/ 24 May 2022

OPINION| Sub-Saharan Africa must oppose the death penalty

Execution Knot Suicide Death Rope Hangman Noose
Three countries in sub-Saharan Africa notorious for consistently executing people – Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan – were responsible for all the known judicial executions in the region in 2021.

In March 2022, a high court in South Sudan ordered the release of Magai Matiop Ngong, a young man who had been sentenced to death by hanging in November 2017. Magai was a 15-year-old high school schoolboy when a death sentence was imposed on him for a murder which he claims was an accident. 

He spent two years and eight months on death row — he was still a child for two years and one month of that. 

During a retrial, the high court found Magai was still a child at the time of the crime, sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment from 7 May 2017, fined him 500,000 South Sudanese pounds (the equivalent of $1 200), and ordered him to pay 51 head of cattle as compensation to the family of the deceased.

Despite his ordeal, Magai is at least fortunate to be alive. He could have lost his life because South Sudan is a prolific user of the death penalty in sub-Saharan Africa. The country has consistently executed people since it gained independence in 2011 and, since 2017, is known to have executed at least four people following convictions related to offences that took place when they were children. 

This is a clear violation of international human rights law which strictly prohibits the use of the death penalty against people below the age of 18 at the time of the crime they have been convicted of.

Amnesty International’s latest report on the global use of the death penalty shows that the use of the death penalty in sub-Saharan Africa is on the rise. The overall number of executions recorded by Amnesty International more than doubled from 16 in 2020 to 33 in 2021. 

Three countries in sub-Saharan Africa notorious for consistently executing people — Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan — were responsible for all the known judicial executions in the region in 2021. Botswana executed three people, the same number of executions as the previous year. Recorded executions in Somalia rose from 11 to 21, and in South Sudan from two to nine.

The number of known death sentences imposed on people increased by 22% in the region, from 305 in 2020 to 373 in 2021; with 19 countries responsible for imposing the death sentences. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, recorded death sentences more than quadrupled, from 20 in 2020 to 81 in 2021; the number was the highest recorded among the 19 countries. By the end of 2021 at least 5 843 people were under the sentence of death in sub-Saharan Africa, with Nigeria accounting for 52% (at least
3 036) of that number.

The situation in 2021 was not completely gloomy. There are signs of sub-Saharan Africa making progress against the death penalty. Commutations, pardons and exonerations were recorded in several countries. Remarkably, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 26 people sentenced to death were pardoned and at the end of the year all death sentences for which all appeals had been rejected were commuted. 

In Zambia, the death sentences of people who had been on death row for over eight years, a total of 23, were commuted. In Nigeria, 17 people originally sentenced to death were acquitted following legal appeals and 83 death sentences were commuted.

In addition, positive steps towards the abolition of the death penalty were taken in some countries. The parliament of Sierra Leone unanimously passed a law that abolished the death penalty. In Ghana, a bill proposing the abolition of the death penalty from the criminal law was processed in parliament; while in the Central African Republic, a parliamentary committee examined a bill for the total abolition of the death penalty.

Life is precious and is at the core of human existence. Therefore, it should be the duty of every human being to protect the right to life. Opposition to the death penalty does not mean one is condoning crime. Indeed, anyone found guilty, after a fair trial, of committing a recognisable criminal offence complying with the requirements under international human rights law should be held accountable by the law. 

However, the punishment must never be death. The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment; it has no place in our world. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa that still retain the death penalty must immediately establish an official moratorium on executions and begin to take irreversible steps to completely abolish this appalling punishment.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.