On 13 July 2023, the MP for Madina, Francis-Xavier Kojo Sosu, moved a motion in Parliament for the second and third reading of the two Private Members’ Bills, the Criminal Offences (Amendment) Bill and Armed Forces (Amendment) Bill, seeking to amend the law that will abolish the death penalty in Ghana. If passed, Ghana will become the 29th country in Africa to abolish the death penalty and the 124th globally.
The death penalty is an entrenched clause in the 1992 Constitution. That means removing it from the Constitution requires a national referendum. This is a long-winded and costly endeavour. The Private Members’ Bills overcome both challenges by targeting, for amendment, provisions in the Criminal Offences Act and the Armed Forces Act that prescribe the death penalty as a mandatory punishment for murder, treason, genocide and other offences.
The Speaker, Rt Hon. Alban Sumana Kingsford Bagbin, when admitting the Private Members’ Bills, was unequivocal in stating his support for the abolition of the death on principled ground that the state has no right to take life just as it could not create life. He was also concerned about the many imperfections of the criminal justice system and its potential to convict innocent persons and sentence them to death.
However, it is not in the power of the Speaker to decide for Ghanaians whether to abolish the death penalty. As the Speaker rightly acknowledged, that power lies in the 275 Members of Parliament elected to represent the wishes and aspirations of Ghanaians. This bald fact that MPs do not represent themselves implies they must always consult the preferences of their constituents.
Doing so confers legitimacy to the laws Parliament passes. Another important consideration that must guide MPs in their deliberation is that laws and policy decisions must be based on evidence and not personal sentiments.
MPs must therefore be guided by these two important questions: firstly, what are the views of Ghanaians on the death penalty? Secondly, what is the scientific evidence on the death penalty?
On the first question, the work of the constitutional review commission set up by the Government in 2012 provides some insight into the views of Ghanaians on the death penalty. The final report of the Commission in 2011 recommended, following public consultation, abolition of the death penalty and replacing it with imprisonment for life without parole.
One of the key reasons offered by the Commission was the strong cultural belief in the sanctity of life, and that the state has no right under any circumstance to take life. The report noted that the death penalty has the danger of ‘invariably transforming [the State] into a killer and there is no justification for the State to become a killer’.
The Government issued a White Paper in 2012 in which it accepted the Commission’s recommendation to abolish the death penalty. It justified its decision based on the sanctity of life, which it contended was ‘a value so much ingrained in the Ghanaian social psyche that it cannot be gambled away with judicial uncertainties’.
The second question is, what is the evidence on the death penalty? This is a more important question, because it requires us to examine the fundamental principles of punishment and state of the scientific evidence on the death penalty. Good laws and policies can best be fashioned on the basis of principled decisions and leadership underpinned by informed and evidence-led decisions. To date, our study in 2015 remains the only detailed research on public opinion on the death penalty in Ghana.
The study involved over 2000 Ghanaians from different ethnic and socioeconomic background.
We summarise the findings from our study in relation to some of the key issues. We do this with the hope that the current debate will move beyond the personal views of MPs and to consider the context-relevant research evidence on the death penalty.
Do Ghanaians support the death penalty? The simple answer is NO
The majority of Ghanaians support abolition; 54.3% of the Ghanaians sampled were strongly opposed to the death penalty. Only 9.7 % expressed strong support.
- The number of people who supported abolition increased when the question was asked in relation to the specific crimes that attract the death penalty:
61.7% want the abolition for the crime of murder compared with 9.7% who oppose abolition. That means 6 out of 10 Ghanaians support abolition of the death penalty for murder.
The two prominent reasons that Ghanaians gave for objection to the death penalty are the sanctity of life and the possibility of executing innocent people.
- The sanctity of life appears to be deeply ingrained in the Ghanaian cultural value and religious outlook: 62% of Catholics, 57% of Protestants, and 53% of Muslims were opposed to the use of the death penalty as punishment for crime.
- Ghanaians were deeply concerned about the risk of innocent persons being sentenced to death to the point where 37% of those who originally supported the death penalty changed their minds because of this concern.
Some the Ghanaians we interviewed (26.3%) thought that the death penalty applied to robbery. This is a misconception. The death penalty does not apply to robbery; a person cannot be sentenced to death when convicted of robbery unless they are also convicted of attempted murder or murder.
What are the views of Ghanaians who have a member of their family murdered?
This is an important issue since some MPs who oppose abolition appear to do so on the basis that victims would prefer death as punishment over any other punishment. Nearly a third
Our survey provides the only evidence in Ghana on this issue. We had 114 Ghanaians in our study who reported that they had a family member murdered. We asked their views on the death penalty and whether they are in support of abolition. Here too, the majority (51.4%) remain opposed to death penalty as punishment for the offender.
Will Ghanaians take the law into their own hand when the death penalty is abolished?
Another argument advanced by some of the MPs was that Ghanaians are not ready to abolish the death penalty and that doing so now will lead to people seeking vengeance on their own terms and engage in “instant justice.” However, does the evidence support this anxiety about an abolition backlash in the form of vigilante violence?
We asked participants if they were likely to seek justice on their own terms if the death penalty were abolished. There was no evidence that Ghanaians would engage in vigilante violence to avenge crimes if the death penalty was abolished; only 26% said they would look for the offenders and kill them rather than report them to the police.
The majority (74%) of the participants said they would not take the law into their hands to avenge the death of their loved one. In other words, most Ghanaians would not engage in mob justice because of abolition; nor, do they think their fellow Ghanaians would do that.
Does the death penalty serve as a deterrence?
Some MPs expressed the view that the death penalty serves as a deterrence. Among the Ghanaians who opposed the death penalty, 34% believed in its ability to deter violence. However, it is important to note that the scientific evidence in support of this view is weak and riddled with methodological difficulties. The best evidence available suggests the death penalty is no better at deterrence than other forms of punishment such as life imprisonment. Our analysis of police crime statistics shows that murder rate in Ghana has remained steady over a long period with an average murder rate of 2 per 100,000 population.
Since the introduction of the Private Members’ Bills to abolish, we have been invited to give evidence to the Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs and the Judiciary Committee in Parliament. We have also engaged with various stakeholders including media houses and the various civil society groups to ensure that the debate on the death penalty is informed by strong scientific evidence. The research evidence clearly shows Ghanaians do not want the death penalty. Parliament is, therefore, on firm grounds in its quest to abolish it.
The authors are Kofi Boakye is Associate Professor of Criminology at University of Leicester and co-author of the report on Public Opinion of the Death Penalty in Ghana (2015) and Justice Tankebe is Associate Professor of Criminology at University of Cambridge and co-author of the report on Public Opinion of the Death Penalty in Ghana (2015).