DEATH PENALTY AND MENTAL HEALTH IN NIGERIA
Nigeria has applied the death penalty for more than 50 years with no serious attention paid to mental health. Mental health is a critical factor to consider at every stage of the death penalty process from before a person commits a crime through governments execution of the convicted person, and even post execution, as the death penalty affects the mental health of the families concerned.
Nigerian law recognizes insanity when proved as an exemption to criminal liability for capital offenses. However, it is unclear on other forms of mental health problems like mental retardation or personality disorders. Mental retardation is a condition in which a person’s mental capacity has not developed during childhood and adolescence leaving the person less able to adapt to independent life and decision making. Personality disorder is not a mental illness that can be treated with drugs or therapy but rather constitutes a behavioral condition in which the affected person can lack empathy and understanding of others and can disregard social and legal conventions.
Instances abound every day in Nigeria where accused persons with serious mental health problems are put on trial without adequate support where they are unable to participate effectively in their own defence. A case in point which adequately captures Nigeria’s disregard for mental health conditions is that of late Mr. Clifford Orji. Mr. Orji, it will be recalled, was arrested on February 3, 1999 at Toyota Bus-stop along the Apapa-Oshodi expressway in Lagos for allegedly preying on unsuspecting passersby as a cannibal. He was paraded before newsmen as “mentally depraved”. The Divisional Police Officer of the police station where he was taken said at the time “from his actions during interrogation, it is obvious the man is mad” He cited three reasons for his convictions: people who live around the area said the man was often naked. Again he was incoherent while responding to questions. And, thirdly, the police picked him naked and provided him with a pair of shorts thereafter. Even before any psychiatric evaluation, it was obvious to the police that Mr. Orji was not normal; which meant that he needed help. But he was still arraigned at the Ebute Metta Magistrate Court and remanded at Kirikiri prison. Despite interventions on his behalf by prison authorities and civil society organizations, the Lagos state government did not provide him any care. Mr. Orji died on August 3, 2012 in Kirikiri prison. He spent 13 years in prison without trial and care.
Shocking reports have also been received of families that collude with the police to remand in prison family members with mental health problems to avoid taking care of them. Federal and State Governments in Nigeria need to extend exemptions to criminal liabilities to include mental retardation and personality disorder especially for capital offenses, and where necessary make adequate provision for legal assistance for accused persons with mental health conditions. Mental health is not a crime. We should Care and Not Kill.