government: federal presidential republic
state of civil and political rights: Partly free
constitution: 1999 new constitution adopted
legal system: based on English common law, Islamic law (in 12 northern states) and tribal law
legislative system: bicameral National Assembly consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives
judicial system: Supreme Court (judges appointed by the Provisional Ruling Council), and Federal Court of Appeal (judges are appointed by the federal government on the advice of the Advisory Judicial Committee)
religion: Muslim 50%, Christian 40%, indigenous beliefs 10%
death row: 1677 (Nigerian Prisons Service, 31/12/2015)
year of last executions: 0-0-0
death sentences: 18
international treaties on human rights and the death penalty:
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Convention on the Rights of the Child
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Statute of the International Criminal Court (which excludes the death penalty)
Death sentences are mandatory for murder but also non lethal offences such as armed robbery and treason. There are other capital crimes such as offences against the State.
The presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo, whose democratic election in 1999 brought to an end 15 years of military rule, led the country back into the Commonwealth, from which it had been suspended in 1995 after the dictator Sani Abacha ordered the execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni activists.
In Nigeria, the federal legal system is based on English common law.
However, since 1999, twelve predominantly Muslim northern States have introduced Islamic Sharia law in criminal justice, a decision which has prompted international criticism of the condemnation of stoning for the crime of adultery of Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal and caused tensions with the Christian minority resulting in armed conflicts causing thousands of deaths.
The federal government of Nigeria has repeatedly stated that the Federal Constitution does not allow stoning and similar punishments called for by the Sharia. To this end, former President Olusegun Obasanjo has spoken of "political Sharia" - an instrument in the hands of state governments to impose conditions on the federal government - destined to fizzle out with time, reassuring the international community that judicial appeals at the Federal level guarantee that any improper verdict by the Islamic courts will be overturned.
In October 2002, during a meeting with an Hands Off Cain delegation visiting Nigeria, he said: "As President I am committed to saving lives and not eliminating them." He said he adhered to HOC's worldwide campaign for a moratorium on executions and stated that he was committed to it "here in our country and internationally."
On the basis of these appeals, the Nigerian Supreme Court could conclude that the sentence of death by stoning and the Sharia itself are unconstitutional. To avoid this outcome, the Governors of 12 Northern States that introduced the Sharia in 1999 and want to see it maintained, have assured that sentences of stoning to death have been systematically overturned by local courts of appeal operating under the Sharia.
Since 2000, in fact, there have been many Nigerian Muslims condemned to death by stoning for “crimes” of a sexual nature, such as homosexuality and adultery, but none of these sentences has been carried out, all being overturned on appeal and commuted to prison sentences. Sharia courts have handed down death sentences for various “crimes”, including blasphemy, adultery, murder and homosexuality since they were set up in the early 2000s. But to date, no executions have been carried out. The first and, up to now, only Sharia-based execution in Nigeria since its introduction took place on 3 January 2002, when Sani Yakubu Rodi was hanged in the State of Katsina for murder, after he was condemned to death by a Sharia court.
Since the move from military rule to democracy in May 1999, at least 26 people were executed. The last executions had taken place on 24 June 2013, when Nigeria hanged four prisoners at Benin City Prison in Edo State, in the country’s first executions since 2006.
In 2015, at least 171 people were sentenced to death, according to information received by Amnesty International from the Nigerian Prisons Service(NPS). This was a 74% drop on the 659 death sentences recorded in 2014.
As of 31 December 2015, there were 1,677 inmates on death row, including 5 foreign nationals, according to the Nigerian Prisons Service.
Two expert groups had been set up by the former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, to reform the prison system and deal with the problem of prison overcrowding. The groups, namely the National Study Group on Death Penalty and the Presidential Commission on Reform of the Administration of Justice, were established respectively in 2004 and 2007, and both recommended a moratorium on executions because the criminal justice system could no longer guarantee a fair trial at all time.
Commutation of death sentences or suspension of executions
Furthermore, collective commutations of death sentences, pardon or suspension of executions indefinitely were granted during last years also in different States of the Federation.
