Sub-Saharan Africa must protect lives by abolishing the death penalty

By Oluwatosin Popoola, Legal Adviser at Amnesty International

As the world battles the deadly COVID-19 virus, countries across sub-Saharan Africa have taken a number of measures aimed at stopping the spread of the virus in their territories.

However, while efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic are a stark reminder that the right to life is important and must be protected, a new report by Amnesty International on the global use of the death penalty in 2019 shows that some governments in sub-Saharan Africa do not consistently seek to protect the right to life. In fact, in some instances they actively strive to violate it by sentencing people to death or executing them.

In 2019, four countries in the region – Botswana, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan – carried out executions in their territories despite a 5% reduction in known executions in the world. Amnesty International confirmed one execution in Botswana, one in Sudan, 11 in South Sudan and 12 in Somalia. These four countries are increasingly gaining notoriety for being sub-Saharan Africa’s persistent executing countries; they were the same countries that carried out executions in 2018 and have consistently done so in the last decade.

The new presidency of Mokgweetsi Masisi, which began in October 2019, has not stemmed the tide of executions in Botswana – Southern Africa’s only remaining executing country. In addition to one execution that was carried out in December 2019, three executions have been carried out so far this year in Botswana.

The situation in South Sudan is even more concerning.Since independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan has executed at least 43 people. The 11 executions recorded in the country in 2019 was the highest number in any year since independence and signalled a significant increase in yearly executions in the country. Of the 11 people executed,seven men were executed in February 2019, three of whom were from the same family. The authorities did not even inform the relatives of the men ahead of the execution.

Later in the year, four people were executed; two on 27 September and two on 30 September. One of the two executed on 30 September was a child at the time of the crime. He was about 17 when he was convicted and sentenced to death; an act which goes against international human rights law and South Sudan’s own constitution which prohibits the use of the death penalty against people who were children at the time of the crime.

In an alarming development, the number of confirmed death sentences handed down in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 53%, from 212 in 2018 to 325 in 2019. This was due to increases recorded in 10 countries – Kenya; Malawi; Mauritania; Niger; Nigeria; Sierra Leone; Somalia; Sudan; Zambia and Zimbabwe. Overall, death sentences were confirmed in 18 countries in 2019, an increase of one compared to 2018.

The increase in recorded death sentences in Zambia is quite striking. Government information indicated that 101 people were sentenced to death; that is a huge rise when compared to 2018 when Amnesty International recorded 21 death sentences. In addition, eight people were exonerated by the courts in Zambia; these are people who were initially sentenced of death and could have been executed for a crime they were eventually found not to have committed. This illustrates that trial courts are not perfect and the risk of punishing and executing the innocent can never be eliminated when the death penalty is used.

At the end of the year, at least 5,731 people were known to be on death row in sub-Saharan Africa, with Kenya and Nigeria accounting for 65% of that total. People under sentence of death are particularly at a heightened risk of execution when they have exhausted their right of appeal and there is no official moratorium on executions in place in their countries.

Even where a right of appeal has not been exhausted, a lack of access to effective legal representation; lengthy delays in the appeal process; denial of clemency; and poor prison conditions can make life on death row a particularly harrowing experience for any human being.

Nevertheless, 2019 was not all doom and gloom. Support for the death penalty appears to be dwindling in some countries in the region as positive actions or pronouncements, which may lead to the abolition of the death penalty, were recorded. In the Central African Republic, it was reported that a decision was taken in the National Assembly to examine a bill on the abolition of the death penalty. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea announced that he would submit a bill to abolish the death penalty to the country’s parliament. In November, Gambia’s Constitutional Review Commission published a draft constitution for the country which removed death penalty provisions. In Kenya, the task force set up to review the mandatory death sentence recommended that parliament should abolish the death penalty entirely, while in Zimbabwe the authorities mulled over abolishing the death penalty.

The death penalty is a violation of the right of a human being to life and is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Opposition to the death penalty does not mean one condones crime. Anyone found guilty of a recognizable criminal offence after a fair trial must be held accountable, but the punishment should never be death. Just as governments must fight against deadly diseases, including COVID-19, they must also protect the right to life by abolishing the death penalty.