This article was originally published in The Week, 31 July 2023.
Ghana’s parliament has voted to abolish the death penalty, offering a reprieve for 176 prisoners currently on death row in the country.
These prisoners are kept in poor conditions, some have reported poor legal representation, and have been forced to share “just seven toilets”, said Amnesty International.
Nsawam Prison, home to Ghana’s death row, was criticised by the human rights organisation back in 2017, following allegations of overcrowding, poor ventilation and lack of hygiene.
Abdul Halik Hamza, a death row prisoner, pleaded not guilty to murder at his trial, claiming he attempting to defuse a fight in which a man was killed. The conditions at Nsawam, coupled with the prospect of death for his crimes, was almost too much to bear.
“I have cried a lot. Three days I did not eat,” he told Joy News. “When the judge said ‘I sentence you to death by hanging’, I didn’t even feel myself in the court.”
But Ghana has now become the 29th country in Africa to outlaw the death penalty, and the 124th globally, according to the London-based NGO Death Penalty Project.
Having carried out its last execution in 1993, Ghana was considered as abolitionist in practice, but it has still been imposing death sentences for serious crimes. The penalty has been the “mandatory punishment” for murder, the project added, leaving no chance of a lesser sentence for those found guilty of the offence.
The history of the death penalty in Ghana, and the African continent at large, is a long and complex one. It is part of a “grim colonial legacy that lingers on”, Dior Konaté, professor of African history at South Carolina State University, wrote in The Guardian in 2021.
At the height of the colonial period, while the death penalty was being abandoned in Europe, it soon found “fertile ground” in Africa, as a “tool of colonial repression and racism”, Konaté continued.
The death penalty was “deeply rooted in racism”, often “politicised and weaponised” by judges to meet their own prejudiced ends, she added. Although colonialism is no more, racial bias remains, especially in countries where the death penalty is still upheld.
Other factors are often brought heavily to bear on those sentenced to death. These criminals can be “vulnerable individuals from deprived backgrounds, who have often experienced deep personal trauma”, Francis-Xavier Kojo Sosu, the MP behind the bill to abolish capital punishment, told The Guardian. He stressed he was keen to stop the courts from imposing “an inhuman punishment”.
The Death Penalty Project worked with Sosu to get the law changed. Saul Lehrfreund, co-director of the project, was keen to dispel some of the common defences of the death penalty in a blog for Oxford University.
He said the “commonest justification” for the policy was that it acted as a “unique deterrent” for others. However, the project discovered that capital punishment “does not deter murder to a marginally greater extent than does the threat or application of life imprisonment”.
As Ghana abolishes the death penalty, there has been a marked shift away from capital punishment in Africa. “We are seeing a downward trend,” Muleya Mwananyanda, regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa at Human Rights Watch, told Deutsche Wells. “The death penalty is no longer popular on the continent.” Other nations to have outlawed capital punishment recently include Zambia, Equatorial Guinea, the Central African Republic and Sierra Leone.
Despite this, the number of recorded death sentences across the continent “increased by 22% last year”, the news website added. There remains a long way to go for nations across the world to fully erase the death penalty and ensure it is not “enshrined in legislation”.
The next step is for Ghana to formally recognise the abolition. Despite its parliament voting unanimously, President Nana Akufo-Addo “still has to assent for the law to take effect”, said Reuters. This, however, is likely to be a formality.
Criminals who were on death row are likely to have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. But the decision to halt capital punishment will not only impact those on death row. It will also have wider implications for years to come.
It is a “momentous event”, said Pulse Ghana’s Evans Effah. “As the world watches, Ghana’s progressive stance on abolishing the death penalty sets an inspiring example for nations worldwide.”