"An Eye For An Eye…”
Dr. Aliyu Tilde
What do you do to a person who intentionally and knowingly killed another person without any sanction of law? Section 221 of the Penal Code, like section 319 of the Criminal Code, says he should be killed.
Before now, there was little doubt in Nigeria that the above position of law is the correct and natural one. But no more. Now, the country is about to indulge in the death penalty debate. There were press reports last week that the House has started deliberating on the issue. Though I heard the Speaker early this week denying it over the BBC Hausa Service, there is little doubt that a pro-western government like that of Obasanjo will attempt to abolish death sentence, if only to impress his international mentors. With its majority in the National Assembly, its contempt for debate and guided by the president, the ruling party may attempt a shot. Nigerians, before a decision is taken to that effect on their behalf, should better stand up and debate publicly on this important aspect of law and its impact on the future of crime in the country.
There is little doubt that Nigerians, like citizens of other countries, will be divided over the issue, though with supporters of abolition in the minority. Two months ago, Amnesty International has reported that countries in the world are divided between 112 “abolitionists” and 83 “retiontionists”, as at 2002. The abolitionists include abolitionists for all crimes; abolitionists for ordinary crimes only; and abolitionists by practice. The last group are those that have not scrapped death penalty by law, but have stayed action on it over the past decade or so. Retentionists are those that have maintained death penalty at least for ordinary crimes like murder!
Agreed, the concept of abolition death sentence is Western, but it is wrong to assume that it is very popular among citizens of western countries. For example, 38 American states still retain the death penalty and America itself is the third highest executioner in the world. So if anyone in the present Nigerian government thinks that by abolishing death penalty he is likely to earn a credit from America, he is mistaken. Let us remember that George W. Bush was, until his election as President, the governor of Texas, the most fanatical retentionist state in the US.
Before looking at the various arguments for and against death penalty, let us see the statistics of people who are actually affected by it worldwide. Amnesty International has reported that, known to the organization, in 2002, “at least 1,526 prisoners were executed in 31 countries and at least 3,248 people were sentenced to death in 67 countries”. About 81% of the executions took place in three countries only: China (1,060), Iran (113) and America (71).
It is likely that most Africans will, after reading the above figures, consider the death penalty debate a luxury. They will ask: Why bother us with the execution of only 1,526 lives annually, of criminals for that matter? Not unreasonable, any way, because in Africa, IMF, World Bank, power, ethnicity, disease and deprivation have formed a syndicate that executes thousands of Africans daily. How many Africans die of AIDS annually, for example? Why should the continent then bother about the lives of criminals, including leaders, whose actions and inactions are responsible for the loss of these lives – people like Taylor, for example?
Supporters of abolishing death penalty will argue that when life is under consideration, numbers do not count. If a single sentence in our statute books could elongate the life of a person or save it altogether, it is worth writing that sentence. It is humanity, not economics, they say.
Here, retentionists will argue that in killing a murderer, for example, the law is saving the lives of many, one, by making sure that he never lives again to commit another murder and, two, by deterring potential criminals from killing more people. So, it is like investment, where you sink a penny to earn a pound. Or as someone once put it, if the law fails to execute a murderer, it is causing the deaths of many citizens who will be killed by a potential murderer that would have been deterred by the provision of death penalty.
Abolitionist will defend their position by citing the relevant statistics showing that crimes are not significantly reduced or murders have not stopped, in spite of the death penalty. Amnesty International here has cited a 1988 UN report which concluded by saying, “it is not prudent to accept the hypothesis that capital punishment deters murder to a marginally greater extent than does the threat and application of the supposedly lesser punishment of life imprisonment.” Therefore, the report said, “The fact that the statistics… continue to point in the same direction is persuasive evidence that countries need not fear sudden and serious changes in the curve of crime if they reduce their reliance upon the death penalty…”
Even the Bishops of Texas in 1997 were quick to open their statement of support for abolition of death penalty by saying, “despite a growing reliance on longer sentences, more prisons, and more executions, our state’s crime rate has escalated.” Perhaps, the Bishops have forgotten that crime is not dictated by death penalty alone.
A religious person, especially from Nigeria, is likely to question the competence of these Bishops in theology. God, he will prove by quoting many passages from the Bible, has sanctioned the execution of murderers. Well, he will be in for another shocker. The Bishops in their statement said, “State of Texas is usurping the sovereign dominion of God over human life by employing capital punishment for heinous crimes.”!!!
