Recent calls by the organised labour movement for the consideration of the death penalty for corruption cases are bound to stir fresh interest in the latent debate on the relevance of capital punishment and its efficacy as a deterrent to crime. Both the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress believe that the death penalty has worked wonders in countries such as China, South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and Singapore and should therefore produce the same result if implemented in Nigeria.
What is apparent in the position of the labour bodies is the seriousness with which they view the issue of corruption, which has become a cancer eating away at the moral and social fabric of the country. This position is shared by the leading socio-cultural group in the North, the Arewa Consultative Forum, which canvassed it in a proposal to the National Assembly in 2012. Describing corruption as a crime capable of killing Nigeria, the group argued “that corruption (should) be recognised as a capital offence and made to carry capital punishment.”
That Nigeria has remained underdeveloped for 55 years since independence, despite her immense potential and availability of resources, is easily traceable to the deleterious effects of corruption. This is why President Muhammadu Buhari also told a delegation of his party members that visited him in July that “if we don’t kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria.”
Corruption is mainly why many road projects are abandoned even after contracts had been awarded and costs fully paid, turning Nigerian roads into death traps. It is also why many public hospitals cannot function optimally, resulting in many avoidable deaths and the country losing huge amounts of foreign exchange – put at about N250 billion annually – to medical tourism. Nigeria today has the second highest number of infant and maternal mortality rate in the world because money budgeted to improve the quality of life has either been embezzled or misappropriated.
A former boss of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, captured the situation vividly in his lamentation of how Nigeria lost $400 billion to corruption in 39 years. He said, “Concretely, those $400 billion could have translated into millions of vaccinations for children, thousands of kilometres of roads, hundreds of schools, hospitals and water treatment facilities that never came to be.”
But is this enough to make corruption a capital offence? Laws on the application of the death sentence are among the most controversial in the world. This is because the death sentence or the capital punishment has failed to rid the world of terrible crimes, despite unfounded assumptions that it is capable of doing so. In Nigeria, for example, mandatory death sentence for convicted armed robbers has not in any way discouraged the crime. If anything, armed robbery has flourished, churning out such notorious criminals as Ishola Oyenusi, Babatunde Folorunso, Lawrence Anini and Shina Rambo.
According to Amnesty International, incidence of death penalty as a punitive measure jumped by 500 in 2014 compared to the previous year. The human rights watchdog said 607 people were executed worldwide, in a figure that excluded China “which executes more people than the rest of the world combined.” Countries among the world’s top five executioners are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and, surprisingly, the United States, the only G7 country that still executes people. Evidence that it has failed woefully to curb crime is obvious in the rising cases of death sentences passed.
In April, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, in a statement, said that 19 Nigerians were arrested with drugs bound for Asian countries notorious for imposing death penalty for drug offences. “Their final destinations are Malaysia, China and Thailand,” the statement read. Undoubtedly, these people knew very well that they faced certain death in those countries; yet they were not deterred. That is also why four Nigerian drug offenders were executed in Indonesia recently.
Also very important is the unwillingness of the authorities in Nigerian to sign death warrants of those on death row. So, if a law is passed today making corruption a crime punishable by death, it is not likely that such sentences would be executed. It would only worsen cases of those on death row or suspects on trial for capital offences. Such people, especially suspected armed robbers, are often summarily executed. A former Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Adoke Bello, once said that 7,100 people were killed by the police in the four years preceding 2012.
In fact, Death Penalties Worldwide, a website that specialises in information on death penalty, claimed that only 22 people were executed in Nigeria between 1999 and 2013. This did not include the two that were reportedly executed in Edo State after the governor, Adams Oshiomhole, signed their warrant. The number contrasts sharply with the 2,600 that were put to death before the advent of democratic rule 16 years ago. Even in states such as Bayelsa, Edo, Cross River and Delta, where laws were passed, making kidnapping a crime punishable by death, there has been no reported case of any kidnapper executed.
Besides, Nigeria’s flawed judicial system also makes it dangerous to adopt capital punishment for corruption or, indeed, any other crime. Even in the US, where rights of citizens are well respected, people are still being wrongly condemned to death. A typical example is the case of Glenn Ford. According to a report in The Guardian of London, Ford spent 30 years on death row at Angolan Prison in Louisiana before fresh evidence showed that he did not commit the crime for which he was to die.
How many innocent people have been so rashly dispatched to the great beyond because of capital punishment? A TIME magazine online edition report quoting a research work by two law professors, Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan and Barbara O’Brien of Michigan State, put the number of those erroneously sentenced to death at 4.1 per cent or “120 of the roughly 3,000 inmates on death row in America.”
There is no doubt that, given the political will, there are sufficient laws that can fight corruption in Nigeria if enforced. The options available have not been exhausted before calls for death sentences start rending the air. Is it because there was no death sentence that Ibori was able to escape justice in Nigeria only to be jailed in the United Kingdom? Is the absence of death sentence the reason why none of the over 30 state governors that Nuhu Ribadu, as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission helmsman, said were corrupt have not been convicted till today?
What is needed is the strengthening of institutions and the proper funding of anti-corruption agencies. If they are properly backed to do their job, there is no doubt that corruption will be significantly reduced. Once examples are made of some people, the message will be clear.