Weekly Trust (Abuja)

29 November 2003

Nigeria: Suspicions Trail Capital Punishment Debate

The clamour for abolishing capital punishment that led to the commissioning of a Legal Resources Consortium by the federal government to organise a national debate on the issue has generated furious reactions from Nigerians, with stiffer opposition from religious groups.

Already, opinions at the debate which kicked off at the Sheraton Hotel, Lagos on Thursday, November 13th, were divided into three broad schools of thought.

The retention school mainly made up of religious bodies favoured the retention and application of the death penalty in the nation's laws. The abolitionist school opposed the existence of the death penalty while the third group neither favoured nor opposed it.

A section of the retentionist group, specifically Muslim bodies, saw the move as agenda to clip the extension of Sharia to cover criminal offences in some Northern states and vowed to resist it.

According to Imam Aliyu Ibrahim, who represented the National Council for the Propagation and Defence of Sharia at the debate, Muslims are suspicious that the western world which propagates the idea might have an agenda to stop the application of the Sharia as it pertains to criminal justice.

"Especially we Muslims suspect that establishing Sharia in some Northern states may have triggered this attempt to silently reduce the boundaries of Sharia application," he said.

Imam Aliyu said that since the Sharia implementing states relied on certain provisions of the constitution, it follows that if capital punishment is expunged from the law books, the states would automatically stand stripped of jurisdiction to apply those areas of the Sharia.

According to him, by Islamic standards, capital punishment encircles death penalty, amputation and even caning.

"At an earlier stage, attempts have been made to oppose the application of capital punishment as regard amputation in theft cases, stoning to death and so on," he said.

But Barrister Olawole Fapohunda, managing partner in the Legal Resources Consortium organising the debate and secretary-general of the study group on the issue, insists that the debate has nothing to do with any attempt to tamper with the application of Sharia anywhere.

Mr Fapohunda said rather, the debate is aimed at finding solutions to major concerns like the spate of armed robbery and the nexus between poverty and crime.

And Honourable Alex Nwofe, chairman, House Committee on Justice and Legal Matters said he believed that the dialogue would present a platform where stakeholders should collectively explore means by which the presidency would put the reform of the nation's justice sector on top of its agenda.

"Specially the interest of the Committee on Justice and Legal Matters is the desire to raise key concerns about the state of the Nigerian criminal justice system," he said.

Notwithstanding these counter arguments, those who favour the retention of capital punishment in the nation's laws still insist that for government to even think of removing it amounts to gross insensitivity.

"This crusade to protect the right to life of the murderer is grossly misplaced as the innocent victims of such crimes are more entitled to have their rights protected," charged Imam Aliyu Ibrahim.

This school of thought believes that the retention of capital punishment in the nation's laws is in the interest of justice and the nature of a moral community, which requires that each person respects the life and liberty of others.

Accordingly, those who commit vicious crimes destroy the basis on which a moral community rests and thereby forfeit their rights to life itself.

On their part, those who support abolishing capital punishment based their argument on its actual administration in the society. They point to the risk of killing an innocent person, disproportionate infliction on the poor and minorities, weakness of the detainees' argument and the failure to recognise that social inequality leads to the commission of most crimes in the society.

These advocates represented by human rights activists were of the opinion that capital punishment has not deterred the commission of capital offences. Rather, heinous crimes are on the increase with more sophistication on the part of the criminals. They contend that taking away the life of the criminal cannot bring back the victim to life, rather society is faced with two deaths.

And the third group, represented by the likes of Honourable Nwofe, believed that it is premature for Nigeria to start thinking of removing capital punishment in its laws without first putting in order the nation's criminal justice system.

"The Nigeria Police for example is simply ill-equipped to deal with the high incidence of crime across Nigeria. Our police are still a long way away from taking advantage of the innovations in the world of crime prevention, investigation and control," said Hon. Nwofe.

He further observed that the Nigerian prison system is an extreme symptom of a chronic illness afflicting the criminal justice system and noted the plight of judicial officers, specifically those of the lower courts.

"Today, corruption continues to ravage our criminal justice system. The poor man walking on our streets in search of the means of survival faces the daily risk of being arrested for wandering and charged with armed robbery. This means only a negligible percentage of those who have committed violent crimes are actually brought to trial,' he said.

Other fears that trail the convening of the debate include the limitation of participation in such dialogue at elite level only.

Those who entertain this fear say that in most cases, the common man who is in the majority is never allowed the opportunity to make inputs in such national debates. They contend that unless the issue is thrown to be decided by "referendum, the end result would only remain an academic exercise without conveying the actual feelings of the majority. Responding, Hon. Nwofe assured that the matter will not only end there as it will necessarily be passed to the National Assembly which has the sole prerogative for constitutional amendment.

And initial apprehensions that the issue could tear the nation apart on religious basis at the dialogue grounds has also been allayed as both Muslim and Christian groups were said to have been united in their opposition to the abolition moves.

This then makes it a struggle between global secularism and religion.

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