by S.A. Adewale

In traditional African society the sacred and the secular are inseparable. There is no compartmentalization of life. What religion forbids or condemns society also forbids and condemns, and similarly society approves those things which religion approves or and sanctions. An offence against God is an offence against man, and in like manner an offence against man is an offence against God, since man is a creature of God. Either offence is criminal.

Traditional African religion has no written legal documents showing what is legal or illegal, but traditional Africans have a code of conduct which they all know. This code constrains individuals to live in conformity with the well-being of society. The components of the code have been transmitted conventionally from generation to generation. Forbidden criminal actions include adultery, breach of covenant, burglary, fornication, incest, kidnapping, irreverence and unkindness to parents, lying, murder, rape, seduction, speaking evil of rulers, swearing falsely, theft, sodomy and malice. All prohibited acts or taboos are crimes in African traditional religion and any person committing any of them is regarded as a criminal and is punishable. Abnormal behaviour which is not in conformity with the norms of society are criminal acts. We cannot deal with all of them in this paper, but shall discuss a few.


Adultery is sexual intercourse between a married woman and any other man than her husband, or between a married man and any other woman than his wife. It applies equally to a betrothed woman. It is deemed an outrageous crime, striking at the norm of society and, when it results in conception, it inflicts a spurious offspring on the husband. The kinship structure of our society makes adultery a crime not only against the husband as an individual but also against those corporate bodies with whom the husband is in relation. Marriage is a societal ceremony in the traditional community

Adultery is also an offence against the religious objects of the husband, including his ancestors. Furthermore, it is a criminal act against the gods, because marriage in the traditional context is a sacred institution sanctioned by them, and any act of unfaithfulness in the matrimonial lift of the couple is punishable by preternatural beings. Right from the beginning of courtship, religious rituals are performed to stabilise and hallow the marriage; ancestors and divinities are consulted and approached for their support. Usually the wife of an adherent of the traditional religion is, as it were, "the wife of the gods" She is commended to the care and protection of the supernatural beings and she must be faithful. Rituals and ceremonies accompany or follow the occasion of wedding. The aim of these is to pray for the welfare of tile new couple, to bless them so that they will bear children and to give them instructions and rules on how to conduct themselves as married people. At these rituals, God and the living-dead of the family may be called upon to witness the occasion and to give their blessings to the new husband and wife.

In traditional Africa adultery is not condoned; it is a breach of societal and religious norms and it breeds an unhealthy and unwholesome relationship in society, a relationship that can ruin the total well-being of the people.

Adultery is viewed with grave concern and is seriously punished. The adulterer may be warned and reported in the first instance by liberally minded people, but persistence in the crime leads to either a fine by the court presided over by the traditional ruler or priest. The adulterer may also be physically attacked or punished with death by poisoning or be made impotent. The death of an adulterous person is seen as a just punishment and is not much mourned.

Among the Yoruba the Ifa oracle warns against adultery as follows:

She destroys the members of the household of the husband,
She destroys the members of the household of the concubine.
Thereafter she destroys herself
and goes on the far journey to heaven.
So declares the oracle to the adulterous woman who is a servant of death.

What is true of one people in traditional religion in Africa, if nor entirely true of another would be almost true. Furthermore, the Ifa system, which serves as the Yoruba traditional religious scriptures, has been researched by eminent scholars and found to he known not only among the Yoruba but also among non-Yoruba in Nigeria and some West African countries like Sierra Leone, Republic of Benin, Togo and parts of seaboard Ghana.


Lying is an attempt to deceive by speaking what is not true. It is forbidden in the traditional religion, and any perpetration of it is a crime riot only against human beings but also against the supernatural beings. Traditional Africans train their children always to tell tile truth because they believe that a liar is prone to other forms of criminal acts, like stealing. The saying is "He who lies will steal." It is a common evil among some people, hut considered very disgraceful particularly when the truth is known. Like adultery, lying ruins. Both are sometimes regarded as hereditary. Traditional Africans invoke curses on liars, while the divinities too condemn them. Lying is a corporate offence. About lying the oracle Odu Ogunda Bede warns:

....The deceiver went on a twenty-years journey and never returned.
The liar went on a thirty-months journey and never returned.
Thus the oracle warned deceivers and liars when they were going on a journey. They were warned not to deceive or betray others in the foreign land.

Rectitude warned them, but they never heeded the warning. The warning was given because of the future. Vengeance belongs to the Almighty, the King who recompenses everybody according to his deeds.

Liars know the truth but tell untruth. They call red what is white and white what is red for their own purpose, and by lying they injure other people. The Odu Aji-Oghe oracle has this to say about liars and lying:

Those who call efuru efuru,
all right, our Father will be looking at them from heaven
Those who call efuru efuru,
all right, our Father will be looking at them from heaven.
All right, those who call an iroko leaf an oro leaf
all right, our Father will be looking at them from heaven.
All right, those who call a turtle dove a wood dove,
all right, our Father will be looking at them from heaven.
All right, those who call sour what is sweet,
all right, our Father will be looking at them from heaven.
All right, thus declares the oracle to liars and deceivers.

