In August 2018 when the birthday photo of a frail-looking 100-year-old Celestine Egbunuche, held on death row at the Enugu maximum prison, surfaced online, the debate around the death penalty and congestion of prisons was set in motion.
Accused of hiring people to kidnap and kill a man over an alleged land dispute in Imo State, his hometown, the centenarian was detained in June 2000. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to death in 2014 alongside his son, Paul, 41 at the time.
Through the campaign led by not-for-profit Global Society for Anti-corruption (GSAC), Pa Egbunuche was eventually freed a few weeks later. His son remained behind bars.
But underlying ailments and years of psychological and emotional torture would not let the older Egbunuche live past few more weeks.
Last year, his daughter, Chisom, cried out over the abandonment of her father at the mortuary one year after as she could not afford to pay the “mortuary fees and conveying a corpse from Port Harcourt to Imo for burial.”
Pa Egbunuche’s situation is similar to that faced by thousands of other inmates, with correctional centres across Nigeria housing 3,602 death-row inmates, data obtained by this newspaper showed.
The data is as of December 14, 2020, and it was obtained in confidence through prison record officials. There is no real-time official database breakdown of the nation’s inmates, and so the exact figure as of the time of this report could not be established. However, the interior minister said at a public event that the figure was about 3,008 as of August.
Of the total number of death row inmates as of December 2020, about 2,755, which represents over 76 per cent, were in prisons in 10 states. This means that about eight in ten inmates on death row in the country were in these states.
At the summit of this list are prisons in Rivers which held 430 inmates on death row. This was followed by Lagos with 360 condemned to death. Neighbouring Ogun housed 344 inmates. Enugu where Paul Egbunuche is still being held on death row had 279. Delta had 252, Plateau 230, and Kano 153.
At the other end was Anambra with four inmates on death row and Nasarawa with three. All of Imo, Osun, Bayelsa, Kogi, Abia and Ebonyi had one each, while Oyo, Ekiti and the borstals in Ilorin, Kaduna, Abeokuta had none.
Even though the death sentence is legal in Nigeria, executions are a rarity in the country. Still, judges continue to pronounce the death penalty for offences like treason, kidnapping, murder, armed robbery and involvement with militia groups.
Rights group Amnesty International had said Nigeria has the highest death-row population in sub-Saharan Africa, reporting that between 2007 and 2017, there were seven executions in the country with the last one taking place in 2016.
The group said the 621 death sentences the country imposed in 2017 accounted for 71 per cent of all confirmed death sentences ordered in sub-Saharan Africa that year.
Nigerian courts carried out three executions in 2016 and handed out 527 death sentences, three times more than the previous year.
Rights groups have called for the abolishment of the death sentence in the country’s statute.
While 110 countries in the world have abolished the death sentence for all crimes – Sierra Leone being the latest, according to the Death Penalty Project – 54 countries, including Nigeria, retain the provision in their laws.
While the push to see Nigeria repeal the law continues, another matter of concern is the non-implementation of the existing law.
Many death row inmates, including those that have been condemned to death by the Supreme Court like the leader of the Christian Praying Assembly, Reverend (Chukuemeke Ezeugo) King, continue to languish in confinement for years, waiting to be executed.
The buck stops at the desk of state governors, some of whom dither in signing death warrants over humanitarian, political, religious, emotional and cultural sentiments. Yet, they lack the will to commute the provision to life imprisonment.
“There are presently 3,008 condemned criminals waiting for their date with the executioners in our meagre custodial facilities. This consists of 2,952 males and 56 females,” interior minister Rauf Aregbesola said in August.
“In cases where an appeal has been exhausted and the convicts are not mounting any challenge to their conviction, the state should go ahead, to do the needful and bring closure to their cases,” he added.
Mr Aregbesola was reproached by some lawyers for his calls. They argued that the call was against international laws.
Whether or not the death-row inmates are executed, what is certain is that, for as long as they are held in confinement, they suffer mental torture.
Inmates who have spent ten years on death row live under the suspense and mental torture of death, the immediate past correctional service controller-general, Ahmed Ja’afaru, reportedly said.
“Out of the number, a greater percentage of them may have finished appeals and are still waiting for the determination of the approving authority to either approve their execution or commit them to life imprisonment,” Mr Ja’afaru said.
Paul Egbunuche maintained his innocence and that of his late father, yet he has spent 21 years in prison, a third of that on death row.
He recalled to the BBC how the confinement of his father dealt a great blow to his mind: “There are some times when he will ask me: ‘These people here [inmates], what are they doing here?’”
Data contribution by Juliana Francis
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