A new report from rights group Amnesty International spotlights sub-Saharan Africa as a “beacon of hope” in the fight to abolish the death penalty as the number of state-sanctioned executions and death sentences dropped around the globe in 2017.
“I feel like there’s a momentum in sub-Saharan Africa and that’s partly because of public pressure around that, and it’s partly because judges in some cases can use more discretion,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s Deputy West and Central Africa Regional Director for Research.
In 2017, Guinea became the 20th country in sub-Saharan Africa to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, and Kenya’s Supreme Court abolished the mandatory death penalty for murder, a remnant of a colonial-era penal code. Kenya’s judiciary must now re-sentence death row inmates convicted of murder.
“For the first time as a country, we are beginning to really confront what death penalty means to us as a nation,” Jedida Waruhiu, an official for the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, told VOA.
Amnesty proposes that death sentences be commuted to life imprisonment. However, Waruhiu expressed concern for the plight of inmates, describing life sentences as “degrading” and “inhuman.”
Burkina Faso is drafting a new constitution that rights activists expect will outlaw the death penalty. The same goes for Gambia, as it continues with a host of reforms following the ouster of President Yahya Jammeh in 2016.
“It’s a great thing. I feel so much victorious. Look, here is something I was fighting for, for 40-something years. It’s become real,” said Baba Leigh, a prominent Gambian activist who was once detained and tortured for his outspoken criticism of the Jammeh government’s execution of prison inmates.
While use of the death penalty has been in decline over the last 40 years, Amnesty International is careful to note that the global drop in 2017 was preceded by record highs in executions in 2015 and death sentences in 2016.
Somalia and South Sudan
Just two sub-Saharan African countries — Somalia and South Sudan — carried out executions in 2017, compared to five in 2016, according to the report. Somalia had by far the most for the region, with Amnesty reporting 24 executions there last year.
VOA spoke with Somali activist Abdi Salam Adan, who said the death penalty is needed to fight terrorism.
“In Somalia’s case, it happens when they suspect someone who is a member of al-Shabab terror group. They investigate and then they say OK, he is among those people who killed innocent Somali’s. They kill. They shoot him. Sometimes they have to kill because he has killed someone and in Islamic law, if you kill you, have to be killed,” Adan said.
Numerous studies have shown, however, that the death penalty does not actually deter people from committing crime.
Major cities in Nigeria have reported more cases of armed robbery, theft, sexual assault and kidnapping in the past three years, as the gap between rich and poor has widened. Meanwhile, Nigeria has continued to lead the pack for death sentences in sub-Saharan Africa with 527 death sentences handed down last year and more than 2,000 inmates currently on death row, according to Amnesty.
“What we need to do is to invest in our youth, invest in education, invest in employment, invest in other ways of reducing crime, especially violent crime, in our society and this is what our country has failed to do over the years,” said prison reform activist Sylvester Uhaa.
Last year, a joint report by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics and the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime revealed that the Nigerian police force and other agents of the legal systems — including judges, magistrates and prosecutors — are the most corrupt public officials in the country, often extorting bribes for cases.
“If you can’t pay bribe, you don’t have someone who will immediately come to that police station who commands respect and the police will be afraid; I’m sorry, they’ll say, you committed armed robbery, even if you were just found on the streets … or you were in your house,” Uhaa said.
Nigeria last carried out an execution in 2016. An official at the Nigerian Prison Service told VOA that state governors increasingly are reluctant to actually sign death warrants. Instead, a few governors last year commuted dozens of death sentences to life imprisonment.
Rael Ombuor contributed reporting from Nairobi.