More states are expanding the crimes punishable by death sentence in the face of reluctance of some governors to sign warrants for condemned prisoners to be executed. In this report, OLUGBENGA SOYELE examines the implications of the refusal of the governors to implement the law alongside the arguments for and against capital punishment
Over the years, the Federal and state governments in Nigeria have always reacted to an upsurge in a particular crime by enacting laws to make such crimes punishable by the death penalty. The moment a crime assumes notoriety or begins to overwhelm law enforcement agents, governments’ response has always been to impose the death penalty for such crime.
This trend started during the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon, when in 1970, just after the Nigerian civil war, he introduced the death penalty for armed robbery in response to the alarming increase of the crime in the country. Many experts argued that this move did not solve the problem; in fact, they insisted, robbery is as common today as it was then.
During the regime of General Muhammadu Buhari between December 31, 1983-August 27, 1985,the junta enacted Decree 20 which carried a death penalty of which 10 persons were executed by firing squad, all for drug-peddling.
Also when the effect of terrorism became too unbearable for the government and Nigerians, after the advent of the deadly terror group, Boko Haram, the federal government’s response was the enactment of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act, 2011 and the Terrorism (Prevention) (Amendment) Act, 2013, which introduced the death sentence for terrorism-related offences.
However, according to a Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, in 2014, Nigeria witnessed the largest increase in terrorist-related deaths ever recorded by any country, after the laws were passed. The index put the increase at over 300 per cent since 2011.
Though the Nigerian Constitution guarantees the right to life, some other offences punishable by death across the Federation, include: Murder & Armed Robbery. Aiding the suicide of a child or lunatic, fabricating false evidence leading to the death of an innocent person, instigating an invasion of Nigeria, treason and conspiracy to treason.
Also 12 states in Northern Nigeria use the Sharia law, which prescribes death penalty for apostasy, incest, rape, Liwat (homosexual sodomy) and Zina (adultery). The states include Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Niger, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara.
In the same vain, the Nigerian Military under its military laws punishes misconduct in action, mutiny and dereliction of duty with the death penalty.
There are even clamours from many Nigerians that the death penalty be made to apply to official corruption, vandalization of oil installations, and oil bunkering.
Over the last eight years, one crime that has reached epidemic levels in the country is kidnapping and the government particularly the states governments in their efforts to effectively fight the crime have once again turned to the death penalty.
Kidnapping is a capital crime in some states in the south-south and south-east of the country and recently the Lagos state Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode signed into law the state kidnapping prohibition bill, 2016.
The bill which was passed into law by the State House of Assembly on January 5, 2017, provides for the death penalty for kidnappers whose victims die in their custody, and life imprisonment for the act of kidnapping.
The lawmakers also approved 25 years imprisonment as penalty for anyone found guilty of threatening to kidnap another person through phone call, e-mail, text message or any other means of communication.
Many stakeholders have described this action as mere political moves and the government pandering to the outrage of society against the violent crime, this conclusion is based on the fact that the only authority recognised by law to issue death warrant authorising the execution of death sentences ordered by the judiciary are the executive arm of government and this has not happened for a while.
Since the military disengaged from Nigerian politics in 1999, only two governors have signed death warrants in the country. They are the former Governor of Kano State, Ibrahim Shekarau, who signed the first warrant in 2006, and the Governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomhole, who signed the warrants of four death row prisoners executed by hanging in Edo State in June 25, 2013.
To demonstrate the unwillingness of governors to sign the warrants, the Kano State Governor Abdullahi Ganduje recently suggested that the law, which mandates state governors to sign death warrants of condemned prisoners should be amended by the National Assembly to enable the task to be reassigned to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN).
Ganduje was speaking in reaction to a call from the Comptroller of Prisons, Kano State Command, Alhaji Aliyu Achor, who to him that most of the governors refused to sign execution documents in their respective states, saying it was a factor contributing to prisons congestion across the federation.
The governor stated “Life is valued in African culture perhaps that is why governors are reluctant to sign execution documents. Since judges are the ones who make the sentences, I think the National Assembly should amend the law so that the CJN signs the warrants. I think the CJN is in a better position to assent to the execution.”
However, in a recent comment the Chief Judge of Delta, Justice Marshal Umukoro, has urged state governors to develop balls and sign death warrants of inmates on death sentence in order to decongest the prisons.
Justice Umukoro who spoke in Ibadan during the 2017 Aquinas’ Day colloquium of Dominican Institute, said that recent statistics from the National Human Rights Commission indicated that no fewer than 1,612 inmates are on death sentence in Nigeria prisons.
The chief judge said that signing the death warrants would reduce prison congestion, and serve as deterrent to others.
As at July 2014, according to a report titled, “Towards the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Nigeria”, released by a civil society organization, Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP), prisons in River States had 157 inmates consisting of 149 males and eight females on death row, which is the highest in the country. Delta follows, with 149 convicted inmates, comprising 146 males and three females. Ogun State has 132 condemned felons, while Plateau State is left with 125 males and one female awaiting the governor’s execution order.
Other states with high death row inmates are Lagos 83, Kaduna 79, Enugu 75, Kano 51, Katsina 43, Edo 35, Cross River 17, Jigawa 18, Kebbi 13, Kwara 12, Federal Capital Territory 10, Niger 10, Ondo 7, Benue 6, Sokoto 6, Osun 5 and Taraba 4.
Those against the use of the death penalty in Nigeria argue that there is a high likelihood of wrongful conviction stemming from poor investigations by the Nigeria Police Force and the imperfections of the Nigerian criminal justice administration.
They also contend that the law is settled on the principle that it is better to set a hundred criminals free than to wrongfully convict and kill one innocent person and that it would be unjust to retain death penalty in the face of such imperfections in the Nigerian criminal justice administration.
Those who favour the use of death penalty maintain that anyone who has willfully killed, especially terrorists, simply deserves not to live. According to them, applying the death penalty on such people will completely foreclose the possibility of their wrecking more havoc on the society in the event that they are pardoned and released.
They also insist that killing heinous criminals will also serve as deterrence for others who may want to toe the same path.
Commenting on the issue, Rotimi Jacobs (SAN) said “The Truth is that death sentence is still part of our law .The law has not been abolished and the Governors are compelled by law to sign the convict’s death warrant.
“We should ignore the European system that has discountenanced death penalty. As long as we still have that law as part of our system, then we should be able to abide by it. If we don’t want that law again then we should go to the National Assembly and abolish it,” he said.
In his own views, a Lagos lawyer, Collins Okeke said, “It has never been conclusively shown that the death penalty deters crimes more effectively than other punishments. The correlation between crime rates and the death penalty seems to be even less relevant in the case of terrorism, where the act is politically motivated, with often no cost-benefit calculation.”
As the argument for and against the death penalty rages, a very vibrant group, the Nigerian Death Penalty Group with the support of the UK government believes it’s time for Nigeria to stand with modern democratic states that have abolished or drastically restricted the use of the death sentence.
The reports of various groups that were set up by former President Olusegun Obasanjo including the National Study Group On Death Penalty and Presidential Commission on Reform of the Administration of Justice also all recommended a moratorium on executions pending when total abolition can be actualised.
With all of these coupled with the growing reluctance of state governments to also sign death warrants, the self-imposed moratorium stance of the country and the calls especially by civil society groups for the abolition of the death penalty, many of the convicts on death row may not see the hangman’s noose anytime soon.