Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

The Gambia May Beat America to Ending the Death Penalty

No one warned ThankGod Ebhos that he was going to die that night, but he knew without words. For 19 years, as he suffered on death row in Nigeria's notorious Benin Prison for the crime of armed robbery, Ebhos had waited for this moment. So when the sound of his cell door opening awoke him from a restless sleep on June 24, 2013, the smell of freshly oiled gallows told him what the prison guards did not.

Without a word, the guards forced Ebhos and four others out. All were set to die that night. Since he was No. 5, he watched as, one by one, each of the men before him gasped for life and died at the end of the executioner's rope. (The prisoners were killed despite the fact that each had an appeal pending at the time.) When Ebhos was up, the guards put a black bag over his face, chained his hands behind his back, and tied a bag of sand to his feet. They put the noose around his neck.

Then someone spotted a clerical error.

Unable to see through the black fabric, the rope still wrapped around his throat, he listened as the prison guards squabbled over the problem: Ebhos had been sentenced to die by firing squad, not hanging.

After long minutes, the execution was postponed. "They removed the rope from my neck, but I never knew that I was still alive," he says. "Even now, talking to you, it seems I am dreaming."

Nigeria's death penalty has always been terrifying, and it is poised to get even worse. In 2017, the Senate approved death sentences for kidnapping—expanding the list of capital crimes that, like ThankGod Ebhos' robbery, do not involve murder.

"Nigeria is the 'bad guy' of West Africa at the moment," says Oluwatosin Popoola, a lawyer and death penalty adviser for Amnesty International. "It seems politicians in the country feel the death penalty is the solution to all problems."

There is even growing support in Nigeria to impose death sentences for speech "crimes." A new bill, which seeks to impose "death by hanging" on people found guilty of any form of hate speech that allegedly results in someone's death, just passed its second reading in the Senate. (The bill would also punish ethnic or racial harassment with a five-year jail term or a fine of 10 million naira, equal to about 27,800 U.S. dollars.)

But other West African nations have been moving away from the death penalty in recent years. In February, Gambian president Adama Barrow announced an official moratorium on executions as "a first step towards abolition" in the country. The move is a significant break from the 23-year authoritarian rule of Yahya Jammeh, whose government had abruptly executed nine prisoners in 2012 by firing squad without notifying their families or lawyers in advance.

Despite some skepticism about the significance of Barrow's announcement—Jammeh had made a similar one after the 2012 executions in response to international pressure—there is reason to celebrate: The Gambia's commitment is backed by the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights, which Barrow signed in 2017. At this point, almost half of the 18 countries in West Africa have abolished capital punishment. Activists hope that The Gambia's move to become the first Anglophone country in the region to do so will inspire other English-speaking countries to follow suit—which means human rights groups may soon be urging the United States to follow The Gambia's lead.

Today, thanks to a 2014 "prerogative of mercy" order from the governor of Kaduna State, ThankGod Ebhos is free—or as free as a man can be after two decades on death row and a near-execution. But he thinks often of his friends from Benin Prison, at least 50 of whom were executed for crimes he says they did not commit. As West African countries increasingly reject capital punishment, the developed world mustn't take its eyes off Nigeria. In a region taking steps forward, the hate speech bill is an alarming step back, for both free speech and criminal justice reform.

Many critics of the ruling party "will end up in the gallows," warned Nigerian Sen. Shehu Sani, a human rights activist. "When you have state police and you have capital punishment for hate speech, you have tyranny and terror.…Free speech is the shield of the oppressed."

Photo Credit: Joanna Andreasson; wwing/iStock

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    "Free speech is the shield of the oppressed."

    Really?! I'm being told it's some antiquated notion from white men who died like a hundred years ago and is as inappropriate today as slavery or dueling.

    And now someone says this?!? It's almost like you have to live under oppressive governments for a while before you can grasp certain concepts. Or at least today's idiots need such experience to understand.

  • Z565||

    Yeah there a few completely retarded kids over reacting to racists and then there's that conservative white guy half the country worships who they elevated to the presidency for saying shit like this "People who don't come out of the locker room and stand for the anthem shouldn't be allowed to play and maybe they should be thrown out of the country".

  • Inigo Montoya||

    To me, that is the worrying part: free speech is under assault from both sides. I'm no longer sure it has a chance.

