Lawyers say the continued detention of Titilayo Benson without new charges is a gross violation of human rights.
The sullen and distraught 38-year-old woman sat on a bench at the Kirikiri female prison in Lagos. Although the State High Court struck out the criminal case against her four years ago, she has remained in jail despite no new charges brought against her in what experts say highlights the inefficiency in the Lagos judicial system.
Titilayo Benson first stepped into prison in 2010 on the order of an Ebute-Metta magistrate, Olatunji Isaac. She had been charged before his court, in suit number E/30/10, with occasioning the death of another person. She was 28 years old at the time.
"I fought with a lady," Mrs Benson said as she narrated to PREMIUM TIMES the event that changed her life. "She cut me with a razor then I stabbed her with a bottle."
That woman died one month later, turning Mrs Benson's life upside down. She has spent the 10 years since jostling between court and prison.
Mrs Benson was pregnant when she was first remanded in 2010. She had her first child in Kirikiri prison, a baby girl whom she gave to her parents when she was a little above one year. She had her second child in the prison in 2019, having become pregnant again when she was temporarily released on bail by the magistrate.
Narrating her experience to PREMIUM TIMES' reporter during a visit to the Kirikiri correctional facility, Mrs Benson said her journey to jail began on February 8, 2010. That day, she got into an argument with Blessing Imade, her friend and housemate.
"On that day, I was in my room, I was on the phone with my mother who called me. So, we were speaking our local dialect, because we are from Ondo State. The boyfriend of the girl was around, I think he overheard me speaking my dialect to my mother because he was sitting on a bench close to my room," Mrs Benson recalled.
"He sent the landlord's son to call me out and when I got there, we exchanged pleasantries and he explained that he is also from Ondo State and understands our dialect."
Mrs Benson said another tenant in the house told Blessing she had caught Mrs Benson and her boyfriend hugging.
"That was how the fight started. She poured me water and I was shouting that I don't like cold water. She rushed inside and brought a razor blade and cut me on my right arm," Mrs Benson said, pointing to a scar she said was of the injury.
According to her, in retaliation, she took a bottle and stabbed the deceased. They took Blessing to the hospital but she died a month later while still receiving treatment.
Mrs Benson said she regularly went to stay with Blessing at the hospital till she was told her friend was dead.
"The doctor told me to get a police report so that they could do a post-mortem and for her to be taken to the mortuary," she said, recalling that no family member of the deceased showed up at the hospital.
She said she went to Akodo Police Station, Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos, where her uncle was also a police officer, to get the police report.
"My uncle was not around, but I explained to his friend, another police officer. He took me to the counter, wrote a statement and said I should wait behind the counter."
Mrs Benson said the officer wrote the statement and he did not read it to her. On the return of her uncle, she explained what had happened but the other officer insisted she had to be prosecuted.
She was detained at the police station for about three weeks before she was transferred to the State Criminal Intelligence Department (SCID) Panti, where she was kept for three to four months before being charged to court.
Mrs Benson was charged before the Ebutte-Metta magistrate's court in Lagos for occasioning the death of another.
Mr Isaac, the magistrate, gave a holding order that she be remanded in prison, pending the DPP's advice. She was thereafter taken to the Kirikiri female prison in Lagos, where she is still being held several years after; although she was released on bail for about five years during the period.
Francis Akinlotan, a lawyer at Probitas Partners, who pleaded Mrs Benson's case before the magistrate, told PREMIUM TIMES that he met her during a prison visit and took up her case.
Mr Akinlotan said when he met Mrs Benson at the Kirikiri prison, she had already spent about two years on the remand order of the magistrate.
"When someone commits an offence and there is a need for her to be detained, she can only be remanded for 30 days, then another remand order sought for another 30 days, then another 30 days. It is between 60 days to 90 days," he said about the provisions of the Nigerian law on such matters.
Mr Akinlotan said it was on this fact that they asked the magistrate to release Mrs Benson unconditionally.
But the magistrate instead granted her bail, in September 2013, which meant she must continue to appear before the magistrate pending her trial or the DPP's advice.
But unbeknown to Mrs Benson, her lawyer and the magistrate, while she was appearing before the magistrate at every adjourned date, her matter was already before the Lagos High Court on the DPP's advice.
Despite knowing the magistrate court had no jurisdiction over the criminal charge levelled against her, Mrs Benson said she continued going to the court, but there was no trial.
She alleged that her prosecutor before the magistrate, Adebayo Oladele, had demanded a bribe of N250,000 for her case to be "deleted from the records."
PREMIUM TIMES could not verify the allegation against Mr Oladele.
"I told him I don't have such money because I was not working. He was really angry and said he would show me, but because I didn't have any money to pay, there was nothing I could do."
In March 2018, the magistrate revoked her bail and ordered her back to prison, where she has since been detained.
As of the time the magistrate gave the order to return her to prison, a judge of the Lagos State High Court, Obayomi Taiwo, had already struck out the case filed against her by the state government for lack of diligent prosecution. But Mrs Benson has remained in prison with no charges against her.
"I used to meet them at the magistrate's court at Ebute-Metta for almost two to three years before people asked me to go and sit down and that she was competent to go by herself," Samuel Akinbodewa, the 77-year-old father of Mrs Benson, told PREMIUM TIMES during a visit to his home in Fowowawo community, Papa Lantoro, Ogun State.
Visibly happy to see someone visiting to discuss his daughter's case, Mr Akinbodewa received this reporter in his home, which he said he has not been able to complete due to the incident.
"It was just last year my other children contributed money to roof this place. The house project was put on hold due to financial constraints and as a result of Titilayo's case," he said showing this reporter the roof.
