Amnesty International, the libertarian crusader for near-absolute rights, has just released its 2017 annual report on capital punishment, aka death penalty. It thinks the world is making progress, although slow, towards abolishing the death penalty. According to its figures, 171 persons were sentenced to death in the world in 2015, while 527 were similarly sentenced in 2016.
The organisation feels that more progress is being made in sub-Saharan Africa, where Guinea has abolished this extreme punishment for any crime. Burkina Faso and Chad have also taken steps to repeal their laws that allow capital punishment. Amnesty International believes that the progress in sub-Saharan Africa has reinforced its position as “a beacon of hope for abolition.” It also described death penalty as “ultimate, cruel, inhuman and degrading.”
The death penalty debate is not new either in Nigeria or elsewhere. Whenever a controversial execution is made or a criminal considered by the public to be guilty and deserving of the death treatment is freed the debate comes alive again. In Nigeria, 621 convictions were reportedly made in 2017 but there has been no execution of the convicts.
Apart from the 2017 convictions there are many others who have been on death row for years without any death warrant issued by the appropriate authorities for their execution. Are the authorities in Nigeria having a second thought about the desirability or usefulness or the real value of capital punishment as a deterrent?
However, according to Wikipedia, 56 countries still retain the death penalty in their statute books, while 103 countries have completely abolished it. Six countries have abolished it for ordinary crimes except war crimes. But the picture is not pretty for the crusaders for capital punishment abolition because 60 per cent of the world’s population live in countries where death penalty is in force.
These countries include China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, USA, Bangladesh, Japan and Sri Lauka. This means that most people who commit extreme crimes in the world are still in danger of being hanged, electrocuted, beheaded, shot or being sent to death through lethal injection. Many of these countries, however, reserve the death penalty only for such serious crimes as human trafficking, drug trafficking, espionage, serious corruption cases, terrorism, war crimes and treason.
In many countries, persons under 18 years of age are regarded as minors and are not subjected to capital punishment when they commit offences that are deserving of the maximum penalty. But there are several countries that are not so liberal.
Whether the offenders are minors or adults the punishment is the same, no discrimination or preferential treatment. The countries, which treat all criminals, minors or adults, the same way, are China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, United States, Yemen, Bangladesh and Nigeria. In their thinking, a criminal is a criminal and that there is no minor who can kill, for example, who does not know that it is bad to kill someone for any reason whatever.
Around the world, the fate of the death penalty has been hanging in the balance. As violent or extreme crimes increase, the debate raises its head again as to whether or not abolishing capital punishment is the best option for societal stability.
Even some countries such as Sudan, Botswana and Philippines, which had abolished the death penalty, have reintroduced it. The Philippines abolished it in 1987 but reintroduced it six years later because of increasing crime, especially drug-related offences.
In the 70s and 80s, the military governments of Nigeria thought they had discovered a smart way of dealing with extreme crime such as armed robbery and drug smuggling. They always tied the criminals to the stakes at the Bar Beach in Lagos, while a battery of sharp shooters would line up to pluck them down. It was always announced in advance and Nigerians, even those who are not blood-thirsty, thought it was a spectacle worth watching.
There was a particular armed robber, Mr. Oyenusi, whose exploits were infested with stories of mysterious disappearances and invincibility. As undergraduates, we trooped to the Bar Beach on the day of his execution to see if he would perform the disappearing act. He did not. The soldiers simply despatched him with a couple of bullets. He slumped. His invincibility story died with him.
During Major General Muhammadu Buhari’s first coming as a military dictator, he ordered the killing of three young men who were convicted of cocaine offences. There was a public uproar not because the public approved of their offences but because the government enacted a decree and backdated it. In other words, the punishment, death, did not exist when the offence was committed.
After that execution that law was never utilised again for punishing drug offenders. I have no idea whether the military governments in Nigeria shared the views expressed by Charles Dickens and Karl Marx that crimes tended to increase when criminals were executed publicly. Their view was that public executions were a glamourisation of crime and that made the invitation to try it an attraction. In subsequent years, convicts for capital offences in Nigeria were put away quietly and later announced to the public. This approach was adopted in the execution of convicted coup plotters and in the hanging of Mr. Ken Saro Wiwa, the Niger Delta activist, by the Sani Abacha government.
But the arguments are not necessarily whether or not capital offenders should be killed secretly but in fact whether they should be killed at all. These arguments have been canvassed by proponents and opponents of capital punishment for years. There is yet no universal resolution of the matter.
There are those who think that criminology should be approached from a utilitarian point of view, that is, what punishment for crime can do for society. They believe that extreme punishment obviously deters extreme crime and eventually reduces the volume of extreme crime and the trauma it brings to humankind.
They also feel that, if a murderer is sent to death, the victim of the murder and the relatives have received some form of justice. They argue also that the loss of someone through death is not comparable to a long jail term that the murderer can be given in more liberal jurisdictions. They also argue that extreme crimes are more rampant today because of the campaign by some liberal bodies for milder punishments for extreme crimes.
They buttress their position by asserting that even some countries that had a moratorium on the death penalty are now reversing their positions and bringing death back as punishment.
On the other hand, organisations such as Amnesty International believe that the death penalty is inhumane and is a violation of the person’s right to life. They also think that it encourages a culture of violence.
This thesis is unproven because those on the other side of the divide also think that it actually discourages violence, since no one in his right senses would like to commit an offence that can take away his life, if convicted. Everyone loves life, they posit. However, there is a valid argument that someone innocent can be convicted and sentenced to death, if something goes wrong with the judicial process.
If that is the case and an innocent person is sent to the gallows the mistake cannot be reviewed. This element of irreversibility and finality is a valid argument in the hands of the crusaders for abolition. But with the scaling up of violent crimes by terrorists, suicide bombers and extremists of various stripes, the argument for the killing of the death penalty will become weaker by the day.