  • Z565||

    You know standing for a song is how you show allegiance to freedom and liberty as opppsed to clearly turning political support from a murderous dictator of a hostile country.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    How dare anyone I disagree with freely express his opinion. Everyone knows hate speech isn't protected. Why, hate speech is indistinguishable from censorship. It is known.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Death penalty is a perfectly acceptable form of punishment. As long as the system set up to adjudicate guilt is as fair as it can be filled with checks and balances.

    The American system is currently broken as evidenced by innocent people being released via DNA evidence from death row.

  • Z565||

    If America is broken even with robust theorectical constitutional safeguards what hope is there that death can be done "right" anywhere else.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The People taking their constitutional democratic republic back.

    Much of the rest of world does not want to fight for the freedoms Americans want. That's on them.

  • Z565||

    The people elected the judges, the prosecutors and serve on the juries. There's nothing to take back. It's not like there so evil force out there. It's inside all of us. It's the human condition.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    There are people in America actively trying to destroy it.

    They are the ones attacking the 1st & 2nd Amendments.

  • Agammamon||

    Kind of irrelevant.

    There was no time in American history when the justice system was trustworthy. If anything, its at its *most trustworthy* right now - when we trust it the least and watch it the most.

  • Jordan||

    You're a libertarian who believes that it's possible to form a government that isn't grossly incompetent?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    It does not really matter when a tiny government become grossly incompetent. Keep it tiny and it wont harm much.

  • Jordan||

    Killing innocent people is pretty harmful.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    As I said above, correct the broken criminal justice system to the constitutional design of fairness.

    Taking the death penalty off the table for any reason is not an option, in my opinion.

  • Agammamon||

    So, you're a libertarian that believes not even a small government can be made that's not incompetent, kept small so that it can't do much harm - but should have the power to kill people?

  • Tom Bombadil||

    "Death penalty is a perfectly acceptable form of punishment. As long as the system set up to adjudicate guilt is as fair as it can be filled with checks and balances.
    The American system is currently broken as evidenced by innocent people being released via DNA evidence from death row."

    The American system is not just 'currently' broken. No system, including the American one, has ever been foolproof enough to warrant the death penalty.

    'As fair as it can be filled with checks and balances' are empty words covered in weak sauce.

    Death is irreversible, therefore, the penalty is flawed, by definition. The only time a prisoner should be 'put to death' is if they request it, and then they should be given an easy method to self-administer suicide.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    No system ever claimed to be fool proof.

    Even with a broken system the USA has, only a few hundred innocent people were almost 100% shown to be wrongly convicted out of millions. The reason for the bad convictions are readily evident. Fix those issues and you have one of the best criminal justice systems in the World.

    The option of not holding criminals accountable is not an acceptable option.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Can you imagine there might be more than just the 'few hundred' proven to be wrongly convicted? Do you think every wrong death penalty conviction has been discovered? And even if they have, you think 'only a few hundred' is a small number.

    Also, are you suggesting that millions of people have been sent to death row? That is what we're talking about, right?

    Lastly, this statement:
    "The option of not holding criminals accountable is not an acceptable option"
    Is a retarded straw man.
    No one is suggesting criminals should roam free.
    The best purpose of criminal punishment is ensuring the offender never repeats. Life in prison accomplishes that without murdering "hundreds" of innocent people.
    You are very cavalier about a few hundred wrongful deaths. Be a shame if you were ever one of them.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    @ Tombadillo

    y u steal my response

  • See.More||

    The option of not holding criminals accountable is not an acceptable option.

    Not killing criminals is not "not holding criminals accountable". SMH.

  • Agammamon||

  • Sevo||

    Tom Bombadil|5.24.18 @ 8:59AM|#
    "The American system is not just 'currently' broken. No system, including the American one, has ever been foolproof enough to warrant the death penalty."

    + a whole bunch.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    True, but the greatest obstacle to abolishing the death penalty in America is that we're still a functioning democracy.

    I'm more concerned with the routine use of over-charging to force people into plea bargains, than the death penalty; Being wrongly executed is really nasty, but being executed at all is pretty rare. Being forced into plea bargains has almost eliminated the right to trial by jury in most cases. The lost man-years are enormously greater.

  • JoeBlow123||

    "Nigeria's death penalty has always been terrifying, and it is poised to get even worse. In 2017, the Senate approved death sentences for kidnapping—expanding the list of capital crimes that, like ThankGod Ebhos' robbery, do not involve murder."

