Definition of Confession
A confession is a person’s admission of wrongdoing or guilt, whether to a Priest as the Catholics do, or to law enforcement in the case of the commission of an offence. It could also just be a revelation of one’s innermost feelings or thoughts to others, for example, one confessing feelings of love to another. It is trite that, in criminal law, confessional statement, if valid, is one of the strongest ways of proving that a crime has been committed. See the case of Musa v State (2013) LPELR-19932 (SC).
While I don’t know if Nigerians are big on confessing to the Priest in Church, I know that admission of guilt and taking responsibility for acts or omissions, do not seem to be a noticeable part of the Nigerian DNA; and of course, the first example that comes to mind in terms of refusal to admit guilt, is the Nigerian Government. For instance, for this APC administration, every single thing that has gone wrong in Nigeria is the fault of their predecessor, PDP, not theirs. Admittedly, many of Nigeria’s problems predated this administration, like Insecurity, ASUU Strikes and Fuel Subsidy, but this administration having handled these situations rather dissatisfactorily, the circumstances in these three examples are now much worse; yet, this administration has neglected to confess its role in these failures. They cannot be absolved of liability, the same way a Priest gives absolution to the sinner after confession, sometimes prescribing some prayers (penance) with an admonition that the sinner goes and sins no more, because of their mismanagement of the problems.
This administration has instead, behaved like Pontius Pilate who washed his hands and absolved himself of any liability, in respect of the sentence of death passed on Jesus Christ – declaring himself innocent of the blood of Jesus Christ, and shifting the responsibility to the people (Matthew 27:24). But, the truth of the matter is that, Pontius Pilate was guilty too, because even though he didn’t join the crowd to shout “crucify him, crucify him”, he allowed Jesus Christ, an innocent man, to be crucified as a result of the verdict of the court of public opinion, instead of on the basis of due process and letting the rule of law prevail. In the case of Nigeria, the APC Administration has washed its hands and shifted the blame to PDP, and anyone or anything else that can be used as a scapegoat, for example, declining oil prices, Covid-19 pandemic, rising oil prices, Amnesty International, CNN, hate speech, demarketing the country, to mention but a few. As a matter of fact, this administration is also adept at recantation and denial when they are put in remembrance of their words, famous campaign promises, or confronted with the unfortunate state of affairs in Nigeria.
In Onyenye v State 2012 15 N.W.L.R. Part 1324 Page 586 at 610 per Peter-Odili JSC, the Supreme Court held thus: “The definition of a confession as provided for in Section 27 (1) and (2) of the Evidence Act (now Section 28 of the Evidence Act 2011) are as follows: A confession is an admission made at any time by a person charged with a crime, stating or suggesting the inference that he committed that crime”. Also see Alo v State 2015 9 N.W.L.R. Part 1464 Page 238 at 284 per I.T. Muhammad JSC (as he then was).
In criminal matters, eyewitness testimony (direct evidence) and circumstantial evidence, are other ways of proving crimes in addition to confession. Proof of at least one of these, will suffice to secure a conviction – per Clara Ogunbiyi JSC in Abirifon v State 2013 13 N.W.L.R. Part 1372 Page 619. I submit that, the eyewitness testimony, that is, direct evidence of the difficulties Nigerians are facing coupled with circumstantial evidence, are more than enough to prove the guilt of this administration in the aforementioned examples of Nigeria’s insecurity problem, ASUU crisis and our economic woes, without a confession from Government. Two ways of proving crimes have been satisfied, when only one is required – Abirifon v State (Supra).
Elements of a Valid Confession
A confession can be formal/judicial, that is, made in the trial court before a Judge by entering a plea of guilty. But, confessions are also commonly made at a pre-trial stage, that is, for instance, during Police investigation or arrest. Maybe because in Nigeria, a burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt is placed on the Prosecution in criminal cases, Police are known for employing means like violence and torture to force accused persons into making confessions of guilt in order to win their cases, so much so that the Anti-Torture Act 2017 was enacted as a deterrent against this kind of Police brutality.
