The gesture by Ghana’s Parliament makes the nation the 29th country in Africa and 124th globally to abolish the death penalty.
See here for the list of countries that have abolished the death penalty since 1976.
About the death penalty
The death penalty has been in Ghana’s penal code since 1960, with the enactment of the Criminal Code 1960 (Act 29).
Article 13(1) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana states, “No person shall be deprived of his life intentionally except in the exercise of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence under the laws of Ghana of which he has been convicted.”
Under the Criminal Offenses Act, 1960 (Act 29) as amended, the death penalty is a punishment in cases of serious crimes against a person and specified crimes against state security.
The crimes punishable by death under the Criminal Offenses Act, 1960 (Act 29) and the 1992 Constitution of Ghana are (i) Murder – Section 46; (ii) Attempt to murder by a convict – Section 49; (iii) Genocide – Section 49A; (iv) Treason – Section 180; (v) High Treason – Article 3(3) of the Constitution, 1992.
The Armed Forces Act, 1962 (Act 105) of Ghana also allows for the death penalty in case of treason and mutiny by military personnel during war.
Under the 1992 Constitution, the jurisdiction to deal with capital offences, including murder, has been given to the High Court, with the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal having appellate jurisdictions.
See Article 140 (1) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana here.
However, committal proceedings are held in the district courts, after which a bill of indictment is prepared before the trial can begin at the High Court.
Although the death penalty has been in Ghana’s penal code, no one has been executed since 1993 due to a de facto moratorium on executions. Currently, there are over 176 inmates reported to be on death row as of 2022.
The last execution occurred before Ghana was ushered into a democratic rule where at least 12 prisoners convicted of armed robbery or murder were executed.
Is the death penalty justifiable?
A report of research conducted in Ghana titled “Public Opinion on the death penalty in Ghana,” published in 2015, showed that the views about the death penalty in the country do not appear to be polarised.
“The majority of Ghanaian respondents (48.3%) expressed strong opposition to the death penalty. Only 8.6% indicated a strong endorsement of this form of punishment. Almost six out of every ten respondents supported the abolition of the death penalty in cases of murder,” the report showed.
See page ix of the report here.
The report, however, noted that “taken together, the findings from this public opinion survey show a weak public support for the death penalty in Ghana.”
“On the issue of abolishing the death penalty and possible backlash effect, the evidence suggests this is unlikely to be the case. Importantly, the survey reveals the complexity of public opinion on the death penalty and the need for an evidence-based approach to understanding the roots of public concerns to prevent any possible backlash effects that might lead to pressure to reinstate the death penalty,” the report concluded.
Also, see page ix of the report here.
Human rights groups Amnesty International and the Death Penalty Project have maintained the use of the death penalty violates international law and standards.
In a July 2000 report on Ghana titled ‘Ghana Briefing on the death penalty,’ Amnesty International said that the death penalty has never shown to be an effective deterrent against violent crimes.
“Scientific studies have consistently failed to find convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime – least of all politically-motivated crime – more effectively than other punishments,” the report said. See page 2 of the report here.
According to the human rights group, The Death Penalty Project, the death penalty is “cruel and often discriminates against the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society.”
In a special report published in November 2022 titled ‘Deterrence and the death penalty,’ the organisation said the most common justification for the retention of the death penalty by many states is the belief that this form of punishment has a unique deterrent effect.
See page two of the report by The Death Penalty Project here.
“Despite the rhetorical prominence of deterrence in justifying the death penalty, there has been a notable lack of empirical research evidence to support claims made about this theory,” the report said.
See page two of the report by the Death Penalty Project here.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy has said that the death penalty is not the appropriate response to any offence, including those related to drugs.
“The Global Commission on Drug Policy reiterates that the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences does not meet the threshold of “most serious crimes” – for article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – and thus clearly violates international human rights law,” the body said.
The advocacy towards the abolishing of the death penalty in Ghana
The human rights group Amnesty International has been consistent in its advocacy for the abolishment of the death penalty across the world.
