By Oluwatosin Popoola
Earlier this month the Senate approved a proposal to introduce a bill that will make kidnapping punishable by death. Many commentators have welcomed the decision arguing that the death penalty will deter the increasing number of kidnappings in the country. They are wrong.
Kidnapping has reached epidemic levels in Nigeria and whilst the need for the federal government to fight this crime effectively has never been more urgent, the death penalty is not the solution. The reason for this is that there is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters kidnapping – or any other crime for that matter.
Scientific studies have consistently failed to find convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. A series of authoritative studies conducted for the United Nations in regions around the world have repeatedly found that the death penalty does not have a greater deterrent effect on crime than a term of imprisonment.
In 1970 the military government of General Gowon introduced the death penalty for armed robbery in response to the alarming increase of the crime in Nigeria. This did not solve the problem, in fact armed robbery is as common today as it was then.
Equally, the enactment of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act, 2011 and the Terrorism (Prevention) (Amendment) Act, 2013 – introducing the death sentence for terrorism-related offences has not curbed the problem in Nigeria. According to a Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, in 2014 Nigeria witnessed the largest increase in terrorist-related deaths ever recorded by any country, increasing by over 300 per cent to 7,512 fatalities.
Over the last three years a number of states – including Bayelsa, Delta and Edo – have made laws prescribing the death penalty for kidnapping; however this has not stopped the practice. This year alone has seen high profile kidnappings of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s uncle in Bayelsa state, His Royal Majesty Josiah Umukoro in Delta state and Hassana Garuba, a magistrate in Edo state.
Whilst the senate has the constitutional mandate to enact laws, making kidnapping a capital crime will breach Nigeria’s obligations under international human rights law.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Nigeria became a party in 1993, permits countries that have not abolished the death penalty to use the punishment only for the “Most Serious Crimes”. Under international human rights standards “Most Serious Crimes” are crimes that involve intentional killing. Kidnapping does not meet this threshold.
The death penalty is a violation of the right to life as declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Everyone has the right to life regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime they have committed. This does not mean that criminals should not face justice, and punishment, for their crimes. They should, the federal and state governments have a range of options they can legally use, including prison terms.
The federal government should immediately take steps to address the root causes of kidnapping and other crimes by dealing with the high unemployment in the country and ensuring that the Nigeria Police Force and other crime fighting agencies are well funded, trained and equipped to deal with crime. Good investigation into alleged crimes, timely arrests of suspects and effective prosecution will go a long way in reducing kidnapping and other crimes.
The world is moving away from the use of the death penalty. In 1977 only 16 countries had abolished the punishment for all crimes. As of today the number stands at 102 countries, a majority of the countries in the world. In 2015, four countries, including Madagascar and the Republic of Congo both in Africa, joined the ranks of countries that have consigned this cruel punishment to history.
Expanding the scope of the death penalty goes against this positive global trend and will further entrench Nigeria amongst a minority of countries that hold on to the death penalty.
Executing kidnappers is not the solution to ending the scourge of kidnapping in Nigeria. Rather it is a knee-jerk reaction by a government that wants to appear tough on crime. Instead of being a form of toughness, recourse to the death penalty is in reality a symptom of failure in governance. Rather than expanding the death penalty, the Senate should abolish it altogether.
By Oluwatosin Popoola is Amnesty International’s Advocate/Adviser on the death penalty