The Executive Secretary of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Tony Ojukwu, has expressed disappointment over the number of Nigerian prison inmates awaiting trial for petty offences.
The laws creating the special offences target the economic activities of the poor, Mr Ojukwu said in Abuja on Friday at an event on the review of the decriminalisation of petty offences project in Africa.
“Laws on petty offences seem to mainly target the socio-economic lives and activities of the poor and marginalised population in society,” he said.
He did not give a figure but lamented that alleged petty offenders constitute “a significant number” of prison detainees, thus contributing to the growing number of inmates in the country.
According to him, it has become imperative to “decriminalise petty offences” in Nigeria and across Africa owing to their negative impact on economically disadvantaged citizens.
“It is appalling to note that petty offenders, most of who are awaiting trial for offences such as being a rogue and vagabond, being idle or disorderly, loitering, begging, hawking, failure to pay debt and being a nuisance among others, constitute a significant number of persons in detention and thus contribute to the growing number of inmates in custody across the country,” he added.
He explained that “petty offences can be found in laws that are aimed at controlling public nuisance on public roads, public places,” a scenario that is rampant in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city.
He said the principles on decriminalisation of petty offences in Africa had been adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights in 2017 at Banjul, The Gambia.
He emphasised the significance of the decriminalisation project on human rights, which is being implemented in Nigeria with support from the Network of National Human Rights Institutions in Africa (NANHRI).
He further noted that the principles encourage member states to consider the use of non-custodial measures as an alternative to imprisonment of petty offenders.
Decriminalisation of petty offences project in Africa
The initiative is being simultaneously implemented in Uganda and Sierra Leone.
The project review meeting sought to take stock of the implementation in the three African countries so far.
In Nigeria, the inaugural Consultative Engagement towards development of Action Plan to decriminalise Petty Offences was held in Abuja in December 2020.
The NHRC boss lauded NANHRI for its partnership in helping the commission discharge its mandate in taking steps to expunge all provisions that criminalise petty offences from both federal and state laws.
The resolutions reached at the end of the project review meeting in relation to Nigeria was a recommendation for the establishment of a ‘Network for Decriminalisation of Petty Offences in the FCT’.
Such structure has been established in Oyo and Lagos – consisting of critical ministries, departments and agencies of government, the civil society and the media.
It was also recommended that interventions in other parts of the country should be scaled up.Meanwhile, the Lagos State network has created a symbol to deepen its campaigns against criminalisation of petty offences.
The symbol is a collection of pictures of hawkers, with clenched fists joined together to form a circular shape, and scale of justice. It also bears the logos of the NHRC and the NANHRI.
According to the Lagos network, the symbol brings to focus the need for all hands to be “on deck”, advocacy for justice and stopping the detention of hawkers by law enforcement officers.