Nigeria’s prison population is over 76,000, housed in 240 correctional facilities. About 70% of these inmates are still awaiting trial. They have been arrested and charged, but not yet convicted or acquitted.

This is the highest percentage of prisoners awaiting trial in Africa. The latest World Prison Brief report puts the figure at 12.4% for Ghana and 32.9% for South Africa.

The presumption of innocence is enshrined in the Nigerian constitution, in section 36(5). He says:

Any person accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

But the reality in Nigeria, as various researchers have shown, is that many people accused of crimes are presumed guilty. They are arrested and imprisoned before their cases are investigated.

Add to this a court system beset by delays and backlogs: it’s no wonder Nigeria has so many inmates awaiting trial.

There are reports of defendants spending 10 years awaiting trial in the US and 12-15 years in Nigeria. This long wait in Nigeria is against section 296 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015. The law states that the period of pretrial detention should not exceed 28 days.

There have been some efforts to address the situation. The government offers some free legal services through the Legal Aid Council. Provides free legal assistance and representation, legal advice and alternative dispute resolution to indigent Nigerians to improve access to justice. But the problem seems intractable.

Read more: Waiting for trial can be worse than facing sentence: A study in Nigerian prisons

We wonder if a technological fix could be a step to address trial delays.

So we set out to study the situation at two correctional centers in Abakaliki and Afikpo, cities in Ebonyi state in south-eastern Nigeria. We investigate the underlying causes of long trial waiting periods and ways to address them.

The main causes of the delay include the slowness of the investigation by the police and the loss of files. Others are an inadequate judicial system and poor access to lawyers.

Our findings suggest that a repository portal system could help address most of the problems that delay trials. The portal would be a database where information about the defendants and the current status of their trial would be stored. It would also be easily accessible. Material related to police investigations and findings could be uploaded to the portal, which would then automatically assign cases, based on the nature of the alleged crimes, to the appropriate court.

This would address the challenge of data being lost or tampered with by criminal justice actors such as police and corrections officers. It also addresses the challenge of manually sorting large files.

A system like this has not yet been proposed or applied in any African country.

What we did

Our study focused on 1,343 inmates from the Abakaliki and Afikpo prisons. Of that number, 845 (63%) were awaiting trial.

We used structured questionnaires and unstructured in-depth interviews with a sample of 1,498 respondents drawn from Nigerian criminal justice agencies and ‘awaiting trial’. We asked participants about their experiences in the criminal justice system, whether the processes were automated or manual, and how the process affected their experience. This was with a view to identifying the gaps caused by manual methods in the system and determining how information and communication technology could fill that gap.

Nigeria’s criminal justice bureaucracy uses manual processes to record and retain suspect and evidence information, transfer case files, prepare suspects for court appearances, and assign cells to inmates.

Loss of files, degradation of evidence, and delays in preparing prisoners to appear in court are some of the problems identified. Other problems are delays in the completion of cases and the incorrect allocation of cells.

Read more: Nigerian jailbreaks point to a prison system out of step with reality

The results showed that 39.1% of the police officers (241 of 617), 69% of the penitentiary officers (100 of 145) and 53.1% of the judicial officers (60 of 113) believed that the automation of criminal justice processes the use of a deposit system could solve the delays.

These findings are in line with our qualitative data. The criminal justice officers we interviewed affirmed the importance of linking and automating all criminal justice agencies with a repository system.

Developing the portal

The information on the portal must categorize crimes as simple, less serious, or serious. There should be detailed information about the suspects, the crimes they are charged with, and the legal provisions governing those crimes.

Here is the process we propose for using the repository system:

  • police upload cases into a database

  • the system can transfer cases to the nearest courts of competent jurisdiction

  • the trial can begin

  • after trial, those found guilty will be sent to correctional facilities to serve their sentences

  • those acquitted will be released and their cases will be marked as closed.

To ensure the smooth functioning of the system, a watchdog should be created, independent of the Nigerian Correctional Service. He would oversee the activities of criminal justice officers.