Saturday, 8 March 2014

What is to be done?

On 18 April 2012, a story appeared in The Punch newspaper concerning one Blessing Effiong, who had already served four years in Kirikiri Maximum for the alleged theft of a mobile handset. She was nineteen at the time. According to the report, she had bought the phone for N10,000 in order to start a business centre but later got a call from a man who said the phone was his and had been stolen. He wanted it back but would be happy to refund the money she had paid. She gave him her address but when he turned up he claimed that other items were also stolen (including a laptop), accused her of being a thief and called the police. Although she was then only sixteen the police, for reasons best known to them, insisted that she was twenty-one and could therefore be charged as an adult. So began her nightmare, which only ended on 5 July 2012.
According to a subsequent report in The Punch, Ms Effiong wasn’t charged to court in all those long years (one-fifth of her short life to that date) because the Director of Public Prosecutions couldn’t initially decide what to charge her with. Her case did eventually get to court, where she was charged with receiving stolen property. Her lawyer plea-bargained for her to be charged with the lesser offence of possessing suspected stolen property, whereupon she pled guilty and was freed, having already served eight times longer than the stipulated punishment.
I start from the assumption that Ms Effiong was innocent of her alleged ‘crime’ despite the fact that she now has a record that may yet return to haunt her. It doesn’t take much imagination – or any at all, come to that - to understand why she would have been eager to walk free, whatever the subsequent stain on her character. Moreover, given that she was a child (legally speaking) at the time of her alleged crime, the law itself erred in charging her as an adult. But there is also the matter of double standards in the way the law is applied in Nigeria, which is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa: one for the minority rich (whites), one for the majority poor (blacks). So, for instance, while the criminal justice system exerts time and resources over a N10,000 mobile phone, it indulges a senior civil servant, John Yakubu Yusuf, accused of embezzling N2bn but who was fined a derisory N250,000 and released after only two years behind bars.
Mr Yusuf’s case is especially pertinent here because he was convicted of embezzling the police’s own pension fund and, therefore, more deserving – humanly if not morally (or even legally) - of the nightmare the police themselves criminally visited on Ms Effiong. But Ms Effiong is a nobody with only N10,000 to invest in a business; and although The Punch report doesn’t explicitly say so, we can infer that the police were paid by her (perhaps vindictive) accuser to lie against her. What the report also doesn’t say, but which again we can infer, is that it was only their report that got her a lawyer in the first place, helped along by Linda Ikeji, perhaps the country’s most famous blogger, who was present at the hearing, along with assorted sympathisers she had galvanised online, and all of whom erupted in jubilation at what they evidently considered closure.
Unfortunately, closure it was not. For one thing, there is the question of all the other Blessing Effiongs awaiting trial in Kirikiri – 154 out of 191 at the time, according to The Punch report – among them two sisters, Funmilayo and Endurance Felix, one about to give birth, the other having already done so. For another, there is the question of what the police themselves were alleged to have done.  For a third, there is the tardiness of the DPP in all of this. These would seem to be weighty issues but are not even addressed. According to Ms Ikeji, who visited Ms Effiong in Kirikiri, where they ‘hugged’ and ‘wept’, Nigeria’s ‘most widely read newspaper’ erred in her age (nineteen, not twenty) and the price she paid for the mobile phone in question (N800, not the N10,000 it would have cost new).
In fact, The Punch report reveals much that is wrong with Nigerian journalism. Given Ms Effiong’s central role in the story – its peg, as it were – we have to rely on Ms Ikeji’s blog to give her some humanity:  ‘Blessing is an orphan. Her father died when she was very young and her mother died just last year. She told me her incarceration led to her mum's death. She was her only daughter. Blessing has two brothers but they are in the East and as helpless as she is.’ Nor are we told how she secured the services of a lawyer, who might himself have been quoted, although, again, we must infer that it was their own initial report which did the trick, itself inferred from the drama in the courtroom when ‘Justice Christopher Balogun berated both the prosecution and defence counsel’ for not intimating the court in good time about the change of plea but ‘nonetheless allowed the case to continue’, presumably because by now the case done pass be careful.
The point, at any rate, is that all the hullaballoo surrounding Ms Effiong’s case, while indubitably good for Ms Effiong personally (and one hopes that she did indeed receive all the help promised by Ms Ikeji), stops there. Nothing has changed. The same police who framed her – one can hardly describe it otherwise – themselves went scot-free to continue their criminal activities, and we are yet to hear whether the Felix sisters still continue to languish in the limbo called awaiting trial persons without the wherewithal to hire a lawyer or the good fortune to be mentioned in newspaper reports and private blogs, which can hardly be the basis of conducting a system of justice.
As I write, President Goodluck Jonathan has just finished naming the delegates to the national conference that is to debate - again! - the future of this country. In the nature of things, they do not include among their number the Ms Effiongs of this world. This would perhaps be too much to expect, but any resultant document which does not begin to address the fundamental injustices of the unequal society we have managed to construct out of our so-called independence will be an exercise in futility. But we have been here before and it would be a foolish person who expected any different now.
© Adewale Maja-Pearce
Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books, including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy, and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories,
and Dream Chasers. His latest book, The House My Father Built, will be
published later this year.

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