Ake Palace: Resolving disputes at Idi Ere, customary court
Abeokuta, the capital city of Ogun State, is made up of 140 towns and each has a traditional head, who is either a first or second class Oba or Baale.
Egba customs and traditions make it mandatory for the Obas and Baales, especially the Ogbonis to assist any reigning Alake of Egbaland in the administration of justice and good governance in the kingdom.
The Ogbonis, according to the Chairman, Egba Complaints Committee, perform a series of political and religious functions, including exercising a profound influence on the monarchs and serving as the high court of jurisprudence in offences. Its members constitute the nobility of the various Yoruba kingdoms across the West African sub-region.
Carefully selected members of this group, who represent all sections of the Egba Kingdom, form the bedrock of the Egba Complaints Committee, which adjudicates on all disputes in the Alake’s palace.
Although the rules of the committee are unwritten, their modus operandi is known to the locals. Litigants are said to carefully weigh the implications before approaching the Egba Complaints Committee or go to the conventional court.
Surprisingly, despite the high level of literacy among the people, the majority of them — educated and uneducated — still embrace Idi Ire (Egba’s Complaints Committee), a traditional method of conflict resolution operational in the Ake’s Palace from Monday to Friday throughout the year.
On Wednesday, August 27, 2019, Palace Watch took time out to observe the proceedings.
As early as 7 a.m., members of the committee, litigants and their relations alongside witnesses began to troop into the venue, an open hall in the buildings directly opposite the main entrance to the Alake of Egba’s palace. The venue was beautifully decorated with different local artifacts.
At exactly 8 a.m., when the chairman of the Committee arrived, the 30-man committee began. One of the two secretaries called out the cases to be heard for the day. The litigants, who had also taken a position in the hall without much ado, sprang up to state their cases in the Yoruba language, while the committee members and members of the public present listened with rapt attention. Interestingly, the two secretaries simultaneously took notes of proceedings.
The Committee Chairman said: “The essence of this is to make sure, no submission is missed.”
Another interesting aspect of this committee was the composition of members. The age of members ranged from the late 80s to mid-40s and all wore different colours of insignia weaved in local fabric on their right shoulders. This, Palace Watch was told signifies the ranking of members of the committee in the Ogboni Confraternity Order.
At the commencement of the hearing, members of the committee in no particular order, asked the litigants whether or not they brought the case(s) before the committee on their own volition? The litigant must answer in the affirmative before the case could be looked into. Litigants are also asked if the case(s) before the committee is before any court of law in the land? It is only when the litigants say the case is not before any law court that the committee will agree to entertain the matter.
Immediately after these formalities, the complainant is allowed to make his or her submission, which is usually exhaustive, while the defendant or defendants are called upon to respond to all the allegations made by the complainant in a most civilized manner. Witnesses on both sides are called to say what they know about the submissions of both parties before the committee.
After the Wednesday proceedings, Palace Watch had a one-on-one chat with Chief C.O. Shodipe, an 85-year-old retired civil engineer, who chairs the Egba Complaints Committee.
How are cases instituted in your committee?
For matters to be heard, litigants — the complainant and the defendant — will have to approach the committee with a fee of N12,000 and two bottles of Schnapps, hot drinks, if the dispute is about the land. But if it is on any other matter, half of the above amount is paid.
How are cases initiated, heard and adjudicated on?
Cases are initiated, heard and resolved, the way any conventional court resolve issues. If someone is aggrieved and chooses to bring his or her case here, we make our time to hear all the sides and invite witnesses if there are any. We do thorough investigations on our side to ascertain the truth of the matter and based on our findings we give an unbiased judgment. If such a person or persons are unsatisfied with our judgment, they are free to appeal to the Alake-in-Council as an appellate body. At this instance, the Alake will personally hear the cases and pass judgment.
Most times, the judgment of the Alake-in-Council and that of the conventional courts, if the parties choose to go that way, do tally. This is one of many reasons people feel it is a waste of time, money and energy to go to conventional courts when they know, they can get the same justice in the palace.
How many cases do you handle a day and do people have legal representation in matters before the committee?
We handle a case per day and five cases in a week. As you are very much aware, for us to ensure that true justice is done, a case can linger for weeks or months. Legal representation is not required. Complainants or defendants are allowed to state their cases in a straightforward manner without legal jargon.
How do you tell when a complainant or defendant is misleading the committee into taking wrong decision?
We are no idiots. This committee is composed of people with varied working experiences. We have judges, lawyers, journalists, engineers, bankers, security personnel, police and secret service operatives, farmers; among other professions, who are now retired after meritorious service in the committee.
At every stage, the various experiences of our members come to play. With this, we make sure people do not deceive or play tricks on us. People, who bring their cases here and those who stand as witnesses know this. However, if any person attempts such, we shall then resort to our traditional ways of handling such issues. We don’t joke here! Hence the people’s implicit confidence in what we do.
Oftentimes, even if people lose their cases, they still go home satisfied because they know we ensure that justice is done without fear, bias or favour. Many non-Yoruba people, who are residents and doing business in and around Abeokuta, prefer we handle their matters than going to conventional courts because they all know, this is the place they can get true justice. Indigenes, who are dubious or fraudulent, will never want to be brought before us, instead, they will quickly resolve whatever dispute they have with anyone, native or stranger before the matter gets to us.
If a case is already before a conventional court and one of the parties to the case still brought it before your committee, what will you do?
We will not adjudicate on the matter. But if both parties decide to bring the matter hereafter they have withdrawn it from the court, we shall look at the case dispassionately and pass judgment.
How do you prevent committee members with special interest in a matter from influencing your judgment?
People do not mess around with us and to maintain the trust reposed on us, we do not mess around with ourselves. Members know that we are a traditional arbitration committee and accountable to the Alake of Egbaland, the Egba people and Nigerians as a whole. They, therefore, must never do anything that will betray that trust, but If they do; they know the consequences.
The consequences do not take long to come; it is almost instant judgment. Moreover, members of the committee are carefully selected from different sections of Egba communities. Before they become members, they are adjudged to be above board like Caeser’s wife. Personal integrity, outright honesty, ability to be fair in all matters without any emotions or prejudice are some of the qualities required to be a member.
If a member is found wanting in any way, he would be reprimanded immediately if the act is a minor one, but would he would be excommunicated if the act is a serious one. Anybody so excommunicated will find it extremely difficult to go back to his community or fit into the larger society. The ripple effect of such an action down the line or lineage of such a person or persons can be far-reaching. Hence, members are very careful in whatever they do.
Members are not selected based on wealth or status, but on all the requirements mentioned. So many rich people want to be our members, but we do not allow them because they do not meet our requirements.
For how long did you serve the committee to become the chairman?
I do not need to serve for so many years to become the chairman. The various towns that make up the Egbaland select the various members of our committee. But if you must know, I am the current Oluwo of Ake. I am selected from the Ake Section of the Egbaland and by virtue of this, I am the chairman of the committee. It does not matter if there are members that have served for 50 years before my selection because traditionally, anybody selected from Ake Section has to be the head of the committee. This is the way things are done here.