Traditions and Principles of Crime Punishment in Yoruba Land

Ise Agbe nise ile wa
Iwe kiko laisi oko ati ada
ko ipe o ko ipe o!

(farming is the occupation of our society
Formal education without hoe and cutlass is Incomplete).

The Yorùbá nation is one of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria. A greater percentage are located in Ekiti, Lagos, Ondo, Ogun, Osun, and Oyo States, while some occupy parts of Kogi and Kwara States. Some also reside in the Republic of Benin, Cuba and Brazil. There are other Yorùbá people in Diaspora who either live outside Nigeria for greener pasture or as a result of the 18th century Trans-Atlantic slave trade that displaced so many Nigerians off their ancestral societies.

James F. Quinn notes that many policies concerning punishment introduced over centuries remain unquestioned today, where each idea appeared in a unique social and political setting and if a balanced contrast would be made with our current society, it must be examined in light of past and present experiences. However, knowing where and why these practices began can help us understand where we are today. The focus of this chapter is on the issues that concern punishment of crimes in precolonial Yoruba land, the South Western extraction of Nigeria. This chapter would also discuss the specific practices of culture in the crime punishment system.

The Origin of Punishment

The early society recognized punishment as a satisfaction to offended gods or families. Families were usually large, clan-like groups that exerted strict control over their members. The welfare of the group, not the quality of justice received by an individual, was their main concern. Crime was rare. When a wrong occurred, the victim’s family sought vengeance, creating a history of bloody feuds between clans. As cities developed, the family weakened as a primary source of social control. Hence, crime increased and lawlessness threatened to disrupt society. This led to a greater reliance on government efforts to control individual behavior. As crime became a problem, punishment became important as a method of controlling individuals, and formal legal codes appeared.  The code of Hammurabi, written in Mesopotamia about 1700 B.C.E., is one of the most famous of the ancient criminal codes. It used the principle of lex talionis, (equivalent retaliation) to limit the severity of revenge that could be taken by families.

Traditions and Principles of Crime Punishment in Yoruba lands

Many ancient cultures used this principle as a basis for punishment. The Old Testament dictum of “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” resonates very well with proponents of this concept of revenge. Although used today as a justification for severe punishment, the original purpose was to limit vengeance to a retaliation that matched the offense. This helped to control feuds but did not eliminate them. Ancient societies had ideas about fairness that were very different. Until the time of the American Revolution, the status of the victim and offender were vital in setting the level and type of punishment. Crimes by slaves were severely punished than those of freemen; acts that hurt nobility were treated more harshly than those that injured peasants. These distinctions were seen as perfectly natural by their creators because they reflected the organization of those societies and their religious beliefs (Quinn, 1999)

YorÙbÁ Culture and Social Values

According to the Webster dictionary (2012), Culture is the sum total of attainments at any specific period, race or people including their implement, handicrafts, agriculture, economics, music, arts, religious beliefs, traditions, language and story. It encompasses material and non material attributes of a given people and society. In a much broader exposition of culture, it follows that to build houses, cultivate farms, construct bridges, manage successful formal education, manage successful business or organization, control population growth, prevent or cure sicknesses and diseases, ensure social trust, good governance, law and order etc, man needs an established albeit critically receptive body of ideas and beliefs, designs, techniques and methodologies, rules and regulations;- culture. This explains culture as the totality of man and his activities. The Yorùbá traditional society, being culturally endowed in all sphere of the societal structure has values. All human endeavours in any society are guided by principles or values which cover every aspect of human activities within the society.

Social value is the widely shared principle and standards in a society. The Yorùbás are guided by social values, the bedrock of their culture. This is because it covers religion, economics, politics, moral and so on. The Yoruba social values like all African social values are humanistic, hence makes them remain unshakable irrespective of the invasion of foreign values. The attributes of the Yorùbá social values include sense of good human relations, community, hospitality, respect for authority and elders, extended family relations and  religiosity which signifies the attributes of African social values.

The Yorùbá human relation recognizes the worth of every member of their community. Bearing in mind that each member has a role to play within the society no matter how small or irrespective of the social class and status, every member of the society relates together as one thereby describing them as brother’s keeper.

A Yoruba person is identified by his or her community. The African ideas of security and its value depend on personal identification with and within the community.  The community also instills in every individual the spirit of oneness and hard work.

The Yorùbá people are hospitable. They welcome visitors amidst them and try to guide them from danger as well as freedom to live as other members of the community. Social relations are strengthened through respect for authorities and the elders. The elders are assumed to have communal wisdom and are saddled with leadership in the affairs of the people. Respect is one of the major principles that guide behaviour of Yorùbá families.

