Fon of Bum - guest of  honour to The Sultan of Bamum
The native court which sprung to existence in 1926 was entirely the initiative of the British. Throughout the German administration, no court ot any sort was set up to administer justice. This means that, though the Germans would naturally have deplored such crimes as murder and violent fighting, the Bum resorted to and depended on "their own long established indigenous methods of general administration" (Bridges 1933: 41) for most of the time. This was to be remarked wherever the Germans had influence. As Nkwi and Warnier say (1982: 214), everywhere
"Native crime and conflict resolution procedures were left undisturbed to handle minor cases except poison-ordeals, enslavement and other forms of brutal punishment."
Though the German administrator had no permanent residence in Bum, he carried out regular monthly patrols during which he heard certain serious complaints and gave summary judgement. But the difference between the Germans and the British should be seen as one of style, since the latter equally did not reside in Bum permanently, yet established a native court. Whatever the case, until the advent of the native court in 1926, the Kwefon remained the most respected and authoritative institution, charged with maintaining the social order, assuring justice, and satisfying the general aspirations of the people. The Kgheng plant instead of the policeman or the court messenger was the symbol of law, justice and authority. It was used by the Fon, Njito and Beiteka (political elite) to indicate that they spoke and acted in the name of the Kwefon - the voice of the people. An ordinary man could also use it to distinguish between something (raffia wine for example) intended for the Fon's consumption (custodian of the Kwefon and other institutions of peace and social harmony) and another for common consumption.
To execute these duties, the Kwefon had well elaborated strategies. In the case of disease for instance the Kwefon made sure that the people kept themselves, their compounds and footpaths clean. Anyone who failed to partake in communal labour was sanctioned to pay a fine In addition it forbade contact between the Bum and people of a neighbouring or distant tribe where rumours claimed a strange and dangerous disease to exist. As for the traditional illnesses, the Kwefon tolerated the genuine herbalists who were easy to identify since "medicine is seen, not heard". A good medicine-man does not need to talk of himself; rather, there are a number of successful cases that he has in his credit that speak for him. In matters of Agriculture and population, the Kwefon encouraged foreigners to settle in Bum and gave them farmlands. It was very hard on those Bum who tried to stop foreigners from settling. This policy is followed up to date, for Bum remains territorially a very vast ethnic group with a lot of unoccupied yet fertile land. Slavery was equally encouraged, and slaves worked hard with their masters on farms, and accompanied them on trading expeditions. Everyone was expected to invite a witchdoctor to set up in their farms a medicine called ifam; a medicine intended to prevent destruction by sorcerers and villains who often transformed themselves into severe storms and harmful animals.
Moreover, the Kwefon depended on the political elite who in turn depended on their local Subordinates. Concerning sorcery and villainy for instance, it relied solely on the witchdoctor or wise man, who furnished it with necessary information concerning these agents of destruction. The Kwefon expects the witchdoctor or wise man to be its "eye and ear"in the world of the clairvoyant (Nyamnjoh 1985). For external security on the other hand, the Kwefon relied on its Sugwe or Asugwe. As Bridges says (1933: 31), they were a band of about 30 strongly built young men, selected from all over the tribe and sent variously to spy and overhear for the interest of Bum in neighbouring and far off tribes. They kept it informed on all developments and possible war intentions amongst these tribes. In this way the Kwefon was always in time to surprise its enemy before the latter could attack first.
According to Lucy Mair (1962: 18) few or no nonliterate people have laws since laws that are not expressly enacted can be easily forgotten, or if remembered become matters of dispute and controversy. Our precolonial nonliterate Bum happened to be one of Mair!s exceptional cases, for the Kwefon not only made laws, but constantly kept the people reminded of these laws by applying them. The Bum did not need to know each and every law off by heart, but they however knew in a general manner what behaviour was likely or not to be sanctioned as illegal. It is however erroneous to believe that no law is possible where no formal European courts or judges exist. For law as Radcliffe-Brown defines it in the preface to African Political System (1940), is nothing more than "the application of direct or indirect penal sanctions ... the settlement of disputes and the provision of just satisfaction for juries." And talking about penal sanctions in African societies, he says that the decision to apply them "may rest with the people in general, with the elders, as in a gerontocracy, with a limited number of judges or leaders, or with a single chief or king"( 1940: xvii). This section examines not only who applied penal sanctions in Bum, but also how and when these were applied.
