As Govs Decline to Sign Death Warrants

The recent alarm raised by the Nigeria Correctional Service over the high number of inmates on death row  in correctional centres has again thrown up the lingering jurisprudential issues on the constitutionality, propriety, philosophical underpinning or otherwise of the death penalty in Nigeria, Wale Igbintade writes

Despite repeated calls by the federal government for state governors to exercise their constitutional responsibility of signing death warrants of criminals condemned to death by courts of competent jurisdictions, no death row inmate has been executed in the last 10 years.

The Minister of Interior, Mr..Rauf Aregbesola who reiterated the call recently at the inauguration of the Osun State Command headquarters of the Nigeria Correctional Service in Osogbo, accused the state governors of delaying the wheel of justice and contributing to congestion in correctional centres by refusing to sign the death warrants.

The minister who said Nigeria’s death row  inmate population stood at 3,008 out of the total 68,747 prison population, added that the figure consisted of 2,952 males and 56 females. He not that despite not constituting a significant percentage, the condemned inmates contributed to prison congestion and urged governors to rise up to the dictates of their office, which empower them to approve execution of condemned criminals.

Aregbesola also urged states to share in the burden of decongesting custodial facilities by constructing holding centres, adding that all the states needed to do was to build the facilities to specification and set aside funds for the maintenance of inmates, while the NCS provides the personnel to man and run the facilities.

“The third way is for state governors to summon the will to do the needful on death row convicts. There are presently 3,008 condemned criminals waiting for their date with the executioners in our meagre custodial facilities. This consists of 2,952 males and 56 females.

“In cases where appeals have been exhausted and the convicts are not mounting any challenge to their conviction, the state should go ahead to do the needful and bring closure to their cases, as well as set some others free on compassionate grounds, especially those who have grown old on account of the long time they have been in custody, those who are terminally ill and those who have been reformed and demonstrated exceptionally good behavior. They can also commute others’ sentences to life or a specific term in jail,” he said.

The former governor is not the first official in the current administration to seek the execution of death row inmates. Both Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami had called for the signing of death warrants of condemned inmates.

During the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, he had while speaking at the Fathers’ Day Sunday service organised by the Aso Villa Chapel in June, 2013, urged state governors to sign death warrants of criminals condemned to death. He reminded them that the job they were elected to do had both pleasant and ugly parts.

The last time a death warrant was signed in Nigeria was in 2012 when the then Edo State governor, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, signed the death warrant for two condemned prisoners, who were consequently executed by hanging.

Before Oshiomhole signed the warrants, the then Governor Ibrahim Shekarau of Kano State had emerged the first governor to have signed death warrants of seven condemned criminals in 2006. 

The prompt executions, despite massive protests by rights activists, forced the then Chief of Army Staff to decline the use of firing squad, which was in 1995 approved by a tribunal for ThankGod Eboh because the practice had long been abolished.

Many observers believe that the Aregbesola did not take into account the strong human rights community in the country, who are resisting such moves and who were believed to have frustrated the previous efforts to execute condemned criminals by state governors.

Each time government officials reiterated the need to execute criminals on death row, human rights activists would point to Nigeria’s position of Moratorium on Death Penalty, pursuant to the recommendations of the National Study Group on Death Penalty, through the Federal Ministry of Justice.

Also, on December 16, 2020, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution placing moratorium on death penalty with 123 votes in favour, 38 votes against, 24 countries abstaining and eight absent.

Section 33(1) of the Nigerian Constitution states: “Every person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria,”  Even the Supreme Court has in the locus classicus of Onuoha Kalu vs. the State and Azeez Okoro vs. the State (1998) held that death penalty is not unconstitutional in Nigeria. But rights activists have argued that death penalty is inhumane and outdated.

The reluctance of state governors to sign death warrants is not unconnected with the pervading cultural, moral, religious and philosophical convictions regarding the sanctity and inviolability of human life rooted in the fact that God created human life and no man can take away human life except God the Creator. All world religions and cultures respect the sanctity of human life.

