An Account of Volunteering in Togo

With a population of around 7.6 million, Togo is one of the smallest countries in Africa, bordered by Benin, Ghana and Burkina Faso. Agriculture accounts for about 30% of its economy and it enjoys a well-developed export sector due to valuable phosphate deposits. Despite this, the country is suffering an economic crisis. Among the most affected of its citizens are those in prison. Written in chalk of the door of Atakpamé, one of the prisons in Togo, is the number of inmates inside. It was built to hold only 100 detainees; when I made a visit in 2018, there were four times as many crammed inside.

Most often for petty crimes, detainees are held in poor conditions with the possibility of waiting over five years for trial. Skin diseases are common and, with only one meal a day, a detainee’s health can deteriorate fast. During my visit I met Romaric, a sixteen-year-old who was detained for stealing in order to buy medicine for his family. He told me: “You cannot sit down or sleep in prison your feet are so swollen.” Project ‘Atlas of Torture’, carried out by the EU, ranked Togo 4th for worst prison conditions and an investigation by local charities found that 87% of female and 92% of male respondents suffered “bad treatment”, including caning, intimidation and punishments such as isolation, beatings and food deprivation.

Regardless of calls from human rights watchdogs, the government devotes less than 0.7% of the national budget to justice. Criminal trials are heard en masse and only once a year; in 2017, this sole trial was cancelled due to a lack of funds. The increasing prison population can be attributed to police and judicial failures: the Togolese Human Rights League (EDH) considers congestion the cumulative result of slow court cases and procedures, arbitrary arrests and the detention of petty offenders without the option of bail. The head of EDH, Jil-Benoît Afangbédji, commented: “Judges hesitate to issue orders to temporarily free those in remand. Some court rulings are also not respected,” in relation to a case of a suspect detained in contravention of a court ordering his bail.

Access to legal assistance, a constitutional right, is extremely limited. By way of example, according to a survey in 2014 of detainees who had been tried, only 7% were assisted by a lawyer. There is no state funding or any form of legal aid and most detainees cannot afford to hire a lawyer with their own means.

One way in which local charities have attempted to address this issue within prisons is through the funding of independent legal clubs, whose objectives are to expedite the judicial process and shorten pre-trial detention. Members of the judiciary come in as volunteers to teach the detainees about their rights and other volunteers assist members of the clubs to correspond with their lawyers. In three years, the clubs have convinced authorities to release 700 inmates who were critically ill as well as 1,070 young men and women who were unlawfully detained. Human rights violations continue to occur but I found that small schemes such as this, which focus also on monitoring and reporting of cases of abuse, can make a substantial difference in the lives of vulnerable individuals.

This blog was written by Lauren Bates-Brownsword.

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