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Use of death penalty declines in Africa

Martina Schwikowski
November 16, 2022

As the World Congress Against the Death Penalty is underway in Berlin, many African countries are witnessing a fall in the number of state executions.

A crowd gathers around four nooses
Several African countries have abolished the death penalty in recent yearsImage: Phill Magakoe/AFP

Equatorial Guinea plans to remove the death penalty from its criminal code by the end of 2022 — making it the 24th country on the African continent to abolish capital punishment. The legislative change is considered to be an essential reform in one of the world's most authoritarian countries. 

Meanwhile, Burkina Faso only allows judicial executions to take place following a conviction for war crimes. And the Central African Republic outlawed the death penalty for any crime in June 2022, with Sierra Leone enacting similar legislation via a new penal code in 2021.

Downward turn visible in Africa

Kenya, Malawi, Uganda and Zimbabwe, while yet to overturn legislation proscribing the death penalty, have not recently carried out executions.  

"We are seeing a downward trend. The death penalty is no longer popular on the continent," Muleya Mwananyanda, regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa at Human Rights Watch, told DW.

Journalist Hassan Hanafi, convicted of murdering colleagues for the Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab jihadist group, is tied to a wooden post before being executed
Somalia continues to carry out the death penalty often choosing death by firing squadImage: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP

However, though some countries have actively abolished capital punishment, the number of recorded death sentences across the continent increased by 22% last year, she pointed out, adding that in the Democratic Republic of Congo the number had risen sharply to at least 81 death sentences from around 20 the previous year.

Given progress in countries such as Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic and Ghana, Mwananyanda added, it seems that countries were abolishing the death penalty in practice even if it remained enshrined in legislation. 

8th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Berlin

Participants of the World Congress Against the Death Penalty were hopeful that countries where capital punishment remains legal would follow in the footsteps of those African nations and others that have already abolished it.

From November 15 to 18, former death row inmates, politicians, and human rights activists came together in the German capital, with a goal of persuading more governments to make concrete commitments toward abolishing state executions.

Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock poses for a photo with delegates
Politicians and activists at the 8th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in BerlinImage: Thomas Koehler/photothek/picture alliance

Zambia wants to be a role model

"As we speak, a bill to abolish the death penalty is before parliament," Zambian Justice Minister Mulambo Haimbe told DW in Berlin. "It will repeal the provisions that allow a court to impose execution as punishment for a capital crime. Once that is done, then we will have gotten rid of the death penalty."

"Although we have had a moratorium for the last 25 years, no one has been executed," he insisted. But he added that this was not enough: "We want to make sure that subsequent governments can't execute anyone under the law."

He said that the death penalty was not an appropriate punishment: "It is torturous. It violates the conventions we have signed as a country, and besides, the world has moved on." 

"We want to be a part of that. We want to be a beacon for the African continent, and show that we have to take these steps, and we have to do it by law. So that we give hope to future generations," the justice minister said.

In 144 countries, the death penalty has been abolished in law or in practice, according to the rights organization Amnesty International, and 112 countries have entirely abandoned it. 

However, in its annual review of the use of the death penalty worldwide, which was published in March, Amnesty recorded an increase in executions and death sentences last year.

It documented at least 579 executions in 18 states but speculated that the number of unreported cases was much higher, partly because some states, such as China, kept executions secret.

Egypt: An active executor

Egypt has been one of the world's most active enforcers of the death penalty over the past two years, with 83 people executed in 2021. "Every year, hundreds of people are sentenced to death in Egypt, sometimes by military tribunals," Hussein Baoumi, Amnesty International's Egypt and Libya researcher, said. 

"In numerous cases, the sentences are based on unfair trials that do not meet any rule of law standards."

The rights activist said that defendants often told judges that they had been forced to confess under torture but this did not stop their statements being used as evidence against them. He said that torture was used systematically and was widespread.

Protesters with handcuffs stand next to a 'Stop Political Executions in Egypt' banner during a demonstration
Eygpt is one of the world's most active enforcers of the death penaltyImage: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire/picture alliance

Some countries still clinging to capital punishment

"Basically, 2021 saw a worrying increase in executions and death sentences, as some of the world's most high-profile executors returned to business as usual and courts were freed from Covid-19 restrictions," Human Rights Watch's Mwananyanda said.

In eastern and southern Africa, the total number of executions had more than doubled because the number had risen in two countries: Somalia had executed 21 people and South Sudan at least nine, she pointed out.

But, she said, the continued use of the death penalty in South Sudan, Somalia and Botswana was at odds with regional trends in sub-Saharan Africa and around the world, where many countries were moving away from this cruel, inhuman, and degrading form of punishment."

Hans Brandt contributed to this article, which was originally written in German

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu