The delay in carrying out the executive function is impacting significantly on the administration of justice

The large turnover of inmates on death row in the country recently prompted the National Economic Council to voice concern over prison congestion while asking the state governors to take prompt action on the matter. As at last count, the official number of condemned prisoners in the country, according to the Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister is 2,359. Statistics released by the Prison Rehabilitation and Welfare Action (PRAWA) estimated that 11 per cent of the 22,641 convicts and four per cent of about 74,000 inmates in the country were awaiting trial. This is clearly unacceptable.

We can understand that some governors dither in signing death warrants on humanitarian, political, religious, emotional and ethnic grounds. But whatever may be the mitigating sentiments, the delay in carrying out this executive function is breeding congestion that has impacted significantly on the administration of justice in Nigeria. That is aside the helplessness endured in the roller coaster of emotions for these condemned inmates who have practically been reduced to the status of living dead.

Statutorily, governors are not bound to sign the warrants for the execution of people on death row. They can exercise their prerogative to commute such sentences to lifetime in jail or reduced jail terms. They can also grant such convicts state pardon, therefore putting a closure to the matter. But it is morally reprehensible for them to leave inmates perpetually on death row.

The obligation on the governors is specifically enshrined in Section 212 of the 1999 Constitution as well as Section 221 of the Penal Code and Section 319 of the Criminal Code. All these codes prescribe capital punishment for murder while sections 37 and 38 of the Criminal Code prescribe the same punishment for treasonable felony. There is of course a global campaign against capital punishment but it is still applicable in Nigeria. Majority of these death row inmates are in solitary confinement having been convicted for such offences as murder, treason, treachery and armed robbery. Some states in the country have also enacted capital punishment for those convicted of kidnapping.

It is an inherent violation on their rights and dignity to keep people interminably on death row, especially for cases that have been concluded by the Supreme Court. Such practice is antithetical and capable of inflicting traumatic shock on the condemned inmates awaiting an imaginary death in solitary confinement. To put it in context, prisoners on death row are condemned to a kind of existential limbo, existing as entities in cold storage rather than living as human beings. We, therefore imagine the harrowing spell condemned prisoners go through daily in solitary cells, humbled by the force of an impending death that seems to be an eternity.

Whatever may be the justifications, prolonged solitude is a punishment that is detrimental for the psychology of death row inmates. It kills its victims incessantly and unmercifully. It also negates the international treaties, declarations and other documents that establish the scope of prisoner rights to which Nigeria is a signatory. A clear reference is the UN adopted Standards Rules of 1955 that recognise solitary confinement and prolonged segregation as appropriate only in exceptional circumstances and to be used sparingly.

We state that a solution to the rising cases of prisoners on death row is to carry out a thorough review of the Administration of Justice Criminal Act. The review will reduce incidents of prisoners on death row being held outside their states of conviction and allow governors to consider their sentences when such cases are brought forward. In the meantime, they must deal with the issue of those that are already condemned, one way or another. That is what leadership demand.

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