In the wake of democracy, it is still evident that many are shortchanged from exercising their fundamental human rights especially pertaining to freedom of rights to justice served.There have been number of obstacles to its realisation stemming from undue delay in administration, high cost of litigation, reliance on traditional systems and measures, illiteracy, locus standi etc. In a chat with Nelson Olanipekun, Team Lead of Citizen Gavel, an organisation that promotes human rights, rule of law and speedy trials in Nigeria, he also talked about how his organisation leverages on technology to put out, reach out and connect with their audience. According to him, Citizens Gavel provides a user-friendly tech support through which you can achieve your human rights needs.
He also talked about his career journey, the judiciary, human rights, government policies, victims of abuse, launch of the PODUS app, its uses and more. KEHINDE ADEGBOYEGA, AKUDO ABENGOWE and PATRICIA UYEH engaged Olanipekun and here report. Excerpts:
What has been the success so far?
Citizens Gavel in conjunction with other entities like Mr. Segun Awosanya (SEGALINK) and other entities have been the strategists behind the #EndSARSMovement, pushing for police accountability, human rights, rule of law and have also been supporting institutions with technology and training in other to create efficiency in the justice sector.
At what point did you make the transition from private practice to human rights?
While in private practice, that was like two or three years ago, I used to work for law firms. We take up bank related, land related cases and sometimes when I take up these cases, some of these banks, some of these entities that are your clients that pay youwill want you to actually delay the speed of the case because they don’t have a defence to the case. For me, delay of justice is an injustice. For example, a customer to a bank that actually kept N5 million in a bank in a fixed deposit account and after a couple of years he is expecting returns and interests and he can’t find it. He wants to sue the bank to recover the sum and the bank is now saying we don’t want to pay now, we can only pay in the next two years. This is delay tactics. To me that is an injustice, a person should be able to get his rights done. So those challenges actually spurred me to creating Gavel and to looking for ways where we can accelerate the justice delivery process in Nigeria. You know an average case in Nigeria sometimes span between three to five years, that is the average. There are worst cases that go for 7, 8, 11 years. Some of our anti corruption cases have been in court for 11 years. To me it’s crazy because justice delayed is justice denied. These are public interest cases that ordinarily should be acceleratedbut they are not done. So with the likes of the support of Open Society Justice Initiative,we have been able to do a lot of tech support and sensitization to people who are in need of human rights support in Nigeria.
You mentioned that there are some cases in Nigeria that take a while in court, what do you think can be done in terms of policy or whatever in the society to scale up to address these issues?
I think the first thing is for us to do policy change. Some of the cases we need friendly policies that can accelerate out justice delivery system. Also, we need to start deploying technology to our court system. In an average court, you would see a judge writing with hands, the lawyer has to be talking slowly, picking his words one by one. But in other climes, all these things are automated. A talk is being recorded and transcribed at the same time. So easily within 2 hours, a judge could have been done with 10 cases but that is not the case in Nigeria. Even some of the documents that we have to do, there is no electronic filing for such the cases. Like I said earlier, if we can automate businesses,companies, why can’t we automate human rights and justice sector to be more user-friendly and efficient? And also fulfill the purpose but what we have are systems that were in operations in 1940 something and the likes. But tech for justice is to improve the place of justice and also push for policies that can improve our prisons. Some of the rules of court can be improved to favour that.
What isthe cost implications of the issue of justice delayed and judiciary reforms that you think are unaddressed in Nigeria?
Part of the human costs is that 68% of people in prison as at now are awaiting trials. They are on pre-trial detention. They are wasting off just because we are not accelerating our justice delivery process. They have not been pronounced guilty. They are innocent in the face of the law. Let’s take Oyo state for example. It has one of the average highest prisoners awaiting trial. As at April this year, Oyo State has 86 percent of their prison inmates awaiting trial. Often times their prisons fluctuates between 1000,1002 and 1003. The 86% is roughly in thousands. These prisons have the capacity of 390 and it is housing over 1000 -1200 inmates and about 86% are awaiting trial. You can see the human cost in that aspect. Also look at the economic cost, majority of these people should have been contributing to the Gross Domestic Product of the society. Even assuming they are guilty, they can still contribute to the GDP. Something that I advocate for is prison sustainability. When a prisoner is in detention, nothing stops him from earning small money that he can save up until when he is released and have access to the funds to start up his life. But as of now, he cannot have access to those types of systems. There should be a public private partnership where the public sector would be involved. A lot of them can be involved and contributing this money and saving up towards their release. And the stigma, these is the analogy, If a person has been on detention with nothing to fall back on, often times ends up going back to crime. Look at it this way, if there is money waiting for him, he has let’s say N200, 000 he has it saved up, he can start a business. His wife, kids or friends would still respect him because he is not coming to beg them for food and others. There would be no need to talk down on him because he has some small earnings to sustain himself. Now imagine, if he were to be in prison and earns small money to send home, the stigma can be reduced because from that money in the system he can still provide for his family. So why should people stigmatise him? Even some ex-convicts they are now leaders and past leaders from the four walls of prisons. So those are part of economic costs because these individuals can not add up to the productivity of the corporate Nigeria.
