Does Gambia Need The Death Penalty?

Justice Hassan Babucarr Jallow, is back as the Chief Justice of The Republic of The Gambia. It was he who, as Attorney General and Minister of Justice back in the 1980s abolished the death penalty in The Gambia. I am sure he is poised to do the same again, not least because the European Union will make abolition of the death penalty a condition of financial support to the new government. Abolition of the death penalty is also a matter of principle for many in Gambia’s new government, not least because of the disgraceful and atrocious way that Yahya Jammeh killed those Mile 2 prisoners in 2012.

But the question must be asked: in a poor developing country like The Gambia, can we afford not to have the death penalty?

The question was brought to my mind yesterday and today by two pieces of news, one from Guinea when I saw a video of people killing three robbers who were forcefully taken from police custody by the vengeful crowd; and here in London when a man, who had already served 11 years for a previous murder, was sent to jail today for 15 years – for a second murder of a 21-year old young father.

The initial impetus for the abolition of the death penalty was the argument that the conviction for murder may be arrived at wrongly (I think the last person to be hanged in UK has been pardoned because his innocence has been proved posthumously).

The second argument against the death penalty is a simple moral one: the Bible says “thou shall not kill” and some argue that this applies to the state itself too.

The third argument is that “the death penalty is counter-productive” – look at USA where the one Western country with the death penalty also has the highest homicide rate.

And finally, the fourth argument against the death penalty is that even the worst of people can be rehabilitated to lead a useful life and contribute to society. There was a famous murderer in Scotland whom I met many years ago at his Project working with youth offenders. He had married the daughter of a “Lord”, a doctor and prison psychologist who had fallen in love with this murderer and did much to give him a new lease of life.

The first argument appears unanswerable – until we note that last month a USA grandfather was shot dead, deliberately, on facebook. So there are circumstances in which we can now be 100% certain that the murderer is the murderer.

The second argument seems rather simplistic and has been defeated by theologians themselves who have justified the concept of the “just war” – which involves killing. It is interesting that NATO and the Western alliance have been the biggest killers (mass murderers) of civilians around the world in the last 70 years or so.

The third argument seems to conflate specific problems of the United States of America – a nation founded on the genocide of the native “Red Indians”, violent and racist brutal slavery, and above all America’s love of the gun culture. So USA is not a good example. We should ask instead: does the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, in Iran and China, for example lead to a less violent society? Will the violent killings of so many drug-dealers in the Philippines today rescue that country and save it from destruction at the hands of drug dealers?

The fourth argument may be answered by referring to today’s sentencing in a London court: should the man sentenced today to 15 years in jail (a second sentence for a second murder) get a third chance to kill someone else? Which brings me to the lynching of those men in Guinea by the mob: the mob believed that if the robbers had been left with the police and the courts, they would have bribed their way out and continued to terrorise the community. Some two weeks ago, the Kenyan police executed gang members in broad daylight in the area where I grew up (and where Justice Jallow has visited to see my alma mater): enter utube “police kill gang members in Eastleigh”.

On a final note, looking after prisoners is an expensive matter – more so dangerous ones who have been sent to prison for life (it costs something like £100,000 per prisoner in UK – Dalasi 5,000,000 per prisoner). Can a poor country like The Gambia be able to look after, let’s say, 100 death-row prisoners for life?

Like many Africans of my generation in the West I have been affected by the fact that here in the West black people get a row deal when it comes to the Justice System (or Injustice system!). Stories of black people wrongly convicted, and therefore murder by the state, are legion in the USA. So, I have a strong antipathy to the death penalty who whose abolition my life-long HERO, Dr. Angela Davies, has committed her life. That said, if I were a Justice Minister in The Gambia, I would probably have different considerations – not least the security of society when violent crime and murder is on the rise.

I leave it to the readers – since as an old retired teacher now teaching simple maths to teenagers I need not make any decision on the matter!


Dida Halake,

Notting Hill,

London, UK.