- Nigerians, prison authorities bemoan the fate of over 2,500 prisoners on death row
- Blame governors for their swelling
TUNDE THOMAS and CHIOMA IGBOKWE
To kill or not to kill? That’s the dilemma facing Nigeria prison authorities as they mull over the fate of about 2,500 condemned prisoners said to be languishing, right now, in various prisons across the country.
Some of them, Saturday Sun learnt, have been there for more than 20 years, waiting to keep a date with the hangman. But alas, as to when that fateful day will come, nobody knows. Neither the condemned prisoners themselves nor the prison authorities know, except the governors whose constitutional duty it is to sign their death warrants.
But so far they have refused to do so leading to a macabre syndrome of the Malthusian theory in various prisons: while the number of criminals being condemned to death by judges and law courts have continued to grow at an exponential rate, that of the hangmen trained to dispatch them to the great beyond has continued to grow at mathematical rate.
This situation, Nigerian prison authorities warn, could spell doom for all. Either carry out your lawful duty, they plead with the governors concerned or commute their sentences to something punishable by any other thing than death. But to leave the matter hanging in the balance, with no decisive step being taken about it, one way or the other, will lead to an unpalatable experience for our dear country, sooner than later, they sternly warned.
Investigation by Saturday Sun reveals that the same situation is obtainable in prisons in Ibadan, Abeokuta, Kaduna and Enugu. Many of the prisoners in condemned inmates cells have spent 25 years and above waiting to be executed. The situation has led to congestion of the cells, and this has become a source of worry to prison authorities.
It was learnt that the situation is so precarious that prison authorities are afraid of violent revolt breaking out in the prisons, led by the condemned prisoners whose number is put at over 2,500 at present. A top prison official who spoke to Saturday Sun on the ground of anonymity confirmed that the fear is real.
“We are all afraid. We don’t know what can happen any moment,” he declared. “We have condemned men in hundreds in detention and our facilities for holding them have been overstretched. These condemned men feel frustrated and are gradually becoming dangerous. It is time government did something about them now before the situation explodes.”
Illustrating the enormity of the matter, the official said: “It is the same story and report we get across the country. Recently, we had a meeting of top prison officials with the prison Comptroller General in Abuja and the reports from state Comptrollers are not palatable at all. They expressed concern about the tense situation in condemned people’s cells. They implored the prison Comptroller-General to appeal to state governors to sign death warrants of these condemned men to diffuse the explosive situation, as well as decongest the cells. These condemned men have become a threat to other inmates. In the process of waiting to be executed some of them have run mad, out of too much thinking and it is dangerous to keep such with other inmates.”
Saturday Sun investigation shows that since 1999 when the nation returned to civil rule after long years of military reign, only two state governors had signed the death warrants. They are, former governors Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State and Ibrahim Shekarau of Kano. While Shekarau signed two in 2006, Oshiomhole signed four in 2013. However, out of the four, only three were executed. The fourth condemned man luckily escaped the hangman’s noose because the judge who handed down the death sentence specifically stated that he must be executed by the firing squad.
So, all together, there had been only five executions of death sentence in the past 10 years, yet within those years judges had continued to condemn people to death making the number to swell now to the staggering number it is: more than 2,500 waiting for the hangman. It was gathered that many of the governors were not willing to sign the death warrants because like Pontius Pilate who washed his hands after sentencing Jesus to death, they didn’t want to have blood on their hands.
Encounter with a condemned inmate
Saturday Sun had an unforgettable encounter with one of them, not too long ago, as they filed out under armed escorts to take their seats on Boxing Day last December when a religious group came to evangelise and felicitate with the inmates of Kirikiri Maximum Prison, Lagos.
As they listened to the sermon, some of them could not hide their excitement for the temporary opportunity given to them to leave their cells for few minutes. These are inmates on death row. They are confined to their cells 24 hours of the day. They are permanently under lock. Unlike other inmates who are often allowed once in a while to enjoy the air in the prison yard before they are locked up again, these ones are never allowed to leave their cells. And some of them have been in that situation for over two decades, waiting for the hangman.
Saturday Sun gathered that once in a while these condemned prisoners are allowed under heavily armed escorts to see the sunlight for brief moments when religious organizations come on a visit during Yuletide. Some of the visitors who had gathered for the programme could not hold back their tears seeing these men, especially when some of them recounted the agony of being in confinement for many years waiting to keep a date with death.
One of them who identified himself as Joseph said: “For over 20 years I have been here waiting for death to come. Each time, I heard footsteps towards my cell I would think that the hangman is on the way and that death has come. But if it is not the hangman, I would experience temporary relief. This is the life of suspense I have been living for over 20 years. At times, it would seem as if I am beginning to run mad. I have been living in perpetual sorrow and fear for over these 20 years.”
The dearth of hangmen
But while the governors’ reluctance to sign the death warrants continues to remain the primary reason the number of condemned prisoners has continued to swell, Saturday Sun investigation revealed the other reason to be the dearth of hangmen. It was learnt that, over the years, the number of hangmen on the payroll of Nigerian Prisons has continued to dwindle following the retirement of some of the highly experienced personnel trained for the job. Other Nigerians have not shown interest in applying for vacancies created by their exit, sources close to prisons said.
Confirming this development, another prison official who spoke to Saturday Sun, on the matter, admitted that, “getting people to take up the hangman’s job has been a big challenge to the prison authorities. In recent past, the authorities’ attempt at recruiting people was not successful as the response was not encouraging. Usually, people turn up in large numbers when they hear that there are vacancies in Nigerian Prisons, but the moment we tell them that we are only looking for people to train as hangmen they quickly run away. But the truth is that we need hangmen in large numbers in Nigerian Prisons.”