So this month we are celebrating the International Youth day. In your experience, what are the demographics of youths in prisons?
Majority of people in prisons are youths. Other another angle, majority of the people facing injustice is the youths. Now, Nigerian has roughly 180 million people give or take 200 milliion, a large chunk of these people are young people who face injustice. When we were fighting for the #EndSARS, the people that came forward the most and mostly abused are the young people. It’s high time we give attention and cognizance to the young people needs. They are very peculiar. They are coming to know what the society really is in the real sense. They have been under the guidance of their parents and are probably in secondary or university students or coming out as fresh unemployed graduates. But a person form the workplace or security sector or neighbours can easily abuse them feeling they are novices who don’t know their rights. These are the set of people that really need to be sensitized. The breakdown of law and order in the society comes from the young people. They have the energy to do this. That is why the judiciary needs to cater for the needs of these young people. If there is no way to channel their energy, or grievancesor they feel the justice sector has been compromised, they would take to the streets. But if there are ways of them venting their frustrations through justice mechanisms that works then they can be productive. Issues of injustice can be properly handled without generating into anarchy.
How would PODUS launched in Ibadan serve young people in seeking justice?
PODUS is launched in Ibadan today infact is launched all over Nigeria for us. With you getting on board to PODUS, you can have access to over 150 millions across 19 states in Nigeria and young people can easily have a shot at justice. Before majority of the human rights mechanisms/NGOs we have are traditional. You have to go to their physical offices to have access to legal advice and lawyers. But we are giving lawyers at the push of buttons on your phones. That is huge for young Nigerians. Even for the elderly Nigerians I feel that is the Nigeria they would like to see.
How can you access the app?
You can access the app on podus.ng and via social media handles : @podusng on Twitter. On the website, podus.ng.
For lawyers that are willing to join this network of lawyers doing great things; helping Nigeriansto have a shot at justice, they can reach out to Citizens Gavel through Google. And send email- [email protected] or just download the app at podus.ng, you scroll down and see download app. This is for only lawyers. Whereas for users, once you log in to podus.ng, you can use the report platform to report cases. However, Podus would not replace your needs to hire a lawyer. We are very sensitive to the needs of the private legal practitioners. Podus is there to protect human rights alone. So as a human rights volunteer working lawyer or rights activists working with Podus, you are an independent person so you are there to protect human rights of the citizens and institutions. So you are not to protect or promote interests of individuals unlike a private legal practitioner that would naturally promote interest of the individual. We are independent and respected persons to protect rights of Nigerians and institutions and ensure that the Rwanda guidelines and the administration of criminal justice Act provisions are fulfilled.
How does a PODUS lawyer tell when a victim isn’t lying? Remember when someone is arrested, their gadgets are taken from them, so there is no access to phones to record and most abuses are reported after it has been done . If a victim reports an abuse and PODUS lawyer goes there, at what point do you tell that the report is not exaggerated or totally false from the victim’s side of the story?
We have a verification aspect of our work. When the person reports a case, we try to verify. Sometimes when the lawyer gets there, we inquire from the police officer. We do our own independent information fact finding for you to better understand the situation and promote the human rights provisions or administration of criminal justice law provisions that are in question. I also believe that in cases where a person would not have access to our services, they have friends and families that are in that centres. Those people can reach out to us on their behalf.
In conclusion, what other stake holders apart from lawyers are you bringing to this partnership?
We appreciate partnership with the government agencies to accelerate the pace of justice delivery in the country. We would also appreciate the media to spotlight some of these human rights abuses. We would also want to protect the rights of the media through freedom of expression, this is key to us. We would also appreciate partnership with people that can act as paralegals forus to reach to people that might not be literate to use the platform but they can also in their own little ways give out these information to their communities and interpret in the languages they would understand. And also serve as the contact person between that community and Gavel. So whenever there is anissue, they can easilyliaise with the paralegal and get in touch with Gavel, who can now intervene and assist with legal help they can provide.