In Bum, crime and conflict resolution was possible at all levels on the hierarchical ladder of authority. All depended on the nature or character or the issue that needed resolution. Thus, most naturally, solutions to disputes and cases of trouble amongst members of a tamily (nuclear or extended) were first attempted by the Familyhead. His authority to settle such matters emanated primarily from his position at the head of the family and in certain cases from his age advantage over the other family members. It is only in the case where his decision failed to satisfy the disputing parties that the matter was allowed to proceed to the village council.
All simple cases were heard in the village councils. These councils were presided by the Fon's regional representatives: Lords (Njito) or Village heads (Beiteka). A village council consisted of five members at most, who were the family heads (Bebena) of the senior families of the village. The council members were known as notables (Cheghsu). These councils were empowered to deal with "purely local matters and act as a sort of jury in all cases brought for settlement to the village headman" (Pollock 1927: 39). Witnesses were never chosen indiscriminately; certain laws governed their choice and acceptability of the evidence they furnished. As Bridges says:
"Near relatives of either party were not allowed to give testimony. In the cases of appeal, should one, or both, parties not belong to Nkwefon, they must bring any of their friends, who were Nkwefon members, as witnesses to the trial to give testimony for them, but not more than 5 witnesses were allowed" (1933: 117) [SfC]
Equally present in the courtyard was what the Bum call Sechi. This comprised a variety of leaves and little branches, believed to be very potent. it was put in a raffia bag called Balisechi, and placed on the ground in front of the jury. The use of the Sechi then is comparable to that of the Bible in today's courts. Before testifying in front of the council, the parties and their witnesses were supposed to pick up Sechi, use it to touch their forehead and chest, saying: "Let Sechi kill me if I tell a lie". Then they place it down again, and gave their statements. The power of the Sechi was undoubtedly asserted. It was alleged that the consequences would be grave on any one who falsely promised to lying to the jury. As Bridges says, such a man would "fall ill very soon afterwards, and only when he had admitted his mistake, and paid a fine, and then received medicine from the man who made Sechi (wutasechi). could he reasonably hope to recover his health (1933: 113)." We must say that with the presence of the Sechi, and conscious of the widespread belief in its potence and danger, a man had to be extraordinarily daring to tell a deliberate lie to the council.
However, it was not impossible to have one party dissatisfied with the judgement given. When this happened the party in question had the right to appeal to the higher authority of the Kwefon. But his appeal had to be forwarded to the Kwefon council through his Lord or Village head. This council was composed of the Fon, the Lords and some Village heads, all of whom were generally known as Cheghsukwefonsu. The caretaker of the Kwefon lodge, Baabe, was also a member of this council.
Sometimes the dispute or conflict involved two villages or parties from two villages. According to Bridges, whenever this was the case, the 'invariable custom [was] to try and settle the matter by a large meeting attended by every member of the villages concerned (1933: 118)." At this meeting the Village heads of both villages tried to mediate between their people. But in the case where their people failed to he satisfied, the matter was taken to the Kwefon council for further examination. It was equally possible for a dispute to arise between two members of the latter council. When that happened, the Fon, along with the other members of the council, tried to settle the matter. Should all the other members of the council disagree with the Fon over an issue, debate and discussion were expected to continue until a consensus was reached. For a decision to be well effectuated it was very important that it be both unanimously taken and how to implement it generally accepted. For the Kwefon council comprised Lords and Village heads who considered it a sacred duty to defend the interests of their people by following the footprints of their predecessors; footprints validated or legitimized by their forefathers who interceded with God (Fyen) for the welfare and prosperity of their various peoples. The Fon knew the adverse implications of deciding single handedly. Things were such that made him constantly aware that he risked not only the dissatisfaction of the people but also and more importantly, the wrath and reprimand of God through the ancestors and late Fons of Bum. His was the fear of not being accepted into the high society of the ancestors at his death.
Not every crime case had first to be heard at the level of the Village council. There were some cases which the Bum believed sufficiently serious to be dealt with directly by the Kwefon council. Such crimes involved murder, assault, theft and robbery, witchcraft (sorcery and villainy), treachery and adultery with the Fon's wife. Let us therefore briefly examine how each and all of these crimes were dealt with.
3.2.1 Murder
The Bum hate to see human blood; and believe that whoever spills it is impure and must consequently be cleansed at all cost. When it has to do with blood or murder the whole community is alert and ready to help in every way possible. This is the way the Bum allege they have always been vis-a-vis murder or fatal violence. When a murder was reported in a village or region the entire neighbourhood pooled its efforts to find the murderer. A task that was almost always easy. Once the village agreed on the person it believed to be the murderer, the matter was reported to the Kwefon council. Messengers (chindahsu) went to fetch the criminal for trial. Should the council be convinced about the culprit's guilt, the latter was sentenced to death. But if it found no cause to condemn him, the culprit was released and the search for the true murderer ordered continued.