Extended families aided cohesion and stability such that the security is not just for the old, but also the poor and disadvantaged members of the family, who have been seen to have made efforts but have not been successful. It implies that the extended family provided a comforting atmosphere for its member’s survival. Religion was also the basis on which moral values rest as it lends meaning and authority to values. It also strengthens social relations and makes man have respect for human life and dignity.

The traditional social organization of the Yorùbá people is characterized by kinship relations who comprises of a number of kindred nuclear families. They lived a communal way of life such that they attached value to extended families. (Atanda, 1996). The social structure   was stratified in hierarchy, each under the jurisdiction of an appropriate chief. The Oba and his Igbimo (oba in council) were overarching rulers because they influenced  decisions within the society. Directly under them was the Adugbo (quarter), headed by an Olori Adugbo or Olori Itun, whose appointment was ratified and approved by the Oba. Below this stratum was the Agbo-Ile (extended family compound), headed by an Olori Ebi (head of the extended family). The lowest unit was the individual nuclear home, headed by Baba (father). The extended family members  appoints the Olori Ebi, because the oldest member of the extended family usually assumed this position.

Every married man assumed the position of his own home as the family was the basic unit of society's administration as well as a judicial unit. In other words, legal and political control was exercised mainly via the family and extended kin groups. Each household member played a significant part in social control by socializing children and motivating them to conform to social order and norms. The kinship affinity of the Yorùbá family was quite strong such that it regulated behaviour of it members and made members aware of the rule of conduct. Kinship solidarity accounted for institutional emphasis on the need for provision of social security and justice of large family members hence involved the acceptance of responsibility and obligations to the group to the extent that individuals were seen, primarily, as members of their particular families before they were understood as members of society at large. The people were able to effectively control social menace in the traditional institutions with the presence of norms and values that were characterized by their cultural heritage, for instance the ‘shame culture’ among the Yorùbá which was rooted in the fact that Yorùbá society condemns shameful behavior and, therefore, people are expected to avoid things which might put them and the members of their lineage into shame. As opined by Fadipe (1970): “the Yorùbá cannot afford to pretend to be indifferent to the public…and its opinion”.(cited in Adejumo, 2010)  This implies that if a member of a family or lineage errs with respect to the accepted norm, he and the members of his family will be publicly ridiculed; public ridicule is thus an important character-molding device.

Satire was another weapon for public ridicule used among the Yorùbá to checkmate erring members of the society. It is used as a form of traditional judicial system. Satirists are like traditional policemen, who bring deviants to book. They have the license to do so without being sued, that is, the Yorùbá principle of reconciliation, conflict resolution and societal harmony could be found in the use of satire.”(Adejumo 2007/2008) There were other forms of social control mechanisms that were inhibited in songs, storytelling, folklores, festivals, proverbs and so on. These values were passed on from the old to the young members of the community, because the elders were believed to be endowed with prestige and power such that they know the norms and the values of the community. This provided the reason why the older people with experience were the arbiter of the community.

Hirschi buttressed his view that whether individuals are law abiding or deviant depends on the extent of variance from the four factors that are critical in bonding them to the society:
  1. Attachment to parents, school and peers
  2. Commitment to conventional lines of action
  3. Involvement in conventional activities and
  4. Belief in conventional values.
He argued that the belief in the goodness of certain values such as respect for the law and for the police and belief in wrongness of such actions as juvenile delinquency – operates as a brake on delinquency. This explains that for social control mechanisms to be effective, parents and teachers who are role models have to effectively inculcate values into individuals during the socialization process. This in a way explains the traditional Yoruba society where there is strong attachment to family such that individuals conform to norms and values because of their commitment to these cultural values as well as their family roles. The social structure of the Yoruba people also gets members involved in activities that will keep them busy and distract them from deviating from the norms of the society. For instance, the introductory song that tells about the occupation of the people and failure to get involved is tantamount to stealing.

This song exposes members of the society to hard work and discourages laziness as a way of life. It also makes the people conform to the norms and values of the land. The family nurtures the individual and the individual in return recognizes and understands the implication of not conforming to the laws of the society.

Punishment in Ancient Yoruba Society

Most punishments were corporal, financial, or capital. Corporal punishment involved inflicting physical pain on the offender, especially through caning. Fines and other economic penalties were sometimes used as a means of financial punishment; and capital punishment refers to  the death penalty. In addition to these, banishment or exile was an option. Banishment or exile was a kind of social death. In most early times, however, punishment meant killing or hurting the offender. Imprisonment was also possible based on the gravity of the crime.

