Blessing Effiong stepped out of the female ward of Lagos State’s Kirikiri prison today, a free woman at last.
The 20-year-old young woman has spent the last four years locked up over alleged phone theft – over three years of her time in prison was spent awaiting trial.
Effiong reportedly pleaded guilty on 4 July to section 430 (1) of the criminal code of Lagos State 2003, which is being in possession of stolen or fraudulently obtained property. The crime carries a six-month jail term, but as Effiong has been locked up since she was 16 years old, the court today released her.
Her story and experience with Nigeria’s flawed legal system raises several questions. Was any justice served here? Did Blessing Effiong get the benefit of a timely fair trial that should be the right of every citizen?
Her story was first published in Punch newspapers and also carried by blogger, Linda Ikeji, and soon her story got nationwide attention.
A 2012 Punch Metro publication, titled “Girl in detention for four years over phone theft” attracted six lawyers nationwide who showed up in court to represent her.
Before that, she had no one to defend her against the allegations.
Effiong, an orphan, was given representation from the Office of the Public Defender when she was initially brought before an Ikeja Magistrate Court. However, the Punch reported, the case was later dropped when it was decided that Effiong will be tried in competent court.
In all this, the young girl maintained her innocence in the matter. Effiong’s story as she relayed to the Punch is this:
“In 2008, I bought a Starcomms phone for N10,000 in order to start a business centre. A few days later, a man called me and said the phone was stolen from him. I told the man I didn’t know it was stolen. We had an agreement that I should return the phone and he would refund my money.
“I gave the man my address but when he got to my place, he said the phone was stolen from him along with his laptop and some other vital documents. He accused me of being a thief, called the police and had me arrested. I was charged with robbery and have been in Kirikiri since then as my trial has yet to begin.”
Though a minor when she was taken from her guardian’s home in Ebute Meta and transferred to Ilupeju Police Division, Effiong said the investigating officer had claimed she was 21 just so she would be tried as an adult.
She was kept in the dark, helpless toward her situation until her story came to light through online media. Effiong finally got her date in court on 23 May 2012, but the prison failed to bring her to court and the judge, Justice C.A. Balogun to adjourn until mid June.
By the next court date, her case had gotten the attention of lawyers who came from as far as Akwa-Ibom, Effiong’s home state, to represent her. The legal team of six, led by Nsikan Ukpong, identified themselves as her representation. This time around, however, the prosecution, Mr. W.A Quadri, urged the court not to take Effiong’s plea as the Attorney General of the State, Mr. Ade Ipaye, was interested in the case.
Her trial was once again adjourned for today, 4 July 2012. Linda Ikeji blogged about her guilty plea in court and subsequent release from prison. There is no word on whether the state intends to compensate Effiong following such a huge miscarriage of justice and having been unlawfully detained for over four years.