As laid out in the Nigerian consitution: “Every person who is charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty”. Despite this presumption of innocence enshrined in the constitution, however, 70% of the inmates housed in Nigeria’s 240 correctional centers are awaiting trial.
Evidently, and research has shown this, many people arrested and accused of crimes in Nigeria are not only presumed guilty, they are also imprisoned before their cases are even investigated.
In addition to this, the country’s court system has historically been beset with delays and backlogs, in part due to an undefined timeline in the constitution within which cases ought to be tried.
All of this has created a situation in which Nigeria has the highest percentage of prisoners awaiting trial in Africa. For context, only about 33% of South African prisoners are awaiting trial while in Ghana it’s only around 13%, according to World Prison Brief.
Reducing this justice and inequality gap is what 2023 Waislitz Global Citizen Choice Award winner Oluwafunke Adeoye, a human rights attorney and social entrepreneur, is working hard to solve through her nonprofit organization, Hope Behind Bars Nigeria.
Although Adeoye was inspired to study law because of the personal experience of her father’s unjust arrest and detainment, she truly became an activist in 2018, after losing her child to negligence at a government hospital.
“After the loss, I was torn between suing the government or starting this work which has been part of my life journey," she told Global Citizen. "I thought about all the many innocent people in prison with non-existent health care."
“I thought of all the pregnant women and children in prison," she continued. "My faith and thoughts of what could happen if I re-channelled my grief appropriately was the last straw that got me to start activism.”
Adeoye’s organization is working to close the justice inequality gaps by providing free legal services and direct support to low-income incarcerated individuals while promoting criminal justice reforms through research, evidence-based advocacy, and technology.
Unfortunately, this is incredibly challenging work in a country like Nigeria where government bureaucracy can be hard to navigate.
“None of our interventions can be implemented outside the government,” said Adeoye. “In 2020, we had plans to implement a project within a prison and for some reason it took us over three months to get the government's approval even though it was something that we had thought the correctional service would jump at as it will help the inmates.”
Capacity is another issue, as Hope Behind Bars Nigeria is largely a volunteer-based organization and only recruited its first set of full time staff in 2022. This means that Adeoye and her team are limited in their capacity to expand the reach of their work, seek partnerships, and design programs, leaving many people that desperately need legal aid and support unable to access it.
Perhaps the biggest limitation Adeoye faces to offer much-needed support to incarcerated individuals is resources. Most of the funding for the organization, she reveals, has been through bootstrapping, donations from friends and family, and partnerships with other organizations with similar goals.
“While we have been able to do a lot in spite of our very limited resources, there is a lot we could have done if a little more resources were available,” said Adeoye.
Despite these challenges, more than 7,000 incarcerated people have benefited from Hope Behind Bars Nigeria’s interventions.
With the $75,000 in funding she'll receive as the 2023 Waislitz Global Citizen Choice Award winner, Adeoye plans to launch Justicepadi, a tech platform that will revolutionize legal aid in West Africa and also expand her work for climate justice.
“It is crucial for people to understand that behind the labels of 'convicts' or 'prisoners', there are human beings with stories, hopes, and dreams,” Adeoye told Global Citizen. “By offering legal aid, we strive to ensure that every person, regardless of their circumstances, has access to fair representation and a chance to rebuild their lives.”
Over the past nine years, the Waislitz Global Citizen Awards have championed inspiring people working within their communities to overcome challenges like air and water pollution, period poverty, unstable infrastructure, and gender disparities in education — driving forward the mission to end extreme poverty.
The Waislitz Global Citizen Awards are annual cash prizes totaling $250,000, that recognize the excellence of individuals in their work to end extreme poverty and its systemic causes. The grand prize is $100,000, with two additional prizes at $75,000 each.
“When we first conceived these awards almost 10 years ago,” said Alex Waislitz, chairman and founder of the Waislitz Foundation, “we wanted to shine a light on those heroes working at grassroots levels to end global poverty.”
You can learn more about Adeoye and the other 2023 Waislitz Global Citizen Award winners here, including Peter Njeri from Kenya, the 2023 Waislitz Global Citizen Grand Prize Award winner; and Esther Kimani, also from Kenya, the Waislitz Global Citizen Disruptor Award winner.