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Nigeria’s Criminal Justice System: Do police suspects have a right to remain silent?

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Ever since the news broke of the murder of Michael Usifo Ataga of SuperTV, the heart of many Nigerians have bled in agony and disbelief.

Agony for the death of a promising Nigerian who had so much to offer the society, and a young girl whose hitherto bright future is now hanging in the balance. Disbelief, that a girl so young as 21, is capable of such an act, according to her confessional statement and disbelief that she is made or allowed to sing like a parrot and canary from probing questions from the media.

In another development, I watched the video that was making the rounds on the internet about a 9-year-old, suspected of starting the fire that consumed Ebeano Supermarket being yelled at by her interrogators as if to force her to implicate or incriminate her mother. It was not clear if that 9-year-old had a lawyer by her side or was made aware of her right to remain silent or to a legal representation.

While I sympathize with all that are directly or indirectly impacted by these ugly events, the entire process calls to question whether the use of Miranda warning is applicable in the Nigerian legal and judicial system.

What is Miranda warning?

A Miranda Warning is a warning issued to a suspect, letting him or her know of his or her right to remain silent and if such a suspect decides to speak, that whatever he or she says may be used against him or her in the court of law.

Ordinarily, the Miranda Warning is supposed to be read to a suspect before being interrogated and in a language that the suspect understands. The suspect should even be required to acknowledge that the warning was read to him or her. In summary, a Miranda Warning includes the right to remain silent, and the right to legal counsel.

One wonders if this is the case in Nigeria where everyone, the media, the man on the street not to talk of the security personnel seem to be at liberty to interrogate a suspect and elicit information from them.

What Nigeria’s Constitution says

The 1999 Nigerian constitution, under its fundamental rights chapter (Constitution of the Republic of Nigeria 35 (2) 1999) accords arrested persons certain rights which includes that, “any or a person who is arrested or detained shall have the right to remain silent or avoid answering any question until after consultation with a legal practitioner or any other person of their choice.”

In addition to that provision in the constitution, in 1965, (Atanda Vs Attorney General (1965) NMLR 225,227-28, the Supreme Court of Nigeria held that “no defendant is bound to make a statement to the police.”

Guilty until proven innocent

Ordinarily, it is held that a suspect is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but it looks like the reverse is the case in Nigeria, where a suspect is presumed guilty until proven innocent.

What this means

The meaning of the above is that law enforcement agents should not interrogate or allow the media to interrogate suspects without letting the suspects know of the implication of what they say and how such information could be used.

Suspects, on the other hand, should know that they have the right to remain silent and the right to a legal representation. They should seek to exercise that right as it is one of their fundamental human rights.

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