When Amnesty International started its global campaign against the death penalty in 1977, the use of this cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment was rife in sub-Saharan Africa.
Not one country in the region had abolished the punishment for all crimes.
Forty years on, the region has witnessed remarkable progress against the death penalty.
Starting with Cape Verde, in 1981, some 20 countries have abolished the punishment for all crimes.
Fifteen more can be considered abolitionist in practice because they have not executed anyone over the past 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions.
This has established sub-Saharan Africa as the beacon of hope in the struggle for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty.
Globally, the use of the death penalty went down last year, according to a new AI report.
AI recorded 993 executions in 23 countries in 2017, a reduction of four per cent from 2016 (1,032) and down by 39 per cent from 2015 (1,634).
The reduction was due to decreases in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which had the highest numbers in 2016.
There were 2,591 death sentences in 53 countries last year, a significant decrease from the record-high 3,117 in 2016.
The report also confirms the region as having made the most significant progress towards abolition in 2017.
Generally, death sentences decreased from 1,086 in 17 countries in 2016 to 878 in 15 countries in 2017.
There was a drop in the number of executing countries from five in 2016 to two in 2017 with Somalia and South Sudan the only ones known to have carried them out.
The Gambia has, within months, under new President Adama Barrow changed its attitude towards the death penalty.
Notorious for its staunch support for the death penalty under former President Yahya Jammeh, it has suddenly become a shining regional example of progress towards abolition.
In a series of moves, The Gambia has shown that it is committed to the abolition of the death penalty: President Barrow has pardoned people under sentence of death; on September 2017, the country signed the international treaty that commits state parties not to carry out executions and to take all necessary steps to abolish the death penalty; and, just a few weeks ago, the president announced an official moratorium on executions.
As 2017 came to a close, Guinea became the 20th sub-Saharan African country to abolish the death penalty for all crimes — a remarkable feat for a country which, only two years ago, was considered retentionist.
Through reforms that began in 2016, Guinea expunged the death penalty from its laws.
First, it removed the use of death sentences as a punishment in its criminal code.
Secondly, last year, it deleted the death penalty provisions from its military justice law, then the remaining legislation with that provision.
In Chad, a new law, which abolished the death penalty except for terrorism, came into force in 2017.
And in Burkina Faso, a provision outlawing the death penalty completely was included in proposals to revise the Constitution.
In addition, Kenya’s Supreme Court declared the mandatory use of the death penalty for murder illegal.
The effect of this is that judges in murder cases now have discretion not to impose the death sentence.
The apex court ordered cases of people who were given mandatory death sentences, following convictions for murder, to be reconsidered with a view to determining new sentences.
The sentences of these condemned convicts are likely to be replaced with less severe punishments.
The decision has put Kenya in the same league as other countries in the region, Uganda and Malawi.
Nevertheless, it is not over yet. The abolitionist movement in sub-Saharan Africa, for now, cannot declare total victory against the death penalty.
This inhuman punishment, though dying slowly, is still alive and kicking.
For instance, while only Somalia and South Sudan are known to have carried out executions in 2017, Botswana and Sudan have already resumed executions this year.
Also, the very high number of people under death sentence in Nigeria is extremely worrying.
By the end of last year, the courts in Nigeria had sentenced a staggering 621 people to death and the country had some 2,285 people on death row — both being the highest figures in the sub-Saharan Africa region.
However, despite these concerns, victory against the death penalty in the region remains an attainable goal.
Mr Popoola is Amnesty International’s advocate/adviser on the death penalty. [email protected]