It is a violation on rights and dignity of prisoners to keep them indefinitely on death row
The practice of keeping convicts perpetually on death row is not only inhumane, but also a violation of their rights. Yet, no fewer than 3,298 inmates are currently on death row in the country, according to the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCoS). In Abuja and the 36 states, authorities must act on what is becoming another emblem of shame.
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. “There are often long periods of uncertainty for the convicted while their cases are being appealed at higher levels. Inmates awaiting execution live on what we call death row; some offenders have been executed more than 15 years after their convictions,” said NCS spokesman, Abubakar Umar who bemoaned the fact that some condemned inmates have spent decades in confinement.
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. 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 the jail terms. They can also grant such convicts state pardon, therefore putting a closure to the matter. But it is unacceptable for them to leave inmates perpetually on death row. 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 the living dead.
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 this prescribes 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.
That death row inmates “constitute about 4.5 per cent of the total number of prisoners in our various custodial centres nationwide”, going by official statistics, is disturbing. Against the background that the NCS Act provides for some mitigations, we urge the Attorney General of the Federation to liaise with relevant authorities in the 36 states on how to operationalise Section 12(2c) which specifically provides that “where an inmate sentenced to death has exhausted all legal procedures for appeal and a period of 10 years has elapsed without execution of the sentence, the Chief Judge may commute the sentence of death to life imprisonment.”
In 2018, the large turnover of inmates on death row in the country prompted the National Economic Council to voice concern by asking the state governors to take prompt action on the matter. 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, prolonged solitude is a punishment that is detrimental for the psychology of death row inmates. It also negates the international treaties, declarations and other documents that establish the scope of prisoner rights to which Nigeria is a signatory. We therefore enjoin governors to deal with the issue of condemned inmates, one way or another. That is what leadership demands.