Director, Prisoners’ Rights Advocacy Initiative, Mr Ahmed Adetola-Kazeem, believes that the routine demand by the mobile court for N10,000 deposit as a pre-condition for bail was not unconnected to the revenue generation drive of the Lagos State Government.
Adetola-Kazeem, a lawyer, while describing the mobile court as “the greatest scam of governor Ambode’s administration,” believed that task force kept arresting poor people and putting them in the prison in expectation that philanthropists would pay fines to government on behalf of the detainees.
“A lot of people were arrested for offences they knew nothing about, pleaded to charges they didn’t understand and made to pay money they didn’t have.
“Curiously, it pays to plead guilty sometimes and pay fines or offer community service. For those who decide not to plead guilty, they are made to pay N10,000 into the state’s coffers. The government became emboldened in its brazen effort to consciously make it a money-making venture as ‘philanthropists’ compete to pay fines for those jailed by the court who can’t afford the fines.”
Adetola-Kazeem said he once handled a case involving over 250 persons arrested in the Itire/Mushin area in February 2018.
“Some were picked up from their bed for no just cause; they were all made to pay N10,000 excluding bribes to government officials to regain their freedom after spending days in prison.
“Those who couldn’t afford N10,000 spent four months in prison,” he said.
The Deputy Director, Office of the Public Defender, Mr A.O. Odusanya, who said he once had a two-year stint at the task force, corroborated Adetola-Kazeem’s view.
Odusanya, while speaking at the PRAWA report presentation in March, said, “While in the task force, I remember, there is a particular law about vagabonds, people who do not have means of livelihood. Once you are arrested and you cannot explain how you live, you will be charged to court. And you cannot help it because that is the law.
“I witnessed a case where some persons were arrested and it was being contemplated whether they should be released but the leader said, ‘But we have to make money’. So, because of their self-interest, they arrest and make money.”
Odusanya said the practice thrived because “there are some organisations that come around, they will pay the fines, get them released but before you know it, others are in. So, it is just a recycling event.”
The immediate-past Controller of Prisons, Lagos State, Tunde Ladipo, also believes that the daily mass arrest by the Lagos Task Force was motivated by revenue generation, through fines.
Ladipo recalled how a young man once approached him, proposing that he wished to feed the inmates to celebrate his birthday and how he suggested that the man should pay fines for some inmates to facilitate their release and decongest the prison.
“I told him we had over 9,000 inmates; feeding was not a problem, we fed them and I told him if you can spend as much as N5m or N10m, why don’t you pay fines for those who are in prison for being unable to pay fines of N10,000 or N20,000 and the young man was happy to do that and we collaborated and he released 200 inmates from the medium prison. And he went ahead to release 100 from Badagry Prison, making a total of 300.
“And like that, a lot of Nigerians have been coming to our assistance, paying fines to reduce the congestion in the prison. However, the activities of the task force and the mobile court have continued to make the number of inmates go up.
“For somebody that does not have a job, it is now a crime. And it is always N30,000 fine or six months’ imprisonment. Somebody that cannot afford three-square meal in a day, you bring him to prison. In fact, at the end of the day, the Federal Government ends up spending more money to feed the inmates than the fine being imposed by the state government.”
Task Force defends arrests, imprisonment
But the Head Public Affairs, Lagos Sate Task Force, Mr Taofeek Adebayo, described as illogical the insinuation that the arrest of “vagabonds” was motivated by a drive to generate revenue.
In an interview with this reporter, Adebayo said, “How much does a vagabond, a miscreant have that the government would depend on them to generate revenue? If a miscreant has money, will he be sleeping under the bridge? If he has money, of course, he won’t be sleeping under bridges, he won’t be snatching bags, he will also want to live a decent life, eat good food, he will not be wearing only one clothe, he will have a place to take his bath regularly.
“So, the argument that we are arresting these people to generate revenue for state is faulty. Can you generate revenue from someone who has no money? How much are they fined? You see, the enforcement of that law is not punitive, it is corrective.”
Adebayo said but for the task force, criminals, including cultists, would have made Lagos unlivable for residents.
“If not for the task force, who knows what would have happened in most of these black spots. Around May, about 60 Awawa Boys, cult boys, were arrested at Agege. In Oshodi, a high number of miscreants have been arrested over night.”
Adebayo said despite the complaint by the prison authorities, the Lagos State Task Force would not fold its arms and let criminals have a field day.
“The prison authorities have complained that we have congested both Kirikiri and Badagry prisons, but we can’t fold our arms and that is why we will continue to arrest and charge these people to court and send them to prison until there is sanity,” he said.