    If you commit armed robbery or kidnap someone, why should normal people care if you are executed? I have never terribly understood the hand wringing over executing violent criminals.

    Nigeria has executed 7 people since 2007. Just looked it up. This guy says he knew 50 people who were executed who didn't commit their crimes? Sure.

  • DajjaI||

    Violent criminals are a symptom of a dysfunctional society. Thus executing only sweeps the problems under the rug and often only makes them worse. This hysteria about MS-13 is a perfect example. If you watched the meeting yesterday, every speaker said, "Donny Trump is right to call them 'animals'. True but they are unaccompanied children and we need to provide more support for them when they come here so they can resist the lure of the gangs." And then after 5 of them said the same thing, Donald said, "Bad people. We can't let them in the country. Gotta throw them out. Bad, bad people."

    Anyway that's what I think when I hear about these cases of violence: What went wrong? Of course you'll say you're protecting normal people from them. But I think normal people are starting to feel like it's a scam.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Which dysfunctional society is MS13 a symptom of?

    If unaccompanied children are arriving in USA innocent, and their entry leads to becoming violent gang members, would it be better for them and everyone else if they were not allowed entry?

    If MS13 is so horrible and powerful that it can turn innocent children into violent gang members, why the reluctance to call it what it is and eradicate it?

    You've identified an assembly line linking certain immigrants to violent gangs. Do you have any solutions, or is identifying the problem enough?

  • DajjaI||

    Yes I have lots of solutions. First of all, stop sending 'aid' to El Salvador, which only radicalizes them. We're basically just paying them to fight themselves and shed refugees. Funnily enough, Trump himself suggested this during the meeting which obviously you didn't watch. He said we should cut off funding because they're not helping with the problem. He's right! That actually is a very good thing that Trump is reducing foreign aid, which only serves to corrupt and militarize. But beyond that, MS-13 is mostly a lot of absurd hysteria. There are always criminals in a society and mostly they are hacking each other to death not innocent people. It's the same as ISIS that everyone hyperventilated about how they are worse than the devil himself. But then the Pussyhats came along and showed some compassion and they magically disappeared. Yes a little compassion sometimes is all it takes. If you are afraid of MS-13 then don't live in Long Island. But in the mean time, don't hold us all hostage to your apocalyptic fantasies (always starring you as the superhero saving the world from evil).

  • Tom Bombadil||

    You're the one who said MS13 converts innocent children into gang members. I never mentioned innocents getting hacked to death, but I guess that happens sometimes too.

    "It's the same as ISIS that everyone hyperventilated about how they are worse than the devil himself. But then the Pussyhats came along and showed some compassion and they magically disappeared."

    I don't know what that means.

  • gormadoc||

    I think he's saying that the Women's March took attention away from ISIS in the public mind.

  • DajjaI||

    No I mean literally ISIS died because they felt bad for us. And you don't kill people you have sympathy for.

  • DajjaI||

    It means that you don't have to worry about MS13. Though you might want to get your fear and anxiety checked out by a specialist.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    I don't claim to know if MS13 is an insignificant nit, or a serious problem. Opinions probably vary based on whether or not someone you know was murdered.

    You apparently know exactly the MS13 problem so I'll defer to you here in this tiny protected world.

    I have no fear or anxiety about MS13. I will not belittle someone else's experiences though.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Tom, do you live in MS13 gang territory?

    Didn't think so.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Fuck off. You don't even know what point I am debating.

  • General_Tso||

    Do you know which point you're 'debating'?

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Violent criminals are a symptom of a dysfunctional society. "

    Don't blame me, blame society!

  • Jordan||

    I have never terribly understood the hand wringing over executing violent criminals.

    Funny how the same people who see how horrendously incompetent government is at everything it does suddenly think it's a paragon of competence when it's time to kill people. The hand wringing is over the tendency of governments to screw things up. How many innocent people have to be exonerated before you see that?

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Funny how the same people who preen about their concern for civil liberties and principles have no compunction defining away humanity if it's inconvenient,i.e. you have to wait a few weeks before it comes down the birth canal.

  • Wolf Larsen||

    Spot on.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    A few hundred wrongly convicted people out of millions of defendants.

    The reasons for those bad convictions are fairly evident too. Bad science. Bad eyewitness testimony. False police testimony. Those are the 3 big reasons for innocent people being wrongly convicted.