In 2015, a total of 121 death sentences were commuted, 26 pardons were granted, and 41 death row prisoners were exonerated, according to information received by Amnesty International from the Nigerian Prisons Service.
On 4 January 2015, the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio, in the spirit of New Year granted amnesty to 14 prisoners serving various sentences in different prisons across the country. Six prisoners in Port Harcourt Prisons had their sentences converted from death to life imprisonment.
On 28 May 2015, the Governor of the Delta State, Emmanuel Uduaghan, commuted death sentences of three inmates to various terms of imprisonment and granted total pardon to Moses Akatugba who was sentenced to death for stealing three phones in 2005, when he was 16 years old.
On 28 May 2015, Jonah Jang, Governor of Plateau State, with less than twenty-four hours to the end of his tenure, granted state pardon to five death row inmates and commuted two other death sentences to life imprisonment.
On 19 December 2015, the Nigerian Army announced that the Chief of Army Staff, Lt-Gen. Tukur Buratai, had commuted the death sentences passed on 66 soldiers, who were convicted in 2014 by two courts-martial. The death sentences by firing squad were commuted to 10 years of imprisonment. The soldiers had been convicted of mutiny for refusing to join operations against the armed group Boko Haram. Troops regularly complain that they are outgunned by Boko Haram, they are not paid in full and they are abandoned on the battlefield without enough ammunition or food.
On 9 June 2016, seventeen prisoners serving various jail terms in Ogun State were granted pardon by the state governor, Ibikunle Amosun, who also commuted the death sentences verdict on four other prisoners to life imprisonment. The condemned prisoners granted relief are Akeem Fatai, Nnamdi Osuagu, Sunday Oloyede and Idowu Okanlawon. The gesture was part of activities marking this year’s Democracy Day and 12 June remembrance anniversaries in Ogun State.
Death penalty for juveniles
The federal Children’s Rights Act 2003 defines a child as under 18 and explicitly prohibits capital punishment and corporal punishment, but only where these provisions are confirmed in the state legislation derived from the Act. However, the federal Act is in force only in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja and in states which have explicitly enacted it, a process in which it may also be modified. States in the South which have yet to enact the Children’s Rights Act may sentence child offenders from the age of 17 to capital punishment. In the North, 13 states have yet to enact the Act. In the 11 Sharia states, Muslims may be sentenced to death for hadd (for which the prescribed punishment is mandatory) and Qisas (punished by retaliation) punishments from the age of puberty, according to the Sharia law. Non-Muslims in the northern states which have not enacted the Children’s Rights Act may be sentenced to death from the age of 17 at the time of the offence, under the Penal Code 1960 and the Criminal Procedure Code 1960.
Nigeria is not known to have executed a juvenile offender since 1997, although many juvenile offenders are still on death row in Nigeria in violation of international and national law. Their ages at the time of their alleged crimes ranged from 13 to 17 years old. In the absence of a commutation of their sentence, these persons are in effect serving sentences of life imprisonment without possibility of release.
In June 2014, in a landmark verdict, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS Court) opposed death sentences imposed on two juvenile offenders in Nigeria, underscoring its duty to respect and enforce fundamental human rights as stipulated in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. In its final judgement, the presiding judge, Justice Hansine Donli, declared that pronouncing the death sentence on them for an offence they committed as minors was a breach of Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The judge then ordered the Nigerian Government to refrain from any attempt to execute them.
On 9 June 2015, a High Court judge in Gezawa, Kano State, ordered Wasila Tasi’u, a child forced to marry at just 13 who then poisoned her 35-year-old husband and three friends, to be released from juvenile detention. Another 13-year-old who killed her 35-year-old husband remains on death row despite a 2014 ruling from the West African Community Court of Justice that her sentence is illegal because she was a minor. Both girls had become second wives in the Muslim northern part of Nigeria where polygamy and child marriage is common. Neither had ever been to school and couldn’t read or write.
