by Wilfred Mamah
Published on: Jul 27, 2004
Type: Opinions

In a recent death penalty abolition forum, I observed a crack in the abolitionists' camp. A journalist, a supposed death penalty abolition crusader, spoke up and stunned participants. Drawing curious distinction between herself as a journalist, who writes in favour of abolition, and her person as an individual, a concerned Nigerian, the journalist raised serious doubts about the utilitarianism of abolishing capital sentence in a country like Nigeria. Put briefly, her thesis was that Nigeria is not yet ripe for such a radical step, which will in fact; impede safety, security and development. Illustrating her position with copious references to her recent encounter with violent criminals, my journalist friend concluded that we should discard the struggle for death penalty abolition or moratorium and concentrate energies on other issues like, deepening democracy, increasing well-being and minimizing ill-being.

When she was done, it was clear that "retentionists" (i.e. those in support of retention of capital sentence) have infiltrated the abolitionists' camp. But, I saw beyond that. It came across to me strongly that a thin line divides "abolitionists" and "retentionists" and anyone who fails to mind the gap can easily stumble to the other side. It also struck me that those who clamour for abolition have failed over the years to identify the missing implement in its toolkit of engagement, let alone taking any decisive steps to supply the missing fundamentals. As an unrepentant abolitionist, I feel called upon to lead this discussion in evaluating the abolitionist movement so far, particularly in calling attention to where the "banana peels are carefully hidden". I do this because; this is a struggle we cannot afford to fail. This is because if we do fail, Africa fails and the current global march towards abrogation of this inhuman and unusual punishment will be stunted, because globalisation, no matter how conceived, will be a sham without Africa.

The first problem we face in the abolitionists' camp is in the realm of conceptual clarification, worsened by absence of supporting statistics. The second area of concern borders on issues of co-ordination among stakeholders. This is compounded by the Nigerian mentality of "everyone must be the boss". In an earlier reflection, I called this mentality, the "big man's culture" which I identified as the "black man's burden" Building coalition has become problematic and the scramble for floating NGOs can today equal that for setting up miracle centers. We dissipate energies and we fail to gather enough force to push for reform. The third gap is a follow up to the earlier ones and that is funding. No serious reform campaign can be undertaken in absence of funds. Local and international grants to push for issues like this come in trickles. Absence of funds is exacerbated by lack of political will. Government seems to be speaking from both sides of its mouth. No one can say for sure, whether government, at all levels are in support of abolition or retention or whether it is standing on the fence, which in fact implies standing nowhere.

We will now examine the issues seriatim. Although we may not agree with the journalist who spoke as an individual, that abolition of capital sentence will impede safety, security and growth, it is indeed painful to observe that she may be speaking the minds of over 60% of Nigerians. Many Nigerians are getting frustrated about the current increase in violent crimes. In an answer to the enigma of crime, many are clamouring for the heads of violent offenders. Some have even gone a step further to constitute themselves into prosecutor, defence and judge, and that's why people have been stripped naked and burnt to ashes for stealing paltry sums of money or household items, like tooth paste, in a country like this where billions of naira are stolen armed with a pen.

The abolitionists who should face the angry people in the streets with superior arguments that decimation of violent offenders is not the answer, regrettable are bereft of statistics. Hence, we lack the means to lead our society through a thorough self-examination, like, why are they criminals? Were they born criminals? Could it be that environmental factors, like failing governance have pushed them to crimes? Some of us, in the abolitionist camp do not seem to believe in the stuff they package for sale, since they easily trip to the other sides, once violent offenders confront them. We all know how boring it could be to listen to a preacher that does not believe in what he preaches. Our advocacy strategy is further weakened by resort to religious argumentation, like "Life is sacred. It belongs to God and should not be taken for any cause" This line of argument often infuriates the hardened "retentionists", as they equally retort "What of the victim's life? Is that not sacred too?” And we are back to square one.

The abolitionist foot soldiers are in the battlefield with broken focus and broken rank. We lack co-ordination because everyone wants to go solo. Coalition building in Nigeria has become problematic. Vain issues like money, power and influence often intrude to misbalance worthy coalition building efforts. In my several years of working within the human rights movement in Nigeria, I have had cause to attend several meetings where coalitions are built. Most of these efforts collapse curiously as a result of "human rights abuse" I use "human rights abuse" advisedly to refer to the blatant refusal by the "power blocks", i.e. those behind the coalition, to share information and to allow coalition members to participate. This "gate-keeping" mechanism raises serious questions of accountability and intent. As a result of this, tongues are wagging as to what actually drives human rights work in Nigeria. People have asked whether we are actually working for the poor or using the poor as a ladder to wealth. It needs to be stated clearly, that the primary motivation for human rights work is to "give voice to human suffering, to make it visible and find a way of pushing governmental policies towards amelioration" If we agree on this, then, we must be able to build strong coalition and work where our strength lies. It is on this note that we should applaud the efforts of the Human Rights Law Service, (HURILAWS) for its consistency on issues of death penalty abolition. The case of Onuoha Kalu Vs State, which the organisation fought, is a locus classicus on the issue of constitutionality of death penalty. It could safely be said that just as one cannot discuss death penalty abolition in the United States without Furman and Georgia, one cannot also discuss the abolition movement in Nigeria without Onuoha Kalu Vs State. In the same way, it will be pretty difficult to talk of police reform in Nigeria without CLEEN. If we identify individual strengths like these coalitions, building around core strengths becomes easier.

