Before the white man came to ruffle the cultural feathers and stirred our still clean water of criminal justice system, the Nnewi people had settled ways of punishing or treating criminal elements in the town.
As big as the town was, the leaders of the town maintained no jail or prisons.
The leaders of the town were more interested in studying the root causes of a crime than punishing the criminal.
For us, something must have ignited the fire of crime in a citizen.
In Nnewi Jurisprudence, Stealing was classified into the following groups:
1. Ohi Aguu (i.e the stealing caused by hunger)
2. Ohi Akantutu or Kleptomaniac
3. Ohi Ngbakui or stealing caused by influence of juju in which case the thief is regarded as a victim of spiritual manipulation.
4. Ohi Anya Odo or stealing done willfully.
In a bid to curtail the first type of stealing, all levels of authority in Nnewi ensured that no young man was allowed to loaf around.
Anybody was also free to harvest from any farm at the end of harvest season, any missed out or unharvested yam, cocoyam and cassava without fear of harassment from the farm owners.
This is still practised in Nnewi till date. It is called “ije mkpa ji”.
Most children of my age did a lot of “ije mkpa ji” or hunting for unharvested yam, a month after the first rain before the next farming season.
A sprouting yam tendril in a harvested farm was indicative of a missed out yam tuber.
A lucky hunter might dig out a big tuber or a small yam stump so small to warrant the harvester’s effort during the harvest.
It was no crime for kids to pluck any fruits to quench hunger.
I could remember that I was guilty of this kind of offence and had long confessed same to the late Monsignor Joe Nwaibegbunam at St. Peter Clavers Catholic Church, Otolo, Nnewi.
Also, stealing of cassava or cocoyam from anybody’s farm just for consumption was treated as a minor offence which attracted only a reprimand by the head of the extended family or Umunna, if the victim decided to escalate the matter.
The thief would be advised to learn how to be industrious and would be assisted with farm inputs and land to become useful.
However, stealing of yam, which was regarded as the chief of all farm produce, was highly prohibited.
Any willful stealing of yam from a farm before harvest season or from a yam barn either out of hunger or for sale attracted the punishment of being driven around the market square and taunted as “onye ohi ji” or “yam thief” and a fine.
The sheer stupidity and the style of stealing could make it so obvious that the thief was either a Kleptomaniac (Ohi Akantutu) or under the influence of juju (Ohi Ngbakui).
Thieves in these two categories were considered sick and were referred to dibias or native doctors for cure or deliverance.
The fourth category known as Ohi Anya Odo or willful professional stealing was further classified as:
1. Isiakpu: this class is thieves whose occupation was known to everyone. They combined stealing with kidnapping and hired assassination. Even their robbery victims were so afraid to report them.
This group were sometimes patronized by the leaders or elders of the town to execute a king or a leader of enemy towns or a renegade warrior.
2. Ekpelima: this class operated with stealth and with the aid of juju that would make their victims fall asleep during their operations.
This type usually lived in isolated huts in places known as “ikpa or ozalla” which were distant from their relations’ clustered settlements.
3. Abanidiegwu: this group were well trained hefty looking men that operated only in the night.
This class of thieves could empty the pen or yam barn of a household before dawn and while the victims were as sleep.
There was a man in Nnewi history who had imbued in him, the combination of the four traits of wilful criminality.
He was named Ukpabia. He hailed from Uruagu village.
Ukpabia forced Nnewi to accept his own rules that if anybody caught him stealing his yam, he would “tolerate” the owner taking back his yam but wouldn’t stomach the seizure his “ukpa” or carriage basket.