by Ian McCall


In these days when we see and hear talk of televising the dispensation of justice, it begs the question why this should be so. Presumably it is because the due process of law should be seen to be carried out in the interests of people in general so that they can have confidence in it. Our systems in Europe, and in those countries whose legal systems are derived from Europe, the law has become so specialised and remote from everyday life that it is good that attempts should be made to demonstrate that it is an integral part of the social system.

Magistrates’ courts in Nigeria were embedded in the community. They were built at places convenient to the bulk of the population and were usually of single storey construction with overhanging corrugated iron roof to afford protection from the sun and open sides, a three foot wall going round three sides of the building. When cases were in progress, the public could go inside for the full hearing or, as the vast majority of interested spectators did, spend some time leaning on the wall outside and listen to the proceedings before passing on to other activities. Justice was being seen to be done in the formal court just as it had been seen to be done even in recent times, when a district officer carried out his lesser magisterial duties on tour at a table out of doors.

One of my responsibilities was for the prosecution of contraventions of the Produce Inspection Ordinance and the regulations made under it. I had assistants who prosecuted the less serious cases like failing to keep required records, failure to protect produce in transit from the elements and minor attempts to adulterate graded produce. A crisis occurred in 1951 when substantial quantities of cocoa were found not to correspond to description when it arrived at the purchasers’ premises and were deemed to be ‘not of merchantable quality’ when examined by an expert arbiter. Adverse outturn reports were treated with the utmost seriousness. I was expected to take cases involving any significant loss to the Boards and this included major attempts to adulterate. I was amazed how some miscreants had developed a dexterity in cutting open the selvedges of bags sewn with unbroken twine and sealed, removing part of the contents for resale, making up the weight with cocoa trash and sewing a knot inside the bag to make external identification difficult; it also reflected a very considerable manual dexterity. It was usually possible to detect some of these on the checktest at port but such was the process of sampling the bag with a sampler designed for the purpose that it depended where the sample was drawn from. Any consignments on the borderline of the marked grade would have a bag or two examined for tampering, usually by finding the internal knot on what was supposed to be continuous twine sealed at the end with an inspector’s own steel seal press and number. If a consignment was suspect, all the bags in that particular consignment would be turned out and tested and half the cost debited to the Licensed Buying Agent by law as ‘moieties’ to encourage their commitment to the purchase of good quality cocoa.

I preferred to pursue these cases of ‘ghost’ shipments where lorry loads were tallied in to the Boards stores, recorded as having been accepted and credited to the account of the Licensed Buying Agent concerned (who would normally be completely innocent of involvement) but never reflected in the physical stock. The shipments so tallied in would in fact be resold, inspected again and sold to the Board eventually finding its way on to the terminal markets. It was an intellectual form of theft and the most reprehensible. As the Board Stores, certainly at Apapa, were the biggest single span buildings in the country each containing up to 10,000 tons of produce awaiting shipment by sea, the problems in obtaining corroborative evidence could be difficult and expensive.

As a gazetted produce expert I could also be called upon to give evidence in civil cases. We had wide ranging powers including those of entry and seizure ‘at any times which were reasonable’. A colleague who entered premises by force and seized cocoa one night, for it was during the hours of darkness that such actions were mostly perpetrated, found himself charged with breaking and entering and convicted. On appeal he was cleared, but only after asking for a lawyer other than Crown Counsel which agency of defence was widely considered the kiss of death. Another colleague found that the defence in a case was being conducted by H O Davies who defended Jomo Kenyatta in the Mau Mau trials and liked to recount that the eminent counsel referred to him as ‘my learned friend’. I was impressed by the way the magistrates quickly got the bones of the case and gave judgement accordingly, very often in the presence at the wall outside the court of interested parties like representatives of different Buying Agents or a Buying Agent himself whom I might recognise and whose presence I would acknowledge with a nod and who would reciprocate with their eyes.

For all this court work we received not an iota of training and my two years of Mercantile Law were of little help. There wasn’t even the practice of ‘sitting with Nellie’ - watching others do it and discussing with them points arising from their actions. In court I made mistakes in procedure and had to be called to order by the magistrate. If you made mistakes you were expected not to repeat them and become a model of competence just like many a district officer had had to do in the early days in the discharge of his duties as a magistrate. That was why you had been recruited. As a result I felt I had to mug up on things like the law of evidence and I remember buying a copy of Kenny’s Outlines of Criminal Law and dipping into it from time to time to give me the kind of background that might be needed at some time.

There was one Crown officer who appeared regularly in cases in Lagos and must have been one of the few Europeans at that time to appear on a regular basis in the Magistrate’s Court. He always deferred appropriately to the bench and encouraged his witnesses to do likewise. ‘Bow to His Worship, bow to His Worship’ he would urge many an anxious witness sotto voce. He himself would crave the magistrate’s indulgence to enquire whether he objected to snuff. On receiving the Court’s permission he would shake some snuff on the back of his hand and sniff it into each nostril. Having received his ‘fix’ he would proceed to do his utmost for the Crown. If the ruling of the court was to the liking of the bystanders, they would demonstrate their approval until required by the court to be silent.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003