The war on terror
In December 2012, the National Assembly approved an amendment to the Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2011, confirming the death penalty for acts of terrorism. The Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2011 (Amendment) Bill, 2012, was passed by the House of Representatives on 11 October and by the Senate on 17 October. The Senate version prescribed life imprisonment for offences under this clause while the House version prescribed death penalty. The National Assembly decided to adopt the House version following the recommendations of a Conference Committee’s report of both houses, which harmonised the different versions of the Amendment Bill. The Terrorism (Prevention) Act, 2011 establishes measures for the prevention, prohibition and combating of acts of terrorism and the financing of terrorism in the country.
The principal Act defines “act of terrorism” as anyone that involves or causes an attack upon a person’s life which may cause serious bodily harm or death; kidnapping of a person; destruction of a government or public facility, transport system, an infrastructural facility including an information system, a fixed platform located on the continental shelf, public place or private property likely to endanger human life or result in major economic loss. On 17 April 2013, the Delta State House of Assembly voted against Governor Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan on a bill, known as “Law to Prohibit Terrorism, Kidnapping, Hostage-taking, Cultism, Use of Bombs and Explosives and Other Matters thereto,” stipulating death sentence for kidnappers and terrorists. The Governor, while exercising his veto power refused assent to the Delta State Anti-Kidnapping and Anti-Terrorism Bill, 2012, which had been unanimously passed by the House on 7 November 2012. “My stand on this has always been the same; the death sentence has not stopped any criminal activities,” Emmanuel Uduaghan told This Day Live on 29 November 2012. However,26 of the 29 House’s members voted to override the Governor’s veto which effectively makes the bill now an authentic law of the State. “It is my view that death sentence punishment is not likely to serve as deterrent or antidote,” Governor Uduaghan wrote in a very lengthy letter sent to the House and read out prior to the voting. Under the new bill, a traditional ruler in the State in whose domain hostages are held to his knowledge will be deposed or his kingship withdrawn. Also, a telecommunications company, which refuses to make available to security agencies, within 24 hours of request, information on the communication made by a suspected kidnapper or terrorist, will pay a fine of 20 million of Nigerian Naira (127,469 USD) for every request not granted.
In 2015 and the first six months of 2016, other Nigerian States have advocated the death penalty in response to the increase in kidnapping cases in the country. On 8 September 2015, the Cross River State Governor, Ben Ayade, signed into law a bill prescribing the death penalty for kidnapping. On 1 October 2015, Ebonyi State Governor David Umahi said he would readily sign the death warrant of any kidnapper convicted in the state. On 8 April 2016, Oyo State Governor Abiola Ajimobi signed into law a kidnapping prohibition bill, which makes kidnapping a capital offence in the state. On 19 April 2016, the Delta House of Assembly passed the Anti-kidnap Bill, prescribing death sentence for kidnappers and life imprisonment for accomplices.
After being elected at the Human Rights Council in 2006, Nigeria presented itself at the 4th Session of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on 9 February 2009. While Nigeria did not adopt an official moratorium on executions, the Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ojo Uma Maduekwe, stated that Nigeria has a “self imposed moratorium.”
On 22 October 2013, Nigeria was reviewed under the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council.
On 20 March 2014, in its oral response to the recommendations received, the Government rejected all the recommendations dealing with the abolition of the death penalty, including recommendation to commute all death penalties, progressively reduce the number of crimes that can be punished with the death penalty and eventually adopt measures for the complete abolition of the death penalty including accession to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “Much as we acknowledge the desirability of a moratorium on the death penalty, it is not feasible to implement at this time under a Federal System that guarantees a measure of autonomy to its federating units,” explained the country’s delegation. “Such moratorium could not be sustained without going through a constitutional amendment which not only takes time, but could also be quite cumbersome.”
However, the Government assured the Human Rights Council that Nigeria “shall respect” the ECOWAS Court of Justice order restraining the Nigerian Government from carrying out executions of condemned persons, “even as we continue with a national dialogue on the abolition of the death penalty.”
On 19 December 2016, Nigeria abstained from the Resolution on a Moratorium on the Use of the Death Penalty at the UN General Assembly, such as in 2014, 2012 and 2010; previously, in 2007 and 2008, it had voted against such resolution.