Explaining why they are urgently needed, the official said that most of the condemned men are sentenced to death by hanging and that what this means is that it is only hangmen that can carry out the execution order.
“This is an area where Nigerians need to understand very well,” he insists. “When somebody is sentenced to death by hanging, it is only a hangman that can carry out the order. Soldiers only execute those sentenced to die by the firing squad, and this mainly took place during the military era. Today in Nigerian Prisons, most of those on death row were sentenced to death by hanging, and the sentencing judge’s order must be carried out to the letter. What this means is that a man that has been sentenced to death by hanging can only be killed by hanging while a person that is sentenced to death by execution can only be killed by soldiers.”
Divided opinions on the fate of condemned prisoners
In as much as there are mounting concerns over the condemned people’s plight, opinions are divided over their fate. While some would want their death sentence to be commuted, others are for its execution, noting that, after all the legal fireworks by both the prosecuting and defence counsels, the law adjudged them to have committed the crime for which they were sentenced to death.
For Lagos-based lawyer, Chief Gabriel Giwa-Amu, death penalty should be abolished by the Federal Government. According to him, it has not been able to serve the purpose for which it was included in our nation’s penal code. He further argued that death penalty has been abolished in many countries of the world, adding that Nigeria should not be an exception.
Giwa-Amu who is not happy with the psychological trauma the condemned men are daily subjected to said that their cells are being overcrowded with their numbers ppiling up every other day. “With the exception of ex-Governor Adams Oshiomhole who signed few death warrants when he was governor, other state governors have refused to do so,” he noted. “The question that one is asking is this: if those in authorities know that they don’t have the courage to sign the death warrants of condemned men, then why are they sentencing such criminals to death? The living condition in overcrowded cells across the country is deplorable.”
Noting that they are human beings, even though they’ve committed crime, he insists that it is very unfair for the system to be treating them like animals. “The deplorable situation in condemned prisoners’ cells is terrible. It is like a time-bomb waiting to explode,” he said. “Most of these condemned men have become irrational in their behaviour with some of them having been in confinement for over 20 years. They have become a big nuisance in the prison yard, and this is why if you hear of any prison jailbreak, attempted jailbreak or prison riot, it is the condemned prisoners that are usually behind such revolts. And if you ask why, the answer is very simple: it is because they are frustrated: they are desperate to get out of the place, one way or the other. I advise the Federal Government to do the needful now before the situation becomes explosive to handle. This is because prison authorities have confided in some of us that run NGOs that they are afraid of the swelling number of condemned men being held in overcrowded cells. As the saying goes, a stitch in time saves nine.”
Like Giwa-Amu, Bishop Kayode Williams, the Director-General, Prison Rehabilitation Mission International, PREMI wants the Federal Government to commute the death sentence imposed on the condemned men. “Two wrongs cannot make a right,” he said. “The time has come for the Federal Government to abolish death sentence. It should be removed from our penal code. Death sentence has never achieved the purpose for which it was intended and this is why Nigeria should join other countries of the world where death penalty has been abolished.”
Stating his reason for the appeal, Williams said: “Apart from subjecting condemned men to the harrowing experience of keeping them behind bars for decades, we have also seen instances where some of them had been wrongly executed. A good example was the case in Oyo State several years ago when a man was sentenced to death, but before his appeal could be heard by the Supreme Court, he was executed. When the matter came up at the Supreme Court, he was exonerated and freed from the crime for which he was earlier unjustly convicted. But by then it was too late as he had been hastily executed. I will like to advise the Federal Government to scrap death sentence and put in place other alternatives like life jail sentence.”
But disagreeing with Williams and Giwa-Amu, Mr. Nosa Omokaro a public servant, insisted that the death penalty should remain. “We have to understand that one clime is different from others,” he explained. “What may be considered suitable for one clime may not be acceptable for another. Nigeria should not join the bandwagon of those nations abolishing death sentence. To do so will amount to giving open licence to people to maim and kill. Some Nigerians will not value human lives again if death sentence is abolished. Moreover, we should not forget the popular saying that those who kill by the sword must also die by the sword.”
Speaking on the issue, a psychologist, Mr. James Fatola, implored the federal government to do something urgent about the condemned prisoners’ plight. “There is nothing more agonizing than to keep a man in confinement for over 20 years,” he said. “Every passing day you are gradually killing the man by keeping him in suspense not knowing when death would come, and this is why some of them become mentally deranged and very irrational in behaviour. They are also aggressive, short-tempered and moody. Federal Government should be firm in taking action that will quickly bring an end to their plight otherwise they may become more threatening with each passing day. If it is the state governors that need to take action on their case, they should promptly do so.”
The challenge before prison authorities
Efforts made to speak with the Public Relations Officer of Nigerian Prisons, Mr. Francis Enabore did not succeed, but his counterpart in Lagos State Prison Command, Rotimi Oladokun, admitted that the issue of condemned prisoners has become a big challenge for the Nigeria Prison authorities.
“We are truly facing serious challenges in the prison as a result of congestion of cells where condemned men are being held,” he confessed. “Their numbers keep on swelling, and the facilities for holding them have been overstretched. One of the major reasons for the ugly development is as a result of many state governors refusing to sign the death warrants of these condemned men. The moment their death warrants are signed, then the sentence can be carried out, but the governors have refused to do so. This is why we are appealing to them to either sign or commute the penalty to life imprisonment. The cells of condemned men are congested and overcrowded, something must be done to solve this challenge.”
But a prison official from Abuja headquarters of Nigerian Prisons who spoke with Saturday Sun, in confidence, on the issue, added a caveat: “Even if the governors sign the death warrants on condemned men today, we have shortage of hangmen to do the job considering the large number of condemned prisoners. A way must be found to ensure that new hands are recruited for the hangman’s job. Hangmen have become scarce, and we need to fill the existing gap.”