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R – L: Makwanyane Defenders Nelson Ndeki, Gatambia Ndungu and Evelyn Chijarira who were joined in their panel, “Death Penalty and the Rule of Law in East Africa” by Mwaura Kabata, a capital defense lawyer from Kenya.

Makwanyane Fellows Reach out to East African Lawyers on the Death Penalty and Rule of Law

One of the aims of the Makwanyane Institute is to build the capacity of capital defense lawyers through a specialized training in essential skills geared towards accomplishing great outcomes for their clients facing capital charges. Besides re-shaping legal practice in their respective countries, the Makwanyane Fellows also become empowered to have both a stake and impact in the debate on abolition of the death penalty through zealous advocacy. Such advocacy took place when three Makwanyane Defenders, Evelyn Chijarira (Tanzania), Nelson Ndeki (Tanzania) and Gatambia Ndungu (Kenya) made a presentation titled Death Penalty and the Rule of Law in East Africa at the 24th Annual East Africa Law Society Conference in Kigali, Rwanda on 6 November 2019.

The East Africa Law Society (EALS) is the apex regional bar Association of East Africa and comprises of over 17,000 members drawn from all the national bars in the East African Community – the Law Society of Kenya, Tanganyika Law Society, Zanzibar Law Society, Uganda Law Society, Rwanda Bar Association, Burundi Bar Association and the South Sudan Bar Association. This year’s annual conference took place from 4th – 9th November 2019 at the Kigali Serena and Intare Convention Centre. It was officiated by the President of Rwanda, His Excellency Paul Kagame, and the theme was The Role of Lawyers in Developing Economic Communities.

In their presentation, the Defenders introduced the Makwanyane Institute and provided a general contextual background of capital punishment and the present status of the death penalty in Africa (in each of its Northern, Western, Southern and Eastern regions). The presentation also sought to create awareness and sensitization on the best practices in capital defense in both domestic and regional Courts and Tribunals especially in respect with those countries in the region that have capital punishment in their law books or carry out executions. Fortunately, since 2015 when there was a surge in executions across the globe, there have been new countries joining the abolitionist league. In Africa these countries include Congo Brazaville (2015), Benin (2016), Guinea (2016 for ordinary crimes), Guinea (2017), and Burkina Faso (2018 for ordinary crimes).

The gravitation towards abolition of the death penalty is informed by, among other factors, the rule of law, human rights, and international legal issues around the death penalty, which were equally well articulated during the presentation.  The defenders also discussed various landmark cases on the death penalty on the continent, leading with the Kafantayeni decision from Malawi as a model that later impacted on the Susan Kigula and Muruatetu cases in Uganda and Kenya respectively, and inspired the recent case of Jebra Kambole v AG. The latter case, decided on 18 July 2019, had been brought before the Tanzanian High Court by a 2017 Makwanyane Fellow from Tanzania, Jebra Kambole. Though not successful, the Kambole case reinvigorated the death penalty debate in Tanzania, signifying that much as the war may have been lost, the parties live to win the battle, hopefully in the not so distant future.

During the plenary Q & A session, it was evident that the debate between the abolitionists and retentionists still subsists to this date. A robust exchange of information, viewpoints and concerns on capital offences and capital punishment ensued after the main presentation. In the end, the Makwanyane Defenders panel was able to be persuasive enough and conclude, in the words of Sir Nigel S. Rodley: “Why do we kill people to show that killing is wrong?”

A man wearing a black shirt and glasses stands behind a podium in front of an audience.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame officiates the East Africa Law Society 24th Annual Conference in Kigali, Rwanda.

While gracing the conference, the President of Rwanda—who is also the sitting Chair of the Summit of Heads of States of the East Africa Community—noted the key role played by lawyers in regional integration. While this includes the harmonization of laws, and allowing the unimpeded movement of people, goods and services, it is important to note that Rwanda is an abolitionist state just as Burundi is, and this just might be the harbinger of other East Africa countries following suit.

Gatambia Ndungu, 2017 Makwanyane Fellow and 2019 Makwanyane Trainer from the Republic of Kenya.