Africa, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

DEATH PENALTY-NIGERIA: Hope Held Out for Death Row Inmates

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Apr 16 2007 (IPS) - “You see the fear in their eyes. When someone has been on death row for 10 to 20 years and a strange face comes closer, he thinks the hangman is probably coming to take him to the gallows.”

John Oziegbe, a legal officer with the Legal Resource Consortium in Lagos, was describing the ever-present dread of execution that haunts Nigeria’s estimated 700 death row prisoners.

But visitors from the outside world stepping through the gates of Kirikiri maximum security prison in Lagos, where he often visits to give legal aid to inmates, were also likely to quake in their shoes even before setting eyes on a prisoner, he suggested in an interview with IPS.

“Nobody would think that human beings are kept in such places,” Oziegbe said. At Kirikiri there was a separate building for the condemned. It was falling apart. “The structure is very bad, almost collapsing,” he added.

Prison officials agree that nearly all of Nigeria’s 227 prisons are like this.

“It is sad that the conditions in most of our prisons, even to the most casual observer, are dehumanising,” Gabriel Oloyede, deputy comptroller general of prisons, said candidly at last year’s opening of a new prison hospital at Kuje, in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja. “Most of the prisons are still brutal and squalid.”

But he assured those attending the inauguration of one of the five new show-case prison hospitals that measures were being taken “to improve services”. His example was how the mortality rate in Nigerian prisons had been reduced from 1,500 to less than 400 a year.

Nigeria’s minister of internal affairs, Magaji Muhammed, also chose this opportunity to note that the “monster” issue of prison overcrowding was recognised by officials. “This is why the president set up various committees to look into problems confronting the administration of justice and prison reforms in general,” he said.

IPS has obtained a document from the key presidential commission on the reform of the administration of justice, which reports that more than half the country’s 40,000 prison inmates have not even been tried or sentenced. Some have been waiting for their trials for over ten years. The overcrowding this caused was “not conducive to the efficient application of rehabilitation and reintegration programmes” it said.

The situation showed that the entire criminal justice system in Nigeria was in a state of “dislocation”, the report suggested. Last year a U.N. special rapporteur also found that the situation was so chaotic that some 3.7 percent of all case files of inmates had been lost.

Chronic but preventable diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, influenza and pneumonia were also present in the prisons, the report said, adding that the principal cause of these was the decaying buildings and poor prison diet. “In most prisons inmates are being provided with meals that fall short of the minimum dietary requirements,” the report observed.

The official daily prison food allowance now stands at about 83 U.S. cents. In the days of the military regimes before the return to civilian government in 1999, it was less than half of this. More than 70 percent of Nigeria’s 140 million people live on less than one dollar a day, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

The report put much of the blame for the situation on the long years of neglect by successive military regimes. But it also said that “several years of neglect by successive governments” had left the prisons “at the lowest ebb”.

The commission, which has already submitted its report to President Olusegun Obasanjo, has made a string of bold proposals that could transform the penal system in Nigeria overnight – and the lives of those living in daily fear of execution.

Everyone on death row for more than 15 years should be released, it recommended. All on death row for more than 10 years and the sick or mentally ill should have their cases reviewed. And, all others condemned to death û the number is put at 111, but is steadily increasing û should have their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

The commission has also recommended that all inmates jailed for more than five years whose case files have been lost should be set free.

“We need an official (death penalty) moratorium,” Olawale Fapohunda, secretary of the commission, told IPS. “Officially the constitution allows the death penalty but we are trying to see how the constitution can be changed for the commuting of all those sentences to life imprisonment as it is done in South Africa,” he said.

The last known official execution in Nigeria was carried out under the late General Sani Abacha when environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni activists were executed in 1995.

While the commission has been at work, Nigeria’s law-makers have been discussing a bill to enlarge and modernise the country’s entire penal system. This is still being debated.

Just when the bill will be adopted, no one can say, but Fapohunda said the commission was working hard to see it was adopted during the term of the present assembly. ”The bill has passed a second reading,” he said.

“It was first presented to the house in 1999, but because it was not adopted in the first four years it started all over again. We want to ensure that it is adopted now, otherwise the next parliament will start it all over again.”

He said more than 200 of Nigeria’s death row prisoners could benefit from a presidential pardon to mark the country’s Democracy Day on May 29, when a new government is expected to be inaugurated.

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