Like the Bishops, abolitionists contend that death sentence does not bring back the lives of the killed; neither does it reduce the agony of his loved ones. In the words of the Bishops, it is “violence for violence, death for death.” The option that the Bishops have given is “repentance not forgiveness, conversion not death are better guides for public policy on the death penalty…” They claimed their advice was on the authority of Prophet Ezekiel, who said, “As I live, says the Lord God, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man’s conversion, that he may live. Turn, turn from your evil ways!”
To me the most comical part of the Bishops’ submission is where they said, “If… non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”
The proponents of death penalty would wonder what common good or dignity is there in allowing a murderer – a person full of evil and lowliness – to remain alive. His death, the proponents will argue, is the surest path to dignity and common good.
Proponents of death penalty will also ask why should public funds be used to maintain a criminal in prison for life. In Texas, the Bishops countered this argument by saying “it costs $2.3 million on an average to prosecute and execute each capital case as compared to $400,000 for life imprisonment.” I wonder how much it costs to pay a police sergeant to, among other things in his schedule, prosecute a murder case before a magistrate court in Nigeria.
Now, arguments aside, what is the actual position of death penalty in Nigeria? Well, the country is grouped among countries that have not signed the UN’s Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Aiming At the Abolition of Death Penalty. In fact, in Africa, only five states have signed and ratified the treaty, namely, Djibouti, Mozambique, Namibia, New Zealand and South Africa. Two others – Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, have signed but not ratified it.
At a time, I once thought Nigeria should qualify for inclusion among states that have abolished the death penalty by practice. Oh yes. Many death sentences have been passed in the past eighteen years, including those found guilty of perpetrating mass killings during civil disturbances. But how many have been executed? In fact, some, like Major General Zamani Lekwot (Rtd) who masterminded the Zangon Kataf genocide in the early 90s, had the sentences mitigated to only a four-year jail term. Where are others who perpetrated similar crises twice in Kafanchan, twice in Kaduna, twice in Tafawa Balewa, twice in Jos and many times in Lagos? They are all alive, not due to humanitarian reasons like those of Amnesty International but due to the complicity, ineptitude or weakness of their governors, many of whom would not want to be seen as responsible for terminating the lives of others!
Obasanjo is also a beneficiary of this hesitation. If Abacha were resolute with him on the death penalty in 1995, as was Babangida with Vatsa in 1985, we would not have had an Obasanjo as president today. So I do not think that Obasanjo, who claims the piety of a born-again and who has benefited from the contemplation of Abacha, will be eager to hang anybody for any crime, no matter how heinous. Or is it so? The contradiction is that if Obasanjo and the governors are indeed that sympathetic to human lives, I wonder what account they would give regarding the lives of Nigerians killed to ensure the success of their second term bid, I mean people like Bola Ige and Marshall Harry.
That is why I am not convinced that people who could cover up the death of Marshall Harry and Bola Ige would at the same time be honest about sponsoring a bill to abolish the death penalty. They can do so only if they are attempting to save the lives of their comrades in jail.
In any case, the outcome of the debate on death penalty in Nigeria is predictable, with 100% certainty. It is doubtful if the military and political establishments will allow any mitigation of punishments for crimes like treason. Also, Nigerians have strong convictions regarding their religions. To the understanding of most Muslims and Christians, the rule which God gave Moses is still applicable: “And We ordained therein for them: ‘Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal.’ But if anyone remits the retaliation by way of charity, it shall be for him an expiration. And whosoever doesn’t judge with what God has revealed, such are the wrongdoers.”
If Obasanjo and the ruling party is generous to grant them the privilege of opinion, most Nigerians, I believe, will insist that our armed robbers and killers of Chief Bola Ige and Marshall Harry should face no lesser punishment than death – the very injury they inflicted on their victims. The life of the murderer cannot be more sacred than the life of his victim. The practical difference today is the while the murderer is living and could spend his money to tamper with justice or threaten to reveal the identities of “the cabal”, the victim is dead, silent and forsaken and forgotten. If allowed a life sentence only, INEC would even one day make the murderer our President.
I concur with the majority, as would Bola Ige in the grave. And so would all his sincere friends, the likes of Professor Wole Soyinka. “An eye for an eye…”