Civic tech startups take on Nigeria's struggle for justice

A police vehicle in Lagos, Nigeria. Photo by: Nick M / CC BY

LAGOS, Nigeria — On Aug. 26, Olawole Ojo, a 27-year-old business promoter, stopped at a hotel on his way home from work to meet a client. The pair were talking when police burst into the hotel — grabbing Ojo and 57 others, and bundling them off to a special anti-robbery squad jail in the west of Lagos. The group had been branded “cultists,” members of violent gangs of young men that have become a particular target for Nigeria’s police.

Even as he was being arrested, Ojo tweeted about it, catching the eye of Gavel, a civic tech nonprofit that provides pro bono lawyers and legal advice to improve the pace of justice. Gavel quickly dispatched a lawyer, who was able to help secure Ojo’s release on bail within two weeks — a rarity in a system where those charged often spend months, or even years, in jail before seeing a courtroom.

“A tweet earned me justice,” Ojo said.

Via Twitter.

In less than one year of operation, Gavel has secured the release of more than 50 people in custody and intervened in over 1,000 situations involving attempted extortion by police or judicial officials. Gavel provides legal counsel to an average of 18 people a week.

The organization is also running a class action case on behalf of 538 people in Nigeria’s southwestern Oyo state, who have spent excessive time in pretrial detention. By law, charges are to be filed within 28 days — some in the group have been in jail for more than seven years without charge.

Gavel is just one of the tech-driven nonprofits to appear in recent years as lawyers and activists seek to counter a notoriously corrupt, slow, and violent judicial system.

Abuse in custody is particularly prevalent. Between 1999 and 2016, more than 101,500 were killed in custody in Nigeria, with scant justice for the victims in the process.

In addition, large numbers of people serve excessive time in pretrial detention. Nearly 70 percent of the prison population is awaiting trial, according to data from World Prison Brief.

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS — the police force that arrested Ojo — has faced particular scrutiny. The police force is routinely accused of grave rights abuses and torture in custody, and was ranked the worst in the world in the 2016 “World Internal Security & Police Index.”

Sulayman Kuku Dawodu, secretary to Nigeria’s Justice Sector Reform team and consultant to Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Justice, explained the complexity of the situation: “The challenges in delivering timely justice are multifaceted due to involvement of the judiciary, prosecutors, prison, police, and other law enforcement agencies in noncompliance with basic human rights in terms of arrest, unlawful detention, bribery, delay in prosecution, and court processes.”

His team and other government reform bodies are working to cut down on the court backlogs, provide robust legal aid, and tackle police impunity and corrupt court practices. 

Social media backlash has begun to prompt change. Segun Awosanya is the civil rights and institutional reforms advocate behind the #EndSARS campaign that urges the police force to be shut down. The hashtag went viral last year and is still going strong, with netizens sharing stories of police abuse and calling for wide-scale reform.  

Since then, the movement has garnered some concrete results including efforts to reform the police force. The overhaul entails that SARS policing activities would be restricted to the prevention and detection of armed robbery and kidnapping syndicates, and its powers of search and seizure curtailed.

Awosanya told Devex that the entire criminal justice system is in need of an overhaul: “It’s either that there is a legal backing to the SARS brutality, or that there is a hole within the Nigerian criminal justice system that gives them the right to act brazenly without being questioned. And it’s been happening for over 20 years.”

New approaches

Against this backdrop, mobile apps and websites to match those awaiting trial with pro bono lawyers, and to allow citizens to report abuses of power, have been gaining steam.

Gavel is the most prominent of those. Started by human rights lawyer Nelson Olanipekun in 2017, the civic tech website aims to increase the pace of justice delivery by tracking court cases, giving legal advice, and providing pro bono representation.

“It’s either that there is a legal backing to the SARS brutality, or that there is a hole within the Nigerian criminal justice system.”

— Segun Awosanya, founder, #EndSARS campaign

“Gavel was born out of the need to ensure transparency and accountability in the Nigerian justice sector, to tackle police brutality [and] consequential delay resulting [in] prison congestion, with unimaginable numbers of awaiting-trial inmates,” Nelson told Devex.

The platform consists of several tools, including the justice clock, which tracks time spent on court cases, and timeline, which informs the public about major milestones on cases Gavel is tracking. By digitizing the case list, lawyers, advocates, family members, and others, can easily access crucial information, while an infographics section on the website helps draw attention to issues facing the criminal justice system in Nigeria.

Another initiative, KnowYourRightsNigeria, which is supported by the Constitutional Rights Awareness and Liberty Initiative, has gained acclaim and tens of thousands of users since its launch in 2016. Created by Austin Adeola Oyinlade, a human rights lawyer and international legal expert, the app and website offer rights information in English, Pidgin, Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba languages at the push of a button.

Users can communicate through the app with some 50 lawyers about rights abuses they may face in everyday life. They can also report cases of human right abuses, which the organization can investigate and refer to relevant authorities.

There’s also a weekly radio call-in show, where Oyinlade and his team of pro bono lawyers address the concerns of those eager to be heard in a country where its felt the tools of justice are broken. With an audience of 2 million, the show has gained huge popularity, particularly in Lagos. 

The efforts have gained international accolades for Oyinlade. In October, he won the International Bar Association’s Award for outstanding contribution by a legal practitioner to human rights in 2018. And earlier this year, the United States Consul General commended Oyinlade and the work he has done to strengthen the protection of human rights in Nigeria.

Awosanya, of the #EndSARS campaign, said he had little doubt efforts to engage and support the wider populace on justice reform were paying off.

“I believe in the fusion of activism and advocacy, which codify the need to find common ground through effective engagement amidst the populace and build political will enough to hold our leaders accountable,” Awosanya said.

About the author

  • Valentine Iwenwanne

    Valentine Iwenwanne is a Nigerian journalist writing about politics, conflicts, global health and development. His work has appeared in ThisIsAfricaTIA, Mail & Guardian, Ozy, TRT World, Ynaija and more.

Join the Discussion