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

DEATH PENALTY-NIGERIA: Big Debate May Herald End of Punishment

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Jul 7 2008 (IPS) - Three Nigerian MPs have stepped in to end years of political inertia over ending the death penalty in Africa’s most populous nation, forcing a parliamentary debate and vote on their Private Members’ Bill for abolition.

National Assembly officials still have to give a firm date for the bill’s first reading and debate. But sources told IPS that it was expected to be tabled for reading within the next three months.

“Nobody can say when the bill will be debated until it is listed for debate. But I believe within the next few months action will start on the bill and Nigeria is likely to join the ranks of abolitionist countries before the end of the tenure of the present House (2010),” a National Assembly official, who declined to give his name for publication, told IPS on telephone from the capital Abuja.

The already-tabled bill seeks to abolish the death penalty for crimes ranging from murder to armed robbery. If passed, some 500 death row inmates would have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. The threat of the gallows would also be removed from thousands of others currently awaiting death penalty trials.

Nigeria’s death penalty laws had failed to deliver on all three goals they were supposed to address – reformation, retribution and deterrence, the Bill’s chief sponsor, Friday Itulah, has argued in support of his initiative. Itulah and the bill’s two other co-sponsors – Samson Osagie and Patrick Ikhariale – are members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

“The question is how can you reform someone – enable him to become a more useful person in the society – who is sentenced to death?” Itulah asked with apparent irony.

“The idea behind the policy of retribution is to inflict severe punishment for something seriously wrong that somebody has done.

“(But) in this country, people have been sentenced to death for offences that did not involve the taking of the life of another, offences such as mutiny, trafficking in currencies and treasonable felony,” Itulah argued.

He added: “This policy erroneously assumes that all persons convicted of these serious crimes committed the offences. But people are sometimes punished in error for the offences they never committed.”

Olawale Fapohunda, managing partner of the Legal Resources Consortium, a Lagos-based NGO, believes many people in Nigeria may have been punished or executed for offences they did not commit.

“The challenges presently faced by our criminal justice system are such that we cannot guarantee fairness in the application of the death penalty,” Fapohunda told IPS.

“Expunging the death penalty from our laws is just one step on the road to achieving a criminal justice reform in Nigeria,” he said.

Fapohunda, whose organisation has been fighting for seven years for an abolition bill to be tabled in parliament, is one of the most experienced rights activists and lawyers in the country. He was secretary of a recent presidential commission on the reform of the criminal justice system.

He argues that hysteria rather than facts have fueled the calls for yet stiffer penal sentences and the retention of the death penalty.

“We have a prison population of 40,000. Put this against our population of 140 million, you may agree that the sums simply don’t add up. Either the hullabaloo about the state of crime in Nigeria is false or the police are simply not catching the offenders,” he said.

He believes that capital punishment is not a deterrent to serious crime.

“The solution to crime will never be the killing of robbers. The government needs to do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in our society. While poverty is no excuse for crime, implementing a coherent, sustainable and well-thought out poverty reduction strategy will certainly go a long way towards creating an equitable society,” he said.

Lawrence Quakar of the Human Rights Law Service believes the abolition of the death penalty would result in a big drop in the number of most serious crimes committed in Nigeria.

Robbers sometimes kill their victims to eliminate anyone who could later testify against them, he argued to IPS.

So far, the news of the abolition bill has attracted little comment. But this is likely to change quickly as soon as a parliamentary debate is underway.

“With the sensitive nature of the matter of death penalty in the country, the bill will surely generate a lot of controversy in the House. But if we must follow the trend in many countries that have abolished death penalty, the bill may have its way,” predicted James Ogenyi, a Lagos-based civil servant.

Most opposition is likely to come from the Muslim communities, particularly in the north of the country where Islam Sharia law was introduced in some states almost a decade ago.

Muhammad Yahaya, executive director of the Democratic Action Group based in the north state of Kano, said he opposed the bill.

“It is like legalising crime. The current rate of killings either through robbery or religious riots shows that human life means nothing to us. As far as I am concerned, Nigeria is not ripe for the abolition of death penalty,” Yahaya told IPS.

Quoting the Koran, the activist said, he who kills should also be killed in punishment. “If a person knows he will be pardoned after committing such a crime, he will not have any regard for human life.”

Although Nigeria claims to have observed an unofficial moratorium on executions since 1999, Amnesty International (AI) has reported that it has evidence of some executions in the past two years in the northern state of Kano. AI claims the execution warrants were signed by the state governor, Malam Ibrahim Shekarau.

The Civil Liberties Organisation, a major NGO, told IPS that it was possible that secret executions had also taken place in Enugu state, southeastern Nigeria.

The newspaper Daily Trust, published in the capital Abuja, recently printed an opinion article by Adamu Adamu accusing pro-abolition MPs of “a colonial hangover” in attempting to abolish the death penalty.

“We should have no business campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty. Rather, we should campaign for its extension … Confirmed, willful killers in this land must be cut down, irrespective of what they do to them in Europe,” Adamu wrote.

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