The death penalty in Nigeria

While there were no reports of executions in Nigeria in 2019, the death penalty continues to be imposed by courts. As early as 2017, Amnesty International put the number of death row inmates in Nigeria at 2,285.

While no executions were carried out between 2013 and the end of 2016, the number of death sentences imposed annually has increased rapidly since then: According to Amnesty International, some 650 death sentences were handed down in 2014 alone. In 2015, a quarter of all death sentences handed down worldwide were imposed by Nigerian courts. On December 23, 2016, three men who had been sentenced to death under military law were executed in secret in Beninn City prison.

Death sentences have been particularly frequent in recent years against Nigerian soldiers by the military court in the capital, Abuja. This usually concerns soldiers who were involved in the fight against the terrorist organization Boko Haram in the northern areas of Nigeria or were to be deployed for this purpose and were accused of disobedience or refused combat duty.

In December 2019, the Islamic State (IS) released a video showing the alleged executions by them of eleven Christians in northern Nigeria.

The judicial system: secular and Islamic courts

Since the end of the military dictatorship in 1999 and the assumption of power by President Muhammadu Buhari, additional Islamic courts have emerged in parallel with the secular courts in 12 states. These are found primarily in northern Nigeria, which is also home to the majority of the Muslim population. In 2015, a death sentence was handed down for the first time for blasphemy (insulting the Prophet Muhammad) due to the narrow interpretation of Sharia law.

Prosecution and court proceedings, as well as sentences and their execution, meet international standards to a limited degree. The judicial system is very heterogeneous, not only because of the country’s religious divisions, but also because of the autonomy of the individual courts. For example, each of Nigeria’s 36 states has its own regulations, some of which are additional. Only Muslims, who make up about 50 % of the population, may be tried by Islamic courts. Between 40 and 46 percent of the population are Christians, and there are also a number of other religious groups.

Crimes punishable by death in Nigeria

Crimes punishable by death under both secular and Islamic law include: Murder, armed robbery (with or without death), and terrorist offenses, plans, or activities. Non-lethal offenses such as treason are also punishable by death. In addition, under Islamic law, adultery, homosexuality, rape, insulting the Prophet Muhammad (blasphemy), turning away from the faith (apostasy), or witchcraft can be punished by death.

In addition, in six states, kidnapping resulting in death has been counted as a capital offense since 2017. Under military law, offenses such as insubordination or refusal to serve can result in a death sentence. The death penalty for so-called “hate speech” was also under discussion, but this can ultimately only be prosecuted with life imprisonment.

Amnesty International also reported that legal steps to extend the death penalty have again been taken in some Nigerian states. For example, in March 2019 Rivers state passed amended laws banning secret cults and similar activities, as well as prohibiting kidnappings.

The usual methods of execution under Islamic and secular law, as well as under military law, are hanging and shooting. The final execution of a death sentence always requires confirmation by the respective governor. If Sharia law is applied, convicts can also be stoned to death for certain sexual crimes, such as rape, adultery or homosexual acts.

The prisons and conditions of detention in Nigerian death prisons resemble medieval dungeons and are reminiscent of the times of slavery: Up to ten inmates share windowless cells that are no larger than 2 x 3 meters and have neither beds nor toilets. In Enugu Prison in Lagos, the execution chamber built into the floor with a trap door is located directly on the corridor in front of the cells (see drawing). The realistic drawn illustration is by Nigerian former death row inmate and artist Arthur J. Angel.

Death cells in Enugu Prison, drawn by Arthur J. Angel

Given the inhumane conditions, it is not surprising that even commuting death sentences to life imprisonment provides little relief for prisoners. Former detainees report regular torture and continuing corruption on the part of legal decision-makers, police and prison guards.

Malnutrition, poisoning, and disease are the leading cause of prisoner deaths, along with executions, due to a lack of medical care.

Sources and further information on the death penalty in Nigeria:

Nigeria Prison Service; Amnesty International:“Amnesty International Report 2016/2017,” 2015 Annual Report; Cornell Law School: Death Penalty Worldwide (as of June 2014); Hands off Cain; Life Wire International, Nigeria (2016); The Nation (December 27, 2016 article:“Edo executes three death row inmates“); Punch: “Hate Speech: Sponsor bows to pressure, removes death penalty from bill.” (Article dated Nov. 24, 2019; retrieved on March 1, 2020)

Drawings: Arthur Judah Angel, artist and former death row inmate from Nigeria

As of May 2020