BY KIANGIOSEKAZI WA NYOKA,
Daily News of Tanzania
DAR ES SALAAM
1 SEPTEMBER 2012
AFRICA has once again been awakened by the shocking whimsical decision from Gambia, a tiny West African country, whose prisoners on death row would be executed en masse by this September. Nine of them have already been executed by firing squad on orders of the Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh.
I say "once again" after a long spell of stable and humane governance, Africa is being reminded of the old era of the Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada who threw his poor beggars and handicaps to the banks of River Nile or General Jean Badel Bokassa who stormed into one of his prisons to administer corporal punishment to young offenders and not forgetting Col.
Murmur Qudaffi pulling down some of the prisons on the hope of wiping out crime in his country. It has been reported from Banjul in Gambia that all prisoners on death row numbering to forty-four would be executed just before October, as they have overstayed in the prisons after their sentences had been pronounced. It is almost 30 years since the last execution was administered in Gambia.
Very unfortunately President Jammeh made this decision at the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan. Perhaps he was trying to beat the deadline before 10th October which is anti- Death Penalty Day observed internationally. Could it be defiance to the October anti- Death Penalty Day?
When announcing his decision, President Jammeh emphatically said, "All those guilty of serious crimes and are condemned to death will face the full force of the law and all punishments prescribed by law will be maintained in the country to ensure that criminals get what they deserve."
Like other African countries their statute books uphold that capital punishment as a legal sanction for murder cases and other serious crimes. However, Heads of African State are hesitant to enforce this punishment and also not ready to scrap it from their penal codes. This has resulted into having unnecessary overcrowding of condemn prisoners.
Tanzania did their last execution in 1994. The Gambian move has come under pressure from different corners. The civil organisations are at work trying to save the remaining more than thirty condemn prisoners waiting for their ordeal.
The Amnesty International, the French government and other rights group have already voiced their feelings on the plight and anguish of those prisoners to be executed.
Yes, capital punishment violates the most important right to life and this country's civil societies such as Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) have over the years been part of the crusade against the capital punishment and a suggestion has been floated to think of an alternative punishment such as life imprisonment.
The number of condemned prisoners from our prisons is difficult to come by, but it is not less than hundred prisoners whose life is hanging in the balance. There are other condemned prisoners who had wished their punishment could be carried out rather than living in suspense.
According to Tanzania's 4th Periodical Report on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva in 2009, the government stand has always been on the people's wishes and not on the external pressure.
In one of the SADC member countries meetings on anti-death penalty, the minister of constitutional Affairs and Justice was quoted as saying that it was imperative to ask ourselves on whether it is an appropriate time to abolish death penalty in our country or not.
"The appropriateness depends on a number of issues including the demand of our people as far as the death penalty is concerned. It is only the opinions of Tanzanians on death penalty may change our position on the punishment," said the minister.
It is true that the legitimacy of changing the law is derived from the people together with the political will from the decision makers. But those involved in collecting the necessary views of the people should not dismiss that they are dealing with the public living in abject poverty and have lost confidence with court and prosecution and to them death penalty is their way of dealing with it.
However, the timing is also very important. It seems these efforts of abolition of death penalty are being overshadowed by the people who are involved in the killings of albinos. More than five people have been sentenced to death while others are still in remands waiting for their verdicts.
This reduces the government commitment in abolishing this punishment. However, the biggest question still remains, how far are we sure that death punishment would effectively reduce the number of grisly killings? We have just seen despite the current efforts of bringing to book these killers still the albino saga continues unabated.
Probably it could be better to review the recommendations advanced by the Law Reform Commission of Tanzania which included disputed decision on Tanzania to emulate from some of its neighbours who have scrapped the capital punishment.
Countries like Rwanda, Namibia and South Africa have done away with capital punishment. The language today in correctional fraternity is to address the reoffending attitude of offenders by introducing intervention programmes that may address their criminal behaviours.
Does it make sense upholding the capital punishment within our correctional institutions and yet claiming to reform them! Probably this could be brought in the forthcoming October Kampala conference on Africa's Correctional Services Association (ACSA).
In my more than forty years experience as a correctional officer, I have worked and experienced in so many times the pushing of a knob in an execution chamber, ending condemn prisoner's life. I would spend sleepless nights for a week before regaining my composure.
But the hang man keeps on being haunted in his whole life in memory of those he has executed and lives in hallucination. Let us go for alternative to death penalty to avoid all this.