On a cold Monday morning in November 2009, an 86-year-old man finally gave in to a pneumonia attack. He was infamous in his village on the slopes of the Aberdare Ranges because of what he did for a living in his younger days. His name was Kirugumi wa Wanjuki, and he was Kenya’s last executioner.
Wanjuki had presided over the legal executions of Kenyans for 13 years. With his passing, the last link to capital punishment was broken; just two months earlier President Kibaki had commuted all those sentenced on death row to life imprisonment and started the process of eliminating capital punishment. Now Kenyans will help the government decide whether it is time to completely banish the practice.
Attorney-General Professor Githu Muigai recently announced that the government was seeking to look at sentences other than the death penalty for crimes such as murder and armed robbery. He will be seeking the opinions of stakeholders through the new initiative, the Power of Mercy Advisory Committee (POMAC). The aim of this? To get closer to the Office of United Nations Human Rights position on the subject.
Kenya’s last execution took place in 1987 at Kamiti Prison. It was former Kenyan leader (even if only for six hours) Hezekiah Rabala Ochuka, a senior private in the Kenyan Air Force who had planned the 1982 coup against Daniel Arap Moi, the Kenyan president at the time. The coup was short lived, to say the least, and Ochuka was extradited from Tanzania and finally hanged, alongside his accomplice Pancras Oteyo Okumu. Courts still issue death sentences, but since former President Kibaki’s 2009 moratorium, no one has been put to death.
There are lots of arguments for and against the death sentence, and this issue is not confined to Kenya. Amnesty International, the global human rights organisation, opposes the use of the death penalty in all cases, because it opposes the basic ‘right to life’. On October 10, 2014, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “We must continue to argue strongly that the death penalty is unjust and incompatible with fundamental human rights,” making the organisation’s stand clear. As of 2013, the number of countries that had banned the use of the death penalty stood at 98.
There are countries that continue to hold on to the practice. The world’s biggest executor is China, although the actual number of executions carried out in that country is not known, as executions are deemed state secrets. The next three are Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, where the number of executions carried out per year has been increasing. Next is the United States of America, where only 17 out of a total of 52 states have abolished the practice.
One of the key issues when it comes to debating the death penalty is what sort of crime it is best suited to. Which crimes do we think are heinous enough for the death sentence to be sought? Globally, armed robbery, rape, terrorism, blasphemy, economic crimes and adultery are some of the reasons the death penalty was imposed in 2014.
Kenya imposed death sentences on 26 occasions in the same year, mostly for murder cases, but there have been calls to widen the remit to include illegal alcohol sales (after 80 people died in June 2014 from consuming illicit alcohol) and terrorism, after the Westgate attack where 67 people lost their lives.
What is certain is that this is a subject that tests everyone’s conscience and that pushes all to the limits of their social responsibility. We in Kenya must decide whether our future is as a country that executes the death sentences it hands out or banishes the practice all together. Continually putting criminals on death row with no clear mandate as to whether they will be executed or not seems to send a confused message. That confusion may be understandable, but we elect our public officials to investigate these difficult issues and to make these decisions on our behalf.
On a light note, there are a few positive stories that come out of death row, such as the one behind sports brand Nike’s slogan Just Do It. It was inspired by an American prisoner named Gary Gilmore who, as he was about to be executed, said the last words, “Let’s do it!” Dan Weiden, the advertising guru behind the slogan, has publicly credited Gilmore as his inspiration.
Kenya’s last executioner, Wanjuki, liked to tell stories about his experiences and one involved the custom that every prisoner about to be executed was granted one wish, to have any meal they wanted. Some chose huge banquets, some just shrugged their shoulders and refused the offer.
So ask yourself: what meal would you choose?