With 2019 around the corner, Nigerian citizens in both urban and rural areas are already bracing up for the February 16 general elections. A peculiar thing about this election, however, is the possibility of prisoners having a say, as plans for prisoners to vote is underway.
Currently, there are 240 prison institutions spread across Nigeria and as at 2015, the total prison population was 56,718, comprising – 17,686 convicts (4,000 lifers; 1,612 condemned convicts) and 39,032 Awaiting Trial Persons. Felony disenfranchisement has been a norm in Nigeria over the years, but from 2019 general elections, the electoral commission is willing to make things different. Mahmood Yakubu, Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said, inmates in Nigerian prisons will be allowed to exercise their right to vote.
Although felony disenfranchisement is considered a violation of human right in some countries, this didn’t apply in Nigeria, before now, where felons tend to lose most of their fundamental human rights. In 2014, Justice Mohammed Lima of the Federal high court sitting in Benin affirmed the right of prisoners to vote. He stated this while pronouncing on a fundamental right application, with regards to the provisions of section 14 (1) (2)(a) (b), 17 (2)(a), 24 (b), (c) 25, 77(22) and section 39 0f the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended in 2011, and Article 13 (1) and 20 (1) of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights were inmates in Nigeria are not entitled to cast their votes at any election.
According to Yakubu, “We are looking at the possibility of creating polling units in the prisons and to enable some categories of prisoner’s vote. Ghana does it but there are some categories of prisoners who by the nature of crimes committed, lose the right to vote. Whatever we can do to open up the process to ensure that as much as possible Nigerians are given the opportunity to vote, we will do.”
While INEC is working toward restoring the voting rights of some inmates as citizens of Nigeria, there are other rights as provided by the amended constitution that have been denied prisoners. One of these is right to dignity of human person. Section 34 of the 1999 Constitution as amended states that every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of person and accordingly, no person shall be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment..
As welcoming as it is to uphold the rights of the citizens, free or not, there are more pressing issues and rights begging to be upheld. The statistics released by the Nigerian Prisons Service and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) show that 70% of prisoners are awaiting trial.
There is an argument that the prison is place of punishment. But based on section 34, inmates should not be subject to degrading treatments; most of which occurs in prisons, even if they have lost their freedom. The constitution as amended states that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and for those innocently waiting trial for a couple of years, there are more pressing issues than voting—like freedom.
Majority of the Nigerian prisons are in deplorable states as they are mostly over-crowded and lacking in adequate facilities. An inmate would value a proposal of freedom or court hearing (for those awaiting trial) better than a voting proposal.
Another valued right which is imminently lacking in the Nigerian prisons are the right to medical attention. Some inmates in these over-crowded cells are suffering from terminal diseases, mental illness, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and majority die because of lack of medical attention while some others free of these diseases are likely to contact them due to the nature of the sickness and the limited space they all are confined in.
If necessary attention is not provided in Nigerian prisons, how many prisoners alive today are sure of their existence come 2019 to cast their vote? And for those who struggle and eventually survive, what would be the state of their mental, physical and psychological health?
For the period of their detention, inmates are mostly cut out from society. They live in a world of their own, lacking a general awareness of the outside world. How then are they expected to be know enough about various candidates, their manifestoes and how their ascension to power would affect them. Information is power and exposure is a prerequisite to being informed. Most of these prisoners do not have access to sufficient media that can offer orientation on the electoral processes and voting procedures.
Another issue is that of credibility in the fourth coming election. Owing to the fact that these inmates are in a confined environment and under the supervision of prison officials, there is the tendency for voting processes to become unconstitutional as officials who belong to a certain party or have a candidate of choice might want to enforce decisions on inmates in exchange for lighter punishment or any other form of reward for compliance.
Perhaps, the Independent Electoral National Commission needs to evaluate surrounding issues, before taking a step towards making arrangements with prison authorities on the possibility of creating polling units in Nigerian prisons.