Many senior lawyers and human rights institutions have faulted Aregbesola’s proposition. It is imperative to note that Aregbesola did not sign any death warrant throughout his eight-year reign as Osun State governor. Human rights group, Access to Justice has also faulted the minister, stressing that since many convicts on death row in Nigeria have pending appeals against their convictions, the minister’s proposal would put them at the risk of execution before the determination of their appeals in court.

Many analysts have argued that to keep prisoners on death row in indefinite incarceration amid the whims and caprices or the procrastination of state governors, is a monumental injustice that cries to the high heavens for remedy.  They added that considering that the death penalty is not a deterrent to capital crime, coupled with the fact that some condemned prisoners are victims of a miscarriage of justice, it should be quashed in the country’s statutes.

Those who spoke to THISDAY stressed that since Equatorial Guinea, regarded as one of the world’s most authoritarian countries in the world, became the latest to totally abolish the death penalty, according to a new law signed by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Nigerian lawmakers at all levels should consider abolishing the death penalty totally by quashing the death penalty provisions in the country’s statutes as many countries have done.

The Avocat San Frontiere France (ASFF), otherwise known as Lawyers Without Borders, had in a study in 2018 expressed concern that Nigeria, in 2017, handed down the highest number of death sentences across the sub-Saharan region for offences ranging from murder, treason, treachery, terrorism, kidnapping and armed robbery.

“Two thousand, two hundred and eighty-five (2,285) people were on death row at the end of 2017 in Nigeria, which was a significant increase from 1,979 in 2016 and 1,677 in 2015. Currently, Nigeria has 2,359 death row inmates (in 2017). It is evident from the rate of crime increase in Nigeria that death penalty is clearly not a deterrent,” the non-governmental organisation stated.

The executive secretary of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Tony Ojukwu, believes that the death penalty is retributive and not a deterrent to crime.  He argued that conditions of prisons in Nigeria are poor.

“Death penalty as a retributive measure may not serve as deterrent to crime. Imprisonment is no longer seen solely as a retributive measure but is targeted at reformation, rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates.

“Considering the challenges faced by our Criminal Justice Administration System, it is necessary for all concerned to exercise caution in carrying out executions of convicted inmates,” he said.

Speaking on the latest controversy, the Legal Defence Assistance Programme (LEDAP), through its executive director, Chino Obiagwu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), disclosed that there were two different cases pending in courts in Abuja and Lagos.

The LEDAP suit before a Federal High Court in Abuja was brought by Mrs Nnenna Obi and Solomon Adekunle, on behalf of all prisoners on death row in Nigeria for the enforcement of their fundamental rights by seeking to stop future implementation of death penalty.

According to ASFF, there are also other cases at the ECOWAS Court of Justice challenging the implementation of the death penalty in Nigeria.

Obiagwu said the federal government set up a national study group on the abolition of the death sentences, headed by Professor Yemisi Bamgboye, which had religious leaders as members. Sadly, the recommendation of that body was not implemented.

“A system that cannot guarantee fairness should not result into the death penalty, which is too absolute. So, we want the federal government to exercise due caution. Let due process be adhered to.

“As long as convictions are based on confessions which are denied, trials going on for five years or more, where witnesses would have forgotten facts in the case, sometimes we have missing case files, we cannot claim that we have had a fair judgement and a perfect system. And life is sacred while death penalty is too absolute.

“We look at issues like the irrevocability of execution. Once a death warrant has been executed and we have fresh evidence to show that the prisoner was actually innocent, there is no amount of compensation that would ever be sufficient. These are the issues we want the president to avert his mind to.

“Yes, sometimes they argue that they have gone through the trial process, but we can never erase the possibility of human error; it is always there even in advanced countries. There was a case in Colorado in the USA where a man was found to be innocent, 72 years after his execution,” he said.

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