Dissolution of marriage over witchcraft and customary court: Media hype and extortion in Ibadan
The attention of the Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW) was drawn to a report by one of Nigeria's national dailies, The Nation. Published on January 14, the report stated that a customary court dissolved a 15-year-old marriage over "witchcraft". According to the report, the president of the court, Chief Ademola Odunade dissolved a marriage over witchcraft suspIcion, "the wife asked a witch doctor to tie the husband spiritually and milk him dry". Interestingly, the report stated that a record of the conversation between the woman and the 'witch doctor' was tendered as evidence at the hearing. After reading the report, I called one of the legal advisers of AfAW to find out her opinion. She noted that witchcraft could not have been the reason for the dissolution of marriage because the Nigerian constitution did not recognize the reality of witchcraft. I sent her the link and after reading the report, she reiterated that witchcraft was no basis for the dissolution of the marriage. I felt unsatisfied with her reply because most people would not understand the report that way. If witchcraft was not the reason for the dissolution of the marriage, why did the journalist report otherwise? In fact, why did the court not dismiss the "witchcraft evidence" that was tendered?
The Nigerian witch believing public would see the report as another evidence for the 'reality' or 'effectiveness' of witchcraft. The lawyer advised me to obtain the court proceeding before releasing any statement on the issue. The following day, January 15 I went to the customary court at Mapo, Ibadan. I met a female court official. I showed her the newspaper report and she repeated what the lawyer said. The marriage was not dissolved because of witchcraft. Witchcraft was mentioned during the court process. She explained that journalists used to visit the court. And they would give them access to court processes and judgments. Journalists would choose stories and topics that would attract or interest their readers and publish them. I inquired how often witchcraft featured in the court proceedings. And she said not often. I urged her to allow me go through some of the court processes to know how witchcraft allegations feature in the court proceedings. And she agreed. But it was at this point that the meeting took another dimension. She told me she would devote some time and energy to find and compile these documents. I planned to consult and maybe photocopy only pages of the proceedings that featured witchcraft allegations. Those pages would help AfAW know how to rejoin the article and engage the court on the issue. Now this female court official said that I needed to pay for the services. I asked her the cost and she said: Twenty thousand naira. Twenty thousand naira? For what? I explained to her once again why I needed to see the proceedings. But she insisted that I pay her that amount. I knew she might spend some time copying and compiling the documents. But I wondered whether it would cost such an amount.
Since I did not know the volume of the documents that she would copy and compile, I gave her an advance of 3 thousand naira. But she insisted we agree on the whole amount upfront. I felt embarrassed. I urged her to wait until she finished the job but she declined. I planned to offer her some money for her time and work but I had not made up my mind on the amount. I offered to pay her 10,000 naira. She asked me to call back on Wednesday at 10.00 am for the documents. I promised to be there about midday. We exchanged numbers and I left the court.
On Tuesday night, she called to know if I would be coming as agreed and I reconfirmed. I arrived at her office shortly after midday. She gave me a pile of documents- over 150 court judgments and affidavits. Some of them were manually 'typewritten' and others were computer-typed and photocopied materials that plaintiffs must have submitted to the court. I started going through the documents in her office to select the copies that I needed. But she asked me to take them home. I agreed to do so and gave her the balance (7,000 naira). Suddenly her countenance changed and she pushed the money back towards me. She asked me to give her the documents, that it was not the agreed amount. I looked at her in utter shock and dismay. I reminded her that the last time we met, I gave her 3000 naira. She said yes that the balance was 10000 naira because we agreed on the amount after I advanced 3000 naira. Wow! Invariably, this woman wanted me to pay her 23,000 naira, not 20,000 naira for accessing court rulings? Hmmm interesting! I could not comprehend this. The conversation over the agreed amount dragged on for some minutes as I tried to figure out what the woman was trying to achieve and the best way to respond to her mischief. I decided to give her the extra 3,000 naira and to report this case of extortion for record purposes.
Look the advocacy work takes me to so many police stations and courts. I encounter many state police and court officials, workers at state ministries. Sometimes I defray the costs of transportation, photocopying of documents, time and data spent, if and when necessary. But my encounter with this female customary court officer at Mapo was unusual. Court officials are public servants and should endeavor to conduct themselves in a manner befitting their office. Court documents are public materials and should be made available for public use at little or no cost. People should be allowed to use these documents without being subjected to extortion. Court officers should be partners in progress and should facilitate and not hinder humanitarian work and community services. Given that witchcraft allegations affect mainly women, one expected this female court officer to cooperate and provide as much information and assistance as possible. But she did not. She was mainly interested in what she could extort from me.
Meanwhile, I went through all the documents and discovered that it was only the case that The Nation reported which featured witchcraft allegations. In four other cases, there were allegations of being fetish or demonic. I have sent a letter to the president of the customary court of appeal drawing his attention to the media report/misreport. I urged him to use his good office and subsequent rulings to educate and enlighten the people on the position of the law regarding witchcraft claims and allegations. Court officials, judges, magistrates, clerks, bailiffs, registrars, and lawyers should join efforts with AfAW in using the law to stamp out witchcraft allegations and witch persecutions.
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