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Death penalty for drugs: Deterrence or retribution?

Recently, social media activists called for the death penalty to be introduced for corruption. This was in response to the Senate passing the National Drug…

Recently, social media activists called for the death penalty to be introduced for corruption. This was in response to the Senate passing the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) Act (Amendment) Bill 2024, which alters the punishment for the importation of hard drugs into the country from life imprisonment to the death penalty.

The social media activists demanding the execution of those public office holders found guilty of “large scale” corruption, asked cynically why the National Assembly (NASS) is so keen to introduce the death penalty for a multitude of non-violent offences such as drug dealing, yet so reluctant to enforce it for corruption, which is in effect the most heinous crime affecting every citizen in the nation.

It’s a widely accepted economic reality that the nation is regressing economically into overwhelming debts, and socially into increasing discord due to massive corruption and wholesale treasury looting. It is quite clear that a drug dealer does not cause as much hardship and loss of life as a corrupt public office holder. Despite this, the NASS doesn’t see the anti-corruption war as its battle, but rather sees it as a problem which should be tackled selectively by the executive arm of government.

Legislators have never seriously considered a bill for death penalty as the punishment for corruption and isn’t about to do so. China is a bastion of minimal corruption, and has no time for plea bargaining or the return of stolen funds. Without much ado, the Chinese routinely execute high-ranking public officials who steal massive public funds, and the benefits are undeniable. Even as Nigeria slides further into decay and economic morass, China’s economy is booming and the standard of its citizens is increasing annually.

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In Nigeria, the death penalty is authorised by Section 33 of the Constitution. Offences already punishable by the death penalty include armed robbery, murder, kidnapping, treason, and under Shari’a law, offences such as adultery and rape are also punishable by death.

Studies have shown that there is no reliable, scientifically sound evidence which proves that executions exert any deterrent effect. Social scientists agree that the death penalty fails to consider all relevant factors that drive people into criminal activities. For example, when considering murder, the death penalty has proved not to be a deterrent. The majority of murders are crimes of passion which are influenced by a desire for revenge, which takes over any rational thinking. 

It is also quite clear that the death penalty hasn’t deterred armed robbers, who appear to become more emboldened every day. In light of all this, altering the NDLEA bill to introduce the death penalty for drug-related offences is a superficial approach to solving what is an admittedly growing problem.

In a nation in which opportunities for making a decent, honest living are decreasing daily, it should come as no surprise that non-violent crime is on the increase and a more holistic solution must be found.

For centuries, the death penalty has been implemented in an attempt to hold crime in check, yet crime persists and is, in fact, on the increase. Doubtless, there are times when capital punishment is justified, but the truth which the Senate seems not to have taken on board, is that very few Nigerians who receive the death penalty are actually executed. State governors are reluctant to sign execution orders and as such, condemned convicts remain on death row for decades on end. This is a worldwide phenomenon.  In 2022, there were 3, 700 people on death row for drug offences worldwide and there were 285 executions for drug offences.

Many countries with the death penalty for drug-related offences have not carried out executions for any crime in the past 10 years, yet they continue to pass death sentences!

Even though jurists don’t like to admit it, the Nigerian criminal justice system is corrupt, fallible and economically prejudiced against the poor, who mainly get convicted of serious crimes. This is the most compelling and persuasive reason to limit the imposition of the death penalty. The death penalty should only be given when a life has been taken and there is no margin for error in finding the accused guilty.

Albert Camus said that capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders because an evil deed is never redeemed by an evil deed in retaliation. Henry Ford said that capital punishment is as fundamentally wrong as a cure for crime, as charity is as wrong as a cure for poverty. In truth, capital punishment can neither right a wrong nor prevent another one from happening.

It is a well-known fact that countries which have capital punishment have a much higher rate of murder and crime than countries which do not. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Returning violence for violence simply multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

The major arguments against the death penalty focus on its inhumanness, lack of deterrent effect, economic bias and irreversibility.  It is important for our lawmakers to understand that their fondness for the death penalty in matters not involving a loss of life is not a matter of deterrence, it’s simply a poorly thought-out retribution.


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