In numerous regions across Nigeria, community chiefs often illegitimately arrogate unto themselves powers they believe to be vested in them, allowing them to mete out punishments to alleged criminals within their respective communities. These chiefs frequently prescribe a range of inconsistent penalties for offenders, regardless of whether these sanctions align with the gravity of the committed offense. Some chiefs even resort to extreme measures, such as banishment or public caning of the accused, in response to alleged crimes.
The community chiefs in Nigeria do not possess the authority to punish criminals under Nigerian law. However, this article will explore the prevailing trends, investigating the appropriateness of punishments administered by various chiefs in Nigeria and the legality of such punishments for suspected criminals under Nigerian law. Thus, the article aims to answer the question: Can a village chief legally punish criminals under Nigerian law?
Overview of Criminal Adjudication and Trial By Ordeal
Nigeria is a country with over 371 ethnic groups, encompassing more than 525 local languages and 2500 communities scattered across 774 local government areas. During the annexation in 1906 and amalgamation of Nigeria in 1914, the colonial government recognized and preserved traditional institutions as tools for social control in various communities. As a matter of fact, the Emirs of the North commanded significant influence, enabling them to assert a high level of control in their territories to ensure obedience to law and order. The same was applicable in communities in the West, where the Alaafin of Oyo and the Oba of Benin, among others, controlled their territories using local institutions and customs, including the local prison, age grade, the Ogboni cult, and more. These are just a few examples, highlighting the existence of strong traditional institutions for social control in our communities even before the colonial era.
Criminal sanction was not left solely for the government to handle, as even community chiefs could address and adjudicate on the most serious offenses, such as murder, rape, and theft, among others. The judgments by communities were highly inconsistent, as a person could be executed for mere stealing in some communities, while the same offense might result in banishment as punishment elsewhere. The traditional system often introduced traditional and irrational modes of investigation to determine the guilt of the accused person.
Accused persons were often tried by ordeal. In a community among the Ogoja people, accused individuals were made to chew a poisonous bean called “esere” to determine their guilt. It was believed that those guilty of the offense would not survive after eating the beans. Similarly, among the Igala People, an accused person was required to dip their hands in boiling oil. Those whose hands were burnt were deemed guilty, while those whose hands remained unscathed were vindicated. Unfortunately, almost all accused victims were found guilty in this process. Among the Benue people, in a certain community, the accused were made to cross a river full of crocodiles. Those who crossed successfully were vindicated, but often the accused individuals were devoured by the Crocs.
Interestingly, in communities among the Ikom People in Cross River State, a local method of determining the guilt of the accused involved using a holy Bible with a key slid halfway into the Bible and bound with a twine rope. The judge or mediator would hold one end of the key with the index finger, and the accused person would place their index finger on the other end. The moderator would command the Bible to turn if the person on the other end was indeed guilty; often, even the lightest breeze of air could make the Bible turn.
The situations described above and others were the rationale for prohibiting community chiefs and others from trying any criminal offense, no matter how simple it may be. This was because most times, innocent people suffered for offenses they never committed, and the method of determining their guilt was too inconsistent for any rational human to conform to. However, this was the customs of the people. To create a more universal and widely consistent criminal justice system, Customary Criminal Adjudication was abolished. This left the community chiefs with powers only to adjudicate and settle civil wrongs, which are always subject to the decision of the court on appeal.
The Legal Framework in Nigeria
The Criminal Code, specifically in Section 204 and other relevant provisions, entirely eliminates the use of trial by ordeal in criminal adjudications.
Section 207 of the Criminal Code Act in Nigeria explicitly prohibits the trial by ordeal using methods such as sasswood, esere-bean, poison, boiling oil, fire, immersion in water, or exposure to attacks by crocodiles or other wild animals. Any ordeal likely to result in death or bodily injury to any party involved in the proceeding is deemed unlawful. Furthermore, the President or the Governor of a State has the authority, through an order, to prohibit the worship or invocation of any juju that may be perceived to contribute to the commission of a crime, breach of peace, or the spread of infectious or contagious diseases.
Section 208 of the Criminal Code Act in Nigeria stipulates that any individual who directs, controls, or presides over an unlawful trial by ordeal is committing a felony. If the outcome of such a trial results in the death of any party involved, the person responsible is liable to the punishment of death. In all other cases, the prescribed penalty is imprisonment for ten years. This provision serves as a strong deterrent against involvement in or facilitation of unlawful trial by ordeal.
The village Chiefs are expected to redirect all criminal matters in the community to the police for investigation and prosecution and the community is to provide evidence to enable the police to prosecute such accused persons.
Despite the provisions of the law, many communities still resort to punishing accused individuals through ordeals, intense caning, and sometimes banishment. It is crucial to enhance the capabilities of security agencies and government institutions to completely eliminate the adjudication of criminal offenses by traditional rulers. This practice represents the highest form of jungle justice in Nigeria and undermines the principles of a fair and just legal system. Strengthening these institutions is imperative for upholding the rule of law and ensuring a more equitable administration of justice.
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