The right of man to life is the most fundamental of all human rights. Indeed, the right to life is a universal right. However, various jurisdictions recognize permissible limitation to this universal right. In Nigeria, such permissible limitation includes the imposition of the death penalty. The death penalty is provided for in section 33(1) of the Nigerian constitution.
Specifically, the cited section provides as follows: “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 one has been found guilty in Nigeria”. Sub section (2) says that a person shall not be regarded as having been deprived of his life in contravention of this section, if he dies as a result of the use, to such extent and in such circumstances as are permitted by law, of such force as is reasonably necessary (a) For the defence of any person from unlawful violence or for the defence of property: (b) In order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; or (c) For the purpose of suppressing a riot, insurrection or mutiny.”
In Nigeria, today, five offences are punishable by death. These include: murder, treason, treachery, directing and controlling or presiding at an unlawful trial by ordeal from which death results, and conviction for armed robbery. The introduction of the sharia criminal law in some states in northern Nigeria widened offences punishable by death. For instance, under sharia law, death penalty can be applied for sexual crimes. There have been worldwide appeals and campaigns aiming to abolish death penalty. Indeed, various international and regional instruments against death penalty are on the increase. Each year, since 1997, the United Nations Commission on Human rights has passed a resolution calling on countries that have not abolished the death penalty to establish a moratorium on executions.
Although the death penalty still remains constitutionally valid in Nigeria, there has been a national debate on the death penalty issue While many argue for its retention, others argue for its abolition. Just recently, a five-man panel of the Supreme Court led by Justice Walter Onnoghen, in its unanimous judgement, ordered the immediate execution of Lagos-based pastor and the General Overseer of the Christian Praying Assembly, Rev. Chukwuemeka Ezeugo, aka Rev. King. The apex court dismissed the appeal by the controversial cleric challenging the verdict of the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal, which had affirmed the conviction and the sentence passed on him by the Lagos High Court. Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, who read the lead judgement of the court, resolved all the 12 issues raised by Rev. King in his appeal against him and dismissed the entire appeal for lacking in merit.
The judgement dealt a final blow on the last effort by Rev. King to free himself from the death sentence, which had been hanging around his neck for over nine years create life. But the essence of punishment is to serve as deterrent, so that people will not commit crime and get away with it. Imagine an armed robber who derives pleasure in taking the life of others. When he is caught and sentenced, some will say he should not be killed because life is precious. Is that fair? He takes other peoples life, why should he be afraid to die?. If somebody commits and offence that is heinous like murder or arson, I personally do not see why he should not be put to death. This is because if people are not punished for the offence committed it will emboldened them to commit more heinous crimes’’. However, death sentence should be used sparingly only for heinous crimes like murder’’.
But a law lecturer at the University of Lagos, Professor Akin Ibidapo-Obe, had called for the abolition of death penalty in Nigeria in a paper titled: ‘Jurisprudential Review of Death Penalty under Regional and International Human Rights Instruments: Implications for Nigeria’’. While explaining how the death penalty had moved, over the years: from the retributive stage, to rehabilitation, to deterrence, and now to restorative justice; Ibidapo-Obe stated that the ruling class had continually used it to “take care” of their enemies. “Over time, there has been a rampant use and abuse by the powers that be to advance their hegemony over their enemies.” A Lagos- based lawyer, Mr. Ike Uko agrees that ‘’ Capital punishment is no longer fashionable and most jurisdictions are abolishing it for at the end it serves no good.
The constitution of Nigeria grants right to life and gives exceptions when life can be taken including as punishment for capital offences like murder and treason. However, mistakes could be made in the court of trial and when a wrong man is killed through faulty judicial process the life cannot be restored. Most religions abhor shedding of blood in error. Most of these governors may be afraid of the spiritual consequences of shedding innocent blood in error and so they play safe by avoidance. We should find an alternative to capital punishment for it is not the answer to crime. Firing squad could not stop armed robbery and drug trafficking. The Human Rights Law Service (HURILAWS) strongly opposes the death penalty and maintains that the death penalty is contrary to the very essence of the notions of human dignity and liberty and statistics have shown that it has no deterrent effect whatsoever.
The irreversibility of the death penalty contradicts the idea that criminals can be rehabilitated and resocialised and for this reason, contradicts the notion of freedom and dignity. Our unpredictable and error-prone criminal justice system presents a “clear and present danger” that innocent citizens may be executed and makes it imperative that alternatives be sought and we propose life sentence. The death penalty is nothing but a remnant of an old system based on vengeance that he who has taken a life should suffer from the same fate. Justice has risen above such a traditional notion of punishment by adopting a principle of a symbolic, yet proportional sanction for the harm done; life imprisonment, fines, etc. The evolution of international law tends towards the abolition of the death penalty.
The Rome statute of the international criminal court and the UN Security Council resolutions establishing the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda do not provide for the death CONTINUED FROM PAGE 33 penalty in the range of sanctions. Specific international and regional instruments have been adopted which aims to abolish capital punishment. In his view, the founder of Crusade for Justice, Richard Nwankwo said ‘’ the issue of death punishment is an international challenge because there have been a lot of agitations for the abolition of capital punishment but we must also appreciate the fact that that agitation has not taken root or succeeded in Nigeria and as the law stands today, capital punishment is also recognised within the provisions of the constitution.
‘’I do not think there is anything esoteric about the conviction of Rev. King because I believe that he had an exceedingly fair trial from the Magistrate Court to the High Court to the Court of Appeal down to the Supreme Court, we must also appreciate the fact that justice is not for the lowly alone, that if you run foul of the law irrespective of your social pedigree, your religious pedigree or your intellectual pedigree that you must be subjected to the strict provisions of the laws of the land and that is what has happened in Rev. King’s case.
It is unfortunate that he is convicted, it is also unfortunate that the Court of Appeal upheld the decision, it is also sad that the Supreme Court upheld the judgment of the Court of Appeal but we must appreciate the fact that there was absolute compliance with due process in his case and that having being found guilty of all the tripartite platforms as far as justice delivery is concerned in Nigeria that it will be morally reprehensible for anybody to make a sarcastic comment about that judgment. The danger in the non-implementation of the death penalty is that it has also compounded the problem in Nigerian prisons, which is already suffering from congestion,