Africa, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

DEATH PENALTY-NIGERIA: MPs Shout Down Abolition Bill

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Jul 22 2008 (IPS) - Hopes of a reprieve for hundreds of death row inmates in Nigeria were dashed when MPs threw out a bill which would have commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment and down-graded robbery with violence to a non-capital crime.

On July 10, MPs from all sides closed ranks to reject the death penalty abolition bill which would also have lifted the threat of execution hanging over several thousands awaiting capital trials, some of them for many years. Rights activists were stunned by the degree of opposition to the bill, particularly from politicians from the Christian south of the country.

“Nobody shall kill another person – in spite of (their) confessing to the crime,” Friday Itula, the bill’s main sponsor, said when opening the debate on the bill.

“No!” shouted furious MPs opposing this attempt to get these words written into law and “abolish capital punishment in any form”. From this moment on, it was clear that the bill – the first-ever attempt to challenge Nigeria’s death penalty in parliament – was doomed.

Itula argued that capital punishment had outlived its usefulness in Nigeria. It had failed to deliver up on its promises – reformation, retribution or deterrence.

The MP was supported in his abolition initiative by two other members from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Samson Osagie and Patrick Ikhariale.

All three co-sponsors come from Edo state, central southern Nigeria.

Leading the attack on the bill was Sada Soli, also a member of the PDP but from Katsina state in the predominately Muslim north of the country. Activists had predicted that the Muslim states, some of which have introduced Sharia law, would oppose the bill.

“Abolition is a serious business,” Soli said. “The law should take its natural course. Anyone who takes another’s life does not deserve (to keep) his,” he said.

Soli condemned foreign “interference” for pressuring Nigeria to abolish capital punishment.

Listening to his remarks in the parliamentary public gallery were representatives from NGOs, including the London-based Amnesty International.

The bill was finally thrown out when the speaker asked MPs whether it should be rejected.

“Yes,” shouted most MPs in reply.

Later, Dr Olapade Agoro, a politician and chairman of the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP), said it was too early for Nigeria to abolish capital punishment.

MPs should be spending their time seeking solutions to crime – reducing unemployment and raising the level of education – rather than a “respite for murderers”.

“Most importantly, this idea is being copied from the United Kingdom – and it’s laughable. We must learn to develop our own ideas,” he declared.

Yinka Odumakin, a politician and the national publicity secretary of Afenifere, a socio-cultural organisation in south-eastern Nigeria, added it would have been unwise for Nigeria to abolish capital punishment because of its high crime and murder rate.

“But it (abolition) could be considered in the future when the country becomes more enlightened and the avenues (are) created for people to make wealth,” he said guardedly.

Predictably, Professor Pat Utomi of the African Democratic Congress (ADC) and presidential candidate in the April 2007 elections, expressed disappointment at the bill’s rejection. His party is strongly supported by the younger, well-educated generation.

Leading NGOs and human rights campaigners sought to explain the reasons for the scale of the parliamentary opposition to the bill.

Civil society organisations should have been more active before the parliamentary vote, Olawale Fapohunda, managing partner of the rights organisation Legal Resources Consortium, told IPS. Lawmakers had shown they were ruled by an erroneous perception of crime.

But any “effective advocacy” had been hamstrung by lack of resources, he explained.

Demian Ugwu of the Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO) agreed that the MPs had rejected the bill out of fear of crime.

“But to us in the civil society, it is not a security issue but a social one,” he said.

Amnesty International (AI) expressed disappointment, suggesting that the MPs appeared to have ignored its extensive reporting on the human rights situation of those on Nigeria’s death row.

Many death row inmates had not been given a fair trial, including legal representation, or the right of appeal, Ausphus Guesto, an Amnesty researcher told IPS.

There are believed to be more than 500 currently awaiting execution in Nigeria, a country which claims not to have executed anyone since 1999. This claim is disputed by AI and CLO. In 2007, Nigerian courts passed down at least 20 death sentences, according to AI.

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