By Damian Ugwu
The issue of the death penalty has continued to stir emotions across Nigeria’s social and political divides, because while international law discourages the imposition of the death penalty, Nigeria is one of the countries that still retain the use of the death sentence as capital punishment in its criminal law and penal code, with judges in the High Courts and Sharia courts sentencing convicted persons to death for numerous crimes, including non-lethal crimes. The following can attract the death penalty in Nigeria: armed robbery, murder, rape, terrorism-related offenses, and treason and kidnapping. In the Northern Region, where Sharia law is applied, adultery, blasphemy, and homosexuality also carry the death penalty.
Nigerians will always hold divided opinions on the use and retention of the death penalty. Opponents believe that the death penalty should be abolished because it does not deter crime among other reasons. Proponents, on the other hand, believe that grievous crimes should carry a mandatory death penalty. The question that is always left unanswered is; what is the scope and limit of grievous crimes or ‘most serious’ crimes as often used under international law? This question remains germane in the face of repeated calls from some CSOs to recognize grand corruption as a crime against humanity. The current sky-high levels of violent crimes such as armed robbery and kidnapping in Nigeria infuriates many people, particularly because of the impunity with which it is committed leading to the persistent call for the retention of the death penalty and the expansion of capital punishment to include other crimes such as kidnapping and even corruption. Politicians are usually very careful about public comments on the issue of capital punishment but in recent times, they have keyed into the public sentiment and joined the call for the expansion of capital punishment. Indeed, in the last seven years at least, 15 states have expanded the punishment to include the crime of kidnapping.
Unapologetically, I am among the Nigerians who feel that it is time to do away with the death penalty. While many Nigerians support the imposition of stiffer penalties against violent crimes, especially kidnapping, I am yet to be convinced that death penalty deters crime more effectively than a prison term. As experience has shown, the threat of the death penalty is not an effective answer to violent crime – rather it can exacerbate violence in society. Expanding the scope of capital punishment at this time not only contradicts global trends which is moving away from the death penalty but may also encourage even more violent behavior by criminals.
Kidnapping for instance is a terrible crime that causes anguish for both the victims and their families. But extending the scope of the death penalty to include this crime does nothing to protect the victims rather it puts them at greater risk. The law may even act as an incentive to kill, as the kidnappers may decide they have nothing to lose – leading to an increase in killings of victims, innocent bystanders, and police officers trying to apprehend the criminals.
One way of addressing violent crimes like robbery, kidnapping, carjacking, rape, etc is to strengthen the police’s ability to detect potential crimes before they occur and prevent them.
The Federal government needs to strengthen police training and provide resources to increase investigation capacity and effectiveness. This is the best way to start keeping citizens safe from violent crime in Nigeria – rather than resorting to knee-jerk and outmoded responses like the death penalty.
An Unending Debate
In 2021, Nigeria’s Interior Minister, Rauf Aregbeshola came under heavy backlash when he reportedly recommended the execution of death row inmates as a form of decongesting the correctional facilities which are in fact, overpopulated mostly by over 72% of awaiting trial inmates. What he intended to be a light-hearted comment turned boorish, stirred debates, and renewed calls for the abolition of the death penalty.
The former President of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo on 13 November 2003 initiated a parliamentary debate on the use of the death penalty. In furtherance of this process, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Kanu Godwin Agabi inaugurated a panel of experts that served as the National Study Group on the Death Penalty with 12 members representing different aspects of Nigerian society. The group after traversing the country recommended a national moratorium on the execution of the death penalty while concluding that, a system that cannot give justice should not take life.
Indeed, a system that cannot give justice should not take life and a state that must take life must first give Justice. How can you justify the use of the death penalty in a country with corrupt institutions of justice, where the police lack the basic investigating skills and modern equipment including a functional forensic laboratory to process evidence but instead rely on the basic crude method of using torture to extract confessions from criminal suspects? Indeed, many people on death row were sentenced to death based on their confessional statement which was extracted under torture. Many are too poor to hire legal representatives and in some cases were persuaded to plead guilty in return for a lighter sentence. Many people still support the use of the death penalty because the crucial factors that underlie how the death penalty is applied are often not understood by the Nigerian public. These include the risk of executing an innocent person, the unfairness of trials, and the discriminatory nature of the death penalty are not factored in.
Studies have consistently failed to find convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other lawful punishments. Authoritative studies conducted for the United Nations around the world have repeatedly found that the death penalty has no greater deterrent effect on crime than imprisonment.
Slowly Killing Deathrow Inmates: Is Prison A Hotel?
According to a Thisday Newspaper Editorial, quoting the Controller General of the Nigerian Correctional Centre, of the Nigerian prison population of 73,102, Condemned inmates stand at 2677 males, and females, 42. The paper described a large number of death row inmates as disturbing. “It is an inherent violation of their rights and dignity to keep people interminably on death row, such practice is antithetical and capable of inflicting traumatic shock on the condemned inmates awaiting an imaginary death in solitary confinement. To put it in context, inmates on death row are condemned to a kind of existential limbo, existing as entities in cold storage rather than living as human beings. We can, therefore, imagine the harrowing spell condemned inmates go through daily in solitary cells, humbled by the force of an impending death that seems to be an eternity. It is within this context that an NGO is currently in court challenging the 36 state governors on the grounds that the imposition of the death penalty constitutes torture and cruel treatment.
A former Nigerian Vice president during the military era Admiral Augustus Aikhomu was once asked about the deteriorating living condition of Inmates. He quickly fired back ” Is prison a hotel?” His response, unfortunately, mirrors the mindset of successive Nigerian governments toward the welfare condition of death row inmates. Four out of every five Nigerian prisons were built before 1950. Many needs renovation: the infrastructure is old, many buildings can no longer be used, ceilings in others are about to collapse, and sanitary facilities have broken down. Many of the prisons do not have modern drainage systems, instead, they use open drains that create a serious health risk for inmates and staff alike. Most cells have only small windows for ventilation. Death row inmates face even worse conditions. Those on death row are held in tiny, dark, and filthy cells, with almost no ventilation. They are allowed outside their cells during the day, along with other convicted inmates but most times spent their time in solitary cells. Many have spent up to 30 years awaiting death. Death row inmates are not seen as humans.
The use of the death penalty is no longer fashionable. Today, two-thirds of countries in the world have either abolished the death penalty outrightly or no longer use it in practice. Earlier this year Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic abolished the death penalty. So do over 20 other countries in Africa including Sierra Leone (2021), Chad (2020), and Guinea (2017). Europe remains virtually free of the death penalty. And the US is slowly turning against capital punishment. Nigeria cannot be left behind, but to achieve this, section 33 of the Constitution which forms the operational ground for the application of the death penalty will have to be amended.
Damian Ugwu Is a human rights researcher and anti-death penalty advocate