On the afternoon of July 24, 1971, thousands of people gathered on the shores of Nigeria’s Bar Beach to witness the killing of Babatunde Folorunsho, a notorious armed robber, and two other men arrested for stealing.
One of the men was being killed for stealing a loudspeaker and record player. This group of men would become the first robbers to be publicly executed in Nigeria. One of them would be quoted as saying just before he was killed: “Are all these people here to see me die? This world is wicked. I have committed no crime.”
They were the first robbers to be killed publicly on death row, but they would not be the last. Following their death, Nigeria has killed several convicted criminals in executions that were often a public spectacle.
Months later, 35,000 people gathered to watch a gang of eight robbers be shot to death by soldiers; and in July 1990, 42 soldiers were executed by a firing squad in Nigeria for their role in a coup, with 27 additional soldiers executed months later.
In July 1995, 43 robbers were killed by the firing squad as a crowd of around 1,000 people watched. Shortly after that in November 1995, environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of the Ogoni minority group were executed by hanging.
Nigeria’s most recent execution was in 2016, when three prisoners were killed. More than 3,000 people are currently on death row in Nigeria, and in August, the government announced it was planning to execute all its prisoners on death row, raising alarm in the West African country, where there has been more than an 18 percent surge in its number of prisoners.
However, Nigeria’s obsession with the death sentence is not peculiar in Africa. At least 5,731 people were estimated to be on death row across sub-Saharan Africa in 2019, and only 23 of the 55 African Union member states have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, most recently Sierra Leone.
But African governments’ penchant for the death penalty is not entirely a homegrown phenomenon; it has deeper religious and historical roots. Indeed, many of today’s laws can be traced to the colonial era.
The death penalty’s colonial origins are important because some Africans, even those who regard themselves as deeply anticolonial, continue to defend the death penalty, in many instances citing remnants of colonial laws or religious references introduced by oppressive colonial regimes.
Our publication, Minority Africa, tracks injustices that disproportionately affect minorities on the continent, and the death penalty is one of them.
As of March 2018 in Kenya for instance, the majority of the more than 800 people on death row were poor, had little or no education, and lived in rural areas, which means they have limited access to justice and are an easy targets for the police. According to a senior Kenyan judicial official, only one man and one woman had a university education out of 142 male and 25 female death row inmates.
Across the continent, death sentences tend to target marginalized groups.
In 2012, Intisar Sharif Abdallah, a teenage mother, was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery in Sudan while the man alleged to have committed the crime with her was set free.
Under Mauritania’s strict Islamic laws, people found guilty of homosexuality can be sentenced to death by stoning, and similarly, before it was abolished in South Africa, 95 percent of people sentenced to death during apartheid were Black while all the people who sentenced them were white.
The first death sentence historically recorded occurred in 16th century BC Egypt, where the wrongdoer, a member of the aristocracy, was accused of magic and ordered to take his own life.
During this period, regular or poor people were usually killed with an ax while the rich were granted the luxury of having to take their own life.
From its earliest days in ancient Egypt, the death penalty has been skewed against a particular demographic. In the hands of European colonial regimes, the death penalty became an essential tool for colonialists seeking to maintain their control across Africa by using state violence to instill fear in the local population.
Britain relied on the death penalty in all of its African colonial territories, as did France, Belgium, and Germany. Portuguese colonies, where the death penalty was not in place, were the exception. These laws still exist in some of those countries today.
European powers also wielded it to keep their colonies in check. Capital punishment was an instrument through which they controlled society and squashed any form of dissent.
Public executions, which continue to occur in many African countries to date, bolstered this control. The colonial state wanted Indigenous people to know it was holding the reins and would kill them publicly if they dared to speak out.
In March 1896, Namibia’s Herero, Mbanderu, and Khoisan forces were defeated by troops fighting under German colonizers following a war between native Namibians and the Germans. Two chiefs, Nicodemus Kavikunua and Kahimemua Nguvauva, were arrested, charged with high treason, and sentenced to death. They were both executed publicly, with Kavikunua tied to a tree and shot and Nguvauva killed by the firing squad.
