A lawyer drawn to prisoner’s rights: A portrait of YALI Washington Fellow Danbala Garba

This story is part of an on-going series spotlighting 2014 Washington Fellows at FIU.

Danbala Garba

Danbala Garba is one of 25 participants in a group of young leaders visiting FIU as part of President Obama’s Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI)

After completing law school in 2007, Danbala Garba – one of 25 participants in a group of young leaders visiting FIU as part of President Obama’s Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) – set off to fulfill his time in Nigeria’s National Youth Service  Corps (NYSC), which all university and/or law graduates under 35 must complete before becoming employed.

NYSC is somewhat like the Youth Corps in the United States, but while it is voluntary here, it is mandatory in Nigeria. NYSC is designed primarily “to inculcate in Nigerian Youths the spirit of selfless service to the community, and to emphasize the spirit of oneness and brotherhood of all Nigerians, irrespective of cultural or social background,” according to its mission. Even though it’s known as the “Giant of Africa” with the continent’s largest economy and population, Nigeria is still a young and developing country with many growing pains to overcome.

Garba grew up in the Plateau State in the central part of Nigeria, one of ten children. He chose to go to law school and after completing professional training at law school, he decided for NYSC service to become part of a legal aid group that would go to various prisons and help the prisoners with legal issues. And what he saw shocked him.

Prisoners were detained in facilities that had not been modified since the country achieved independence in 1960. There was immense overcrowding, sometimes no sanitary facilities and often no proper legal representation. “I discovered a lot of human rights violations, “ Garba said, such as delays in the judicial process that led to some people being incarcerated for as long as ten years without a trial. “Ninety-nine percent of these prisoners are poor and illiterate. They have absolutely no idea what to do – how to even begin to get help.”

Garba helped obtain bail in some cases and tried to help wherever he could. And he decided to continue helping prisoners even after his NYSC service ended. Now married with one child, he is “a lawyer by profession, a prisoner’s rights advocate and a mineral consultant for local and international mining companies,” Garba said. Developing a mining industry is another of Garba’s goals, to diversify Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy, which could lead to infrastructure improvements throughout the country—even its prisons.

“This problem is not particular to Nigeria. It’s an African problem,” Garba noted. But the leadership and public management courses he’s taking at FIU are giving Garba some ideas on “how we might remove our melancholia.”

He has also learned something he did not anticipate about the United States: “I find it surprising that there is corruption here—that corruption occurs everywhere, but you just need to have institutions in place to check that corruption.”

Garba hopes that he will bring his newly honed leadership skills to good use back in his country. “I love helping the vulnerable people in my society,” he explained.