Oluyemi Orija: Heartbeat For Indigent Inmates
She is an unusual breed. Oluyemi Orija, Managing Partner at Headfort Chambers cum Executive Director of Headfort Foundation, is one who has dedicated her life to decongesting Nigerian prisons by helping poor inmates access justice.
Till date, she has rewritten the story of almost 300 Nigerians who would have still been waiting endlessly for their cases to go to trial.
The lawyer, entrepreneur and human rights activist has gained global fame and recognition for her work, as she was in 2021 listed among the BBC 100 Most Influential and Inspirational Women Around the World. Orija has also drawn the attention of reputable local and international media outlets like Aljazeera and the Guardian UK. In this interview, she speaks to Allure on her work, life, and style.
How did it feel to be on the 2021 BBC list of 100 Most Influential and Inspirational Women Around the World?
The feeling is surreal, amazing, and comforting to know that people are seeing the work I and my team are doing. It is not just seen nationally but globally. Importantly, I am encouraged to keep doing the good work of putting smiles on the faces of the less privileged.
The average lawyer sees an opportunity for money-making in every case; what propelled you into free legal services?
My definition of success from a very young age has always been positive impaction in peoples’ lives and not prosperity. For me, it is prosperity to have a lot of money, but it is success to touch lives. Being a lawyer gave me the opportunity to touch lives by looking for indigent inmates incarcerated unjustly, and rendering free legal service to them. The inmates need the services, but they cannot afford it; hence they continue to languish in prison even if they were innocent or charged for minor offences. I might not be rich in the pocket or bank account now, but I know I am very wealthy considering that I and my team have, as of today, touched 295 lives and families, by ensuring their freedom from prisons.
The Nigerian justice system is notoriously complicated; doesn’t this deter you sometimes?
There is no doubt that the justice system is complicated and if it were not complicated, the inmates might not need our services in the first place. We are aware of this fact, and we always prepare to confront it. I am like the shoulder my team members lean on when discouraged; so, I cannot afford to be deterred or discouraged. I am always focused on the end goal— which is, freedom of an innocent young man/woman in prison. This keeps me going.
How do you determine which inmate deserves your help amid thousands crying for justice daily?
We do not take all cases. There are requirements to be met before we can offer our services to an inmate. The first is, the inmate must be indigent, meaning the inmate and the family are poor and cannot afford legal services. The second one is that the inmate is innocent of the crime charged or he is charged with misdemeanor. How we determine innocence is that we look at the documents before the court, the evidence against the inmates, and where there is a complainant, we also reach out to the complainant to hear from him/her. You will know a trumped-up charge when you see one.
This is a huge calling and you personally cannot stand as defending counsel in every case; what has trying to gather lawyers of like-minds cost you?
At the beginning, it was tough getting lawyers on our team because we didn’t have a huge amount of money to pay but we were consistent. At every recruitment, we made sure to sell the vision to applicants and made them realise that we do not have so much money to pay. We were keen on those passionate about the cause and ready to grow with us. Some people joined and left while some stayed. It is easier now to get passionate lawyers to join the team because our work and integrity is doing the talking and we now receive volunteers’ applications daily.
Have you ever had to reward any lawyer financially to work with you?
Absolutely! I have seven lawyers currently under my direct employment apart from other administrative staff, and they are paid monthly to do the work. Some volunteers will also request for money, but we always remind those volunteers the meaning of volunteerism. We encourage our volunteers via other means but not financially because we obviously cannot afford it.
Who bears the cost of that; you or the inmate?
Headfort Foundation bears the cost. We do not collect any dime from inmates or our beneficiaries.
The economy is tough; how do you get funds for your work?
I own a law firm called Headfort Chambers; this law firm is into general law practice, and it is 100% for profit purposes. A certain percentage of our proceeds at the firm goes into the foundation monthly, to help with the operations of the foundation. Aside from this, we also use the online platform to solicit for funding from individuals and private organisations; and we now have good Nigerians home and in diaspora supporting this cause financially.
