What is detention, who can detain me and why?

What is detention?

Detention can take place in a series of different contexts. Detention means the deprivation of the liberty of a person due to arrest by the police or other law enforcement agencies, such as immigration authorities, or bodies enabled by law such as some hospitals. You are not only detained when kept in a police cell, or prison. Once your freedom of movement is restricted and you are kept in a particular place (usually in a police station), detention has taken place. You may also detain in a court holding cell.

Detention is the exception to the rule, as it deprives you from a basic human right which is the right to personal liberty. Therefore must comply with the legal requirements that allow it to take place.


Can I be detained for any reason?

No. Detention should be the exception to the rule.

When a person is arrested, they are deprived of their liberty.

Section 35 (1) of the Nigerian Constitution provides that “Every person shall be entitled to his personal liberty and no person shall be deprived of such liberty save in the following cases and in accordance with a procedure permitted by law:

  • in execution of the sentence or order of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty;
  • by reason of his failure to comply with the order of a court or in order to secure the fulfilment of any obligation imposed upon him by law;
  • for the purpose of bringing him before a court in execution of the order of a court or upon reasonable suspicion of his having committed a criminal offence, or to such extent as may be reasonably necessary to prevent his committing a criminal offence;
  • in the case of a person who has not attained the age of eighteen years for the purpose of his education or welfare;
  • in the case of persons suffering from infectious or contagious disease, persons of unsound mind, persons addicted to drugs or alcohol or vagrants, for the purpose of their care or treatment or the protection of the community; or
  • for the purpose of preventing the unlawful entry of any person into Nigeria or of effecting the expulsion, extradition or other lawful removal from Nigeria of any person or the taking of proceedings relating thereto:

Provided that a person who is charged with an offence and who has been detained in lawful custody awaiting trial shall not continue to be kept in such detention for a period longer than the maximum period of imprisonment prescribed for the offence.”

These reasons or grounds for detention are limited. You cannot be detained for grounds which are not stated in the Constitution of in law.

HINT: when a person is being detained, find out and, if safe, ask under which grounds that person is being detained.


Who has the power to detain?

Primarily, detentions are made by law enforcement agencies, which are empowered by law to detain a person for the reasons mentioned above. In Nigeria, detentions can be carried out by:

1.The police

The police is empowered by law to arrest and detain suspects.

Section 4 of the Police Act

The police shall be employed for the prevention and detection of crime, the apprehension of offenders, the preservation of law and order, the protection of life and property and the due enforcement of all laws and regulations with which they are directly charged, and shall perform such military duties within or outside Nigeria as may be required of them by, or under the authority of this or any other Act.

2. Other law enforcement agencies

You may also be arrested and detained by other law enforcement agencies such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), The State Security Service (SSS), Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC). These law agencies are empowered by law to preserve law and order and have detention centers where accused persons can be detained.

3. Other agencies

In other instance, public health authorities, immigration officials, or social welfare officials may also detain a person for the purposes of their care or treatment, or if they enter or remain in the country illegally.


Where can I be detained?

The law specifies where you can be detained. Therefore, it is illegal to detain a suspect anywhere other than the following places:

  • In a police cell.
  • The holding cell or room of other law enforcement agency which is legally allowed to detain.
  • The holding cell of a court or prison cell.

It is ILLEGAL for example to keep you in a private house, or a traditional ruler’s palace.


What to do when first detained after an arrest?

Take note of the events surrounding your detention. You may want to challenge your detention in the court as being unlawful. Make sure that you make note of any irregularities with your arrest (more information on arrest can be found in the A4J Arrest guide.

Once you are at the police station or detention centre ask to be allowed to speak to your lawyer or family. Immediately inform them of where you are being detained and why.

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