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[Opinion piece] The African Continent on the Road to the Abolition of the Death Penalty

October 2015

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10.10.2015 – World Day for the Abolition of the Death Penalty

Over the past years, many African States have achieved significant progress along the road to the abolition of the death penalty. Since 2009 Burundi, Togo, Gabon, Benin and Madagascar have taken the step. In Madagascar, the Parliament voted unanimously in favour of abolition on 10 December 2014, International Human Rights Day.

Today, of the 54 States comprising the African Union, 18 have abolished the death penalty in law [1], 19 no longer execute convicts [2]: 37 countries are therefore abolitionist whether in law or in fact. 17 states still maintain the death penalty [3]. These recent changes show that Africa is part of the global trend in favour of abolition of the death penalty, with two out of three states having abolished the death penalty . It’s no longer unusual to see African states taking a strong stand against capital punishment on the international scene. In fact, 27 African Union member States voted in favour of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution of 18 December 2014 calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.

Persistent barriers

Many African States continue nevertheless to pass the death sentence and to execute convicts and the majority of African States do not include abolition of the death penalty in their domestic law and merely maintain a fragile de facto moratorium. Gambia, for example, restarted executions in August 2012 after a 27 year moratorium.

The principle obstacle to the abolition of the death penalty is the lack of political will among the decision-makers who hide behind public opinion which supposedly has a majority in favour of its continuation. In countries restructuring after deadly conflicts or facing underlying political instability, the abolition of the death penalty remains a sensitive subject which gives rise to many debates. A lack of confidence in the States’ legal system or the persistence of customary law which does not favour the abolitionist fight, lead the populations, in as much as we can reliably know their opinion on the question, to appear naturally hostile to the abolition of the death penalty. As for the State authorities, they avoid their responsibilities which allows them to encourage the death penalty in many countries. However, to this day, no State which has taken this decisive step has encountered any fierce opposition to abolition.

Awareness raising work with the population and the State powers should therefore be happening on a daily basis, even in countries where the death penalty has been abolished. This work falls to national and international organisations such as the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP), the International Federation of Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (FIACAT) and FIDH which, for years, has been engaged with their many members in Africa in the abolitionist fight, in particular on the occasion of the World Day Against the Death Penalty which we are celebrating today. Together, these organisations have decided to join forces in guiding the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) through drafting an African Protocol on the abolition of the death penalty.

African engagement

The ACHPR, the organ of the African Union responsible for monitoring the implementation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, has decided to seized itself of the question of the death penalty since 1999 by adopting a resolution "Urging States to Envisage a Moratorium on the Death Penalty".

Since then, the ACHPR has equipped itself with a Working Group on the Death Penalty in Africa, created in 2005 on the initiative of the FIDH. The Working Group has worked on some of the provisions of a substantial Protocol on the prohibition of the death penalty in all circumstances, even in wartime

The adoption of such a Protocol should unite the abolitionist movement in Africa around this instrument to lead their fight. From a legal standpoint, this protocol would only bind those states that ratified it. It would reinforce the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights relating to the right to life. It would above all prevent those states which have made courageous progress along the road to abolition from moving backwards.

It would also enable all of the abolitionist actors to mobilise (civil society organisations, lawyers, magistrates, national human rights institutions, media, artists, teachers, religious leaders, traditional chiefs) around a common cause on the continent: the adoption and the ratification of an African text on the abolition of the death penalty in Africa.

The Abolition of the death penalty in Africa would become a double movement: one for the political engagement of States and the implementation of a true awareness raising policy in the populations. Achieving the abolition of the death penalty is exciting work which involves overcoming the challenge of convincing the population to have confidence in its justice system.

Elizabeth Zitrin, President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Sylvie Bukhari-de Pontual, President of FIACAT and Karim Lahidji, President of FIDH, and published in French on the Jeune Afrique website on 9 October 2015.


[1] South Africa, Angola, Benin, Burundi, Cap Very, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Maurice, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Sao Tome-et-Principe, Senegal, Seychelles and Togo.

[2] Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, Eritrea, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tunisia, Zambia.

[3] Botswana, Comoros, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Lesotho, Libya, Nigeria, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Soudan, South Soudan, Chad, Zimbabwe.

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