3.2.2 Assault
The Kwefon had a typical way of dealing with assault. Immediately the culprit was brought to the palace, he was taken into the Kwefon lodge where he was placed in the custody of the Baabe. Here the culprit was given a preliminary fogging, after which he was asked to pay a fine. The degree of the assault determined the fine.
3.2.3 Theft and Debt
When anyone was stolen from, the first thing he did was to consult a diviner (wutasgwu or wutasnduok) in order to find out the thief. As soon as the latter was known, he was asked to refund the stolen property. If he refused to admit his guilt, he was reported to the Kwefon. So was the case with a debtor who would not settle his account with his creditor. At the kwefon lodge and under the custody of the Baabe, their hands and legs were firmly tied with sticks until they accepted to refund the stolen properly or settle the debt. But the kwefon never treated anyone thus, until it was pretty sure that the individual was guilty. As a matter of principle it never intervened to seize someone's property for another in an effort to resolve a problem of theft of debt. It believed in the individual's right of freely agreeing to settle his differences with another.
3.2.4 Witchcraft - Sorcery and Villainy
The belief in sorcery and villainy was and is still very strong amongst the Bum. Almost every social misfortune - individual or collective - can be attributed to sorcery or villainy. The Bum clearly distinguish between sorcery and villainy as two forms of witchcraft. Their term for sorcery is awungabe (bad awung) while that for villainy is Msambe (bad Msa). But what these both have in common is the ability to use their clairvoyance or supernatural power to harm others. Thus amongst the Bum, a person dies suddenly, falls unaccountably ill or suffers some major misfortune or set back, his relatives always try to find out whether sorcery or villainy is responsible. Once contacted the diviner uses his divination kit to say who the culprit is. But the pointed culprit might deny his guilt. At this point he is taken to the palace to be judged by the kwefon. When he would still not admit his culpability, the accused was sent for the poison ordeal ceremony. This normally took place at Mungong where the sasswood tree (tungha) was found. The man who administered it is called wutgwo. Should the accused not die after drinking the mixture, it meant that he was innocent and had been wrongly accused, he was immediately released, fed and given to drink by the kwefon, all to compensate for the ignominy he had been subjected to. On the other hand death signified guilt on the part of the accused. It is however noteworthy here, that the kwefon only sent the accused for the poison ordeal in the case of persistent denial of responsibility by the latter. As for those who admitted their guilt. they were either chained with sticks and flogged, then forgiven and asked to cooperate with the authorities to track down other antisocial clairvoyants by acting as the "ear and eye" of the kwefon in the world of the double-sighted, or they were simply expelled from Bum if their danger to the community had reached an incurable height.
3.2.5 Treachery
Whereas the kwefon rewarded the Sugwe who effectively acted as its "ear and eye" in foreign lands with titles and positions of responsibility, it was very severe on anyone who betrayed its war plans or intention to an enemy polity. The culprit who could be known through various ways including divination, was banished from the kingdom. Banishment was a punishment as severe as death, for no one banished could ever return to Bum. On the other hand the Bum generally gave their war captives the same civic rights and responsibilities as they had themselves.
3.2.6 Adultery
Adultery with the wife of an ordinary man was punished by a fine of five fowls. The comparative lightness of the punishment was proof that adultery at this level was normally not considered a very serious offence. On the other hand, adultery with a Fon's wife was considered a major crime that deserved no punishment short of death. Both the man and the woman had to die, for it was believed that the Fon could never share a woman with another man. In fact, there was the belief that the Fon could and should share nothing with anybody. His drinking cup was never used by another person; people had to receive wine from him kneeling, and in scooped hands. In addition, sharing a chair with the Fon was unlawful.
At the Kwefon council two jujus played major roles. These jujus are the Nangkang and the Mabu. The former, along with the Fon's Chindahsu ran errands for the Kwefon. It was sent to bring culprits to the palace for trial and sanctions. The Mabu on its part carried out all the executions prescribed by the Kwefon. These killings were often done an hour of two before dawn (Tehnaseh), at a supposedly bottomless pit under a hugh rock by the kigwola on the road linking Fonfuka to Lakabum palace. The Mahu led the culprit to the mouth of the pit into which it suddenly pushed him.

This page was created by Ian Fowler