Prison congestion: Death warrants to the rescue?

In Nigeria over 3,000 condemned criminals are on death row awaiting the hangman even as the Minister of Interior, Mr Rauf Aregbesola, pushes for state governors to sign death warrants to decongest the prisons. In this report  KEHINDE OSASONA examines the possibility of decongesting Nigeria prisons by executing death warrants.

Nigeria is among countries with the highest number of death warrants as reports indicate that at least 3,008 condemned criminals were waiting for execution in various custodial facilities across the country.

Rivers state has the highest number of these condemned criminals with 157, followed by Delta state with 149.

Ogun state has 132; Plateau state; 126; Lagos state 83; Kaduna state 79; Enugu state 75; Kano state 51; Katsina state 43; Edo state 35; Cross River state 17; Jigawa state 18; and Kebbi state 13.

Others are Kwara with 12; Federal Capital Territory (FCT) 10; Niger state 10; Ondo state seven; Benue state six; Sokoto state six; Osun state five; and Taraba state four.

Further breakdown of the figure reveals 2,952 males and 56 females.

A report by Amnesty International (AI) noted that capital punishment has ceased working, stating there was a wealth of mounting evidence that proves it.

According to AI, not less than 2,466 death sentences were issued by governments in 2014 alone with Nigeria leading in issuing death sentences in 2014.

The General Muhammadu Buhari-led regime between December 31, 1983 and August 27, 1985, enacted Decree 20 which carried a death penalty but after outcry by members of the civil societies including the AI, there came a moratorium that countries should not undertake executions for seven years.

However, before a death sentence was executed it must be endorsed by state governors where judgments were passed before implementation.

Lately, there is apprehension that governors use their prerogative of mercy and other excuses to commute death sentences such that for a long time now.

Successive governors have refused to sign death warrants, thereby further congesting the prisons.

Nigerian Prisons Service (NPS) disclosed recently that state governors are responsible for the high number of condemned inmates in prisons as they were unwilling to approve the executions.

According to NPS, there are about 1,640 condemned people in prison formations across the country, they have therefore implored the state governors to sign death warrants for execution or commute death sentences to prison terms.

Also, speaking on the matter at an event earlier in the year, the Controller-General of the Correctional Service, Haliru Nababa, noted that some governors declined to sign death warrants on humanitarian, political, religious, emotional and ethnic grounds.

Nababa, who spoke through the Spokesperson of the correctional service, Francis Enabore, said: “We can understand some governors 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 from 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.

“To effectively decongest our correctional centres, there is the need for the courts, police and the correctional service to cooperate.

Aregbesola calls out govs

Last week, while advancing the need to manage the correctional facilities across the six geo-political zones in the country and to ease congestion considerably, the minister of interior urged 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.

Aregbesola, who spoke at the inauguration of the Osun State Command headquarters complex of the Nigeria Correctional Service in Osogbo, stated that the measure would go a long way, stating it would further bring to closure the cases involving the inmates.

The minister, who enumerated three avenues to decongest prisons, added that governors could accelerate the wheel of justice, as many inmates had been in custody for a period longer than the maximum sentence their alleged offences carry, which according to him was miscarriage of justice.

Aregbesola also urged states to share in the burden of decongesting custodial facilities by constructing holding centres, adding that all the states needed to do was to build the facilities to specification and set aside a sum for the maintenance of inmates, while the NCS provided the personnel to man and run the facilities.

He said, “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.

“In cases where appeal has been exhausted and the convicts are not mounting any challenge to their conviction, the state should go ahead, one, to do the needful and bring closure to their cases; two, 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 behaviour; and three, commute others’ sentences to life or a specific term in jail.”

The antagonists

Coming at a time when there is global outcry against capital punishment, some organisations have started reacting and condemning the minister’s advocacy.

While raising a concern recently, a non-governmental organisation, Carmelite Prisoners’ Interest Organisation, condemned the call to governors to sign execution warrants of 3,008 inmates who are on death row in the various custodial centres across Nigeria.

The Executive Director of CAPIO, Rev. Fr. Jude Isiguzo, described Aregbesola’s statement as unfair and a violation of the right to life.

The clergy said Nigeria needed to learn from countries like Malawi and Sierra Leone that had abolished death penalty.

“Death penalty is a violation of human rights and the African Union moratorium on executions. It will be a miscarriage of justice to sign the death warrant, while repentant insurgents and bandits who commit grievous crimes are ignored or even granted amnesty.

“The current congestion in Nigerian custodial centres is as a result of the alarming number of inmates awaiting trial, not the number of inmates on death row.

“The statistics revealed by the minister show that there are 68,747 inmates across the custodial centres in Nigeria and only 17,755 are the actual convicts. A simple mathematics shows that 50,992 inmates are awaiting trial,” he said.

Isiguzo said that the premise that 3,008 inmates on death row congested the custodial centres was non-factual.

“We urge state governors to refrain from approving the death warrant of such inmates. We equally appeal to the governors to grant state pardon to those who have spent 10 years and above in accordance with the Correctional Service Act 2019,” he said.

…Lawyer too

In an exclusive chat with Blueprint Weekend, an Abuja based lawyer Mathew Echo said although governors in the country have the constitutional power to sign death warrants of convicts on death rows, he noted that the ‘governors too have emotions’ hence the attitude displayed towards the signing.

According to Echo, globally, killings of human beings via execution is no longer popular, saying a lot of international conventions now condemn sentencing to death by judicial authorities.

He said, “The sanctity of life and the need to commute death sentences to life imprisonment has taken the centre stage.

“In line with the law, the minister’s argument that made him advocate signing of the warrant was premised on the need to decongest the prisons rights? But when you talk about decongestion, I believe that when you take statistics, the number of persons in the death rows might be just 1 or 2 percent of the general population of prisoners nationwide.

“So, urging governors to sign death warrants at a time like this may not be the way out for prison decongestion, after all.

“There are a lot of persons languishing in the prison yards that have not been brought to court or even awaiting trials. These are the people we should be focusing on because they constitute the majority of our prison inmates.

“For me it would be better if energy is channelled towards that area and ensure that a lot of efforts is put into ensuring that people has their days in court and get justice, and by that where necessary, bails can be granted and people come for proceedings rather than clamping them in a prison yard. The move is not a welcome idea and won’t do the system any good going forward,” Echo added.