Following concerns over increase in the number of condemned inmates in Nigerian correctional centres, the federal government is planning a process of commuting the sentences of inmates who have been on death row for over 10 years to life imprisonment.
This is even as LEADERSHIP Sunday findings showed that Nigeria now has 2,956 inmates on death row, a shift from the 2,742 recorded in 2019.
Findings by our correspondent also showed that of the 2,956 on death row, the number of condemned male inmates is put at 2,903 while females make up the remaining 53.
While the number which initially stood at 1,606 in 2017 rose drastically to 2,742 in 2019, further findings revealed that the last execution of condemned criminals in the country was carried out in late December 2016, when three prisoners were executed in Edo State.
It would be recalled that the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami (SAN), had at a recent press briefing on the achievements of the Presidential Committee on Correctional Service Reform and Decongestion, asked the 36 state governors to act in line with Section 212 of the 1999 Constitution on the number of inmates sentenced to death as a means of decongesting prisons.
The death penalty as authorised by Section 33 of the Constitution of Nigeria defines capital crimes to include murder, terrorism-related offenses, rape, robbery, kidnapping, sodomy, homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery, incest, assisting the suicide of a person legally unable to consent, perjury in a capital case causing wrongful execution, treason, some military offences like mutiny and practice of indigenous beliefs in states applying Shariah law.
Malami stated, “Also, to be revisited is the issue of condemned convicts on death row for over 10 years with a view to getting relevant authorities to commute the sentences to life imprisonment.
“This is based on the provisions of Section 12 (2) (c) of the Nigerian Correctional Service Act, 2019. A review of cases of inmates awaiting trial for upwards of five years will also be considered.”
Controller General of the Correctional Service, Haliru Nababa, said almost 3,000 inmates who have spent 10 years on death row still live under the suspense and mental torture of death.
“Out of the number, a greater percentage of them may have finished appeals and are still waiting for the determination of the approving authority to either approve their execution or commit them to life imprisonment,” he said.
He said the implication of delayed execution after court pronouncement is that death row inmates are usually not amenable to corrections.
Nababa, who spoke through his agency’s image maker, Francis Enobore, said, “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 sentiment, the delay in carrying out this executive function is breeding congestion that has impacted significantly on the administration of justice. 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.
“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 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.”
He added that 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 these prescribe 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, and armed robbery. Some states in the country have also enacted capital punishment for those convicted of kidnapping.
Describing the act as an inherent violation of their rights and dignity to keep people interminably on death row, especially for cases that have been concluded by the Supreme Court, he said such practice is antithetical and capable of inflicting traumatic shock on the condemned inmates awaiting an imaginary death in solitary confinement. To put 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.
“We therefore imagine the harrowing spell condemned prisoners go through daily in solitary cells, humbled by the force of an impending death that seems to be an eternity,” he added.
However, the NCoS chief said there were options for those charged with the responsibility of signing death warrants of condemned inmates.
“They can convert the death penalty to life imprisonment and after sometime, reduce it to termed imprisonment. If they are converted to life or termed imprisonment we will take them to areas where they can be productive. They will learn trade. Some can be sent to our camps, where they engage in farming activities and they will help boost the economy and even support themselves and their families,” he said.
A human rights lawyer and activist, Barrister Destiny Imong Ayang, said, “Whatever may be the justification, prolonged solitude is a punishment that is detrimental to the psychology of death row inmates. It kills the victims incessantly and unmercifully. We welcome Section 12 (2c) of the new NCS Act which provides that where an inmate on death sentence had exhausted legal procedures for appeal and a period of 10 years had elapsed without execution of the sentence, the chief judge may commute the death sentence to life imprisonment. It is the right thing to do.”
An Abuja-based activist and national coordinator of Peace and Anti-Corruption Advocacy, Comrade James Okoronkwo, blamed the delay on poor judicial system in the country, adding that justice delayed is justice denied.
“Keeping condemned inmates perpetually in custody has a lot of implications. One is the security implication. You know, these are people that have come to the last bus stop. They are usually very difficult to control and are usually very restive,” he said.
A Delta State-based judge, Marshal Umukoro, has reportedly called on governors in the country to sign warrants for persons on death row.
LEADERSHIP Sunday gathered that Umukoro said doing so would help decongest the correctional centres. He also said doing so would deter people from committing crimes that would land them in such punishment.
His position is in sharp contrast to that of international right groups like Amnesty International (AI) which have repeatedly called for a stop to the death penalty.