It must be that there have been extremely low cases of women in the sort of crime that attracts capital punishment. That can be the only explanation for why whether women are ever hanged or not has not been part of the everyday contestations around Nigeria. But, with the drama in court yesterday after a guilty verdict against Maryam Sanda, the question arises.
Intervention asked around and all the response can be summarised as follows: The answer is yes to the extent that the law makes no distinction about the gender of whoever is convicted to have killed someone else. There is no gender differentiation.
The only thing is that very, very few women have been involved in the sort of crimes that attracts capital punishment, a situation that is, however, witnessing something like a reversal with particular reference to domestic violence. The situation leaves a challenge for the best of Nigeria’s Sociologists as to why that is happening. Is it a case of stressful modernisation or cultural foibles or what?
Lagos lawyer, Barrister Chiemeke Onyeisi who worked on prison conditions up to 2003 before going into professional legal practice observes that there seems to be an informal moratorium on death by hanging in Nigeria. He did not say why but it must have to do with the general reluctance of politicians to sign death warrant but without which death by hanging cannot take place. But, whatever is behind that, it creates what some Psychologists think is an even worse condition.
It is that condemned persons live a vegetating life. Onyeisi recalls his experience as a staff of the defunct Civil Liberties Organisation, (CLO) which pioneered civil society activism on prison conditions in the late 1980s. He said the prison authorities did not normally stop religious groups, charity workers and civil society groups from seeing condemned persons. But their state of existence is such that the sounds of any footsteps outside the condemned persons’ cell is automatically equated to the arrival of that moment. And this is precisely because they have no idea of their last moment.
Again, that raises an even more complex philosophical question. Should society treat any of its members that way? It is a difficult question to answer. Some people would say that most condemned men have done one, really horrible thing or another and deserve any treatment. The contrary argument which is dominant in Europe is, yes, they may have done very horrible things but society is supposed to show to them its moral superiority and the demonstrate same by graceful treatment of the typical convict.
This is the basis of the EU’s campaign against death penalty, for instance or Amnesty International’s fight against it. They are mostly informed by the mainly Foucauldian argument about the constructed-ness of punishment. Of course, it is not a settled debate.
It must task the human imagination to see a woman die by hanging, particularly in Nigeria where the lethal injection or the chair treatment is not the model. This has nothing to do with Maryam Sanda or any other particular woman. It is just part of the paradoxical disposition to women as a generic referent.
Two issues for attention! The civil society in Nigeria appears to have stopped doing any works on prison conditions. This is either because funders might have shifted funding attention from there or because the philosophical origin of the debate about crime, criminality and punishment is not part of the conscience of the everyday activist. So, except religious elements, there appears to be little activism in relation to prisons and prisoners.
The second challenge is the Nigerian society is too much at war with itself to bother about such issues. Many would say that every condemned person deserves what he or she has got. But a win-win outcome is always to be preferred against any course of action that produces more silent bitterness.
As things are in Nigeria today, there is so much bitterness that suspicion and revenge can be perceived nearly everywhere. The quantum of transitional justice practices that should be seen everywhere in a society like Nigeria since 2009 are just nowhere to be seen. Nobody is confessing to anybody. Nobody is apologizing to anybody. Nobody is forgiving anybody in a dramatic, healing way. Neither the political leaders, the political parties, traditional rulers, the civil society nor the religious groups are organizing any such things. How might a society imprisoned in such psychology ever heal itself?