The Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola and state governors are facing formidable opposition against calls for the signing of the death warrants for 3,008 death row inmates in correctional centres across Nigeria.
The minister had on July 23 accused the state governors of delaying the wheel of justice and contributing to congestion in correctional centres by refusing to sign the death warrants.
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The minister did not take into account the strong human rights community in the country, who are resisting such moves and are believed to have frustrated previous efforts to execute condemned criminals by state governors.
Aregbesola, who spoke at the inaugurating of the Osun State command headquarters of the Nigeria Correctional Service in Osogbo on Friday, called for more involvement of the states to the maintenance of facilities and inmates of the correctional services.
“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 but was resisted. Both Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami have called for the signing of death warrants of condemned inmates.
The last time a death warrant was signed in Nigeria may be in 2013 when then Edo State governor, Adams Oshiomole, signed the death warrant for five condemned prisoners. Four out of the five were executed by hanging.
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.
Besides, human rights activists 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.
Rights activists argue that death penalty is inhumane and outdated, although 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.”
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, adding 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.
The motion, which joins the Comptroller-General of Nigerian Correctional Service and the 36 state governors as respondents, is seeking an order of court restraining the 2nd respondent (Governor of Abia State) to the 37th respondent (Governor of Zamfara State) from signing the execution warrant of any of the applicants (death row inmates).
Instead, they want the court to direct the 2nd to the 37th respondents to commute the death sentences of the applicants in their respective states to terms of imprisonment.
“Declaration that any act of the 2nd to 37th respondents to sign the executive warrant of any of the applicants in their respective jurisdictions so as to authorise the 1st respondent to execute such applicant will be arbitrary and constitute torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and therefore a violation of the fundamental human rights of such applicant as guaranteed under Section 34 of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), and Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act,” the applicants demanded.
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, adding that 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.
The case of Sopuruchi Obed, a former condemned juvenile inmate, who was later acquitted and released by the Court of Appeal in Lagos in February 2014, shows the depth of the uncertainty of several would-be condemned inmates.
“It is time to abolish the death penalty. Many of my friends on condemned cell in Kirikiri are innocent. I know that as a fact,” Obed had said.
However, an Abuja-based lawyer, Hameed Ajibola Jimoh, speaking to Daily Trust on Sunday said death penalty ought to be enforced because it is the law, and some inmates, who are on death row may be used to commit offences in the society and returned to prison.
“If you genuinely look at the offences committed, some of them deserve not to even live because their existence would further bother the society,” he said.
As federal government’s pressure on state governors to sign the death penalty intensifies, it appears that many governors of the 36 states would prefer to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment under the prerogative of mercy as this is more acceptable to rights activists.