We see this dedication to squashing out dissent reflected in South Africa as well, where between 1961 and 1989, around 134 political prisoners were executed by the apartheid government.
More broadly, European colonialism brought novel conceptions of criminal justice to the African continent. It was a system that placed the colonial state at the center of public life—as investigator, prosecutor, and executioner.
Although the West now likes to position itself as progressive regarding the death penalty while typecasting Africa as backward, many of the supposedly backward judicial practices in African countries stem from Western laws.
This tendency for erstwhile oppressors to assume the role of savior is an integral part of the global system of white supremacy, in which former colonizers seek to be perceived as the archetype of morality, compelling them to distance themselves from positions they once embraced and now consider problematic.
Whether it’s death penalty laws or colonial anti-gay laws across the continent, a white supremacist mindset allows former colonial powers to take pride in their supposed virtue. They are riddled with an unceasing obsession to be the rescuer, even if it is from situations white supremacy was responsible for creating.
This is not to say evolution is not permissible for the West or the use of the death penalty didn’t exist in Africa prior to colonialism. It did, but its use varied widely from colonial frameworks of capital offenses at both trial and execution levels.
Precolonial laws throughout sub-Saharan Africa were primarily designed to maintain social equilibrium, and the punishment for murder was not necessarily death, though it was in many cases.
The common denominator across precolonial African societies was that the death penalty was used mostly in instances where alternative forms of economic compensation were inadequate.
Among Kenya’s Maasai people, the penalty for murder was compensatory in nature. Unless it was a kinsman, the victim’s family would be repaid in cattle or sheep for the economic loss of a person. Meting out justice also occurred within a framework of spirituality; curses laid on the offender, for instance, were believed to be effective forms of punishment.
Where the death penalty was implemented, it was done in a manner that took into consideration African perceptions of death, burial, afterlife, and the sanctity of life in general and was—in contrast to the colonial period—fundamentally about justice rather than terror, control, or instilling subservience.
Religion has also influenced death penalty laws in Africa and, in many cases, still bolsters support for capital punishment across the continent today.
Old Testament notions of “an eye for an eye,” requiring punishment commensurate to the offense, as well as the use of sharia law in certain countries—which stipulates the death penalty for several offenses—continue to enable the death penalty to thrive.
In many of these schools of thought, the death penalty is viewed as a way to discourage individuals from carrying out violent crimes.
But the logic of “an eye for an eye” rarely applies because so many death sentences are not proportional to the offense. For example, most of the prisoners on death row in Nigeria are sentenced for non-fatal armed robberies, not murder.Abolition of the death penalty in Africa is imperative, but abolitionist movements targeting African countries or those forming within African countries need to first expose the practice’s true roots.This support often translates into out-of-court vigilante justice in places across Africa where justice systems are weak and people don’t trust the judicial system. In South Africa, vigilante justice is widespread in impoverished communities and residents feel government authorities don’t protect them. Between April 2017 and March 2018, 849 people were killed in South Africa in cases of mob justice.
Similarly, a 2015 Afrobarometer report revealed that 1 in 6 Ugandan adults said they took part in mob justice during the preceding year or would do so if they “had the chance.”
The report also mentions that 746 deaths by mob action were reported and investigated in 2019, compared to 426 deaths in 2013, a 75 percent increase.
The pattern of Africans in many countries turning to mob justice when they feel abandoned by the state is nevertheless rooted in a colonial-era obsession with violent punishment methods as a means of deterrence. Unlike precolonial approaches, it is used to instill terror as opposed to actually delivering justice.
To achieve true decolonization of the African criminal justice system, Africans opposed to the death penalty must demonstrate how colonialism and white supremacy shaped and sustained the practice and how the West still attempts to camouflage its legacy of violence in Africa.
Exposing a wider audience to this history—particularly anti-colonial Africans who back the death penalty—would bolster public support for abolition.
Progress is only progress when it is accompanied by historical reckoning, understanding, and accountability.
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