Defining what is justice in a world perspective is a never-ending task because of all the different theories about it in historical cultural traditions.
Usually, justice is seen has a specialized institution whose task is to judge people who do not respect their community’s laws or customs. Sanctions are forced upon them by different punishments that can end in death.
But there is also some form justice rendered outside these institutions when informal control on people is sanctioned. This kind of distinction is useful when judicial systems are compared with the state imposed ones.
At the level of local communities’s cultural outlook, what is not official can also be legitimate in their moral and social context. Colonial changes confronted them.
Colonial Courts in Abisi
Colonial reforms of the Judicial system aimed at integrating British, Islamic and Indigenous laws. Such a difficult process could not be imposed and had to be progressively integrated.
The Northern Nigeria Criminal Code was translated in Arabic so that the Islamic and Native courts could consult it even if they were free to use it or not. Provincial courts were administered by a Resident assisted by British officers. Islamic courts were subordinate and Native Courts were introduced in non-Muslim areas.
At the judicial level, the Abisi were first submitted to the court of Chawai and then of Lere which was divided in 1935 into five minor courts (D-type joint court).
Native courts worked with difficulties because of the three systems, each with its rules for proofs, witnesses and sanctions. The courts had to judge criminal and civil cases.
Cases of thefts, marital disputes and ethnic conflicts were judged locally but murders were referred directly to Zaria. One of the courts was in Garun Kurama, judging conflicts of Abisi, Rukuba and Amo and Kurama.
The judicial control was not exercised immediately, because Abisi resisted, forcing the British to send a military patrol.
«I am now investigating through the District Headman what appears to be a particularly brutal and cold-blooded murder in the Pitti tribe. It proves, however, to have been in the nature of an execution.
The victim is accused of various crimes, the chief of them being witchcraft. When called upon to surrender the 3 men who killed the victim the headman of Pitti protested that these 3 were in no way to blame since they were acting under orders from themselves.
They state that in former times they would have sold the man as a slave and that the white man’s law against selling slaves is their reason for having killed him.
The two headmen who accept the full responsibility for the deed are both old and blind. They refuse to come to Zaria and the District headman reports that he is unable to arrest them by force in face of the certain opposition of their people.
I do not propose to take any immediate measures beyond warning them of the consequence of their action but I hope there will be an opportunity of visiting Pitti with a patrol in the course of the next dry season.
The cause of the difficulty at Pitti as with so many other backward pagans is the headmen to whom the tribe looks for guidance in the internal affairs are old obstinate and blind both literally and metaphorically and so present an almost impervious barrier to the progress of new ideas. (Arnett, 1908 KNA 2933)».
Judicial Sanctions Controversy
This case shows how difficult it was to harmonize the three judicial systems to the point that the colonial officer asks for a military patrol to intervene against Abisi since neither the Emir nor the colonial tribunals were able to do it.
The so-called “new ideas” were those the British wanted to impose in Nigeria. Especially, anti-slavery laws.
The Slavery Proclamation was passed by the British Governor Lugard in 1901. The commerce of slaves and the return of runaways to their masters was outlawed. This law was gradually applied in places like Kano where slavery stopped only around 1926 but it was more readily applied in Abisi area.
It seems that the colonial administration was overwhelmed by the sheer number of slaves in the North, considering that the Caliphate of Sokoto which dominated the whole region, was second in the world after the Americans as a slave economy.
In Abisi, punishment by giving the offenders in slavery was preferred to death penalty but since it was outlawed, they choose the latter for such a serious crime as witchcraft accusation.
In Pitiland, executions took place by drowning, condemned being thrown, feet and hands bound, in the deepest place of the Uburga river.
Some local confusion was also evident in the application of colonial laws.
Native courts had greater latitude then the higher tribunals in applying sanctions as long as it was claimed to be traditional.
For example, flogging was used as a punishment and although the British wanted to stop it, it was tolerated for many years before being abolished.
The same with the use of mutilation in Muslim courts, such as cutting hands for theft was forbidden even though it was difficult to apply because of strict rules of eye-witness to convict people of these crimes.
Abisi Informal Justice: the Curse
A curse is an informal sanction used to control some behavior. Somebody is using a curse when he and his subject believe that wishing bad to somebody can make that person sick or even kill her.
It’s somehow the reverse of a blessing that is believed to do good to a person.
Sometimes, a curse does not need to be sent by someone in particular. It happens automatically by the actions of some supernatural being.
For example, in Abisi, sexual behavior outside marriage is controlled by such sanctions. Adultery can be defined as sexual relations with someone who is not a spouse. What if it happens between a man and his brother’s wife?
In Abisi, the sanction is that if he is sick or hurt and his brother sees him, he may die, even if it is only a small cut to the finger. But if he talks with his brother and tells him that he slept with his wife, they can put the blame on the women and wait for her to be sick or hurt to make a simple visit and she will die!
That will end the curse on the unruly brother. It is thus admitted that a brother is more irreplaceable than a wife. This same curse also applies between the co-husbands of a woman: if they are in contact the one who is sick may die.
That is why, when two co-husbands meet, usually in markets or public meetings, they are overly polite with each other and get gifts of beer.
This type of informal sanctions works as a social control force, keeping people in the right path even if no real case never is given as proof. Another point of friction with Native Courts was the way people testified!
British control was no yet assured forty years later, because as stated in a report dated 1943: “At Kurama, language use is Kurama. «Amo and Piti do not use it and their disputes are settled by their elders by irregular methods. »
These methods consisted of either a divination with a cock or an ordeal with a bow and arrow.
In Abisi, there was a “Hunter Chief” who judged the truth of a testimony by making the accused swear by taking an oath on his life by jumping back and forth over a bow, an arrow and a hunting knife and repeating:
“May these weapons kill me if I lie.”
Judgement by hen is done when the judge cuts its throat and if after running around, it falls on its back, the accused lies, if on its belly, he tells the truth. When it is impossible to determine the facts, the laws of probability is as good as anything.
Swearing by “bow and arrows” has the same meaning as others methods.
By swearing on arms, Abisi put their lives at risk in the face of their Ancestors like if it was a sacred book other people use.