There are 73,102 inmates in Nigeria. Over 2745 of them have been sentenced and are waiting to die for over 10 years now.
Celestine Egbunuche’s story is not the type you hear very often. In 2000, he and his son Paul were arrested by the police following a death in his community in Imo State.
The police accused Egbunuche, then 82, and Paul, then 22, of hiring some individuals who kidnapped and murdered a man in litigation over land ownership. They were tried, convicted and sentenced to death by a high court in 2014.
In 2018, he clocked 100, becoming Nigeria’s oldest prisoner. His death warrant was never signed. Father and son maintained their innocence.
Following pressure from a non-governmental organisation, the Global Society for Anti Corruption and the media, Egbunuche received a state pardon from former Governor Rochas Okorocha in 2019.Paul was not so lucky. He is still at the Enugu Maximum Security Prison, awaiting the hangman’s noose.
2,745 death row inmates
Paul is not alone.The Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) stated last year that there were 2,745 death row inmates in the country.
One of the most notorious of them is the self-proclaimed leader of the Christian Praying Assembly, Rev. Chukuemeke Ezeugo King. King’s death sentence was confirmed by the Supreme Court and he has been awaiting the hang man’s noose for more than 10 years.
He was arraigned on September 26, 2006 on a six-count charge of attempted murder and murder but he pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
He was sentenced to death by the Lagos State High Court, Ikeja, on January 11, 2007 for the murder of Ann Uzoh and the Court of Appeal, Lagos, upheld his death sentence in 2013.
On February 26, 2016, a seven-man panel of Justices of the apex court, led by former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, then a justice of the apex court, confirmed the death sentence that was earlier handed to Ezeugo by the Lagos State High Court.
The verdict was delivered on behalf of the justices of the apex court by Justice Sylvester Ngwuta.
The justices held: “This appeal has no merit. The judgment of the Court of Appeal is hereby affirmed. The prison sentence that was earlier handed to the appellant is no longer relevant in view of the death sentence passed on him.”
On January 28, 2020, the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, convicted and sentenced Maryam Sanda to death by hanging for killing her husband, Bilyaminu Bello.
Delivering judgment, Justice Yusuf Halilu said: “Every available evidence” had proved that Maryam “fatally” stabbed her husband to death in Abuja on November 19, 2017.
Last December 17, Justice Raliat Adebiyi of an Ikeja High Court in Lagos sentenced a Nigerian prince to death by hanging for strangling his boss to death and dumping her body in a well.
Prince Adewale Oyekan murdered Alhaja Sikirat Ekun, a businesswoman and politician, on October 1, 2012. Oyekan, who managed Ekun’s restaurant, paid her former domestic servant, Lateef Balogun, N6,000 to kill her, the prosecution said.
The pair strangled the 62-year-old woman before throwing her body down a 1,000feet well in her home.
Justice Adebiyi said: “For this reason, the first and second defendants are hereby sentenced accordingly on each of counts one and two to death by hanging. May God the giver of life have mercy on your soul.”
Oyekan is the son of Oba Adeyinka Oyekan, king of Lagos, who died in 2003.
Death row prisoner crisis
But because the death sentence is not often carried out in Nigeria, prisoners like Paul, King and Sanda will stay on in prison without hope of obtaining state pardon and swelling the overstretched prison population.
NCS Controller-General, Ahmed Ja’afaru, also stated last year that 2,745 of inmates who have spent 10 years on death row live under the suspense and mental torture of death.
According to Amnesty International, between 2007 and 2017, there were seven executions – the last one taking place in 2016.
“Out of the number, a greater percentage of them may have finished appeals and are still waiting for the determination of the approving authority to either approve their execution or commit them to life imprisonment,” said Ja’afaru.
According to him, prisons across the nation have a population of 73,102 prisoners, 19,878 convicted males and 299 convicted females. Condemned male prisoners stand at 2,745, and females, 42. Prisoners awaiting trial constitute over 52,000 of this number or about 69.9 percent.
The NCS says the official capacity of the prison system is 50,153 as at July 2018, while the occupancy level (based on official capacity) was 146.8 percent.
