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Death penalty debate divides lawyers

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By Abraham Adekunle

While many senior lawyers push for its abolishment, others want its retention.

Traditionally, the Nigerian customary laws recognized the death penalty as an appropriate way of eliminating offenders dangerous to the community. As of then, such offences include murder, witchcraft, adultery and profanity to the gods. With the advent of British rule and the consequent abolition of customary criminal and penal codes, capital crimes were reduced to include murder, treachery, treason and participating in a trial resulting in death of the innocent. The military government of Nigeria from 1966 to 1979 added a number of crimes punishable by death. They included armed robbery, setting fire to public buildings, ships or aircraft, dealing in Indian hemp and sabotaging the production and distribution of Petroleum products, importing and exporting Mineral oil without authority, dealing with cocaine, and counterfeiting bank notes or coins. Presently, Nigerian Federal law prescribes the death penalty only for treason, homicide and armed robbery.

However, under Nigerian criminal law, various offences are punishable by death across the Federation including murder, treason, and treachery, conspiracy to commit treason, directing and controlling or presiding at an unlawful trial by ordeal which results in death. Recently, Kidnapping has been added as a capital crime in some states and Terrorism has been given the status of a capital offence in Nigeria. Following these laws, on January 16, 2023, an Osun State High Court sitting in Osogbo sentenced six men to death by hanging in two separate cases after convicting them of armed robbery and murder offences. The convicts are Hammed Rafiu, Rasidi Waidi, Kayode Sunday, Owolabi Bashiru, Mutiu Azeez and Afolabi Mayowa.

Victim gave them all the cash he had and transferred additional N3 million.

In the first case, Justice Jide Falola sentenced Hammed Rafiu (37), Rasidi Waidi (39), Kayode Sunday (29), and Owolabi Bashiru (54) to death for robbing and killing a Lagos-based businessman and ex-staff of FCMB, Mr. Victor Akinbile, said to be a relative of the immediate past Osun State Deputy Governor, Mr. Benedict Alabi. Akinbile had visited Osun on November 26, 2018, to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the former Governor Adeboyega Oyetola, and went to Ikirun to pass the night in his uncle’s house when he was attacked by the four men. One of the defendants, Owolabi, a Security guard working in a house opposite where the victim wanted to pass the night, informed three others about his arrival.

The four men forcefully gained entrance into the victim’s room and demanded a sum of N10 million but that Akinbile who did not have such amount on him first surrendered all the cash he had and transferred an additional N3 million to a bank account belonging to one of the assailants, Ahmed Rafiu. They later seized Akinbile and locked him up in the trunk of his Toyota Camry and drove him to Dominion Camp area on old Iragbiji Road along Ikirun/Osogbo Road, where they set his car ablaze and watched him die in the trunk of the burning vehicle.

NCoS said 3166 inmates on death row in Nigeria as of Dec. 12, 2022.

CGC Haliru Nababa, Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Correctional Services (NCoS), stated at a media parley in Abuja on December 15, 2022 that a total of 3,166 inmates are presently on death row in Nigeria as of December 12, 2022. Only 62 of these convicts (representing 1.9 percent) are female. Even though the death sentence is legal in Nigeria, as the number of inmates on death row increases, executions are rare in the country. Yet, judges continue to pronounce the death penalty for offences like treason, kidnapping, murder, armed robbery and involvement with militia groups. According to Amnesty International, Nigeria has the highest death-row population in sub-Saharan Africa. Between 1999 and 2007, no inmate was executed. But between 2007 and 2017, seven inmates were executed. The group said the 621 death sentences imposed in 2017 accounted for 71 percent of all confirmed death sentences ordered in sub-Saharan Africa that year.

Nigerian courts carried out three executions in 2016 and handed out 527 death sentences, three times more than the previous year. State governors have the legal backing to sign the death warrant. But Human Rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), has said that since the return of democracy in 1999, only few governors have signed death warrants of the execution of death row inmates in the country. Many death row inmates, including those that have been condemned to death by the Supreme Court like the leader of the Christian Praying Assembly, Reverend (Chukwuemeka Ezeugo) King, continue to languish in confinement for years, awaiting execution. Meanwhile, the Executive Director of the Legal Defence Assistance Programme, LEDA, Chino Obiagwu, SAN, expressed surprise that some governors said they were willing to sign death warrants notwithstanding two different cases pending in courts in Abuja and Lagos seeking to stop the execution of death row inmates.

Many senior lawyers want the death penalty gone.

The issue of the death penalty has continually stirred emotions across Nigeria’s social and political divides. While international law discourages the imposition of the death penalty, Nigeria is one of the countries that still retains the use of the death penalty in its criminal law and penal code. A total of 110 countries in the world have abolished the death sentence for all crimes, 54 countries including Nigeria still retains the provision in their laws. Many senior lawyers, including Falana (SAN), Adegboruwa (SAN), Pedro (SAN), and Sowemimo (SAN), and human rights institutions are pushing for the abolishment of the death penalty. However, others are pleading for its retention.


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