The Headfort Foundation is said to be the first to introduce technology into access to justice in Nigeria by creating an App that links victims to pro bono lawyers; how functional and effective has this been?
The “Lawyers NowNow” App is very efficient and it is functional all over Nigeria. Since we launched it on the 1st of April 2021, it has well over 2,000 downloads and has attended to about 300 cases. The App automatically assigns the cases reported on it to lawyers who are already registered on the app as volunteers and the lawyers swing to action immediately to act on the cases. The App is like the best thing to happen to the Nigerian youth who are the major victims of police brutality, harassment, and extortion.
From your experience, what’s the biggest reason Nigerian prisons are so congested?
The biggest reasons the Nigerian prisons are congested is bad policing and lack of consequences for bad policing. The police arrest people without any evidence of crime, they turn civil matters to crime, charge people on trumped-up charges and these acts are aided by the magistrates by dumping them in prison. I have been in a court where the magistrate was asking the prosecutor “what kind of charge is this?” but instead of throwing out the charge against the defendant, the magistrate still remanded the defendant in prison and granted him a bail whose conditions he could not perfect. The police officer responsible for the arrest and all other officers who approved such charges were supposed to be held responsible for bringing such frivolous charges to court, and wasting the resources of the state to prosecute the charges. When police officers are punished and made to pay fines/penalty for these acts, we will have less frivolous charges in courts and thereafter, less inmates in prison.
Rehabilitation is supposed to be a primary function of prison service but has remained a major challenge in this clime. Does this give you any concern?
Absolutely, this gives me a lot of concern, but you would not blame the correctional centers. Imagine a center built for 800 inmates housing over 3,000 inmates; what kind of rehabilitation will take place there? Where inmates presumed innocent are living in the same space with condemned inmates for months, and sometimes, years? NGOs and religious bodies have been supporting the correctional centers in this regard but there is more still to be done. We have recognised this gap at Headfort Foundation and that is why we designed a project called “Ex-inmate Support Initiative.” The project is basically to support our beneficiaries as soon as they are released. We refer them to our social workers and counsellors, they counsel them and help re-integrate them back into the society; and we assist them around employment, skill acquisition, education, physical and mental health support.
What are the bottlenecks you face while trying to help inmates access justice?
The bottlenecks we face include financial demands by court officials who expect us to ‘tip’ them to do the work they they are paid to do notwithstanding that we are rendering pro bono services, unnecessary adjournments on cases, long wait for DPP advice, and when the advice is finally out, arraignment at the high court and assignment of the cases to judges. These and many more are the challenges we face.
It took you barely three years to establish your own law chamber after law school; looks like you were in a hurry…
You can say that again. During my youth service, I read the book, ‘The Girl Entrepreneur’ by Ibukun Awosika. The book was an eye opener to entrepreneurship; it helped me to prepare for entrepreneurship. I gave myself the target of three years to be under pupilage and during these three years, I cared less about the peanut I was earning, I gave my all into my work and learned all that is there to learn. Now, I will be 10 years at the bar this year and of course, I am still learning every day.
What takes your time when you aren’t pursuing cases?
When I am not working, you will see me having quality time with my son and catching up with my family. These are the people from whom I draw the strength to work.
What does a typical day look like for you?
My typical day is wake up and set my team on top gear, give them information and resources to carry on their daily duty if there is need to, go to court if I have a case to personally attend to, surf internet for opportunity for the organisation, reach out to stakeholders, and remain at standby at all times because I can be called for anything at any time.
What’s your preferred holiday destination if you ever find time for holidays?
My preferred holiday destination would be Santorini in Greece.
Describe your personal style in a few words…
My personal style is actually very boring; you will most times find me in a pair of jeans, and a T-shirt, with a pair of sneakers— but when I want to feel girly, a pair of high heels will go along with it.
What fashion item won’t you ever be caught without?
One fashion item you will always find me with is my wristwatch. I feel naked without it.