    Not having a criminal justice system is not an option. You want to have the fairest one possible along with plenty of checks and balances to government power and mistakes.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    You are an idiot if you think only a few hundred people in America have ever been wrongly convicted.

  • JoeBlow123||

    "The hand wringing is over the tendency of governments to screw things up."

    So what if we have video evidence of some dude murdering someone plus DNA. Or semen in someone who was raped? Is it ok to kill them then?

  • Agammamon||

    Why are we killing them? What purpose does killing them serve?

  • JoeBlow123||

    There are some crimes you commit where you forfeit your right to participate in society. If murderers are executed, I believe the punishment fits the crime and it is what they deserve.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    What if the video evidence is a deepfake?

    What if it's grainy convenience store security footage from behind of a man of the same height, race and clothing as the accused, who happens to have been a different 6'1", white guy in blue jeans and a white t-shirt?

    What if the DNA or semen sample got mixed up in the lab?

    What if it's a degraded sample only capable of producing a partial match the fits the accused but also fit a large percentage of the rest of the population?

    What if the semen is left over from a wrongly accused boyfriend of a deceased victim fucking her the day before?

    What if the accused was having consensual rough sex with the "victim" and she decided to take advantage of the semen and vaginal bruising to screw him over?

    And what if all of the above evidence was just flat-out fabricated by an ambitious prosecutor who proceeds to get away with it for 20 years before finally being caught 3 years after the innocent man hanged?

    How do you plan to account for all of the above in legally defining a "death-penalty-justifying" standard of proof?

    The definition of "objective proof" is subjective.

  • JoeBlow123||

    "The definition of "objective proof" is subjective"

    Based on all the above, how to you justify sending an alleged murderer to prison for 50 years then?

    I get what you are saying and that executing someone for a crime they did not commit would be a travesty, but aren't their sometimes it's just obvious a murder took place? Confession, evidence, etc? Like the kid who shot up the school in Texas.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    Based on all the above, how do you justify sending an alleged murderer to prison for 50 years then?

    Because it is the most retractable punishment we have. You take someone's pulse, you can't give any of those heartbeats back; but if you put someone in jail for life and then realize halfway through that you had the wrong man, at least you can give them back however much life they have left. If there were a way to punish people to the same degree, with the same efficacy in prevention and deterrence as death or life imprisonment, that could be completely retracted- a time machine, or a resurrection spell or some such, that could give them all those years back- then we would need to use that method instead. But there isn't.

    aren't there some times where it's just obvious a murder took place? Confession, evidence, etc? Like the kid who shot up the school in Texas

    Confessions can be coerced, the product of insanity, or a favor to the truly guilty. Re: evidence, see comment above. An alleged shooter could actually be a nutjob taking credit for an escaped perpetrator's kills. Witnesses could be lying or misremembering.

    Add the word obvious to the list of "words with definitions as subjective as that of 'objective proof'". It's a long list. It's called a dictionary.

  • JoeBlow123||

    "Add the word obvious to the list of "words with definitions as subjective as that of 'objective proof'". It's a long list. It's called a dictionary."

    It seems like you are skirting very close to postmodernism.

    I think it is fairly obvious the kid in Texas shot up the school. Eyewitnesses, confession, evidence, etc. Is it fine to execute him?

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    I think it is fairly obvious

    I'm sure you do.

    The prosecutor responsible for every wrongful execution in history thought his case was too.

    What celestial school of jurisprudence did you graduate from, that you are so certain that your definition of "obvious guilt" is not as flawed and unreliiable as theirs?

  • JoeBlow123||

    You keep not answering the question.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    I've answered it 3 times. You keep not understanding it.

  • DajjaI||

    As long as they can execute gay people then that's religious freedom, according to David French.

  • gormadoc||

    Nigeria probably extended the death penalty to kidnapping as a way to deal with Boko Haram. A clunky way but it's better than it seems at first.

  • Conchfritters||

    After long minutes, the execution was postponed. "They removed the rope from my neck, but I never knew that I was still alive,"

    Fuck - sounds like the Nigerian Richard Glossip. If they gas that dude, I will never go to Oklahoma for the rest of my life, and tell my children and my children's children never to go there.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Like Thomas Paine survived the Terror because a jailer chalked his execution mark on the wrong side of his cell door and the executioners did not see it when they came to collect the people to be guillotined that day. The Terror ended the following week.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    The Life of Brian

    "Freedom or crucifixion?"

