In the noisy hallway of Alausa high court in Lagos on a December Monday morning, over a hundred people sit on the floor waiting for their cases to be called. As lawyers and officials dash between them, dressed in a faded two piece and sandals sits 25-year-old Falana Arigbo.

In August 2015, hair dresser Falana, came across a disturbance on her way home from work. Before she knew what was happening she ran, and was immediately arrested and charged with armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. She has been in prison since then for charges she denies.

Falana’s situation is not unique. With a prison population of almost 150,000, more than 100,000 Nigerians are awaiting trial. In Nigeria, criminal cases are tried in magistrates’ courts and the high court. Similar to the UK, magistrates deal with minor offences such as traffic violations and public disturbances while serious offences are referred to the high court. It can take several years to get a referral, leaving the suspect remanded in prison, sometimes for longer than the sentence would be for the crime they are accused of.

Oluyemi Orija is a Nigerian lawyer who founded the Headfort Foundation in 2019. The non-profit organisation is led by an all-female team that offers free legal services to those awaiting trial in prison. The Foundation also provides back-to-school programmes, skills acquisition, psychosocial support and supports successful re-entry to society. Orija and her team aim to create peace and combat the corruption of the Nigerian justice system, which often leaves innocent people to languish in prison for years.

“I grew up observing my father dedicate his life to peace-making and administering justice in my village. When people had disputes, they would ask him to mediate informally so as to reach an agreement. He was so successful that he was appointed a justice of the peace in our local district court. Having witnessed first-hand the positive effects of dispute resolution, I knew I wanted to impact lives in a similar manner.”

The Headfort Foundation believes that knowledge is a powerful tool in ensuring the protection of human rights. Their goal is to provide practical guidance that empowers individuals to navigate encounters with law enforcement confidently and respectfully.

The Women Of The HeadFort Foundation And Their Clients. Photo Credit: Oluyemi Orija.

The Women Of The HeadFort Foundation educating students on their rights.

The never-ending struggle for restorative justice

The prisons in Nigeria are 300% over capacity. There are about 3,000 inmates for every 800 prison places. When Orija first visited a prison in 2019, she realised that most people were awaiting trial and not actually convicted of any crimes.

To be supported by The Headfort Foundation, people must meet the following requirements: they must be living in poverty, awaiting trial, and they must be charged with a minor offence. The reason for the third condition is because there is usually an unjust asymmetry in the time schemes of inmates receiving a penalty versus the time spent in prison awaiting trial.

Lack of knowledge on their rights within the justice system is one of the most consequential issues affecting people in Nigeria. Police officers also make people sign statements which they do not understand because they cannot read or write in English. Often, law enforcement officials submit statements which are entirely contrary to what transpired, and then force the suspect to unwittingly sign the statement.

Through each prison outreach visit , Orija and her team aim to educate people on their fundamental human rights, and urge them to call a lawyer before making or signing any statements. Through the recent establishment of an application called ‘Lawyers Now’ the Headfort Foundation's lawyers can be accessed all over Nigeria. The app helps connect clients with local lawyers who can accompany them to police stations and ensure that they are not being victimised.

Headfort Foundation’s work cuts across all 36 states of Nigeria, with its head office in Lagos State, they now have volunteers across the country. Dr Joseph Odugwo, Director General of the Institute For Peace and Conflict Resolution Nigeria believes that The Headfort Foundation is fostering in a new era of peace:

“For over four years, we’ve worked hand-in-hand with the organisation to help improve civil relations, and strengthen peace. Although there’s still a long way to go, I believe that The Headfort Foundation has been the missing tool to help make Nigeria a better place and it is impressive to see a women-led initiative doing this.”

Navigating tricky challenges along the way

Nigeria is a fervently litigious country where bureaucracy is the order of the day, navigating this in the legal system is one of the organisation's biggest challenges. Although their perseverance is their greatest asset, they are prone to feeling exhausted.

However, funding is still their most difficult issue. Orija explains, “there are times we run so low on funds that we want to file a process and cannot afford to do it, thereby frustrating all efforts in defending the cases. We are still looking to attract more sponsors or donors to help lift off the financial weight and broaden our impact. We also have to deal with low veiled threats and criticism from law enforcement officials, what makes it all worth it in the end is seeing the look on the freed person and knowing I helped create peace and change the life of someone.”.


Creating restorative justice and peace in Nigeria is a joint effort that will happen with a complete overhaul of the system and people involved. From the judges who delay cases, to the police who infringe on citizens rights, to citizens' lack of awareness and orientation. It's important to take it one step at a time, which is what the women of the Headfort Foundation are doing.