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Letter from the niger delta - by Geoffrey Care (August 2006)


I have spent a large part of this year in Nigeria, mainly in Port Harcourt.
Okrika, which is where my wife's family is from, has the largest oil refinery in the world - right opposite my mother in law's house.

Most of you will have read of the troubles in that part of the world, with the hostage taking of oil workers and many other acts of violence, reported and not reported.
By way of a little background the region produces some 2,000,000 barrels of oil per day not to speak of the LPG.
The production of the oil is in the hands of multinationals such as Shell, Agip and others. The Refinery (NNPC) is owned by Nigeria which is a federal state and the oil revenues are supposed to be shared out between the states.
The population of the whole country is not known, the figures from a census a few months ago are yet to be published, but it is generally thought to be not less than 120 million - living in the country.

One would expect that such an enormous operation would generate employment for many of the 4 million inhabitants of Rivers State and for other oil producing States in the Delta region with revenue sufficient to ensure a reasonable standard of living for all. But all bar a few live on the breadline or below, surviving in the most abject surroundings, on their own initiative, to make a few pennies on which to survive.
Law and order is at a similarly low level - not surprising given the lack of legitimate ways of making money - the prisons are overflowing with occupants awaiting trial for up to 5 years, I am told, often on trumped up charges which provide an income for the police: Of 2353 inmates 2014 are awaiting trial
The last prison was built in 1918 to house 800, what is still left of it, plus three other outlying smaller prisons, house nearly three thousand in abysmal conditions. Little medical attention, children mixed in with adults, poor diet and low pay and morale among the prison and police. AIDS, rape and sodomy of the children are said to be commonplace.

Returning to the oil. The waters are tidal and the people are traditionally fishermen not agriculturalists. Their diet is fish. There is no indigenous trawler fishing and the majority have to survive on fish caught in the tidal waters. Those waters have been tested recently and have a serious carcinogenic content. .
It is generally claimed that the politicians and others siphon off much of the oil money. Certainly, it is obvious that there is money for prestigious projects such as a new Government House in PH but little or nothing even to maintain the road from the refinery into town.
The real purpose of this letter is however to highlight prison conditions.
The judges, as in most former British colonies have a duty of prison visiting as part of general Goal Delivery at each session. The Magistrates too have the same responsibility for the smaller lockups for remand prisoners.

I am told no judge ever visits the prisons and from enquiries I myself have made of judges in Nigeria, Malawi and Zambia this is the same situation. I myself used to visit all the prisons and lockups in my region at least once a year and the major ones every month or two and make a report to the Commissioner of Prisons.
For those with the time there is available some detailed information drawn up by a charity The Legal Support Initiative consisting of lawyers -and some former judges and which expands on the conditions of prisons and prisoners.

I myself heard the Commissioner (State Minister) for Information say that the prison was built in 1918 and no new ones since and not disagreeing that the conditions were unacceptable but that " it was nothing to do with the State, it was a Federal matter, and they should build more prisons."
One may say it is bad but how does it concern refugees? I have sat on many cases where the case turned on whether a return may involve detention in prisons where the conditions were life threatening. If one knew that judges carried out their prison visiting role effectively a story of life threatening conditions may be less credible.
The LSI is always on the lookout for funds to represent poor prisoners and provide halfway houses on release and educational materials for inmates.

Geoffrey Care
August 2006


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