  • Seamus||

    And I'll bet a disproportionate number of those sentenced to death in Nigeria were people of color, underlining once more how capital punishment is another manifestation of the racism in our society.

  • MikeyParks||

    Gambia has a good idea there: hanging. No drug overdose; going to sleep with visions of unicorns dancing in your head. The only problem with the American death penalty is the time lapse between sentencing and execution.

  • Echospinner||

    In practice most hanging deaths are slow strangulation. Even when the classic "hangman's fracture" occurs (a hyperexntion fracture resulting in bilateral pedicle distraction injury at C2 and resulting cord damage) it is not an instant or painless death. Most people survive the fracture when it happens due to injury such as MVA.

    In theory one could debate this or that execution. In practice I do not trust the government and court system with this much power.

  • Agammamon||

    *The* Gambia?

    Oh, and 'America' has already ended the death penalty. In like 16 states. You can't compare a small nation with a unitary government to one like America that has well over 50 semi-sovereign ones.

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    It would've been nice if ThankGod Ebhos could've met President Goodluck Jonathon after his release. The coolest thing about Nigeria is the names.

  • ace_m82||

    For libertarianish people, the question as to how to deal with (non-governmental) injustice in a vital one.

    One must first define justice, so I'll give it a try.

    Justice is repayment of a debt incurred. If you take my $100, you owe me $100 (likely plus some expenses, but you get the idea). If you take my eye, you owe me an eye. If you take my life, you owe me a life (but I'm dead, so likely my Next of Kin).

    But, one must determine if the injustice actually was done by the supposed aggressor first. That's what jury trials are for.

    Now, if the guilt is determined, the jury ought to give a sentence of "up to" full repayment, $100(+), an eye, or a life. That should be given to the VICTIM (or NOK), not a third, unharmed, party.

    Now, the victim or NOK has the authority to "forgive" all of the debt or just a part of it. If they choose to completely forgive the aggressor, that's their right. If they choose to require full repayment, that's their right. And, if they choose to accept something in between, that's also their right.

    After the sentence, no third party has any logical authority to question the victim's (or NOK's) decision as to what they'll accept. The third party isn't harmed, the victim is.

    For anyone who objects to this, very well, do so. What I require of you is a better plan AND a better definition of what "justice" really is.

    Reasonable objections encouraged.

  • JoeBlow123||

    This seems alright to me.

  • Echospinner||

    The first biblical quote of "eye for an eye" is in the book of exodus (שְׁמוֹת) chapter 21. The chapter is an early attempt at tort law.

    24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. So it is translated to English. In Hebrew כד עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן, שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן, יָד תַּחַת יָד, רֶגֶל תַּחַת רָגֶל.

    The key word is "tachat". Eye "tachat" eye does not mean "for" an eye in a literal sense. It means more like "in recompense for" or in place of. Obviously the eye cannot be replaced. The one who caused the damage is responsible for full compensation. it does not mean that gauging out the eye is intended.

    The verse is repeated elsewhere and in the Christian bible in the book of Mathew.

    Some years later the rabbis who wrote the Mishna and Talmud had a debate about the death penalty.

    Mishnah Makkot 1:10: "A Sanhedrin (high court) that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one. R. Eleazar ben Azariah says 'Or even once in 70 years.' R. Tarfon and R. Akiva said, 'If we had been in the Sanhedrin no death sentence would ever have been passed'; Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel said: 'If so, they would have multiplied murderers in Israel.'"

    The consesus was that in practice it should never or nearly never occur.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "The Gambia May Beat America to Ending the Death Penalty"

    #HateAmericaFirst clickbait at Reason.

    Seems to be a big day for it.

    "which means human rights groups may soon be urging the United States to follow The Gambia's lead."

    Completely gratuitous.

    La Wik
    Homosexual acts are illegal in Gambia,[63] and punishable with life imprisonment.[64]

    Maybe Gambia isn't the best role model on human rights.

  • ThomasD||

    Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Life In A Gambian Prison

    Doesn't really have a ring to it, does it?

  • Slocum||

    The death penalty in the U.S. is a state issue. My own state of Michigan has never executed anyone since it became a state in 1837 and formally outlawed it in 1846 (one of the first states in the world to do so). It's surprising that blue states on the west coast still haven't banned it though (guess California 'progressives' care more about home solar panels and bullet trains that will never be finished)

  • JonFrum||

    More executions, please. And faster. Much, much faster. And dead isn't difficult, so let's not fuss.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online