More than 1 000 Nigerians languish on death row.
Governments in sub-Saharan Africa sentenced at least 1 083 people to death in 2016 – more than double the 443 people condemned to die in 2015, according to a recent report by international human rights organisation Amnesty International.
The research shows that rising numbers of people sentenced to die in the region are largely driven by an upswing of such judgments in Nigeria, which handed down death sentences to almost 500 people in 2016.
Although the number of death sentences more than doubled, the region saw fewer actual executions – 22 people. The executions took place in five countries, the bulk of which were in Somalia. The other countries included Sudan and Botswana.
“Countries in sub-Saharan Africa that continue to hold on to the death penalty are showing utter disregard to the right to life of people and are on the wrong side of history as the world is moving away from the punishment,” says Amnesty International’s death penalty adviser Oluwatosin Popoola.
Amnesty’s latest global survey on the use of the death penalty was released in April and shows that, globally, fewer countries are prescribing death sentences. It also argues that fewer people were executed in 2016 than in the previous year but cautions that reported rates of death sentences and executions are likely to be under-reported because many governments do not publish statistics on their use of the death penalty.
In Southern Africa, Botswana was the only country to execute anyone in 2016. It was that country’s first state-mandated killing since 2013.
“Botswana’s step backwards must not be replicated elsewhere in the region,” Amnesty International’s Southern Africa director Deprose Muchena warns in the report.
About 300 people across the Southern African region were sentenced to death by the end of 2016, the overwhelming majority of whom were in Zambia – 157 – followed by Zimbabwe – 97.
“African countries that still retain the death penalty can reduce this by abolishing mandatory death sentences, reducing the number of offences that provide for the death penalty and restricting the imposition of death sentences to the ‘most serious crimes’ as provided for by international human rights law,” Popoola explains.
The report does not investigate the effects of capital punishment on the families of death-row prisoners, but says it can prolong the suffering of the victims’ families and those condemned to die, says Popoola.
He says countries should ideally restrict the use of the death penalty with the aim of abolishing it in the future.
Popoola argues: “The death penalty diverts resources and energy that could be better used to work against violent crime and assist those affected by it.
“It is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it.”
Pontsho Pilane is the communications manager at Soul City Institute for Social Justice. Pilane was a health journalist at Bhekisisa from 2017 until 2019.