ORÒ: A Festival of Fundamental  Human Rights Violation  in Nigeria 

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By: Olakunle Bamisile

The Orò festival is a festival of patriarchal nature — that is: it is usually observed by male inhabitants of the specific place where the festival is taking place — celebrated by many towns and settlements of Yoruba origin, to worship the deity, Orò. During the festival, females and non-participants in the deified festival are mandated to stay indoors citing history and custom as an authority. The time for celebrating the Orò festival differs from place to place. While some celebrate the festival in July, others do in May, August, September or whenever; and, in some cases, the festival goes on for days , weeks or even months. This festival is not only practiced in the villages or rural areas, as it is well recognized and practiced in Nigeria’s most urban city, Lagos. During the festival, Orò announces its appearance with a whizzing sound said to be done by his wife, Majowu, while his followers respond with chanting in loud voices. While this whizzing sound and loud chants are of little or no interest to non-participants, the tradition of human sacrifice and stopping women and non-participants from being outdoors, raises questions of law as one then ponders the place of Orò in the Nigerian law vis-a-vis the place of fundamental human rights. This piece therefore seeks to elucidate on the nexus — or lack of one thereof — between the Orò festival and fundamental rights.

According to reports, at least 66 people were killed in Sagamu in mid-July 1999 as a clash between Yorubas and Hausas was reported to have been elicited by Yorubas killing a Hausa woman who was outside of her home at night during the Oro festival. It is pertinent to note that this stay-at-home order to women is made because of the belief that women who see Oro do not survive as they are visited with painful death. This unfortunate incident however sparked a range of reactions including that of infringement on right to life, right to freedom from discrimination and right to freedom of movement all encapsulated in Chapter 4 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.

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One Dr. Frederick Fasehun, then leader of the Yoruba Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), was quoted to have stated thus: “In Sagamu, you know that the traditional Oro festival was going on when a woman, a guest among the Yoruba, violated the tenets of the Oro festival. When the Oro festival is on, no woman of any nationality should behold the Oro. Be such woman an Italian, English, American, South African or Yoruba, no woman should behold Oro with her naked eyes. The penalty for such violation is death, no matter who the woman is. That was what happened in Sagamu”. The purport of this is that it was against the Yoruba custom for any woman — regardless of their origin — to behold Orò and the penalty for any violator of the said custom is death.

Section 33 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (hereinafter referred to as CFRN), 1999, provides thus: “Every person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria”. This then poses the questions of (i) whether the killing of women who behold the Orò deity is in execution of the sentence of a court or (ii) whether the Orò worshippers can assume the role of a court or (iii) whether beholding the Orò deity is a criminal offense in Nigeria? Attempting to argue these issues formulated will just be a sheer waste of time and space as it is incontrovertible that the killing of women who behold the Orò deity is not in execution of the sentence of a court neither can the Orò worshippers assume the role of a court nor is it a criminal offense in Nigeria to behold the Orò deity. The exceptions to the right to life can only be found in written laws and Section 33 (2) of the CFRN 1999 provides self defense; effecting a lawful arrest or preventing an escape from a lawful detention; or purpose of suppression of a riot, insurrection or mutiny as the only exceptions to this fundamental right to life. The killing of women in the guise of enforcement of custom can therefore best be described as unlawful killing as prohibited under section 306 and other relevant sections of the Criminal Code.

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Furthermore, it is imperative to note the provision of Section 41 of the CFRN 1999 which states, in subsection (1), that: “Every citizen of Nigeria is entitled to move freely throughout Nigeria and to reside in any part thereof, and no citizen of Nigeria shall be expelled from Nigeria or refused entry thereby or exit therefrom”. Unfortunately, the entitlement of women to move freely as guaranteed by the constitution is taken away by the observers of this Orò festival who compel women to stay at home. This right to freedom of movement has received judicial fortification by the courts in a plethora of decided cases including Director of SSS v. Agbakoba, Adegbenro v. AGF, AGF v. Chief GOK Ajayi, Shugaba v. Minister of Internal Affairs and AG & Commissioner of Justice of Kebbi State v. Jokolo & ors. In AG & Commissioner of Justice of Kebbi State v. Jokolo & ors, the court held that: “Freedom of movement of every Nigerian consists of freedom within Nigeria and freedom of exit from Nigeria”, and it must be noted that Freedom within Nigeria includes places in Nigeria of Yoruba origin. Freedom of movement is not absolute but by virtue of Section 41 (2) (a) of the CFRN 1999, restrictions may be imposed on persons who have committed or is reasonably suspected to have committed a criminal offence in order to prevent him from leaving Nigeria. It is therefore pertinent to note that the imposition of restrictions on women and non-participants in the Orò tradition is not for any of the purpose mentioned in the constitution, and the imposition of curfew by private persons or traditional institutions does not enjoy backing by any law of the federation.

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If at all there is an iota of legality in the enforcement of the Orò traditional belief, it is tantamount to an infringement of the right to freedom from discrimination as women are being restricted from moving merely because they are women and this is in contravention of Section 42 of the CFRN 1999.

Perhaps the custom of the stay-at-home order to women is truly in their interest as the said Orò deity which is not expected to be a man may spiritually visit the violators of the order with “natural” death, restricting the movement of women is unconstitutional and killing violators of the unconstitutional stay-at-home order is monstrous, despicable and absolutely unlawful. While nothing stops the worshippers of the Orò deity from exercising their right to freedom of association as guaranteed by the Constitution, the exercise of their rights should not extend to the infringement of the rights of others. Section 40 of the CFRN provides that: “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons…”; however, the saying that “a person’s freedom ends where another man’s freedom begins” is apposite.

In addendum, the infringement on freedom of movement and other fundamental rights in the guise of custom of the practice of the Orò tradition is unacceptable and arguments of enforcement of customary law is unfounded, baseless and obliviously averred as such custom will fall for failing to pass the validity tests for customary law, particularly the incompatibility test as established in a plethora of decided cases including Mojekwu v. Mojekwu, Ukeje v. Ukeje and Agbai v. Okagbue.

On a cogent final note, you may chose to ignore that broadcast that orders you to stay at home because of an Orò festival on the authority of the constitution, decided cases and written laws. However, the spiritual consequences that may ensue is beyond the law and this writer.

Olakunle “Cardinal” Bamisile is a student of the prestigious faculty of law of Lagos State University and may be reached via bamolakunle003@gmail.com and 07087263473

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