The figure for Lagos, which has the highest condemned convicts population, is 320, The Nation learnt.
Last December 18, the NCS raised the alarm that inmates on death row were becoming difficult to control. NCS Public Relations Officer, Mr Francis Enobore, stated this during a media parley and facility tour of Dukpa Farm Centre, Gwagwalada, Abuja.
The service has about 17 farm centres spread across the country.
Enobore said: “On those on death row, we have crisis on our hands. Currently, we have 2,745 condemned persons in our facilities across the country. Of course you know that this category of inmates are very difficult to maintain or control. They are afraid of nothing because they know that they are already destined to die.”
Is death penalty legal?
Capital punishment is legal in Nigeria.
Execution of condemned persons is recognised in the 1999 Constitution as amended.
Section 33(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria(CFRN), 1999, as amended provides that “every person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria”.
Methods of execution include hanging, shooting, stoning, and since 2015, lethal injection.
Death penalty offences
Most death row inmates are kept in solitary confinement. Capital crimes include murder, terrorism-related offenses, rape, robbery, kidnapping, sodomy, homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery, incest, assisting the suicide of a person legally unable to consent, perjury in a capital case causing wrongful execution, treason, some military offences like mutiny and practice of indigenous beliefs in states applying Shariah law.
Who can sign death warrants?
In June 2013, four death row inmates were hanged in Benin City, Edo State, after their death warrants were signed by then Edo State Governor, Adams Oshiomhole.
The inmates included Osaremwinda Aigbuohian and Daniel Nsofor, whose lawyers have been struggling to obtain a stay of execution on the death sentence; and two other convicts whose identities are yet to be ascertained.
Then President Goodluck Jonathan had directed state governors to exercise their constitutional rights by signing death warrants of death row inmates in order to reduce the rising level of criminality in the country.
The state government said the governor merely carried out his constitutional requirement by signing the warrants of the convicted criminals.
The Edo State Government was correct.
Statutorily, governors are constitutionally empowered to sign death warrants. This obligation is conferred on them by Section 212 of the 1999 Constitution, Section 221 of the Penal Code and Section 319 of the Criminal Code. The sections prescribe capital punishment for murder, while sections 37 and 38 of the Criminal Code prescribe the same punishment for treasonable felony.
But governors are not bound to sign the warrants for the execution of people on death row. They can exercise their prerogative to commute such sentences to lifetime in jail or reduced the jail terms. They can also grant such convicts state pardon, just like in Egbunuche’s case, therefore putting a closure to the matter.
Why governors don’t sign death warrants
The use of the death penalty in Nigeria has generated varied opinions among people.
Governors are generally reluctant to sign death warrants on humanitarian, political, religious, emotional and ethnic grounds.
Nigerian society is largely religious and most faiths hold life as sacred.
Globally also, there is a debate on the appropriateness of death penalty as a means of punishment and there is a push for its abrogation by some non-governmental organisations, such as Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP).
In October 2014, former Governor of Delta State, Emmanuel Uduaghan, pardoned three inmates who were on death row following the recommendations by the State Advisory Council on Prerogative of Mercy.
In 2017, the Federal Government rejected the call by Amnesty International to halt the planned execution of some inmates on death row in Lagos State, and pointed that the death penalty was expressly authorised by Section 33 of the Constitution of Nigeria.
How to salvage the situation
LEDAP often observes that prolonged solitude is a punishment that is detrimental for the psychology of death row inmates and that it kills the victims incessantly and unmercifully.
Enobore suggested a way out. He said one way to address the hostile manner in which this category of inmates behave was to commute their death sentences to life imprisonment, in which case they could be locked in more spacious facilities.
There is hope on the horizon that this could become the reality sooner than later, following the passage of the Nigerian Correctional Service (NCS) Act.
Section 12 (2c) of Act provides that where an inmate on death sentence has exhausted legal procedures for appeal and a period of 10 years has elapsed without execution of the sentence, the chief judge may commute the death sentence to life imprisonment.
Written by ADEBISI ONANUGA and ROBERT EGBE