Gentlemen of the Press,
COMPASSION IS THE BASIS OF ALL MORALITY
1. It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to this press conference.
2. The great American President and statesman, Abraham Lincoln, once said ‘I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice’. We are passing through the most challenging times, the like of which we have never seen in the annals of the nation. As you are all aware, coronavirus (COVID-19) has and continues to wreak havoc globally. More than a million people have been infected globally while almost 90,000 lives have been lost since the disease broke in December last year in Wuhan, China.
3. We have been fortunate in Nigeria with the relatively low number of infections and deaths, though most regrettable still. I must therefore commend all Nigerians, particularly the medical personnel and security agencies that have had to work under very unusual circumstances, putting their own lives at risk in the process.
4. The welfare of all Nigerians has been of utmost concern and a major policy thrust of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari since inception. This also includes the inmates in our correctional facilities, serving terms, awaiting trials or in the condemned criminals row, awaiting execution.
5. For us at the Ministry of Interior, our mandate is very clear. The orientation must change from the punitive concept of imprisonment to correction and reformation where inmates will be given opportunity to reflect, regret, repent, be transformed, be renewed and energised to begin a new and productive life as an honourable and law-abiding member of society.
6. This will require that the inmates, though denied freedom of movement while in custody, be put in a decent environment and treated humanely as possible in a way befitting their status as citizens with all dignity. They need to be well fed, decently housed and given proper medical attention.
7. Our correctional institutions have done a yeoman’s job and I must commend them for the reforms that have been carried out and the positive results we have seen.
8. However, we still have challenges with accommodation. Our about 250 facilities are inadequate to house the over 74,000 inmates in our custody presently. You will recollect that last month we turned the sod for the construction of a 3,000-capacity custodial centre in Abuja. Before then, work had started in 2017 on a 3,000-Capacity Maximum Security Custodial Centre sited at Janguza in Kano State and is awaiting completion. We are therefore doing everything possible to overcome the accommodation challenges.
9. However, a bigger issue that will positively affect accommodation at the correctional centres is the review of criminal justice administration with regards to the inmates. For instance, our last audit shows that a disproportionate number of inmates are awaiting trial persons (ATPs). In addition, we observed that:
a. Some of the ATPs have spent 10 years or more in custody
b. Some have no confirmed criminal case against them
c. Some have had their cases determined but could not pay the fines imposed on them by the courts
d. Some are already old and weak; while
e. Some are very sick and infirm.
10. Following these observations, the Ministry had set in motion the machinery for the decongestion of our correctional facilities, but this has now become imperative by the outbreak and continued spread of COVID-19. The virus, it should to be reiterated, has no known cure. The best advice given by experts is to maintain environmental and personal hygiene, particularly constant washing of hands and maintaining social distance.
11. The Nigerian Correctional Service has been taking extra care to prevent the introduction and spread of the virus in the custodial centres by improving the level of hygiene, suspension of social visits and extra-screening of new inmates among others.
12. However, these will not go far unless we drastically reduce the population of inmates.
13. It is in this circumstance that the Ministry of Interior convened a meeting of relevant stakeholders, including the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Controller General of the Nigerian Correctional Service and the Director General Nigeria Intelligence Agency to look into this matter and propose measures that could be taken to reduce population at the custodial centres.
14. Our meeting yielded positive results. At the end of the meeting, we agreed to recommend to President Muhammadu Buhari to, among others, approve the report of the Presidential Committee on the Prerogative of Mercy which was before him, in order to facilitate the decongestion of custodial centres. The President graciously approved this request and others.
15. In arriving at amnesty, various issues were looked into and several options were considered. But the most pertinent and accordingly adopted are:
a. Old age. This is for inmates that are 60 years old and above.
b. Those suffering from ill-health that are likely to terminate in death
c. Convicts serving three years and above and have less than six months to serve
d. Inmates with mental health issues and;
e. Inmates with options of fines not exceeding N50,000 and have no pending case.
16. Using these criteria, a total number of 2,600 inmates spread across our various custodial centres qualify to benefit from the amnesty. These include 885 convicts who could not pay their fines totalling N21.4 million which the government will pay on their behalf to enable them get their freedom. From this number, 41 inmates are federal convicts, two of which have been granted pardon.
17. At this point, I am pleased to inform you that five ex-convicts recommended for presidential pardon have been so pardoned. They are late Prof Ambrose Ali, Late Chief Anthony Enahoro, Ex Lt. Col. Moses Effiong, Major E.J. Olanrewaju and Ajayi Olusola Babalola. Prof Ali was the governor of the old Bendel State in the Second Republic (1978-1983) and a great progressive while Chief Enahoro was a foremost nationalist who moved the motion for Nigeria’s independence. I must thank and commend President Buhari for demonstrating great statesmanship by pardoning these people who were part of the great Nigerian history. We will proceed from here to Kuje custodial centre to release the 41 in a symbolic gesture of the freedom that have been given to 2,600 inmates across the federation. The governors of the 36 states under whose jurisdiction the inmates were incarcerated will complete the exercise in line with our federal principle.
18. It should be noted that this amnesty will not apply to inmates sentenced for violent extreme offences such as terrorism, kidnapping, armed banditry, rape, human trafficking, culpable homicide and so on. This should put paid to the wild and unfounded speculations and agitations that have been going around on the categories of inmates to benefit.
19. Other measures requested and approved by Mr President include:
a. Request State Governors to facilitate the sitting of the State Prerogative of Mercy Committees, in order to recommend deserving cases for release;
b. Engage the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) to request all Chief Judges of the State High Courts to immediately embark on prison visits to identify and release deserving inmates;
c. Engage the CJN to consider taking steps to ensure the setting up of Special Courts in all states, including the FCT, to try cases of armed robbery, banditry, kidnapping and other serious offences, in order to facilitate their trial and;
d. Engage the CJN to ensure that Chief Judges of the States and FCT High Courts direct lower courts to comply with the requirements of the Administration of Criminal Justice Law, in issuing remand warrants in criminal cases which are not within their jurisdiction.
20. With these measures, within the shortest possible time, ATPs that have taken most spaces in our custodial centres will be drastically reduced and the centres will be decongested.
21. Beyond the exegesis of COVID19, we are exercising the prerogative of mercy in the firm belief that humans have innate capacity for goodness, even when they make mistakes which are precipitated by uncontrolled impulse, bad human companies, making bad personal choices and judgements and environmental pressures. Even when, as they would, find themselves in the firm grip of the law and are justifiably sentenced, society owes them a second chance to repent and purge themselves of bad behaviour, to be able to recover the best versions of themselves.
22. I am appealing to the beneficiaries of this amnesty to make the best use of it. The best way they can show appreciation is to truly repent and turn a new life and justify the confidence the government has reposed in them. They should work hard to prevent recidivism by avoiding circumstances and persons that predispose them to reoffending in order that the government and society will not regret granting them amnesty.
23. I call on our correctional officers to work so swiftly and decisively in implementing this amnesty and then decongest our custodial centres within the shortest possible time.
24. I commend your discipline, patriotism and sacrifice as you remain in the frontline in the battle against the spread of COVID-19 in our nation and especially in our custodial centres. You must remain steadfast and give people hope that the disease will be defeated and normal life will resume as soon as possible. Enforce the law and encourage the people to observe personal hygiene, maintain social distance and other advisory from the relevant agency and officials and stay at home while the lockdown lasts in places where it has been imposed.
25. I will also like to thank the various stakeholders that have worked with us to realise this objective, beginning from President Muhammadu Buhari, who graciously granted all our requests; the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister for Justice, Chief Judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Controller General of the Nigerian Correctional Service, the Director General of the Nigeria Intelligence Agency and others for their good disposition to inter-ministerial cooperation.
26. In closing, let me conclude with this quote from the great South African President and icon of the anti-apartheid struggle, Nelson Mandela, who once said that ‘You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution’.
27. I thank you all for being here and your kind attention.
28. Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola
Minister of Interior