Africa, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

Death Penalty Back on the Agenda in Nigeria

Toluwa Olusegun

LAGOS, May 11 2010 (IPS) - It has been nearly twenty years since an official execution has taken place in Nigeria. State governors have been unwilling to sign the execution warrants of persons on death row.

State governors have cited overcrowded prisons as a reason to reactivate the death penalty in Nigeria. Credit:  Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN

State governors have cited overcrowded prisons as a reason to reactivate the death penalty in Nigeria. Credit: Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN

Amnesty International reported in 2008 that it had evidence of a number of executions in the northern state of Kano, but Nigeria has observed an unofficial moratorium on executions since 1999.

Resolved to resume executions

So it was a surprise when state governors emerged from an Apr. 20 meeting to announce they had agreed to begin to execute prisoners in a bid to decongest overcrowded prisons.

The governors said the failure to carry out death sentences was mostly due to a lack of courage on their part.

But they also blamed prison authorities for failing to recommend executions. According to Abia State governor Theodore Orji, the execution papers should be initiated from the prisons. “It is when the recommendation comes to the government that it can be implemented.


Governors are willing to execute those found guilty of offences ranging from murder to kidnapping and armed robbery, he said. “We agreed that those people who have been condemned should be executed accordingly.”

Answering the wrong question

But rights advocates argued that governors can hardly base a decision to resume executions on relieving overcrowding.

Olawale Fapohunda, a managing partner at the Legal Resources Consortium in Lagos, pointed to studies such as one commissioned by the federal government in 2004, which show that the largest share of the prison population is made up of people awaiting trial.

There are more than 42,000 inmates in the country’s 227 prisons, out of which 26,000 are awaiting trial. Fewer than 1,000 are awaiting the hangman. In Lagos State for example, capacity for the five prisons is put at 2,975 but the number of inmates is 4,700 out of which persons awaiting trial number 4,000.

Ayo Fatinikun, a Chief Superintendent of Prisons and spokesman for the Lagos State Command, told IPS that the judiciary was responsible for the problem of prison congestion as they often remand suspects pending final police investigation even for minor offences.

He gave an example of a young boy who was detained for 10 years but was not convicted, during which period he lost both parents. He was released after it was discovered that he was wrongly arrested.

Fapohunda, who was secretary of the National Study Group on Death Penalty inaugurated in 2004 by former president Olusegun Obasanjo, also agreed the criminal justice system remained faulty.

He said that for that reason the group recommended an official moratorium on executions pending a time Nigeria’s criminal justice system can ensure fundamental fairness and minimise the risk of executing innocent people.

“Our call for official moratorium on all executions was borne out of the conviction that the federal government and state governors can no longer ignore the systemic problems that have long existed in our criminal justice system.

“These problems have been exacerbated by limited funding of criminal justice agencies, inadequate training of personnel and inadequate legal aid scheme, as well as the well documented inadequacies of the Nigeria Police,” he told IPS.

Research by Amnesty International in 2009 found many prisoners had been sentenced to death after blatantly unfair trials.

Popular sentiment

But Nigerians, worried about the activities of armed robbers, hired assassins, ethnic killings in some parts of the country as well as recent – fatal – incidents of rape and kidnapping, say those who kill must face the consequences of their actions.

“I am not in support of the execution of condemned prisoners for the sake of it, but steps must be taken to punish crime appropriately, and for the victims to get justice,” Lance Aribike, a senior civil servant in Lagos told IPS,

“Perpetrators deserved death penalty. Even the Holy Books say, Thou shall not kill.”

He disagreed with any suggestion that the death penalty is increasingly rejected world wide.

“It is not the trend in the world as the U.S., Asia, Latin America and Africa still have capital punishment. If we say stop death penalty, should we not speak for victims of crime? Don’t they have rights that should be protected?”

Over 60 percent of the world’s population live in countries where executions still take place: China, India, United States and Indonesia all retain the death penalty and are unlikely to abolish it in the near future.

In July 2008, a bill for the abolition of the death penalty in Nigeria, which would have permanently lifted the threat of execution of thousands awaiting execution, was unanimously rejected by the National Assembly.

The sponsor of the bill, Friday Itula, a member of the ruling PDP from Edo State, had argued that capital punishment had failed to deliver on its promises — reformation, retribution or deterrence.

But legislators, led by Sada Soli, from Katsina state in the predominantly Muslim north of the country, where sharia law which prescribes stoning to death for such offences as adultery, described the bill as foreign interference pressuring Nigeria to abolish capital punishment.

“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.

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

“Abolition could be considered in the future when the country becomes more enlightened and the avenues (are) created for people to make wealth,” they said.

 
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