Death Warrants, Aregbesola and Lessons from Sierra Leone

August 6, 2021
rauf aregbesola tax

By Jerome-Mario Utomi

If there is any event in recent time that did remind Nigerians how out of order the present administration is taking the country, it is the awareness that at a time the world is standing up against capital punishments, such time has against all known logic, become the ripe moment for the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, to urge state governors to sign the death warrants of the 3,008 condemned criminals waiting for execution, especially those whose appeals had been exhausted and were not mounting challenges to their convictions, as part of measures to decongest prisons nationwide.

Aregbesola spoke at the inauguration of the Osun State Command headquarters complex of the Nigeria Correctional Service in Osogbo.

He said in parts; “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.”

Essentially, it is relevant at this point to emphasize that this piece is not and can never support any form of criminality. It also supports stoutly that every wrongdoing must be subjected to a level of punishment/atonement/restitution but such measure must not be devoid of a human face or stripped of compliance with international best practices, human rights instruments and treaties or covenants.

Beyond these clarifications, this piece painfully observes as follows;

Separate from the fact that the latest utterance from Aregbesola confirms his earlier disclosure upon resumption, that except the stories he read about the ministry on the pages of the newspapers, he had no idea of its policies and operations. There exist major particulars/troubling concerns that further plague the Minister’s current claim on death sentence and characterizes same as a reality to worry about by all development and civil liberty-minded world.

First and very fundamental is that at about the same time that the nation’s Interior Minister was urging Governors to sign the death warrant of convicted inmates, the Government of Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa, on the Atlantic Ocean, with Freetown as the capital city, and still recovering after decades of civil war, was standing up against capital punishment in their country.

The majority of the lawmakers in Sierra Leone’s parliament, reports said voted to abolish the death penalty. Capital punishment in that West African state will be replaced with life imprisonment or a minimum 30-year jail term.

Also, in May, Justice Minister Umaru Napoleon Koroma announced that the government would move to ban the death penalty to “uphold the fundamental human rights of Sierra Leoneans.” President Julius Maada Bio must still sign off on the abolition voted by parliament.

The above fact elicits the question; If Sierra Leone, a  former British colony, with a population of 7.5 million but currently remains one of the poorest in the world as its economy was ravaged by a 1991-2002 civil war that claimed 120,000 lives, followed by an Ebola epidemic from 2014 to 2016, could despite this challenges reason aright-talking about human rights protection, why can’t the Federal Government of Nigeria, a nation that prides itself as the giant of Africa and the most populous black nation in the world, bury its pride and draw a lesson from Sierra Leone?

If achieving prison decongestion is the Minister’s goal, it will again necessitate the question as to what step has he taken to consider the reports that almost 70 per cent of the prison population comprises awaiting trial inmates? What is the federal government doing to ensure that such cases are dispensed swiftly? Instead of advocating for the execution of death sentences, why can’t the FG envision making the nation’s prisons truly correctional centres where inmates can be reformed and reintegrated back to society?

Even as an answer(s) is awaited to the above, another ill, inherent in the latest declaration by the Minister is the fact that it comes at a time when the dust raised by a similar feeble attempt by the Senate to reintroduce a bill it abandoned under pressure last year through which it sought to impose the death penalty on “any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person was yet to settle.

Let’s look at the United Nations ‘log book’ of which Nigeria is a member, to distinguish the global community’s position on capital punishment.

At Italy’s instigation, the UN moratorium on the death penalty resolution was presented by the EU in partnership with eight co-author member States to the General Assembly of the United Nations, calling for general suspension (not abolition) of capital punishment throughout the world.

It was twice affirmed: first, on 15 November 2007 by the Third Committee, and then subsequently reaffirmed on 18 December by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 62/149. New Zealand played a central role in facilitating agreement between the co-author group and other supporters.

It calls on States that maintain the death penalty to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty with a view to abolition, and in the meantime, to restrict the number of offences which it punishes and to respect the rights of those on death row. It also calls on States that have abolished the death penalty not to reintroduce it.

On 18 December 2007, the United Nations General Assembly voted 104 to 54 in favour of resolution A/RES/62/149, which proclaims a global moratorium on the death penalty, with 29 abstentions (as well as 5 absent at the time of the vote). Italy had proposed and sponsored this resolution. After the resolution’s approval, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema declared: “Now we must start working on the abolition of the death penalty”.

Likewise, on 18 December 2008, the General Assembly adopted another resolution (A/RES/63/168) reaffirming its previous call for a global moratorium on capital punishment 106 to 46 (with 34 abstentions and another 6 were absent at the time of the vote). Working in partnership with the EU, New Zealand and Mexico were co-facilitators of the draft text which was developed over a period of six months, which Chile then presented to the UN General Assembly on behalf of cosponsors.

Similarly, on 21 December 2010, the 65th General Assembly adopted a third resolution (A/RES/65/206) with 109 countries voting in favour, 41 against and 35 abstentions (another seven countries were absent at the time of the vote). Again, on 20 December 2012, the 67th General Assembly adopted a fourth resolution (A/RES/67/176) with 111 countries voting in favour, 41 against and 34 abstentions (another seven countries were absent).

In the same span, on 18 December 2014, the 69th General Assembly adopted a fifth resolution (A/RES/69/186) with 117 countries voting in favour, 38 against and 34 abstentions (another four countries were absent).

On 19 December 2016, the 71st General Assembly adopted a sixth resolution (A/RES/71/187) with 117 countries voting in favour, 40 against and 31 abstentions (another five countries were absent).  In the same vein, on 16 December 2018, 121 voted in favour of the 7th resolution, 35 against, and 32 abstained.

To, therefore, catalyse the process that will bring about sustained decongestion of Nigeria’s correctional centres, the Federal Government in my view, must first, find creative ways of arresting acts/actions that take Nigerians to prison. They must create employment for Nigerians as ‘an idle mind is a devil’s workshop’. We must reinvest in the education sector to positively empower Nigerians.

Above all, we must admit new understanding by security experts across the world that to quell the challenge of insecurity/criminality is no longer about sending criminals to prison or the government holding all of the powerful weapons but a function of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of unstable individuals. And using research on issues related to criminality for informed policy decision-making/roadmaps.

Nigeria must urgently learn to join the rest of the world in doing the needful.

Jerome-Mario Utomi is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos. He could be reached via [email protected]/08032725374.

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