The Moment (London)

28 March 2012

Nigeria: CJN, AGF Differ On Death Penalty Abolition

Abuja — THE Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Dahiru Musdapher, and Attorney General of the Federation AGF), Mohammed Adoke, has taken different positions over retention or abolition of death penalty in the country.

While the CJN disagreed on the abolition of death penalty, saying it must be retained in the constitution, in spite of mounting pressure against it, the AGF was undecided, saying he could not say whether it is good or bad.

The number-one Nigerian judge stressed that in a constitutional democracy, neither the legislature nor the judiciary is supreme over the constitution, adding that unless the National Assembly amends the law, there is nothing anybody can do about it.

Justice Musdapher stated this yesterday in Abuja at a one-day programme organised by an NGO, Lawyers Without Borders based in France, which canvassed for the abolition of death penalty in Nigeria.

Musdapher, who was represented by Special Assistant, Hadiza Sontali Sa'eed, held that it is not the responsibility of the judiciary to abolish death sentence in Nigerian laws, but the work of the legislature.

'The constitution specifically provides for death penalty in section 33.1 that every person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria,' he said.

He explained that, 'In addition, the Supreme Court has in, a plethora of cases, upheld the constitutionality of death sentence in Nigeria. 'Indeed, in a constitutional democracy, neither the legislature nor the judiciary is supreme.

Only the constitution is supreme. When a constitution is adopted, the legislature is obliged to uphold its provisions. The task of the court is to protect the provisions of the constitution and ensure that the legislature fulfills its obligation.'

Speaking in the same vein, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) described as premature a call for the abolition of death penalty in the country.

The NBA President, Joseph B. Daudu (SAN) told the organisers that the call is premature, adding that what is needed is institutional advocacy on issues of criminal justice system in Nigeria.

'NBA has taken a stance on this issue of death penalty. At our NBA NEC meeting in Gombe, two issues were discussed; one of the issues was death penalty and that of same-sex marriage and our stance on death penalty was that it is premature. But we condemned same-sex marriage and called for any legislation that will forbid it,' he said.

'We are principal partners with the Lawyers Without Borders and we will continue our partnership, but what is important is whether our justice system, particularly criminal justice, is mature enough to abolish death penalty.

We must concentrate or find a way of fine-tuning a criminal justice system. We need much enlightenment than begin to think of abolition of death penalty in our criminal justice sector,' Daudu stressed.

The NBA president condemned torture outright, stressing that anywhere that torture manifests itself must be condemned.

In his remarks, the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Bello Adoke (SAN) said he could not take a position on whether death penalty should be abolished or not, a position supported by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Instead, the AGF, who was represented at the event by an assistant Director in the Justice Ministry, Chidinma Ukelonu, emphasised that death penalty is a constitutional matter, decrying that the judiciary has been reluctant in its application.

'Therefore, we cannot say it is right or wrong. We look forward to receiving the report of this conference with a view that it will help reshape our criminal justice system. I have already put a justice reform committee, and the result of this conference will be of great assistance to us,' he said.

Lawyers Without Borders, France and the European Union (EU), are strongly against death penalty and have since been going from one country to the other, canvassing the abolition.

They vowed to support lawyers handling cases of people who are either on death row or faced with the death sentence.

Although the Vice President of the NGO and Team Leader, Nigeria Project, Ivan Paneff, acknowledged that Nigeria is one of the major countries in Africa where death penalty is still enforced and legally authorised, he emphasised that a suspension on the execution of death sentences was imposed in 2004.

'It was meant to pave way for the abolition of the death penalty. The moratorium is still in place,' Paneff reminded.

'Our mission is to launch a new project called Saving Lives (SALI), which has to do with those who are condemned to death or could be condemned with death penalty. Avocats San Frontiers (ASF) France and its partners wish to improve conditions of people currently waiting on death row and increase public awareness of the death penalty,' he said.

Paneff, who is the Attorney at Law, said the expected results are that civil society, political and judicial stakeholders are committed to a restrictive pronouncement of the death sentence.

'Lawyers' competences improved to defend capital punishment cases, particularly the 20 lawyers working to provide legal assistance. Prisoners faced with the death penalty are provided with free judicial assistance, and that about 900 to 1000 lawyers, judicial and political stakeholders, and the civil society are sensitised on death penalty through communication and advocacy tools,' he stated.

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