By Chinyere Omeire/NAN
Worried by congestion of correctional facilities across the country, the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, in July called on state governors to sign death warrants of condemned criminals in order to decongest them.
The minister made the call in Osogbo at the inauguration of the headquarters complex of Osun State Command of the Nigerian Correctional Service.
According to the minister, Nigeria’s correctional facilities are being overstretched, as the facilities built to serve 57,278 inmates currently hold 68,747 inmates.
He is of the opinion that convicts on death row, who have used up all means of appeal, should be executed to create spaces in custodial facilities.
“There are presently 3,008 condemned criminals waiting for their date with the executioners in our meagre custodial facilities. This consists of 2,952 males and 56 females.
“In cases where appeal has been exhausted and the convicts are not mounting any challenge to their conviction, the state should go ahead, to do the needful and bring closure to their cases,” he said.
Analysts note that, in Nigeria, state governors are legally empowered to sign death warrants but since 2012, no governor has been reported to have signed death warrants.
According to Bauchi Gov. Bala Mohammed, some governors are unwilling to sign death sentences on the basis of the possibility of erroneously condemning a person to death.
“I know some governors are running away from signing death sentences because they exercise restraints on the basis that there may be some elements of error,’’ the governor said while signing into law, the state’s Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill.
Mixed reaction keeps trailing governor’s unwillingness to sign death warrants.
Many civil society organisations discourage execution of condemned prisoners, arguing that death penalty should be replaced with long-term imprisonment.
However, some analyst argue that non-signing of death sentences constitutes a burden on tax payers whose funds are being used to feed condemned criminals.
They also agree with Aregbesola that it contributes to prison congestion, urging that if governors are not willing to sign death warrants, the power to do so should be vested in the attorneys-general or chief judges of states.
A Lagos-based lawyer, Ademola Owolabi, describes governors’ refusal to sign death warrants as a breach of the Constitution.
“Since the state retains sovereignty on life, it makes sense that the governor of each state is given the prerogative to sign death sentences,’’ Owolabi argues.
He is convinced that state governors should sign death warrants in deserving circumstances.
“Since the governor is imposed with the constitutional duties to provide infrastructure, ensure law and order etc., he has the duty to sign death warrants in deserving circumstances.’’
He believes it is wrong for a governor, who was elected to uphold the law, to refuse to sign death sentences.
“Once you become a governor, you should know that there are certain constitutional obligations that may not be pleasant.
“Refusal to sign death warrants is a breach of the constitution which should ordinarily attract impeachment because when a governor refuses to uphold the law, it is a huge breach.
“There is no doubt that across the globe, several entities are lobbying for capital punishment to be abolished but I believe that death penalty is necessary where all appellate procedures have been exhausted, especially where the crime involved is so heinous, like raping someone to death.
“I believe that if a person who committed such a heinous crime is left imprisoned for too long, he would want to attempt jail break because, to escape would become his only option. It is on this note that I support the concept of death penalty,’’ he argues.
He urges state governors not be afraid to sign death warrants where deserving, describing as mockery of the justice system, a situation where criminals who committed crimes such as murder are apprehended, tried, convicted and sentenced to death but governors become unwilling to sign their death warrants.
“It is good to uphold the law so that people will know that there is a crime someone can commit in Nigeria which will attract death penalty.’’
He advocates that a time line should be given within which a governor is expected to sign a death warrant.
“I think it is also inhuman to keep somebody on a death row for a long time,’’ he adds.
Dr Yemi Omodele, Principal Partner of Omodele Chambers, Ikeja, identifies pending appeals as a reason for unwillingness of governors to sign death warrants.
“The clamour for abolition of death sentence globally also hinder execution of death sentences,” Omodele adds.
He advises governments to tackle all the factors hindering the process to reduce wastage of tax payers’ money on condemned criminals.
Omodele believes that execution of convicts sentenced to death will serve as a deterrent to others and go a long way to curb crime in Nigeria.
Mr Chibuikem Opara, a Partner at the Justification Chambers, Ikeja, notes that a death penalty will not be carried out until the governor of the state signs the death warrant.
Opara adds that after a death sentence is pronounced, the head of the government has a constitutional right to exercise prerogative of mercy by reducing it to life imprisonment or a term of years.
For Mr Chris Ayiyi, Principal Partner, Ayiyi Chambers, Apapa, Lagos, Nigeria’s laws should be reviewed to abolish death penalty and commute it to life sentence
He argues that many western countries have abolished death sentence.
Mr Bayo Akinlade, a former Chairman of Nigerian Bar Association, Ikorodu Branch, says, “There is a process to a judgment of this nature.
“The convict must be given time to appeal, and until he exhausts these rights, he won’t be put to death.”