When man agreed to coexist with his fellow man and leave solitude, he also agreed to forsake some of his basic nature for the good and harmony of the society. The advantage of communities and society in general is that members agree to be subject to rules and guidelines by joining. Natural savage instincts are checked by the rules, laws and morals of society.
One of such instincts checked by society is violence. From the beginning of man’s history (some people believe as far back as Cain and Abel) man has been prone to violence. There is the basic instinct in every human to settle quarrels and differences physically. This instinct, though not extinguished, has been tempered with the creation of society.
However, there are those that still succumb to animal instincts when offended or to settle differences with their fellow man. With the evolution of man, came the need for and creation of laws to check the savage beast deep within every man. In Nigeria, some of such laws are the Criminal Code (applicable in the Southern States of Nigeria) and the Penal Code (applicable in all states formerly known as the Northern Region of the country). These laws were created to check crime and violence in the country. Under these laws, it is a crime to cause or attempt to cause bodily harm or death on another person.
Under the various laws, three major criminal acts of violence are: Assault, Murder and Manslaughter.
Section 252 of the Criminal Code defines assault:
“A person who strikes, touches, or moves, or otherwise applies force of any kind to the person of another, either directly or indirectly, without his consent, or with his consent, if the consent is obtained by fraud, or who by any bodily act or gesture attempts or threatens to apply force of any kind to the person of another without his consent, in such circumstances that the person making the attempt or threat has actually or apparently, a present ability to effect his purpose, is said to assault that other person, and the act is called an assault.”
By the above definition, any unwanted physical contact or threat of unwanted physical contact to a person is an assault. Such physical contact or threat is deemed unlawful and constitutes an offence under the law unless it is authorized, justified or excused by law.
Some examples of such acts that are considered lawful are:
- Execution of Sentence: When the act is done by a person who is charged by law to execute or give effect to a sentence of a court of law.
- Execution of Process: When the act is done by a person who is authorized by law to execute a process of a court of law and is required to arrest or detain another person under the court process. This also extends to anyone assisting the person to arrest or detain according to the terms of the process.
- Arrest of Wrong Person: When a person, duly authorized by law to arrest another person, mistakenly arrests another person, believing in good faith and on reasonable grounds that the person arrested is the person named in the warrant.
- Police Officer Preventing Escape from Arrest: When an officer of the law is lawfully attempting to arrest another person for a felony, with or without a warrant, and the offender attempts to run to escape arrest, it is lawful for the officer and for anyone lawfully assisting him, to use such force as may be reasonably necessary to prevent the escape of the offender. If the offence, the offender is being arrested for is punishable by death or imprisonment for seven years or more, the arresting officer may kill him if the offender cannot by any other means be arrested.
- Suppression of Riot: It is lawful for any person to use necessary force to suppress a riot in reasonable proportion to the danger that may be caused by its continuance.
- Defence of Home or Dwelling: It is lawful for any person, and any person lawfully assisting him, to use such force as he believes necessary to prevent the forceful breaking and entering of his home or dwelling-house by a person he reasonably believes to have intent to commit a felony or misdemeanor.
- Provocation: When a person commits an act of assault due to a wrongful act or insult of such a nature as to deprive one the power of self-control if done to an ordinary person or in the presence of an ordinary person to a person under his immediate care or close relation, the person may be said to have been provoked. However, it must be noted that a lawful act is not provocation to any person to commit an assault.
- Self-Defence: When a person is unlawfully assaulted, and has not provoked the assault, it is lawful for him to use such force as is reasonably necessary to defend himself against the assault.
- Correction of Child, Servant, etc.: Under the Criminal Code, a blow or other force, but not enough to cause a wound or grievous harm, is justified for the purpose of correction by a parent or guardian to his/her child/ward under the age of sixteen years; a master to his servant/apprentice under sixteen years, etc.
