John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Executions Down, Death Sentences up in Sub-Saharan Africa

by John Campbell
April 13, 2017

Protesters take part in a protest against Indonesia's decision to execute 14 drug convicts, including one Nigerian national, outside the Indonesian embassy in Abuja, July 28, 2016. (Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde)


It is easy to lose sight of the decline in capital punishment in Africa. Of the fifty-four states with UN membership, sixteen maintain the death penalty and use it; eighteen permit it (but have carried out no executions during the past ten years), and twenty have abolished it. Further abolition continues: Benin abolished the death penalty in 2016, Congo in 2015, and Madagascar in 2015. Perhaps the most famous example of abolition of capital punishment is South Africa, where it was abolished by the country’s constitutional court in 1995, following a five-year moratorium.

However, Amnesty International reports that twenty-two executions were carried out in five countries in sub-Saharan Africa in 2016, compared to forty-three in 2015. The five countries where executions took place were Botswana, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. The context surrounding the nature of executions in these countries is that death sentences and executions are usually highest in countries with active war zones.

Amnesty also reports that death sentences increased from 443 in 2015 to 1,016 in 2016. Most of the increase occurred in Nigeria, where the number of death sentences was the highest in the world (excluding China). Amnesty notes that the Nigeria number for 2016 is similar to that of 2014, with 2015 significantly lower. They also speculate that the rise and fall may reflect the rhythm of the conclusion of judicial processes. Botswana is an outlier for which Amnesty has no explanation. In 2016, Botswana carried out one execution. In assessing these reports it is important to consider that Amnesty is recording judicial cases that result in death sentences and executions – it is not recording extra-judicial murder carried out by security services, which can be widespread.

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