Funding is the next critical gap that has raised the stake higher in human rights work. It seems that international grant agencies are becoming extra-careful in dishing out funds. No one should actually blame them; for the simple reason that some have "fed fat on international grants, only to defecate on the feet of grantors". We cannot run away from issues of transparency and accountability. For quite some time now, Nigeria has continued to occupy a frontline position in the international corruption index. There are allegations that some have secured funding and failed to apply it properly. There is an Ibo proverb that when one finger is soiled with oil, other fingers ultimately get soiled. But that proverb is at poles with my notion of justice. The fact remains that there are many pro-poor/development organisations that are doing very well and need to be supported. I feel strongly that death penalty and justice reform issues are sexy areas that ought to attract funding. I see an interconnection between a virile justice system and economic growth. It is obvious therefore that needs/seeds and other development paradigms will not pan out if we fail to rebuild the justice substratum. On issues of funding, it should further be noted that it is high time we looked inward and map out strategies for raising funding locally. I am yet to understand why we have not been able to get the private sectors interested in human rights/ development work. I feel strongly that human work ought to fall within the compass of corporate social responsibility. I think we should also think of creating a partnership with the private sectors.

For the abolitionists, I think the priority funding need now should be on the area of statistics. It would be interesting to know how many Nigerians have been executed and for what crimes? Any proven instance of the execution of an innocent person? What of the background of those executed? Could it be true that death sentences are disproportionately being used against the poor? What of crime statistics and how has death sentences impacted on it?

Another critical are of concern, is the issue of political will. In a democracy, you have to follow a process to change anything. If for instance, we desire to push for a moratorium, we will need the legislatures. I am afraid we have not been able to lobby our way through the government system. Our advocacy/lobbying strategies seem weak. The present administration seems keen on reform. The problem some of us encounter in evaluating government's passion for reform, is where to draw the line between theory and practice. For instance, on the issue of death penalty, I have heard top government officials say that it should be abolished in line with international movement towards abolition. I am aware of the commendable efforts of the Attorney General of the Federation on issues of Justice Reform, incorporating death penalty. I am equally aware that the AG's study Group will soon come up with its report, but I am worried however on issue of implementation. I cannot say for sure whether a Bill to abolish or institute a moratorium regime would sail through. My worries are further compounded by absence of strong co-ordination among civil society groups and the weak interface with government's efforts. We are however hoping that the recent coalition building efforts will pan out results.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest that abolitionists and retentionists compare notes and fashion out common grounds. It seems to me that there are several common grounds, on which we can build a consensus. For instance, we all agree that crimes are serious problems and proven offenders should be punished. We agree that innocent people should not be punished. We also agree that Nigerian criminal justice system faces serious problems at various fronts. For instance, we agree that the present method of apprehension and investigation by police is not in the best of shape. We agree that there is a likelihood of corruption and miscarriage of justice, and so on. If we compare notes and agree on all those, our task may be easier. We will now be considering whether punishment should fit the crime or be adequate for the offender's rehabilitation and reclamation. We may think of analysing the trend at international level. For instance, Nigeria has ratified the International Criminal Court Treaty, otherwise referred to as the Rome Statute. Article 5 of the ICC Treaty provides for offences within the jurisdiction of the ICC. The offences listed are as follows: The crime of Genocide, Crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. Article 6 to 8 clearly defines some of these crimes. From the definitions, these are terrible crimes often committed as part of widespread attack directed against any civilian population. They are in form of multiple murders, serial rape and sexual slavery etc. In Article 76 bothering on issues of sentencing, we find that the severest punishment that could be meted out is in fact life imprisonment. I feel comparison like the above could help us. I think what has happened is that society is now looking beyond the criminal. The criminal may deserve death, but the society, standing on a higher pedestal than the depraved offender, will refuse to kill him, but rather seek to recapture him to become a useful member of the society. Let me say this finally, with all due respect for the "retentionists": I feel strongly that the days of death penalty in Nigeria are numbered. Soon, very soon, Nigerian public will be better informed about the complex issues involved, and I foresee a massive deflection to the abolitionists' camp. Issues like, why are they criminals and what has government done to discourage criminality, will soon be receiving greater emphasis than the hurried decimation of a generation our youths on the basis of a backward-looking notion of "an eye for an eye"

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