In a special report titled ‘Locked up and forgotten: the need to abolish the death penalty in Ghana,’ Amnesty International said it found “serious breaches of international fair trial standards in the cases of death row inmates.” See page 12 of the report here.
“Several inmates said that their lawyers had not attended all the hearings, and many said that they did not have a chance to talk to their lawyer and prepare their defence during the trial,” the report said. See page 12 of the report here.
According to the report, some legal aid experts confirmed that “lack of resources is a major barrier to providing defendants with proper representation.”
“Not having an effective defence is devastating for anyone accused of a criminal offence; when the sentence is death, the gravity is magnified,” the report said. See page 12 of the report here.
Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo called for “education and sensitisation” to address issues around abolishing the death penalty when he met a delegation from Amnesty International in November 2022.
“I think it is important that education and sensitisation are sufficiently well laid to address issues like that…then we should do the logical thing and remove it from our statute books,” the President said. See the report here.
Also, speaking to the members of the Appointment Committee of Ghana’s Parliament, the new Chief Justice of Ghana, Gertrude Torkornoo, noted that the death penalty handed to convicts seemed too definitive.
“As a justice of the Supreme Court, I am mindful of the fact of cases [that] come to court. It will be my duty to preside over it. But on a personal level, I do think the death penalty is too final, and I would be grateful if the legislative body would begin to look at it,” she told the lawmakers on May 26, 2023.
“The death penalty in Ghana has been frequently used in violation of international law and standard, affecting predominantly those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, as shown by research carried out by Amnesty International. It is high time the authorities of Ghana acted to abolish it fully,” Justice Gertrude Torkornoo said.
The Death Penalty Project also consulted widely with Ghanaian stakeholders to rally consensus towards abolishing the death penalty.
“In June , The Death Penalty Project was honoured to meet with the Chairman and members of Ghana’s Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee at our office in London, where we discussed the new bills and how, beyond the Memorandum, we could assist local efforts to see capital punishment removed,” the group said.
In May 2014, The Death Penalty Project filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee on behalf of one Dexter Johnson, who was sentenced to death for murder after Ghana’s Supreme Court refused to commute his sentence in March 2011. See the case of Johnson v The Republic  1 SCGLR 601.
Although it admitted Ghana has a moratorium in place, the UN Committee said the country could “resume at any time” to execute inmates on death roll as “occurred in other countries with similar moratoriums.” See the report here.
Declaring its support for the abolishing of the death penalty in Ghana, the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) says, “Whilst always treading carefully to respect the sovereign positions of our member nations and territories, the CLA wholeheartedly continues to work towards the proper universal protection of human rights which demands the abolition of the death penalty in our 56 jurisdictions.”
“To that end, the CLA was asked by the Death Penalty Project to support the abolition of the death penalty in Ghana. Saul Lehrfreund MBE, DPP’s articulate and passionate director, has led the advocacy alongside academics and, most importantly, representatives from Ghana,” the Commonwealth Lawyers Association said.
See the report here.
The bold reforms
The journey towards abolishing the death penalty began with the tabling of the Criminal Offences (Amendment) Bill 2022 and the Armed Forces (Amendment) Bill 2022 in Ghana’s Parliament in March 2022.
However, works on introducing the bills to remove the death penalty from the Criminal Offences Act, 1960 (Act 29), and the Armed Forces Act, 1962 (Act 105) started in June 2021. See the report here.
The two Bills, sponsored by a first-time Member of Parliament and a lawyer, Francis-Xavier Kojo Sosu, were aimed at replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment for all ordinary and military crimes.
Recounting his experience, the private legal practitioner said, “It has not been an easy journey [because] the concept of the private member’s Bill is relatively new in Ghana, and so the Bills’ supporters and I were negotiating unfamiliar territory as we tried to guide them through Parliament.
“Some members openly told me they were against my bills, including the Attorney-General and the first Deputy Speaker. As a backbencher, that felt like a major setback, but I was determined to continue to build consensus and get majority support,” he told The Death Penalty Project. See the report here.
The first-time lawmaker said another hurdle he had to face was assuming “financial responsibility for ensuring the [passage of the two Bills]. We needed to hold events with civil society organisations and others to ensure we had the widest possible support base – and getting this together took time and money.”
With the help of The Death Penalty Project and other civil society organisations, Mr Sosu said they rallied the support of Ghanaians toward abolishing the death penalty.
“I have seen first-hand that the death penalty does not bring a sense of justice or closure to the families of crime victims, and neither does it deter offenders,” the Ghanaian lawmaker said. See the report here.
Barely four months after the two bills were tabled, Ghanaian lawmakers sent a clear message to the world by replacing the death penalty as punishment for capital offences with life imprisonment.
Ghana’s Parliament abolished the death penalty for all ordinary crimes, including murder, genocide, piracy and smuggling of gold and diamonds, and attempted murder in prison with the passage of the private member’s Bill amending the Criminal Offences Act, 1960 (Act 29).
The abolishment of the death penalty in Ghana has received significant attention from major media organisations – both local and international- worldwide. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Also, see the news report by Accra-based TV3 here, starting from minute 0:04 of the video uploaded on YouTube.
Reaction after the abolishing of the death penalty in Ghana
Local and international human rights organisations have congratulated Ghana for the rather bold step in abolishing the death penalty from the country’s penal code.
“Today’s parliamentary vote is a major step by Ghana towards abolishing the death penalty. It is also a victory for all those who have tirelessly campaigned to consign this cruel punishment to history and strengthen the protection of the right to life,” Amnesty International’s West and Central Africa Director, Samira Daoud. said.
Read the press release from Amnesty International here.
On its part, The Death Penalty Project described the gesture as a “historic step” that will pave the way for eliminating the death penalty from Ghana’s 1992 Constitution.
“Today’s vote for abolition is historic and places Ghana squarely within the worldwide trend, which is especially noticeable in Africa: in the past five years, Chad, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, and Zambia have all taken bold steps to eradicate capital punishment,” the Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty, Saul Lehrfreund said.
Read the press release from The Death Penalty Project here.
“Francis Sosu MP, who initiated the process by introducing the private member’s bills should be lauded for his courage, tenacity, and his principled opposition to the death penalty because all citizens should be guaranteed the right to life and to live free from torture and cruelty,” he added.
The local human rights group, in a statement on May 26, 2023, said that “although long-awaited, the abolishment of the death penalty is a clear demonstration of the readiness and willingness of Members of Parliament to drive reforms in the country’s criminal justice system.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk has lauded Ghana’s Parliament for the historic decision.
“I warmly welcome the passing of a historic bill by Ghana’s Parliament on Tuesday to abolish the death penalty in the country,” he said. See the report here.
“Infliction by the State of the death penalty – the most severe and irreversible of punishments – is profoundly difficult to reconcile with human dignity and with the fundamental right to life.
It is an atavistic relic from the past that should be shed in the 21st Century,” he noted.
However, one Ghanaian lawmaker remains opposed to the abolishment of the death penalty.
Speaking to Accra-based Joy FM hours after the passage of the bills abolishing the death penalty, Cletus Seidu Diplah said he is unhappy with what his colleagues did in Parliament.
“I’m not happy. It should have remained,” he said. See the news report here.
According to him, the reason offered by the abolitionist groups is not so significant as to warrant what happened in Ghana’s Parliament.
“It should have remained, and the reason for the proponents of abolishing the death penalty is that no president since the Fourth Republic has signed for anyone to be executed,” he said.
The passage of the two bills amending the Criminal Offences Act, 1960 (Act 29) and the Armed Forces Act, 1962 (Act 105) will require the assent of Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, to have effect.
However, the death penalty still finds expression in the 1992 Constitution of Ghana, despite the repeal of capital punishment by Ghanaian lawmakers.
For Amnesty International’s West and Central Africa Director, Samira Daoud, abolishing the death penalty from Ghana’s penal code will not be complete if a similar amendment is not implemented to remove the punishment from the 1992 Constitution.
“Although a landmark decision, the total abolition of this draconian punishment would not be complete without revising the Constitution, which still provides for high treason to be punished by death,” Amnesty International’s West and Central Africa boss said.