He said he remembered no tangible evidence brought before the magistrate against his daughter because the family of the deceased was not interested in the matter.
"She was at home for almost two years," he said of Mrs Benson after she was released on bail. "Then one day, she called me again that they asked her not to come from home again and they had to remand her at the prison yard there. That was how she went back to prison.
"She was there and one day, she just called me that they had struck out the case. I asked her 'when are you coming home?' She said 'today or tomorrow'. One of her sisters went to meet her at Kirikiri prison yard. When they reached there, they said the paper to release her was not ready, that someone had not signed it.
"Since all these days, that is how I have been looking forward to the day when she will come home," the father said somberly in the presence of Mrs Benson's two children, who are now two and 11 years old.
Yemi Aderinkomi, the elder sister of Mrs Benson, said the matter has brought a setback on their family.
"It has been causing so much pains, especially to my parents. My mother's blood pressure has been rising since that time, she almost committed suicide at one time, I was the one that stopped her.
"The case has been struck out since 2017, but they refused to free her. We are confused, we don't know what is happening. It is already over 10 years, since 2010. I don't know why they are keeping her there. We are really suffering," she said bitterly.
Detainee suffering for judicial administrative lapses - lawyers
While Mrs Benson was appearing before the magistrate court, she was charged before the Lagos State High Court with murder in suit number LD/92/13. The file number indicates that the state Ministry of Justice received the DPP's advice in 2013 and charged her subsequently.
This was, however, not communicated by the ministry to the accused and her lawyer and she was never presented at the high court.
After the prosecution failed to present the defendant at numerous sittings of the court, the judge, Obayomi Taiwo, struck out the matter in 2017 for lack of diligent prosecution.
"There is no indication that the defendant is in prison custody as she has never been produced since the information was filed in 2013. I, therefore, strike out this case for want of diligent prosecution," Mrs Taiwo said in her order dated March 1, 2017.
Mrs Benson, however, is still detained at the Kirikiri correctional facility.
Lawyers, including the Human Rights Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association, Ikeja Branch, have since made unsuccessful efforts to get her out of jail.
"She is suffering from an administrative error," Roselyn Obakpolor, the Chairperson of Human Rights Committee, NBA-Ikeja, told PREMIUM TIMES. "Once the DPP's advice over a matter is out, the magistrate court ceases to handle the matter.
"It is wrong for her to be held in prison since her charge has been struck out. Even if they want to reopen a case against her, it is her right to be let out of prison pending another charge," Mrs Obakpolor says.
Mr Akinlotan, the lawyer who has been on the matter, also said the detainee is suffering from "administrative indiscretion or misjudgment."
"It clearly shows that the Ministry of Justice is not fully abreast of what happens at the magistrate court. Even after 2017 when she was remanded in prison, you could also see all the administrative lapses. There was also no communication from the magistrate who revoked her bail and ordered that she be remanded in prison to the Ministry of Justice.
"There is also another problem, bureaucracy, administrative indiscretion or misjudgment. When the Ministry of Justice became aware through our letter requesting for details of the case; that should have raised a red flag because as at that time, the case had been struck out. But nothing was done," Mr Akinlotan said.
Violation of human right
Mrs Benson has been behind bars since March 1, 2017, when her case was struck out by the high court. She had been remanded in prison for several years before the matter was struck out.
The correctional service authorities do not release a person from prison without an order directing them to do so. Since individuals remanded in the correctional centres are taken there on court orders, another order is required to get them out.
The Human Rights Committee of NBA-Ikeja and Mr Akinlotan have joined the effort to get Mrs Benson out of jail.
On January 9 and February 17, 2020, the NBA committee wrote to the Chief Registrar of the High Court of Lagos State and the Chief Judge of the state, seeking a warrant for the release of Mrs Benson.
Mrs Obakpolor, the Chairperson of the committee, said the DPP said they had wanted to reopen the case as far back as 2019.
"She has been in custody with no charges. She is not attending court, no trial against her, just there, doing nothing. This is a violation of fundamental human rights to liberty," she said.
Mrs Obakpolor said despite all the letters they had written, nothing has been done by the Ministry of Justice in the matter.
Mr Akinlotan said they again wrote the Attorney-General/Commissioner of Justice of Lagos State on the matter on January 20.
"In this case, there is no charge against Mrs Titilayo Benson and she has been kept in the custody of the correctional service since 2017 (when the case was struck out). Indeed, there was a charge, the charge was struck out and the charge was not relisted, no new charge was filed. There was no re-arraignment or an arraignment whatsoever, and you then kept her in prison.
"What is the basis for keeping her in prison when there is no charge? No new charge was filed and the old one was not relisted," he said.
"We have written the Attorney-General, who seems to have a case against her, that there is no charge against this person, so let her go. She has not had the opportunity of being in court (High Court) just for one day, and there is no charge pending against her and she has continually been in jail for four years."
Mr Akinlotan said they had received no response to their letter to the office of the Attorney-General.
DPP, Attorney-General, silent on the matter
A PREMIUM TIMES' reporter visited the DPP's office on February 1 on Mrs Benson's matter.
An official of the agency who attended to the reporter at the reception said there was no power supply to check the matter on the central system.
"Even if I want to check the status now, there is no light. But you can drop a copy and I will check once there is light," she responded.
When contacted after two days for an update, she said there was still no power supply at the time. She said the office "was still working on the file."
PREMIUM TIMES also contacted Adebayo Haroun, a personal assistant to the Attorney-General, over the matter. He asked for details of the case and said he would reach out to the appropriate quarters to get an update.
Mr Haroun stopped responding to calls or text messages thereafter.
Moyo Onigbanjo, the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, also did not respond to calls and text messages over the matter.