Maryam Sanda: No to Death Penalty

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Saturday letter2

On Monday, January 27, Maryam Sanda was convicted of the murder of her husband, Bilyaminu Bello. Maryam, the mother of one, who was alleged to have stabbed her husband with a kitchen knife, was found guilty of the two-count homicide charge brought against her by the Police. Justice Yusuf Halilu of the Federal High Court whom I consider a man of good conscience, in imposing the mandatory death sentence on her, was quoted as saying, “it has been said that thou shall not kill. Whoever kills in cold blood shall die in cold blood, Maryam Sanda should reap what she has sown, it is blood for blood”.

On its merit, this is abundantly true, that those who commit murder by taking the life of another have in turn forfeited their own right to life and do not deserve to live.  This in fact represents the current position of the law in Nigeria, specifically Section 221 of the Penal Code. But on the flipside, the law is at best archaic, antediluvian and incongruent with evolving realities. Today, an ever increasing number of countries in the world are moving away from the mandatory death penalty, as it is now largely regarded as inconsistent with fundamental human rights protection.

Let’s be clear, with this intervention I do seek to undermine the enormity of Maryam’s crime, matter-of-factly, by taking the life of another person what she had done is abundantly evil and stands condemned.  But the reality today is that Maryam’s case affords us the opportunity to interrogate and review the death penalty law at a time when countries of the world are already moving away from the practice. According to Amnesty International 2017, circa 142 countries, more than two-third of the countries of the world, have abolished the mandatory death penalty in law or practice. While it is true that death penalty sanction is a just form of retribution, the death penalty punishment is however not a more effective deterrent than the alternative sanction of life or long-term imprisonment, just as in the case of Maryam Sanda. Many have even questioned that if she is killed, who will then look after the child?

Cesare Beccaria in his 1764 treatise on Crimes and Punishment which has been widely regarded as a founding work in penology and classical criminology, argues that by legitimizing the very behaviour that the law seeks to repress which is killing, capital punishment such as death penalty is counterproductive in the moral message it conveys. The homily of Pope John Paul II during the Papal Mass at St. Louis, Missouri on January 27, 1999 is also quite instructive in this regard. While appealing that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil, Pope John Paul II described as cruel and unnecessary the death penalty punishment. Ditto the case of Maryam Sanda, and any other person who has committed murder. While they may have committed what could be the greatest of all evil, I disagree that they should be condemned to eternal damnation. Life or long-term imprisonment without the possibility of a parole or pardon offers a more pragmatic and effective deterrent.

Oluwaseun Awogbenle, seunawogbenle@gmail.com