A confession must be voluntary, free from the influence of any extraneous disturbing cause, not influenced or extorted by violence, threats or promise. See Section 29 of the Evidence Act 2011 (EA) and Agboola v State 2013 11 N.W.L.R. Part 1366 Page 619 at 646 per Ariwoola JSC (now Acting CJN); Isah v State 2010 16 N.W.L.R. Part 1218 Page 132 at 157-158. Also see State v Salawu 2011 18 N.W.L.R. Part 1279 Page 580 at 604 per Ngwuta JSC.
In criminal proceedings, a confession “is of greater force”, as “it comes out from the horse’s mouth”. See the case of Akpa v State (2008) LPELR-368 (SC) per Ogbuagu JSC, where the Supreme Court held that once a confession is free, voluntary, direct and positive, duly made and satisfactorily proved, it is sufficient to warrant a conviction without any corroborative evidence, as long as the court is satisfied that the confession is true. Also see R v Sykes 8 C.A.R. Page 223; James Obi Achabua v The State 1976 12 S.C. Page 63 at 68-69.
Retracted Confessional Statements and Trial-Within-Trial
While it is not on every occasion that the Police obtain confessions using force, it has now become the norm for accused persons to get to court and insist that their confessions made while in Police custody were obtained under duress, with claims of torture and threats on the part of the Police to force them to make confessional statements; accused persons are now aware that, a court will not accept such confessions which are invalidated by duress. Some say accused persons acquire this knowledge from more experienced inmates, or even their Lawyers! This results in a ‘trial-within-trial’, a process before the actual trial commences, in which the court tries to discover whether such confessional statement was voluntary or otherwise, before proceeding with the trial. Obviously if a confessional statement is obtained under duress, it will be inadmissible.
As a Law School Student doing court attachment at Ikeja High Court, I remember meeting an accused person during his trial-within-trial. He and his co-accused persons were charged with armed robbery, and he claimed that his confessional statement was obtained under duress. This claim was rejected by the court, his confessional statement admitted, and he was eventually convicted and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. The young man maintained contact with me, and somewhere along the way, he became a committed Catholic, and confessed to me in a letter that he had indeed, committed the crime, and his confessional statement had been voluntary and genuine.
However, possibly as a way of checkmating recanters/retractors, Section 15(4) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 (ACJA) provides inter alia that the statement of a suspect may be recorded electronically on a retrievable video compact disc or such other audio visual means. However, while the provision makes taking the suspect’s statement in writing mandatory, it makes that of video recording optional. Section 15(5) of ACJA then goes on to provide that the oral confession of an accused person, is also admissible in evidence. Making visual recording of confessional statements and interviews of accused persons mandatory, will possibly make trial-within-trial unnecessary or at least drastically reduce the need for it, and will go a long way to save the court’s time and speed up the wheels of justice in criminal matters..
A court can still admit into evidence and convict an accused person on a retracted confessional statement, if the court is satisfied about the voluntariness of the statement, and that there are circumstances which make the contents of the retracted statement credible. There ought to be some corroborative evidence aside from the confession, to further prove the veracity of the retracted confessional statement. See the case of Ejinima v The State 1991 6 N.W.L.R. Part 200 Page 627. Also see Gira v State 1996 4 N.W.L.R. Part 443 Page 375 at 388 per Adio JSC.
In the case of this APC administration, if their campaign promises were a confessional statement which they have attempted to retract so many times or they have resiled from, there’s enough corroborative evidence to show that those promises were made voluntarily in so many audio/visual recordings for the world to see, aside from direct and circumstantial evidence. If they were before a court of law, it would be easy for a court to convict them for their failures.
For instance, the issue of the fuel subsidy. President Ruto of Kenya removed the fuel subsidy the day after he assumed office. In our own case, as the opposition, APC promised to revamp the Nigerian economy. But, despite the fact that the fuel subsidy is a scam which has almost killed the Nigerian economy, government has not removed it, claiming that it is for the benefit of Nigerians, when we know that the benefit is for the few of those who import the product, and not the people. The sufferings of the Nigerian people, is enough direct and circumstantial evidence to prove the guilt of government, at least in the areas which I highlighted, and convict them, that is, security, education and the economy – see Abirifon v State (Supra).