Witchcraft was a crime of which proof beyond reasonable doubt was practically impossible. Also, witches caused great damage to the lives and crops of their enemies, drought, barrenness in both men and women and death of individuals. As such, Witchcraft was the most serious crime in the yoruba precolonial era. In the yoruba colonised society, treason and treachery assumed first rank order as the most serious crimes. In the present era, premeditated murder and armed robbery have become the most serious crimes. These changes in the law and the rank ordering of crime and the rank order of crime seriousness in the colonial era express a particular tilt: the maintenance needs of the oppressor. In the pre-colonial era, punishing the crime of witchcraft with death helped to protect life and property. In the colonial era, the tilt reflected what was regarded as most threatening to the survival and well-being of the colonial government. In the postcolonial era, punishing premeditated murder and armed robbery with death is to deter potential murderers and robbers, so the death penalty helps in protecting life and property, just as it did in dealing with witchcraft in the pre-colonial era. In other cases however, sentences of long term or life imprisonment serves in the alternative.

The Hierachy of Seriousness of Crime

  • Witchcraft Premeditated Murder- Punished with death Expected to commit suicide or self-exile for 7 years, Sacrifice to the land on return
  • Murder—Manslaughter, Paid heavy compensation to the injured party
  • Treason, Stealing, Arson, Adultery and incest-Excommunication, caning and shaming, Restitution paid to the loser Shaming, bad songs

Crime in Contemporary Nigeria and its Challenges

Nigeria today is characterized by many social problems which includes criminality, socio-economic issues and the security question of the nation. In all of this, it is still referred to as the giant of Africa. The existing measures may not be enough to end criminal behaviours within our society. It is the responsibility of all because the hazard which modernisation caused the society needs to be revisited. Families today are no longer positive instruments of socialization as individualism has taken over the communal way of life where every member of the society is a watch-dog of one another. Wage labour has made so many parents spend limited time with their children while housemaids who are supposed to be undergoing various socialization processes assume the motherly role for the children in their custody. The elders who are supposed to pass norms and values across to the younger generations are themselves violators of the norms. The adage that acknowledges the elder as the forebearer of peace is no longer imbibed by the people.
Agba kii wa loja, ki ori omo tuntun wo
(Where there are good elders, there is orderliness).
A child who is not socialized into the values of hard work is not expected to grow and become a person who will achieve a goal through the societal approved means of goal getting. Modernization has affected all the norms and values embedded in our culture. The western world which is always a point of reference for us in measuring development and underdevelopment did not abandon their cultural heritage totally but rather dance to the rhythm of change by modernizing their old traditions to stand the test of time. In Nigeria it is rather different. The traditional african societies used social thought that were embedded in traditional, moral and ethical values directed ultimately at social and universal survival.

The Yoruba oral philosophy is used in the education and socialization of the young to teach and ‘build’ in them knowledge about the social and physical environments and the qualities of an Omoluabi (i.e. a good personality), whose actions comply with social norms and values.

The policing structures today are centralized, though there are private policing organizations that are also used to help put the society in order. The effectiveness of these policing structures is questionable because our society is not in order compared to the traditional societies where every locality had a way of policing its environment which was through norms and values embedded in the culture of the people that were base on truthfulness.

If we re-embrace our abandoned cultural heritage embedded in norms and values of the society, it would be a plus. The norms and values enhanced and empower it members and makes the society worth living. Sacredness was attached to human life such that killing and taking of human life were majorly during wars or if the traditions were violated, that attracts execution of the offender. Values and traditions were the determinants of people’s behaviour. But the social structure of the Yoruba society witnessed transformation through colonialism and capitalism. With westernization the better part of values that could make the society worthwhile were abandoned. Individuality became the norms of our society. Salvaging the situation becomes the duty of every family within the society. The family should create time for proper socialization process to make the young one grow with good values especially with the Yoruba social thought. If every family is in order within the society, then the society at large will be better. No doubt change is vital in every society, the tradition norms and values can be modernized to suite the present time. Our media houses and communication networks can be also used to propagate these values and norms in hearts.

The pre-colonial traditional societies were also peaceful despite the different Kingdoms that existed and irrespective of their cultural and social values their crime control mechanisms were effective due to the strong adherence to social and cultural values in place, specifically, esteemed hard work within the Yoruba indigenous community.


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