Waiting endlessly on Nigeria’s death row

Human rights groups condemn the treatment of death row prisoners.

Inmates can spend years living with uncertainty on death row, according to an Amnesty International report [AP]

Lagos, Nigeria – For 17 years, Thankgod Ebohs, an inmate of Oko Prison, lived under the threat of facing the gallows. Each day, he feared that the authorities would come for him.

Even though the state outlawed capital punishment in 2006, on June 25, 2013, Ebohs blood ran icy cold as he and four other inmates were haulted before a hangman at the Oko prison gallows.

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The father of three watched with horror as the hangman took turns on the condemned prisoners. But when it came to the turn of the furniture maker, the prison officials discovered that his death sentence was supposed to be carried out by gunshot instead – so his wait on death row was extended thanks to this bureaucratic error.

But even though Thankgod Ebohs escaped the gallows by the skin of his teeth, the trauma of seeing four colleagues hung profoundly affected him.

One of his sons, who asked for anonymity for fear of being prevented from seeing his father again, told Al Jazeera, “My father is still in a state of shock, when I saw him last September he was still weeping.”

For now Ebohs is still alive, but his family does not know how long it will be before he faces the firing squad.

Ebohs case has helped catapult the plight of death row inmates across Nigerian prisons into the limelight. Many of these inmates have been on the death row for years, enduring the psychological trauma of the daily wait for execution.

A 2008 report by Amnesty International on death row inmates in Nigeria notes that the country has about 1000 condemned prisoners. Of those, 130 have been on death row for more than 10 years, while some have been there for more than 30 years.

“We note that the average period spent on death row by prison inmates is between 10 and 15 years,” the report says. It also says that prisoners who have been on death row for more than ten years have “been diagnosed for various ailments, common among which is mental disorder”.

Justine Ljeomah, the executive director of the Human Rights Social Development and Environmental Foundation, describes the situation as unacceptable. “Keeping a death row inmate awaiting the hangman is a psychological torture on its own,” says Ljeomah.

Use of torture

But what is more worrying for Ljeomah is that more than half of all the death row inmates in Nigeria were sentenced to death on the basis of confession statements – some of which may have stemmed from torture.

In the same report, Amnesty International quotes the National Human Rights Commission on the use of torture: “The Nigerian Police and other law enforcement agencies commit the act of torture with impunity.”

There are at least 40 juvenile offenders on death row. Their ages at the time of crime ranged from 13 to 17.

by - Francis Njoku, legal practicioner

Apart from the fact that the use of torture on suspects is against international convention, Nigerian law also prohibits it. Section 34(1) (a) of the 1999 constitution ordains that “no person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment”.

“Torture of suspects by the police is a crude and primitive form of investigating crime which is also a brazen infraction on the constitution,” Francis Njoku, a legal practitioner told Al Jazeera.

Nigeria is perhaps one of the few countries that allow juvenile offenders to be sentenced to death. According to the Amnesty International report, “There are at least 40 juvenile offenders on death row. Their ages at the time of crime ranged from 13 to 17.”

Perhaps it was because of the problems plaguing the criminal justice system that swayed the federal government under the administration of former president Olusegun Obasanjo to declare a moratorium on all executions in 2006. Since then there were no executions until June 16th when President Goodluck Jonathan urged state governors to sign death warrants for death row prisoners. A week later prison authorities in Edo State sent four condemned criminals to the gallows.

Ope Fatinikun, a public relations officer with the Nigerian Prison Authorities, told Al Jazeera that the prisons were mandated to carry out the death sentence of inmates once they have recieved their death warrants. “Once we have been served the signed death warrants by the governors we have to carry out the death sentence”, he said, adding that the reluctance of the governors to sign the death warrants was the reason why there were so many prisoners on death row. 

Under Nigerian law, crimes such as armed robbery, murder, treason, conspiracy to treason or instigating invasion of Nigeria are subject to the death penalty. In some states in the northern part of the country which have a regime of Sharia as the penal system, offences such as adultery, rape, sodomy, incest and witchcraft also are subject to death sentences.

Chino Obiagwu, a national coordinator for the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP) told Al Jazeera that he wanted the commutation of all death sentences to life imprisonment, noting that studies “fail to show that the death penalty deters crimes”.

In the same vein, Kemi Okenyodo, the executive director of the CLEEN Foundation pointed out to Al Jazeera that allowing prisoners to stay on death row for long was not right. “Their sentences should be committed to life imprisonment. This is a more definite sentence, than awaiting execution and yet not knowing when it will occur.”

Mausi Segun of Human Rights Watch, however, calls for the abolition of the death penalty. “Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently irreversible and inhuman punishment,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera