Nigeria is increasingly divided over the death penalty, and Maryam Sanda’s sentence has prompted both outrage and praise.Jan 29th · 3 min read
The judge read his verdict. The woman in a black veil screamed through her tears. And social media erupted with outrage and praise.
A high-profile murder case that has captured Nigeria’s attention for nearly three years finally came to its grim conclusion this week: Maryam Sanda, found guilty of killing her husband, was sentenced to die by hanging.
“Maryam Sanda should reap what she has sown,” Justice Yusuf Halilu told the packed courtroom Monday in the capital, Abuja. “It is blood for blood.”
The decision landed as Africa’s most populous nation is increasingly divided over how to punish those convicted of the highest crimes. Some argue that hanging is outdated in the continent’s largest economy, while others cast it as the ultimate deterrence — a necessity at a time of rising bloodshed.
“Justice has been served because what is happening — this sort of mindless killing — has become quite commonplace,” said Femi Fani-Kayode, a former culture minister in Nigeria.
Said Angela Uwandu, the head of Lawyers without Borders in Abuja: “This isn’t about justice — it’s promoting vengeance, and that’s not the example we need to be setting.”
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More than 2,000 people wait on death row in Nigeria, but executions rarely take place, according to Amnesty International, which tracks such data. Only seven have been carried out since 2007.
Sentences include stoning, shooting and lethal injection.
Governors must sign off on the executions, which happen behind closed doors. Some quietly disagree with the punishments or fear public backlash, advocates say. So they avoid the signatures, letting inmates who exhaust their chance at an appeal languish in prison for years.
Nigeria’s last executions took place about four years ago in the southern Edo State. Those prisoners — three men who were convicted on robbery charges — had been on death row for two decades.
At least 690 people in 20 countries were executed in 2018, according to the latest numbers. Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia topped the list, and Sri Lanka grabbed headlines with a job posting for hangmen. (More than 100 people applied.)
Sanda’s case drew a particularly harsh spotlight.
She didn’t fit the usual profile of an abusive spouse. Ninety-five percent of recorded domestic violence cases in Nigeria involve a male perpetrator, according to the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team.
Sanda was married to Bilyaminu Bello, the son of a famous politician. They shared a young daughter.
The couple had a loud argument on Nov. 18, 2017 — the day Bello died, witnesses told authorities.
Sanda said she was upset after finding a photo of a nude woman on her husband’s phone, but she denied killing him.
She shouted threats in a fit of rage. The pair struggled, and Bello slipped onto a broken Shisha bottle, her attorneys said. The police disputed this account, arguing that Bello’s fatal wounds were more likely caused by a kitchen knife.
Both sides agreed on one thing: There was a lack of evidence. Sanda’s mother, brother and housekeeper had cleaned up the scene before officers arrived — a move that led to charges that were later dropped. No one saw what had actually happened.
Halilu’s decision to convict stemmed from Nigeria’s controversial “doctrine of last seen,” according to local reports, which puts the burden of proof on the last person with the victim in a murder case.
Sanda could not clear her name, Halilu ruled.
The verdict sent shock waves through the Internet. Videos of Sanda’s wailing blazed across Twitter.
“I feel so sorry and sad for Maryam Sanda’s daughter, growing up to understand such devastating incidences will not going to be easy,” tweeted Bashir Ahmaad, an assistant to Nigerian president Mohaamdu Bahari.
Others wondered why the state planned to execute Sanda and not people who had defected from terrorist groups in northeast Nigeria.
“Maryam Sanda sentenced to death seems reasonable cos she took a life, which begs the question, why are Boko Haram members still being rehabilitated?” read another tweet with 7,600 likes.