Despite the lawful exceptions for assault, two things must be noted:
- Any person authorized by law to use force is criminally responsible for any excess of force used, depending on the act which led to the excess. For example, a police officer authorized to arrest a pickpocket cannot kill the offender for trying to escape. Killing him would be excessive force and the police officer would be criminally responsible for the excessive use of force.
- Even if a person consents to someone killing him, for whatever reason, the person who does the killing is still criminally responsible for the death caused. For example, if John, a terminally-ill person, begs Sam to put him out of his pain and misery and kill him, Sam will still be liable for murder if he does the act because he did not have any authority by law to kill John, even though it was with John’s consent.
Under every criminal law, it is unlawful to kill any person unless such killing is authorized, justified or excused by law. Section 315 of the Criminal Code provides that any person who unlawfully kills another is guilty of an offence which is called murder or manslaughter, according to the circumstances of the case.
Section 316 provides that a person is guilty of murder if he/she unlawfully kills another person under any of the following circumstances:
- If the offender intends to cause the death of the person killed or that of some other person – If Sam does an act with the intention to kill John or someone else and John dies because of Sam’s act, Sam is guilty of murder.
- If the offender intends to do to the person killed or to some other person some grievous harm – If Sam does something with the intention of causing John, or some other person, serious injury (like intentionally hitting him with a car), and John dies because of Sam’s act, Sam is guilty of murder. It wouldn’t matter if Sam did not mean to hurt John in particular but someone else.
- If death is caused by means of an act done in the prosecution of an unlawful purpose, which act is of such a nature as to be likely to endanger human life – If Sam robs a bank with a firearm and John is shot and killed in the middle of the robbery, Sam is guilty of murder. It would not matter if Sam did not intend to hurt anybody while robbing the bank.
- If the offender intends to do grievous harm to such person for the purpose of facilitating the commission of an offence which is such that the offender may be arrested without warrant, or for the purpose of facilitating the flight of an offender who has committed or attempted to commit any such offence
- If death is caused by administering any stupefying or over-powering things for either of the purposes last aforesaid – If Sam drugs John for any unlawful purpose and John dies from effects of the drug, Sam is guilty of murder.
- If death is caused by willfully stopping the breath of any person for either of such purposes – If Sam suffocates John for any unlawful reason, even if the intent was just to make John unconscious, and John dies from the suffocation, Sam is guilty of murder.
In the last three cases, it would not matter that the offender did not intend to cause death or did not know that death would likely result from the action.
Under the Criminal Code, any person who commits the offense of murder shall be sentenced to death by a court of law. Exceptions are juveniles (a person under the age of seventeen) and pregnant women. They are usually detained under the pleasure of the Governor of the state.
A person who unlawfully kills another person in such circumstances as not to be considered murder, is guilty of manslaughter. Basically, any unlawful killing not in the circumstances provided above for murder, is considered manslaughter.
The Criminal Code also provides that circumstances of murder caused by serious and sudden provocation would be considered manslaughter instead. Where a person unlawfully kills another person in any of the circumstances provided for murder under the law, but causes the death in the heat of passion caused by grave and sudden provocation, and before there is time for his passion to cool, the law may find him guilty of manslaughter only.
For example, if Sam is confronted and taunted by his wife that she had been having sexual relations with his friend John, and Sam, in anger, strikes her, with or without the intention to do her grievous harm or death, causing her to die, the law would consider the act to be provoked and in the heat of passion and find Sam guilty of manslaughter only.
However, if Sam had waited for what the court would deem a reasonable enough time for his passion to have cooled after the provocation, and still hit his wife causing her death, he would be found guilty of murder instead.
Unlike a case of murder, any person who commits the offence of manslaughter is liable to imprisonment for life and not the death penalty.
Disputes and differences should be settled amicably and without the use of any form of violence. The various criminal laws are meant to act as deterrent’s to citizens against committing violent acts against each other, punishing those that break the laws and promote peace and harmony between human beings.
It is unfortunate that, despite the laws, there are still those that resort to jungle justice and primitive actions against their fellow human being at the slightest provocation.