March towards no death penalty slow but steady
- Of the 29 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that still have the death penalty in law, only four — Botswana, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan — carried out executions last year.
- In February last year, President Adama Barrow of The Gambia announced the establishment of an official moratorium on executions.
The use of the death penalty — the world’s ultimate cruel punishment — has decreased in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Death Sentences and Executions 2018 report released on Wednesday by Amnesty International, an indication that the region continues to turn against it.
Of the 29 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that still have the death penalty in law, only four — Botswana, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan — carried out executions last year.
And although Botswana and Sudan resumed executions last year, having not carried out any in 2017, the overall number of known executions in the region went down from 28 in 2017 to 24 in 2018.
This drop was mainly due to Somalia, which usually had the highest number in the region, executing less people last year than in 2017.
Of particular concern is the surge in executions in South Sudan. Last year, it executed seven people, the highest number since gaining independence in 2011, and has surpassed this grim record by executing eight people in the first three months of 2019.
Although 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa imposed death sentences in 2018, eight of these are abolitionist in practice because they have not executed anyone in the past 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions.
By last December, at least 4,241 people were known to be on death row in the region, a reminder that many people are at imminent risk of their lives being taken away by the State.
One such individual is 17-year-old Magai Matiop Ngong, who in 2017 was convicted in South Sudan for murder, a crime he claims was an accident, following a trial in which he was not represented by a lawyer.
Magai told the judge he was just 15 but this was disregarded. And despite a strict prohibition on the use of the death penalty against minors under both South Sudanese law and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, he was sentenced to death — which he has appealed.
Other countries — such as Burkina Faso and The Gambia — have chosen a different path.
In Burkina Faso, the death penalty was deleted from a new Penal Code that became law in June.
But that effectively abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes only as it remains in the military law for exceptional crimes.
A provision expressly outlawing the death penalty has been included in a new draft constitution, which may be adopted this year.
In February last year, President Adama Barrow of The Gambia announced the establishment of an official moratorium on executions.
In September, the west African nation became the 86th State Party to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.
Four decades ago, no country in sub-Saharan Africa had abolished the death penalty, today, 20 have. Hopefully, before long, Burkina Faso, The Gambia and others will join them.
Despite a few countries holding the region back, it is on course to abolish the death penalty. The trajectory may be slow but it is steady.
Mr Popoola is Amnesty International’s advocate/adviser on the death penalty.