Narrow escape from Nigeria’s gallows: “I still wonder if it is a dream”

For 19 years, ThankGod Ebhos barely had a full night’s sleep.

Night after night, as he lay on a blanket in a small cell in Benin Prison in southern Nigeria, he had a disturbing recurring nightmare: A prison guard would knock on his door and walk him, barely awake, to the gallows, place a rope around his neck and hang him.

In June 2013, it all came too close to reality.

ThankGod Ebhos woke up to the terrifying noise of the execution room door opening and the frightening smell of the oil used to lubricate the gallows. He knew his life was coming to a sudden end and thought of his children.

Prison staff came to his cell and, without uttering a word, forced him and another four men into the execution room where the gallows had been set up.

He describes what happened next:

“We knew we were going to die, they did not have to tell us. When we got to the gallows they locked the door behind us. The room was ready. The noose prepared and the bag of sand down. The Sheriff, hangman and other prison staff stood on the side; and a priest prayed to God to forgive us for our sins. After the prayer, our execution warrants were read to us.”

Then, ThankGod was asked what he wanted the prison to do with his belongings. He told them they should give everything to his son, Solomon.

Moments later, like a perverse choreography, the executions began. ThankGod watched as, one by one, the four men had ropes placed around their necks, were suspended and gasped for air before their lives were taken away.

“The first person was hanged, his face was covered with a black sack. I could not think of anything else other than how I would die. Then there was the second, third and fourth execution until it got to my turn.”

The first person was hanged, his face was covered with a black sack. I could not think of anything else other than how I would die. Then there was the second, third and fourth execution until it got to my turn.
ThankGod Ebhos.

But as ThankGod stood in that “room of death”, the noose around his neck, and his heart racing uncontrollably, the unimaginable happened.

In a surprising turn of events, the Sheriff, re-reading ThankGod’s execution warrant, said he had been sentenced to death by firing squad, not hanging. A technicality that would render the execution by hanging illegal.

A discussion followed, as the noose remained around ThankGod’s neck.

Staff at the prison made a quick call to the headquarters in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. They wanted confirmation that the execution could be carried out regardless of what the warrant said.

Some of the prison staff eagerly argued that no one taken to the gallows for execution should come out alive.

Eventually, the Sheriff insisted that the execution should not be carried out by hanging. He ordered the door to be opened and ThankGod was taken back to his cell.

“When I got back to my cell, I immediately picked up my phone and called Kola Ogunbiyi of Avocats Sans Frontières France in Nigeria. He was surprised to hear my voice and wondered why I had not been executed. He told me he was going to call Amnesty International and draw the world’s attention to my case,” ThankGod said.

Avocats Sans Frontières France in Nigeria later filed a case at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice in Abuja.

In January 2014, the ECOWAS Court of Justice granted an injunction restraining the government from executing ThankGod Ebhos. On 10 June 2014 the Court delivered a final judgment ordering that ThankGod’s name be removed from the death row list.

ThankGod was released on 28 October 2014, after the Governor of Kaduna State, Mukhtar Yaro, ordered his release using his power of “Prerogative of Mercy”.

“I was given three minutes to pack my belongings and leave the prison. I thought it was a dream and told God not to let me wake up. Up till now I still wonder if it is a dream because I never thought I could be alive.”

“Constant state of horror”
ThankGod Ebhos was sentenced to death in 1995 for an armed robbery that took place in 1988. He has been in prison since he was arrested that year.

He admitted responsibility for the crime and he spent 19 years on death row, constantly wondering if each day would be his last.

He describes life in prison as being in a “constant state of horror”.

“I never had peace of mind. Whenever I heard a knock on my door I thought they had come to take me for execution. I always had the feeling that any moment I was going to die,” he said.

I never had peace of mind. Whenever I heard a knock on my door I thought they had come to take me for execution. I always had the feeling that any moment I was going to die.
ThankGod Ebhos.

However, he never lost hope. While in prison he learned how to read and write and play the guitar and the piano.

ThankGod is one of the lucky ones.

Today Amnesty International is publishing its latest report on the use of the death penalty across the world.

At least 1,588 people are currently languishing on death row in Nigeria – 659 of whom were sentenced to death last year.

“The cruel and irreversible nature of the death penalty makes it a punishment completely unfit for the 21st century. The punishment is a violation of the right to life, Nigeria should follow the global trend against this inhuman practice by abolishing the death penalty completely,” said Oluwatosin Popoola, Death Penalty Adviser at Amnesty International. 

Read more:

The ultimate punishment: A beginner's guide to the death penalty (Feature, 1 April 2015)

Report: Death Penalty Sentences and Executions 2014 (Report, 1 April 2015)