In mid-March, newspapers carried the report that an Abuja Grade 1 Area Court in Karu sentenced four vagrants to three months in prison each for a “joint act” and being “public nuisance(s).” The convicts – Samuel Danjuma, 22; Yakubu Adamu, 18; Yakubu Bulus, 25, and Godwin Jacob, 20, were of no fixed address and were sentenced after they pleaded guilty to the charges. The prosecutor, Sergeant Omatiga Gabriel, told the court that a team of policemen arrested the convicts on March 17, at about 12am in front of a shop in Nyanya Market with the intention to commit an offence. He was clearly a clairvoyant who knew they had criminal intentions in their minds. His key argument was that as they were outside at night and had no fixed abode, they were vagrants wandering around and therefore criminals. The defence counsel, from the Legal Aid Council, Vivian Kwa, argued without success that according to our laws, an accused person is innocent until proven otherwise. They were poor, they were vagrants, they were loitering, and therefore they were criminals is the clear statement from the administration of justice, or as all sincere people will say, the dispensation of injustice.
When a member of the elite walks on the street, the person is not loitering, is not a vagrant, and is not a criminal. The person is by definition a health conscious, responsible and intelligent member of the community taking a walk, which is very good for the body. Following this conviction, the Senior Advocate of the Masses, Femi Falana wrote the Inspector General of Police to stop this police harassment of poor citizens and reminded him that the vagrancy law had been repealed. He argued thus: “As you are no doubt aware, the vagrancy law was introduced to Nigeria by the former British colonial regime for the sole purpose of harassing and humiliating poor people who were said to have had no means of livelihood. The anti-people’s law was retained for the same purpose by the indigenous ruling class who took over power from the alien administrators in 1960. Thus, in a display of class bias whenever rich people were found on the street taking a walk it was said that they were exercising their fundamental right to freedom of movement. But whenever the poor exercise such fundamental right to freedom of movement they were usually arrested by the police who accused them of wandering or loitering.” I completely agree with the class analysis done by Femi Falana.
The police know very well that the vagrancy law was abrogated in 1989 when the then military junta promulgated the Minor Offenses (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act (CAP M16) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, which states that: “(a). A person shall not be accused of or charged with- (i) The offense of wandering (by whatever name called); or (ii) Any other offense by reason only of his being found wandering (by whatever name called), And, accordingly, any person accused of or charged with such offense shall be released or discharged, as the case may be, forthwith.” The police, however, have been trained over generations to harass and punish the poor, so the change in the law has been insufficient to change their behaviour.
Our colonial masters, the United Kingdom, had passed the Vagrancy Act in 1824 in Parliament, that made it an offence to sleep rough or beg. Anyone in England and Wales found to be homeless or to be trying to cadge (beg for) subsistence money could be arrested. At that time, contemporary critics, including William Wilberforce, condemned the Act for being a catch-all offence because it did not consider the circumstances as to why an individual might be placed in such a predicament. Clearly, the law was enacted to deal with the increasing numbers of homeless and penniless urban poor in England and Wales at that time. The idea was to deal with the poor by creating legislation that made them permanently guilty as a control measure. It was part of the legal infrastructure that ensured that the poor did not enjoy the freedom of movement. This was the context in which the British introduced the law into colonial Nigeria. Today in 2017, the Nigerian police are still ready to use the law in spite of our Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of movement.
In Abuja, women are regularly arrested for wandering and prostitution, and are detained and fined after summary judgement by a mobile court run by the Abuja Environmental Protection Board. The principle is that the poor must not be allowed to soil the Abuja environment. Many of these women who are arrested daily are not sex workers but are simply walking alone on the streets, sometimes returning from their places of work. No woman who is driving a car alone ever gets arrested. Again, what we are seeing is conflating poverty with criminality and the evidence is simply that the person is not rich enough to be driving a car or looks poor. A number of civil society organisations have been campaigning against the irresponsible way the authorities of the Federal Capital have been misusing their powers but to no avail. Part of the problem might be in the training regime for security agencies, in which the poor are assumed to have criminal tendencies naturally.
Last week, the convicted former governor of Adamawa State was released from prison on bail; I did not know that bail could apply to convicted prisoners. He was released because the conditions in prison made him feel sick. The poor, however, cannot complain of the conditions in prison, which is assumed to conform to their life styles. The EFCC has seized millions of dollars and billions of naira from real criminal mega looters who had looted the national treasury. Most of them have gone to court to demand that their looted monies be returned to them. There would be no surprise if they get the money back so that they can exercise their freedom of movement by jogging or walking the streets for healthier lives, while the poor continue to fill our prisons because they are poor.
Mr Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development, is a professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert