Yoruba Traditional Court

18 Oct

It is no secret that Americans love to sue each other and that civil court cases are a part of our culture. You don’t really even need to have a good reason to sue in America; perhaps you have a lot of free time and want to sue Starbucks for not warning you that their coffee is hot. Perhaps you want to sue MTV’s show ‘Jackass’ because you attempted one of Steve-O’s stunts at home and got hurt. Maybe you just want to divorce your husband. As Americans, we also have the luxury of access to a well-established court system run by our government that is intertwined with and synonymous with the law. For example, if you win a civil suit and the party you sued doesn’t pay their settlement, the law has consequences for them and entitlements for you. Obviously this option/comfort doesn’t exist on the same level in Nigeria. Yes, there are courts run by the government but due to Nigeria’s political structure and development, there is simply no room for any type of civil dispute in their government court system. Police are also often overworked and untrustworthy, so going to the police when you are the victim of a crime isn’t always the best option. Thus, Yoruba people have their own traditional court system that has been in existence since the origins of the tribe in small villages. In the city of Ibadan (population circa five million), this is obviously not the same as the traditional meeting of town elders practiced in the olden days. I had the opportunity of attending a modern, yet traditional Yoruba court proceeding last week. It occurred, of all places, at the local TV station.

When I arrived at my internship last Thursday morning at the Oyo state radio and television station, BCOS, I didn’t really understand what was about to happen as my boss led Lauren and I down a hall explaining we would be going to a court. I was expecting the Nigerian version of Judge Judy. We walked outside, crossed a grassy field, and arrived at an old building with no walls or electricity (it reminded me of something at the Wisconsin State fair). There was a large mass of seemingly disorganized people inside. We were instructed to sit at a table and observe what was going on. We were sitting with the panel of TV station employees, who were also apparently court clerks. Various citizens of Ibadan were waiting patiently for their turn to speak to the clerks. The came forward one at a time, explained who they wanted to “sue,” their reasoning, provided any relevant details/documentation, and then left. The clerks then scheduled a date for a hearing and that was that. The TV station would notify the person being sued of the hearing. If the person doesn’t show up for the date they are subpoenaed for, BCOS has the power to put their picture and all other relevant information needed to thoroughly humiliate and embarrass on TV for all of Oyo state to see (ah, so that’s why its at the TV station!).

The complaints brought fourth ranged from a market boy erecting a cell-phone card stand on someone’s property without permission, to someone stealing a car from a mechanic, to a woman being a victim of a horrible 419 scam. The 419 victim appeared to be about 60 years old (she could have been much older, people here hardly show age), and showed up with a contract from a realtor.

The old lady who lost all her savings

The contract explained that she was entitled to a house and a piece of property and that she had paid in full for it. After spending her life savings on a house, she was never given keys by the realtor, and after doing more research, realized that the house did not actually belong to the relator and that someone else already occupied it. The house was never actually for sale. She was extremely emotionally distraught, as the “realtor” had vanished and ditched his phone (obviously). I felt horrible for the woman. She was just an honest, hard working person who wanted the best for her kids (she was currently helping to raise her grandchildren at home). She had previously lost her husband, and now all of her savings too. Even more disturbing is that this so called realtor had had enough meetings with this woman to know exactly what kind of situation he was putting her in-all for his own selfish gain. This just goes to show the level of poverty, economic disparity, and desperation that exists here. People who are desperate take drastic measures. Although this scammer was most likely a well-versed con-man who has done financially well for himself, the motivating factors present in society here attempt to help you understand why people go to such drastic measures to make money.

After an hour at the intake table, Lauren and I were escorted to an actual proceeding. The “courtroom” in this case was an old office/storage room. There was a plastic picnic table with eight plastic chairs facing each other. Two elder TV station employees sat at one side, and five people sat on the other side. The elders acted as the judges, and both parties on the other side represented themselves. The dispute was trespassing.

waiting for registration

The accusing party said that a contractor had unlawfully used their yard to carry cement to a neighbor’s house, and that it has destroyed their property. The accused party brought along the cement man himself as a witness, and the accusing party brought the landlord. Both parties requested money from the other party. The proceeding was surprisingly tame and civil. Based on the level of enthusiasm presented by locals at church, I was expecting an all out yelling riot. No one spoke out of turn however, and everyone was very patient. Lauren and I had to leave, so we didn’t get to see how the case turned out, but I was quite fascinated by this alternative justice system locals completely rely on and put faith in. I am very impressed with how citizens take matters like this into their own hands. Just because the government can’t provide the instructor doesn’t mean it can’t exist. The level of creativity demonstrated here is inspiring. If only this creativity could be used to bring some running water to my house!

the intake pannel

Waiting to register


One Response to “Yoruba Traditional Court”

  1. Stephen October 20, 2010 at 1:37 AM #

    This is great! I could never imagine being tried in a court like this… So on TV in Nigeria do you often see the faces of those who neglected to show up for their court date?

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