Traditional justice outside the formal system in Nigeria brings both advantages and problems. Dr Bob Arnot, national manager of the J4A programme, explains how it works, and what kind of interventions can strengthen traditional rulers’ authority while improving access to justice for the population.
There are many types of traditional rulers in Nigeria
Traditional rulers are local chiefs. They apply sharia law, which is customary law, that is, derived from customs. On top of their legal functions, the traditional leaders perform religious functions such as appointing imams in the major mosques in the emirate.
However, there are traditional rulers of different ethnic groups throughout the country. With 250 different ethnic groups, traditional law differs depending on where you are. For example, while the emirs in the Islamic north have religious functions, those in the south do not.
Traditional rulers enjoy respect among the population
Traditional rulers enjoy respect and confidence from the public because the legal systems are based upon local tradition, culture, history and religion. The public is able to accept traditional law better than the formal system of police and courts. The public sometimes finds these systems to be alien with no interest in the social harmony or the culture and religion of the people.
What to do if you want to lodge a complaint in the traditional justice system
In the north, the complainant approaches the traditional ruler and expresses his or her complaint. The traditional ruler then sends for the respondent, i.e., the person accused. The complainant is then asked to repeat his complaint in the presence of the respondent. The respondent is asked whether this is true or not.
If the respondent disagrees, witnesses may be called and the traditional ruler will mediate. If he agrees, the complainant may be asked what he wants. For example; in the case of damage to crops by animals, he may request that the respondent pay for the value of the damage, and so on.
Where a settlement cannot be reached, the traditional ruler may refer them to the most senior traditional leader in the hierarchy or to a formal court of law.
There are several advantages to informal dispute resolution
The physical environment or venue of the dispute resolution is the house (living room) of the traditional rulers or it may be the house of one of the disputants or even the market square. The process does not insist on any formalities such as a definite venue for the mediation to take place, as would be the case in the court system.
Such informality and proximity to the community has several advantages. It reduces tension and increases the disputing parties’ confidence to talk, as they find themselves in a familiar environment. Then, they need not spend any money on transport. Dispute resolution services are also rendered free of charge. Those who seek access to justice therefore do not pay what they would pay in a court of law, e.g., filing fees. Another advantage is that dispute resolution takes place in the local language. This means the parties involved understand the procedure, which is devoid of technicalities. It is as simple as daily life.
The system is effective because the solutions preserve social harmony, and relationships are prolonged instead of broken. The objective of this process is to reconcile the parties so that whatever relationships exist are preserved. It does not encourage apportioning blame or having a winner and a loser. It is based upon the idea of ‘restorative justice’.
There are some disadvantages
The system is patriarchal with low or poor appreciation of human rights standards by the lower cadre of traditional rulers. As a result, they may not adhere to human rights principles. Coupled with the low level of rights awareness within the population, it makes people vulnerable to exploitation. In such rural communities, there may be no civil society organisations or not-for-profits to provide assistance, which in this context would include legal assistance or legal education to those who cannot afford to challenge the violations of their rights or may not even know their rights have been violated.
But there are further weaknesses: Some traditions do not allow women or children to speak in the midst of men; yet there is no separate arrangement available for them where women are involved as complainants or victims.
Then, compliance with decisions of traditional rulers depends on the respect people have for the ruler in question and the traditions of the community. He does not have coercive powers to compel compliance.
And finally, due to absence of record-keeping, disputes that have been resolved can be reopened.
Traditional rulers are committed to reform
The J4A programme has sought to assist reform-minded traditional rulers to counteract these problems within the traditional justice system, through training and reference material on human rights and alternative dispute resolution. The Emir of Dutse in Jigawa State, where the pilot scheme involved more than 1,500 traditional leaders, is committed to reforming the traditional justice system and has welcomed the intervention. We built his confidence in the programme by using consultants from the locality and regularly consulting with the emirate council and Nigeria’s Ministry Of Local Government And Chieftaincy Affairs in the development of processes and training materials.
The lower-cadre traditional rulers within the hierarchy have absolute trust and loyalty in the emir and view the reforms as good for society and justice; they were therefore open to the intervention as well. The acceptance is strengthened by the fact that the reform makes the rulers more competent to discharge their responsibilities that are deeply rooted in their religion and culture.
How dispute-related records are kept
There is only one central computer-based data collation and storage unit called Sulhu Scribe. It is located at the emir’s palace where the district heads, village heads and ward heads (at the lower level) send in their manual data. It has no internet connection.
Initially, it was difficult to get traditional rulers to keep even the manual records because of the low literacy level and the fact that they are not used to the process, but the data officers at the emir’s palace were trained and mentored to properly manage the system.
As for the logistics of it, some level of power supply is guaranteed at the emir’s palace where the Sulhu Scribe is located. This may however be an issue where the Sulhu Scribe is decentralised to the level of the district heads.
How the traditional justice system works for women
Most times, women lay their complaints through the wives of the traditional rulers. The wife of the traditional ruler serves two roles: First, she counsels and encourages the female complainants and facilitates access to the traditional ruler. The counselling and encouragement gives the women complainants the confidence to speak up. Second, she can herself mediate in some disputes, especially those involving women.
No clashes between human rights code and traditional law
So far there haven’t been any clashes with the human rights code of ethics. The trainers highlighted the harmony between Islam and human rights and how Islam protects women’s rights. Interactive round-tables were also held during the training where magistrates, sharia court judges, lawyers, community law centre staff, police and vigilante members were invited to talk and interact with the traditional rulers and discuss areas of mutual assistance, mutual suspicion for the purpose of better understanding and clearing misconceptions.
How traditional justice is changing: in numbers
The programme has trained more than 1,500 traditional leaders in Jigawa State and more than 100 of their wives. Generally, the level of dispute resolution has risen. For example, more than 90 percent of the complaints raised by women have reached a satisfactory conclusion. The overall level of satisfaction amongst the population with the services provided by traditional leaders has also shown consistent increases. The success of the scheme has led the Emir of Dutse to extend the work to other parts of the state, and at a recent conference for traditional leaders from five other northern states, further opportunities for expansion of the work were identified.
Dr Arnot spoke about the rule of law, access to justice and sustainable development in Nigeria at the Global Law Summit in London, taking place on 23-25 February 2015.
J4A is a GBP 50 million programme financed by the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID) and managed by the British Council. Find out more our work in justice, security and conflict resolution.