The Odu Onara-meji oracle says:

Lying does not prevent one from becoming rich.
Covenant-breaking does not prevent one from reaching old age.
But the day of death will bring retribution.

Traditional Africans think very much about the hereafter. They know that liars will suffer at and after their death; so they as much as possible keep away from what will lead to such suffering.

Even when human beings are deceived, God sees the liars and knows the truth and will punish them accordingly. Traditional Africans fear the wrath of God which leads to miseries and misfortune. They prefer divine pleasure to divine wrath, and divine blessings to divine punishment. When the Africans say "God will judge," a liar's mind or conscience pricks and a machinery is set in motion within him which makes him confess that he told a lie. He may be asked to swear, and since he knows that swearing falsely will bring about serious repercussions, he will immediately retract from swearing.

The gods do not support lying or falsehood. The divinities of the traditional religion of Africa enjoin their worshippers to tell the truth at all times and promise their support for the truthful. The decree is expressed in the oracle Ejiogbe:

Be truthful, be just!
Oh, be truthful. Be just!
It is the truthful that the divinities support.
Be truthful, be just!

Though lying may be a common evil, traditional Africans commit liars to the divinities for punishment. The divine wrath which is unbearable is a great factor in preventing crime.


Among traditional Africans it is shameful to steal. It is considered a crime to steal anything in the community. A thief is a disgrace to his relations. Traditional Africans perform rituals to detect a thief and recover the stolen property. They commit the their or the robber to the gods for punishment, and in some cases the thieves are revealed publicly by the gods or made to confess publicly or return the stolen property to a place where it can he seen by the people. This is in consequence of the divine power or wrath which makes the thief suffer physically or internally. He may he subjected to prolonged torture, illness, paralysis, partial blindness, to the point that diviners are consulted for the cause of his misfortune, and when it is attributed to stealing, the stolen goods have to he returned and a propitiatory sacrifice offered.

Stealing tarnishes the reputation and integrity of the family of the thief, and traditional Africans strive very much to protect the good name and image of the family. Even an irreputable family will not want their offspring to be accused of stealing, because criminal acts bring disgrace to the parents, and when people are being considered for positions and titles of honour ill the society a one-time thief and his parents will not be considered for such roles of honour. Reference will always be made to the previous crimes committed by such people. Traditional Africans will never appoint a one-time robber or liar or adulterer as their leader or ruler. The loss of fame in the community and divine punishment and not force serve as a serious and adequate punishment in traditional society.

Stealing is not only immoral or a societal crime; it is also a religious offence punishable by God. The Odu Ogbe-Ale oracle warns against stealing:

If the earthly king does not see you,
the heavenly king is looking at you.
Thus declares the oracle to the one who steals under the cover of darkness,
who says that the earthly king does not see him.
God sees the thief and will surely punish him.
seeing here does not mean mere looking, but seeing for punishment.

Irreverence and unkindness to parents

According to traditional religion, parents, after giving their children good training. Nursing them to maturity and settling them down properly in life, expect the children to show true devotion to and care for them, whether the parents are rich or poor, literate or illiterate. Such devotion to the service of tile parents is obligatory and, if given, is one of the best forms of prayer and the surest way to success, peace and satisfaction for the children.

It is believed that whatever a child might become and whatever height he might attain, his parents are responsible and if he fails to honour his parents he is bound to fall from the height and his life will be devoid of peace and satisfaction. Parents should be regarded as gods, acknowledged and "worshipped" It is the will of God that parents should he venerated and revered, and any society where children despise and neglect their parents will not have the blessings of God. God's majesty is violated which parents are dishonoured. It is a capital crime for a child to strike or beat his parents; it is prohibited to curse one's father or mother. Insolence to parents may be condoned, but it is a criminal act. Punishment for irreverence and unkindness to parents includes both the wrath of the parents and the wrath of God, which will certainly cause disaster in the life of the child. In serious cases such a disaster has to be removed from the life of the child through offerings and sacrifices. The Odu Irete Eguntan oracle says:

Respect your mother and your father
that you may live long on earth.
Ifa says, offer sacrifice to your mother and your father,
the sacrifice of care, righteousness and humility,
that you may regenerate yourself
Ifa says, offer sacrifice to your mother and father, the sacrifice of care arid obedience, that their curses may not rest on you.
the curses of your father and mother are the curses of the Almighty.
Ifa says, offer sacrifices to your father and mother,
the sacrifice of love aid of justice,
that you may have rest,
that you may have comfort.

