Africa, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

DEATH PENALTY: Perception of Crime an Obstacle to Abolition

Terna Gyuse interviews OLAWALE FAPOHUNDA, anti-death penalty activist

LAGOS, Jan 10 2011 (IPS) - The past year has seen mixed fortunes for activists working towards abolishing the death penalty in Africa. Togo and Burundi joined the ranks of African states that have removed capital punishment from their statutes, while Gambia extended its application to new offences.

In April, Nigerian state governors announced they wished to see executions resumed “as a measure to decongest prisons” and directed prison authorities to initiate execution papers.

Olawale Fapohunda, secretary to the National Study Group on the death penalty which called for an official moratorium on executions in Nigeria, spoke to IPS about developments in Africa’s most populous country since then. Excerpts of the interview follow.

Q: What is the status of that order to prison wardens – have executions resumed since then?

A: There has been no development since that directive was given. This is perhaps due largely to the local and international condemnation that greeted that decision.

I had expressed concern at what is a simplistic if not crude solution to a serious problem.

Given the limited number of months left before the end of their tenure, it would seem logical that the task of deciding who should die should be the last thing on the mind of our governors, especially when one considers the enormous governance challenges faced in most states of the federation including poor infrastructure, rural and urban poverty, failing health care system, failing education to mention a few.

Secondly, given the bad publicity that Nigeria continues to receive over tragic deaths in the aftermath of at least two ethnic and religious conflicts, one would have thought our governors will be sensitive to any further killings under whatever guise.

The decision to sign death warrants as a matter of urgency was reportedly based on the inexplicable conclusion that the state of our prisons – including congestion – is the result of an increasing population of death row inmates and a backlog of death warrants requiring their signature.

Happily reason has prevailed and nothing further has been done or said on this issue.

Q: At the time of the governors’ announcement, you pointed out that the bulk of the prison population in Nigeria are people awaiting trial. What proportion of prisoners in Nigeria are death row inmates? How do conditions for death row inmates differ from those of other prisoners?

A: The total prison population in Nigeria is no more than 48,000. Of this number, there are about 26,000 inmates awaiting trial. Less than 1,000 inmates are on death row. Every single study on the state of Nigeria’s prisons including those commissioned by Federal Government has pointed out that the number one challenge faced by the Nigerian prisons today is the situation of awaiting trial inmates.

All the studies have shown that these inmates suffer some of the worst conditions of prison life. Long lock up hours, limited or no access to rehabilitation opportunities, limited access to justice have all combined to making the awaiting trial population frustrated and vulnerable.

One issue that both the prisons and all of us who campaign for justice sector reform agree on is that keeping thousands of persons in our prisons without trial is exacting a heavy financial and human toll on the prisons system.

I served as secretary to the National Study Group on death penalty – the study group was inaugurated to advise government on the desirability or otherwise of abolishing death penalty in Nigeria.

We found that one of the most intractable problems in death penalty administration in Nigeria is the severe lack of competent and adequately compensated counsel for indigent defendants and death row inmates seeking appeals. The limited funding and mandate of the legal aid scheme has seriously undermined the support system for lawyers taking these complex and demanding cases.

Q: Gambia extended application of the death penalty to drug offences in October 2010 – how does the abolition or moratorium of the death penalty in one country influence government and popular attitudes in others?

A: I do not believe that what happens in the Gambia could or should influence what happens in the West African subregion, given the governance challenges in that country. It is good to note that countries like Senegal, with its large Muslim population, are setting the agenda for the abolition of death penalty in West Africa.

Q: Is popular support for the death penalty growing despite local and international campaigning against it? How can alternative responses to serious or violent crime be promoted?

We are concerned that not much progress is being made with respect to the abolition of death penalty in Nigeria. Religion and perception of the crime situation in Nigeria are key issues in this regard. It is often difficult to engage in any argument with those of religious persuasion.

With respect to the perception of crime, we have pointed that that with a population of 140 million, Nigeria still has the one of the lowest inmate populations in the world. It is either we are a low crime country or the law enforcement institutions are simply not catching the offenders.

We have also advocated for a new legal framework that recognises victims of crime as important personalities in our criminal justice system. In my view, the attitude of Nigerians to offenders is due to the fact that there is an over-concentration on [punishment of] the offender.

The victim of crime is virtually ignored once the offender is convicted. We need to reverse this. The organisation I work with, the Legal Resources Consortium, has proposed a victims of crime charter as well as a victim of crime bill. In our view if we are able to reform policy and legislation for victims of crime we can create an appropriate atmosphere for a healthy debate on death penalty.

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