Alarming levels of death penalty use in an isolated group of countries led to a more than 50 per cent rise in executions across Africa in 2013 compared to the year before, Amnesty International found in its annual review of the death penalty.
"The vast majority of countries in Africa have moved away from the death penalty, while a small, isolated group continues to cling to state-sanctioned killing," said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International's Africa Director.
"The shocking rise in executions was down to just a few countries, and was all the more disappointing given the real progress towards abolition we've seen elsewhere in the region in recent years."
Just three countries - Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia - were behind more than 90 per cent of the 64 reported executions carried out in Africa in 2013. They also accounted for-two thirds of all reported death sentences in the region, with dramatic increases recorded in Nigeria and Somalia.
Somalia in particular saw a steep escalation in death penalty use, as recorded executions jumped from at least six in 2012 to at least 34 last year. More than half of all death sentences were carried out in the semi-autonomous Puntland region, often against alleged members of the al-Shabab militant group.
Nigeria resumed executions for the first time in seven years, dragging four men to the gallows in June. Alarming statements by President Goodluck Jonathan had earlier effectively given the green light to a resumption of executions, leaving over 1,000 death row prisoners at risk.
At the beginning of 2014, the regional court of the Economic Community of West African States ordered the Nigerian government to refrain from further executions, and in March the country's Justice Minister confirmed that the government would respect the ruling.
However, there was progress to report in Africa last year, and the long-term trend towards abolishing the death penalty is clear across the region. More than two-thirds (37) of the African Union's 54 member states have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.
In 2013, as in the previous year, only five countries in the region implemented death sentences – roughly one in 10.
During the year many states across Africa took small but significant steps towards abolition. New constitutions being drafted in Ghana and Sierra Leone offer real opportunities to end capital punishment, while both Benin and Comoros are considering new penal codes that would abolish the death penalty for all crimes.
"It is a great pity that a few countries let the region down. Most African states have abolished the death penalty in law or practice or are on the road to doing so," said Netsanet Belay.
"Positive developments in countries across Africa have inspired the global abolitionist movement in recent years. Governments must ensure these hopes are not in vain – the increase in executions in 2013 should not be repeated over this year."
Amnesty International today published its annual review of the death penalty worldwide, Death sentences and executions 2013.
According to the report, Iran's and Iraq's wide use of the death penalty caused a sharp global spike in the number of executions carried out in 2013, bucking the global trend towards abolition.
Excluding China, where the number of executions is kept secret, 778 executions were known to have been carried out in 2013, compared to 682 in 2012. After China, Iran (369 executions) and Iraq (169) are the biggest executioners, followed by Saudi Arabia (79) and the USA (39).