Africa: Thousands Sit on Death Row Across The Continent, But Few Are Executed

(File photo)
25 May 2022

Cape Town — The number of prisoners executed in sub-Saharan Africa more than doubled in 2021, largely a result of death sentences passed on al-Shabaab militants in Somalia, reports Amnesty International.

But while the number of those either sentenced or actually put to death during the year rose, most countries which have not yet abolished the death penalty did not carry out any executions. Prisoners were executed in only three of 28 nations surveyed.

Thousands of prisoners still sit on death rows around the continent, most of them in Nigeria. In some countries, no one has been executed for up to 30 years.

These are among the findings of Amnesty's annual report on the worldwide use of the death penalty in national courts.

The human rights NGO's report said 33 executions were reported in Africa in 2021, as against 16 the previous year.

Twenty-one people were executed by firing squads in Puntland, Somalia, on the same day in June after being convicted in three separate trials of acts of terrorism and membership of al-Shabaab. Six other people remained on death row in the country at the end of 2021. Eleven people were executed in the whole of 2020.

Reported executions in South Sudan rose from two to nine last year, as did the number of death sentences passed by courts, which increased from six to 10. At least 334 people ended the year under sentence of death.

Botswana was the third country which carried out the death penalty in 2021. Three were executed – the same as the previous year. Six people were sentenced to death, and six remain on death row.

At least 5,843 people across the continent are imprisoned under the death sentence, 3,036 of them in Nigeria – one of the highest numbers recorded in any nation worldwide, Amnesty reports. Fifty-six of those were sentenced during 2021.

Former British colonies have the highest numbers of people living under death sentences:

  • Kenya (601)
  • Tanzania (at least 480 but where no executions have been carried out since 1994)
  • South Sudan (more than 334)
  • Zambia (257)
  • Ghana (165)
  • Uganda (more than 135)
  • Sierra Leone (117)
  • Sudan (more than 95)
  • Zimbabwe (66)
  • Malawi (37)

Outside those nations, the highest numbers on death row are in Cameroon (more than 250), Mauritania (183 but where no executions have been carried out since 1987) and the Democratic Republic of Congo – where recorded death sentences imposed in the courts increased from 20 in 2020 to 81 last year but where no one has been executed since 2003.

More than 48 people are on death row in Mali, 12 of them for an attack on a community in which dozens were killed.

At least 16 people are recorded as being under sentence of death in Liberia and one in Ethiopia, although the Amnesty report says the media reported that a military court also sentenced an undisclosed number of soldiers to death for conspiring with Tigrayan forces in that nation's civil war.

But steps were taken during 2021 towards abolishing the death penalty in Sierra Leone, where parliament unanimously passed an act ending it, in Ghana, where the move is being discussed in parliament, and in the Central African Republic (CAR), where no one has been executed since 1981 and a parliamentary committee has recommended formal abolition.

The carrying out of death sentences in Somalia, South Sudan and Botswana was condemned by Deprose Muchena, Amnesty's director for East and Southern Africa.

"The persistent use of the death penalty... goes against regional trends in sub-Saharan Africa and the world, where many countries are moving away from this cruel, inhumane and degrading form of punishment," he said.

Across the world, Amnesty reports that as Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, judges imposed at least 2,052 death sentences in 56 countries – an increase of nearly 40 percent over 2020. But the number of executions actually carried out was the second-lowest figure recorded since at least 2010. The figures do not include China, North Korea and Vietnam.

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