On August 4th, 2022, a High Court in Akwa Ibom State sentenced Uduak Akpan to death. That name sounds familiar because he’s the main suspect in the chilling rape and murder of Iniobong “Hiny” Umoren in 2021.
Umoren was a young lady who advertised her job search online only to fall prey to Akpan’s scheme. Her rape and murder in 2021 caused a nationwide outrage so much that Akpan’s final fate appeared sealed before he even stepped inside a courtroom.
Justice Bassey Nkanang sentenced him to death by hanging, but what does it mean to be on death row in Nigeria?
First, a little bit of history
One of Nigeria’s most notorious use of the death penalty is the execution of the Ogoni Nine in 1995. The military government of Sani Abacha executed the nine Niger Delta activists and suffered international ridicule for it.
Many Nigerian military governments used the death sentence to punish political opponents and keep them in line. The execution of armed robbers was also a public spectacle to serve as deterrence.
But there’s been a shift since Nigeria returned to a democratic system of government in 1999.
Who meets the hangman?
There are a number of offences in Nigeria that attract the death penalty — treachery, treason, armed robbery and murder. And depending on the location of the crime, suspects convicted for kidnapping, homosexuality and blasphemy can also get the death penalty.
Convicts can be hanged, shot by a firing squad, stoned to death or killed by lethal injection.
Nigerian courts have sentenced tens of thousands of people to death for these crimes for decades. But many of these convicts aren’t actually executed as ordered. In fact, executions have happened in only a handful of states, including Kaduna, Plateau, Enugu, Rivers and Edo, since 1999.
Governors aren’t very cool with killing people
When a court sentences a convict to death, they’re allowed by law to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. If the court upholds their death sentence, then they’re at the mercy of state governors who have to sign the death warrant to seal their fate.
But many Nigerian governors have displayed a reluctance to sign death warrants since 1999.
This reluctance forced former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2013 to publicly beg the governors to sign the warrants.
In 2021, the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, made a similar appeal for governors to enforce the death penalty. He said this would help to decongest prisons. This came from a man who never signed a death warrant himself in his eight years as the governor of Osun State.
“Do as I say, not as I do.”
The death penalty debate in Nigeria
The death penalty is a very controversial topic anywhere in the world, considered by activists a human rights violation. The utility of the government executing someone has come under serious question in the modern world and is seriously frowned at.
Many countries, including in Africa, have abolished the death penalty on grounds of being archaic and inhumane. And many more countries, like Nigeria, have shown cold feet about following the law to the letter on death sentences.
The last known death sentence executed in Nigeria happened in Edo State in 2016. Civil societies and international organisations have pounced on this reluctance from governors to ask for an official end to the death penalty in Nigeria.
Many death row inmates already live out the rest of their lives in prison anyway. Their sentences are sometimes officially commuted to life imprisonment or, in rare cases, the government pardons them after a long stint in prison.
There are currently more than 3,000 death row inmates stashed away in Nigerian prisons. But with how things stand in the country, a death sentence is essentially life imprisonment. It may be time to make it official and remove the death penalty. But the debate will remain controversial, especially with people like Uduak Akpan as a beneficiary of that change.
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