In this concluding part, SOLOMON ODENIYI visited courts across the country and writes about the difficulties Persons With Disabilities face in the pursuit of justice in the country.
Justice in court a mirage
Our correspondent observed that many courts of law in the country do not have ramps and railings. During visits to the Federal High Court headquarters in Abuja, the Supreme Court, and Osun State High Court, there were no ramps and railings at the entrances of the facilities, making accessibility for PWDs difficult.
But Daniel Onwe, who is the president of the Association of Lawyers with Disabilities, said lack of ramps is not the only problem PWDs face in court.
“The justice administration system in Nigeria was not designed with persons with disabilities in mind. To date, sign language interpreters for the deaf and braille material and other facilities for the visually impaired are still totally absent in our courts.
“Courtrooms and court environments generally have no facilities to cater to the peculiarities of persons with disabilities. The same applies to the practices and procedures of the court.
“This is most worrisome for junior lawyers with disabilities who do not have cars and who cannot employ aides to accompany them to courts. The situation is more frustrating to them. I used to be there and I know how it feels. Handling cases for PWDs are majorly probono, as most of them are not of means,” said Onwe.
Judges impatient, lack training
A lawyer, Ishaku Adamu lamented that judges in the country lacked the requisite knowledge to preside over PWDs cases, adding that many of them are always impatient.
He said, “Most times when a visually impaired person has a good case of harassment in court, especially among our women, because of how our justice system works, it requires a lot of resources and time to follow up such a case but most of our judges do not understand this.
“Most of our judges and policemen do not have any training to understand PWDs, as such they have a ‘charity’ approach to our cases. They have never thought of the fact that we are people of rights and capable of exercising such rights in any place we find ourselves. They only see us as objects of pity, and ridicule or they will not listen to you in some cases. There are very few exceptions to this.”
Efforts to get the Media Assistant to the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Umar Gwandu were unsuccessful. He neither picked up calls to his lines nor responded to messages sent to him as of the time of filling this report.
Correctional centres not left out
“The experience for normal people in prison is not palatable let alone PWDs,” the former resident pastor of the Kirikiri Maximum Prison, David Godfrey, who regained his freedom in October 2021 after 14 years in prison, told this reporter.
He said two PWDs inmates he came in contact with did not get the best of treatment.
Godfrey said, “There is a blind man at the condemned cell of the Kirikiri maximum prison called Baba Mathew, he’s from Benue. He was not getting the best treatment. We used to take his food to him anytime he wanted to eat. He went blind in prison. We were both in the condemned cell in 2012 but between 2014 and 2015, he went blind. He was not given a white cane to assist him and was not granted clemency. Nobody gives them (PWDs) special treatment, who will answer them? There is also another who could not walk, he was not provided with a wheelchair. He was released in 2019 and died in 2020. Except a PWD is buoyant, he would be in the same crowded cell with others.”
Another former inmate at the Kirikiri maximum prison, Chukwudi Iwueke said the PWDs were not comfortable at the custodial centre.
He said, “Six persons with disability. There is no way the place can be comfortable for anyone irrespective of their condition. I can tell you that there is no special treatment for persons with disability, we all lived and did everything together with no regard for their condition.
“One thing is this, we loved ourselves and helped them. For instance, if the blind wanted to walk around, one of us helps him around. From my experience, the government should try and give them special treatment.”
The Communications Director, Headfort Foundation, a group canvasing prison reforms, Itunuoluwa Awolu, said PWDs in incarceration are entitled to decent lives.
She said, “We believe that everyone deserves to be treated with utmost care while in the correctional centres, hence, Persons with Disabilities should have all they require for easy commuting, necessary health care, nutrition, and reintegration processes that align with their conditions.
“The correctional centres are overcrowded and it makes it difficult for the inmates, especially PWDs to get all the attention required during their stay.”
She, however, called for more awareness and advocacy for PWDs in custody to help speak up on their challenges, adding that this would drive the government to renovate the facilities to accommodate and create an enabling environment for PWDs.
When contacted, the Spokesperson for the Nigerian Correctional Service, Umar Abubakar said the Controller General was ready to meet with the leaders of the PWDs group to address the challenges they might be experiencing at the various custodial centres.
He said, “The largest room in the world is one for improvement. As part of ongoing efforts to ensure that no gap is created and things like this among others are addressed, the CG has ensured that staff undergoes training. Our doors are open.
“We will want their organisation to interact with the service on any suggestions that would improve our relationship between PWDs and correctional service. We will like to have a conversation with them on the area they feel that the service should improve on. They understand the yearnings of their members better. The CG is open, he will be happy if they can do this. And please help us use your platform to make this happen.”
Contravention of the law, pacts
With the experiences of this reporter during the course of this investigation and that of the victims, getting justice for Persons with Disabilities, who according to a world report on disability published in 2011, are about 25 million in Nigeria is like a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle.
This is despite the provisions and pacts which guarantee their right to justice.
For instance, Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution provides thus:
(1) A citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only that he is such person,
(a) be subjected either expressly by or in the practical application of any law in force in Nigeria or any executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religions or political opinions are not made subject and;
(b) be accorded either expressly by, or in the practical application of, any law in force in Nigeria or any such executive or administrative action, any privilege or advantage that is not accorded to citizens of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religion or political opinions.
These sections established the right of PWDs and equality before the law as well as freedom from discrimination.
Also, Article 3 of the African Charter provides for equality before the law and equal protection of the law.