By Onozure Dania
A civil society organization, Access to Justice, AJ, has faulted Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, for encouraging state governors to sign death warrants for the execution of inmates on death row as a way of resolving the problem of congestion in prison formations across the country.
AJ in a statement by its convener, Joseph Otteh and Project Director, ‘Deji Ajare, said: “Speaking at the official commissioning of Osun State Command Headquarters of Prisons Complex in Osogbo on July 23, 2021, Minister of Interior, Aregbesola, had stated that out of 68,747 inmates currently housed in prison facilities nationwide, 50, 992 of them are awaiting trial, while 17,755 have been convicted and serving sentences.
“Also speaking on the challenge of congestion in correctional centres, the Minister revealed that its actual capacity of 57,278 has been exceeded by 18 percent. The Minister believes that if governors ‘take the bold step’ to sign execution orders for inmates on death row, it would help to resolve the problem of congestion.
“We find this proposal preposterous, it treats human lives as intrinsically expendable objects or commodities which may be dispensed with in order to achieve a better representation of prison demographics. But human life, whether of persons under sentence of death or not – is far too valuable than to be used as a means of reconfiguring the prison population, or reducing it, and it is unfortunate that the Minister would make this kind of obnoxious call.
“Besides, we fear that if the Minister’s call is heeded, many death row convicts who have pending appeals against their convictions will be at risk at execution even before their appeals are determined following administrative errors. This is not a misplaced fear, and there are precedents of such errors leading to unlawful executions.
“It is important to note that even from the statistics reported by the Minister, it is clear that the problem of congestion is not as a result of an uptick in the number of sentenced persons, including those on death row.
The congestion is caused by the disturbing demographic of inmates, who are awaiting trial (pre-trial or under-trial inmates), who account for 74 percent of the total inmate population. What the government ought to do is to step up to the plate and address the chronic problem of pre-trial detention in order to manage the incidence of prison congestion, not to request that inmates be executed in order to reduce it.
“Many factors account for the high level of prison congestion, but part of them include political persecution and the misuse of criminal justice institutions. The arrests and jailing of political and civil rights activists, including those agitating for the restructuring of Nigeria, #EndSARs protesters of police violence, members of religious groups protesting the disrespect of court decisions to release their incarcerated members, or simply those clamouring for better political governance, all aggravate the prison congestion problem.”