Abolishing the death penalty in Sierra Leone will signal a genuine move in a new direction

By Makmid Kamara

In April 2018, I launched Amnesty International’s global death penalty statistics report in London. I left Amnesty International in 2019, but on that day almost three years ago, I announced on behalf of the organization that Africa was the beacon of hope for the global campaign against the death penalty. The previous year, Guinea had abolished the death penalty for all crimes, making it the 20th country in the continent to abolish the death penalty in law and practice. At the press conference, I mentioned how proud I felt to be the bearer of such progressive news from my continent. What I did not say was how I wish that my own country, Sierra Leone was among those progressive nations making the positive headlines.

At the time Amnesty International declared Sub-Sahara Africa as the beacon of hope for the fight against the death penalty, Sierra Leoneans had just been disappointed by the then government’s wholesome rejection of the progressive recommendations by the Justice Edmond Cowan Constitutional Review Committee. The Ernest Bai Koroma government had scuppered an excellent opportunity to make Sierra Leone a proud member of the progressive league of nations that have abolished the death penalty. The wilful rejection of almost all of the recommendations by the Constitutional Review Committee, including the recommendation to expunge the death penalty from our law books, deprived Sierra Leone from taking a giant step in advancing its commitment to the protection of the right to life.

But despite that sour thought, I spoke to the media with some optimism for my continent. This was based on what was happening in countries like Burkina Faso, Chad, and Kenya, where the authorities took meaningful steps towards abolishing the death penalty. I was also optimistic because of another good news that had happened three years earlier in Nigeria, in which I was personally involved.

Moses Akatugba: The boy who lived

In May 2015, the Governor of Delta State in Nigeria, Emmanuel Uduaghan, pardoned a death row inmate. The inmate, Moses Akatugba, had spent ten (10) years in prison for stealing a mobile phone. Moses was released from prison after spending ten (10) years in jail, some of it on death row. Governor Uduaghan issued a last-minute pardon after receiving over 800,000 messages from activists across the world.

Moses Akatugba was 16-year-old and was awaiting the results of his secondary school exams when in November 2005, his life changed forever. He was arrested by the Nigerian army and shot in the hand, severely beaten and then charged with stealing mobile phones. He was initially held at the local army barracks where, he says, soldiers showed him a corpse. He couldn’t identify the dead man, so they beat him more. After being transferred to Epkan police station in Delta State, Moses was tortured again. He said that the police beat him severely with machetes and batons, tied him up, hung him for several hours in interrogation rooms, and used pliers to pull out his finger and toenails to force him to sign two ‘confessions’. Moses was convicted solely on the basis of the alleged victim’s statement and the ‘confessions’ Moses made under duress. After eight years in prison, he was sentenced to death by hanging and placed on death row.

In 2014, as Amnesty’s West Africa researcher covering Nigeria, I was made aware of Moses’s case through a local human rights organisation in Rivers State. Together, we wrote letters to the authorities and started a global campaign to free Moses. A year later, in 2015, Governor Uduaghan, a medical doctor and a non-believer in the death penalty issued an unconditional pardon to free Moses.

It was an immensely joyful moment for all those involved in that campaign, and especially for Moses. But what struck me in that campaign was the Governor’s willingness to listen to his legal advisers as well as civil society actors and campaigners. Governor Uduaghan’s pardon gave Moses back his life and reversed a terrible miscarriage of justice. It also gave campaigners against the death penalty like myself some sense of hope and optimism. Moses is alive today and has become an activist against torture and the death penalty in Nigeria. There are and could be many more people like Moses across the continent.  

Global and continental trends

Governor Uduaghan’s decision to do away with the death penalty in Moses’s case was indicative of a positive trend that was building across the continent. In that year, countries like Burkina Faso, Chad and Kenya were all taking steps to remove the death penalty for all crimes from their law books. Amnesty International’s record at the time of writing shows that 21 out of the 54 African countries in the continent have abolished the death penalty in law and practice for all crimes.

This is a massive improvement for a continent in which, over forty years ago, not a single country had abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes, let alone for all crimes. The positive trend in the continent is not just evident in the increasing number of countries abolishing the death penalty, it is also manifested in the reduced number of state-sanctioned executions taking place in Africa. The global statistics on the use of the death penalty in 2020 are yet to be published, but reports indicate that executions have been falling steadily since 2015. In 2019, for example, recorded global executions went down by 5 percent when compared to 2018.

Sub-Saharan Africa, and West Africa in particular, has seen steady progress on abolishing the death penalty over the past decades. More and more countries are coming around to the fact that the death penalty is a serious human rights violation and has no deterrent effect on crime. For example, in Kenya, the Task Force set up on the orders of the Supreme Court in the case of Francis Karioko Muruatetu and Wilson Thirimbi Mwangi v. Republic, to review the mandatory death sentence under section 204 of the Penal Code, noted among many other things that: “The world – but more specifically African countries – is moving toward abolition at a minimum with respect to all but the most serious crimes.” The Taskforce was also quite unequivocal in stating that “The justice system is not perfect, and this leads to a disproportionate number of poor or vulnerable persons, many who are in fact innocent, being sentenced to death.”

Sierra Leone: the opportunity to abolish is now!

In 2013, the previous government launched a constitutional review process and a final report was presented to the President in January 2017. The review process was probably one of the most widespread and consultative law reform processes at the time. But despite the investments of time, money and other invaluable resources, the then government rejected over 100 of the 134 recommendations of the Constitutional Review Committee, including the abolition of the death penalty. Sierra Leone missed an opportunity to be counted among the progressive nations on the continent that have expunged the death penalty for all crimes in their law books.

The current government is reviewing the recommendations. The government is also aware of the reality of injustice and hardship faced by a countless number of people in the country’s criminal justice system. It is an opportunity, like none other, to truly demonstrate the mantra of a new direction.

Sierra Leone currently retains the death penalty for treason, aggravated robbery and murder. Previous governments have promised to abolish the death penalty through a revision of the Criminal Procedure Act. But those promises have not been translated into concrete actions.  In December 2020, in response to the Human Rights Commission’s annual report, President Bio stated that his “Government believes in the sanctity of life of every citizen.” He reminded the nation that the government had “maintained the moratorium on the death penalty for that reason.” He assured that “Although the recommendation by the Justice Cowan-led Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) was rejected by the last Government, a committee set up by my administration to revisit the issue has recommended accepting the Justice Cowan recommendation. So my Government has moved significantly on this question and we will continue making progress.” 

It was encouraging to hear this reassurance from President Bio. But mere utterances cannot replace legal reform. The seriousness of the death penalty issue is one that requires bold legal and constitutional alterations. So President Bio could back up his words with actions by drawing from the excellent example of Governor Uduaghan and follow in the good steps of neighbouring Guinea to abolish the death penalty from our country’s law books once and for all.  

Just as Governor Uduaghan was bold enough to reverse that monumental blunder by his state’s judiciary to save Moses Akatugba’s life, President Julius Maada Bio also has an opportunity to reverse the error of his predecessor by not just accelerating the constitutional review process, but importantly, accepting the progressive recommendations of the CRC, which includes the abolition of the death penalty. This current government has an opportunity to truly demonstrate that they are indeed moving the country in a new direction. If not now, then when?

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