Thirty years have now gone by since Ghana used its gallows to carry out an execution. This welcome fact is a benchmark of the country’s decency, and respect for human life. It also means that Ghana is one of approximately 42 nations that are what the United Nations calls abolitionist de facto (ADF), because they have not executed anyone for at least a decade – many of which are in Africa.  

However, behind it lies a paradox. Not only does Ghana retain the death penalty as a sentence for three crimes, murder, treason and genocide, it is the mandatory punishment that the courts must impose on those convicted of them. The law gives the judges no choice, and last year, they sentenced seven people to death. As of the end of 2022, there were 172 inmates on Ghana’s death row, which gets bigger every year.

It’s time for Ghana to enshrine its respect for right to life – by abolishing death penalty
Ghana’s Parliament

This isn’t the only contradiction running through Ghana’s policy towards capital punishment.

It could be argued that by continuing to hand down mandatory death sentences, Ghana’s courts are unusually harsh, for according to Amnesty International, only ten countries did so last year.

Yet in 2012, Ghana came close to abolishing the death penalty altogether, following a recommendation by the Constitution Review Commission that was accepted by the then-government. Unfortunately, the path it tried to adopt, amending the constitution, is complex and challenging, and in the end, it failed.

And although its courts are still sentencing people to death, last December Ghana supported a UN General Assembly resolution calling for an indefinite, worldwide moratorium on the death penalty “with a view to abolition”. Similar resolutions have been carried repeatedly with steadily increasing majorities since 2007. In 2022, there were 125 votes in favour, almost two-thirds of the world’s nations. For the first time Ghana supported it, having previously abstained.

Meanwhile, although politicians sometimes express the fear that abolishing the death penalty would be unpopular, there is good evidence that in Ghana, the opposite is true. According to a study published in 2015, there are clear majorities against the death penalty for all three of the crimes to which it is applicable, and just 8.6 per cent of those surveyed said they were “strongly in favour” of it.

In all, 71 per cent were against. Based on interviews with more than 2,000 people who reflected Ghana’s socio-economic and ethnic composition, this survey was described by the late Professor Roger Hood of the University of Oxford as “the first methodologically sound study of public opinion on the death penalty in an African state”.

The good news is that there is now a golden opportunity to bring these contradictions to an end – and for Ghana to take the ultimate step of abolishing capital punishment in law, as well as in practice.

Great Britain abolished capital punishment in 1965 through a private member’s Bill in parliament, and last year, the MP for Madina, Francis-Xavier Sosu, initiated the same process here by introducing two Bills to Parliament which if passed, will achieve this goal – one covering the military, the other the civilian courts.

Before the proposed measures were debated further, they were referred by the Speaker to the Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. Assisted by senior officials such as Justice Dennis Dominic Adjei of Ghana’s Court of Appeal and Agnes Quartey-Papafio, the chief State Attorney in the Attorney-General’s department, the Committee scrutinised the Bills carefully. On a series of visits to Accra, we also had the privilege of being able to offer the Committee advice. Its reports are now in, and their recommendation is unequivocal: that the House should pass Sosu’s Bills, and replace the sentence of death with life imprisonment.

It’s time for Ghana to enshrine its respect for right to life – by abolishing death penalty
Supreme Court of Ghana

The Committee’s reports note a further contradiction in Ghana’s current stance: the fact it has ratified international human rights treaties and conventions, including the African Charter on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights. These, the Committee says, “oblige the country to guarantee its citizens the right to life, and to live free from torture or cruelty”.

They deploy further, persuasive arguments.  One is that no criminal process can ever achieve certainty or perfection, so that retaining the death penalty will always carry the risk that an innocent person could be executed. Another examines the claim that capital punishment is a deterrent to offending – for which, the Committee says, there is no empirical evidence. In the United States, the murder rate is consistently higher in states that use capital punishment than in those that don’t, while the seven least violent countries in the world have all abolished it.  

It is now up to Parliament. Abolishing the death penalty in law would place Ghana squarely within a worldwide trend, which is especially noticeable in Africa: in the past five years, Chad, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea and Zambia have all taken this step. Movements to do the same are gathering pace in other jurisdictions on the continent.

Some might argue that since Ghana is an ADF nation, there is no pressing need for legal abolition. In practice, what difference would it make? To this argument, we would say: look at the case of Myanmar, which having been ADF since the 1980s, resumed executions last year. No state can ever be entirely immune from the political upheaval that caused this shift.

Back in 1992, Ghana’s Constitutional Review Commission observed that “the sanctity of life is a value so much engrained in the Ghanaian social psyche that it cannot be gambled away with judicial uncertainties”. The best way to protect that value now is for Parliament to accept the Committee’s reports, and vote for abolition.    

Professor Carolyn Hoyle is Director of The Death Penalty Research Unit at the University of Oxford, and co-author of The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective (OUP, 2015).

Saul Lehrfreund MBE is co-executive Director of The Death Penalty Project, a UK-based legal action NGO with special consultative status before the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and a Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Reading.

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