In the same Odu, Orunmila says:

Parents will not labour in vain over me.
I was born because mother's luck was good;
I was born because father's luck was good.
They gave birth to me; my arms were not burnt.
I was not born blind.
I was not born a leper.
I too want to give birth to my own children,
so that I may have descendants.
I want to have houses.
I want to have property.
I want to have money.
Parents will not labour in vain over me.
I came into the world because of their good luck.
I want to do good in my life
Parents will not labour in vain over me.

The above verses teach children true knowledge of service to their parents. Of course, this is not limited to biological parents, but is extended to all elderly members of the family. Any act of neglect of duty towards parents or elderly members of the family is regarded as an act of neglect of duty to God and is punishable by him with misfortune. For fear of misfortune, therefore, children avoid committing this crime and take seriously the duties towards parents and elderly members of the extended family.

To have a good and well disciplined society, traditional religion imposes on parents to ensure that their children are trained to respect elders and not be disobedient to them. If they do so, it will be well with them, as the Odu Iwori Meji oracle says:

If a child respects his father, everything he embarks upon will always be well.
He will be a perfect gentleman.

The Odu Obara Meji oracle condemns disrespect, pride and arrogance in youths:

If a child indulges in stubborn acts,
if he sees an aged priest and slaps him,
if he comes across an aged physician and beats him mercilessly,
if he goes on and meets and ages priest and knocks him down,
thus declares the oracle to the disobedient child.
"Who says nobody could control him?"
Orunmila says: "Don't you know that
there is no long life for any child who beats an elderly priest,
no long life for any child who slaps an aged physician.
Any child who flogs an aged priest is seeking his own death.
Respect for elders means long life."

These verses teach that premature death can he a punishment for disrespect to elders, and since traditional Africans want to live long they want to respect elders. Candidly, traditional Africans see respect for elders a duty, the doing of which pleases not only men but also God. Hence they prostrate before elders, open their caps, remove their sandals while greeting them, and help elders carry loads and run errands fl}r them. The unfortunate acceptance of foreign cultures have to a large extent affected African children in respect for elders and we appear to be moving into a confused and dual culture. It is un-African of a child to say "Hello" to his parents or to shake hands with elderly people.

Speaking evil of elders

Traditional African government is theocratic, and the rulers are regarded as divine representatives, and so all reproachful words against them are prohibited. Conspiracy or disrespect against rulers is regarded as a serious offence and is seriously dealt with. There can, of course, be a move against a ruler who is regarded as a tyrant and whose reign proves to be disastrous for the people Traditional rulers are sacrosanct, and anyone who disobeys them or is rude to them is either fined, admonished or expelled from the ruler's domain, and finally the offender is committed to divine punishment. On absolute loyalty and implicit obedience to rulers the Odu Oturupon Meji oracle says:

The crown judges the head that wears the crown.
The lips of the philosopher challenge the philosopher.
The overwise refused to respect the king.
Thus declares the oracle to the disobedient:
Sacrifice they were asked to offer
in order that the sword of the king might not suck their blood
They refused; they offered not the sacrifice.
Orunmila exclaimed, "It is forbidden."
I exclaimed, "It is forbidden."
O exclaimed, "It is a taboo.
I exclaimed, "It is a taboo."
Orunmila said that the earthly king
is the representative of the heavenly King.
Orunmila exclaimed, "Left with me.."
I exclaimed, 'left with me,
the sword sucks the blood
of those who defy the king."
To the king belongs authority.
To the king belongs the sword.
Then, take it easy, I say, take it easy,
lest one's self-centred wisdom
push one against the king's sword.
Then take it easy, I say, take it easy.
I have sacrificed, I have propitiated.
I have kept the law of the king.
The king could not but view me with favour,
The king could not but view me with favour.

The position of the rulers and authorities is similar throughout Africa. They are both political figures and religious functionaries. They derive their authority from the Supreme Being, and so any disobedience or conspiracy against them is seen as a crime against society and against God. In the past execution was the punishment for recalcitrance against the rulers. Anyone who seduced the wives of the rulers would be executed. The kings were fathers, judges, counsellors and priests.


It is obvious that before the introduction of other religions there were criminals and criminal acts. In dealing with them, force was abundantly made use of. Even so, there is no evidence that crimes were totally eliminated. The use of force was effective to some extent, but other more effective means were used. These include poisoning to cause life-long suffering like insanity, impotency, incurable diseases such as elephantiasis, swollen scrotum4 blindness and lameness, all of which can render one useless in a community and serve as a deterrent to others. The use of these instilled fear in criminals.

Traditional society in its original form was solid, because k was built on a strong moral base provided by the traditional religion. This religion inculcated good behaviour in people which could make a nation truly great. Divine wrath and punishment were made real. The law of retribution was emphasised. Today insincerity, dishonesty, hypocrisy, bribery and corruption, treason, felony and all sorts of evil thrive in Africa because religious people do not take the precepts of their religions very seriously. They are more concerned with industry, city life, material things and education. Without true religious perception it will be difficult to eradicate crime in any Society.

* Taken from Orita XXVI/1-2 (1994), 54-66.