Nigeria's Forensic Science Revolution Must Begin Now
Authors: Enemona Greg Ademu (Mr.)
"Science gave us Forensics. Law gave us Crime" .- Mokokoma Mokhonoana
In my previous article, titled "The Science of DNA and the Future of Mankind", I wrote briefly on the recent establishment of a DNA Forensic Centre in Lagos state, Nigeria (the first of its kind in the country), stating that it was a step in the right direction. It was officially commissioned by the Lagos state government on 29 September 2017 to boost security and justice delivery through technology. However, I also reiterated that despite this accomplishment, there was still much to be done.
This piece hereby addresses the widespread and urgent need for the use of "Forensic Science" in revamping Nigeria's criminal justice system or put simply, "Why Nigeria's Forensic Science Revolution Must Begin Now".
So what is Forensic Science? The word "forensic" comes from the Latin word- forēnsis, meaning "of or before the forum". This is because at the height of the great Roman Empire, criminal trials relied on both the person accused of a crime and the accuser to give speeches "before a forum". The individual with the best argument would determine the outcome of the case.
Due to my penchant for history, I would like to further take you through memory lane. The early Greek scholars studied various kinds of poisons and their effects on different organs of the body. However, the true dawn of forensic science would begin in the 16th century when a French army surgeon called Ambroise Paré, systematically studied the effects of violent deaths on the internal organs of a human. Two Italian surgeons would also go further and study the effects of diseases on human anatomy. In the process, they unknowingly laid the foundation for the field we now know today as "Pathology".
In addition, writings on these studies and more were routinely published and began to permeate through a society reinvigorated by the "Enlightenment Era". As such, crime investigations became more evidence based, logical and rational. A prime example of this new turnaround in criminal justice occurred in 1784 when a man was tried and convicted of murder because a piece found in his pocket was an exact match for the pistol wad (for inserting powder into a gun) used in the crime.
The 20th century would forever change the world of criminal justice with the discovery of DNA Profiling (also known as DNA fingerprinting) by Sir Alec Jefferys (a Professor at the University of Leicester, UK). In a true "Eureka" moment, Jefferys was working on the evolution of globin genes when he realized that specific differences (variations) could be used to distinguish one individual from the other. This would in turn lead to solving a double murder mystery in a small town called Narborough in 1985. As such, DNA databases were then developed to match DNA samples from crime scene to DNA in the database.
Today, Forensic Science involves applying science to answer legal questions, most commonly, a crime but not always, as in paternity cases or identification of disaster victims (for example, a plane crash). In academic terms, forensic science can be defined as the application of standard scientific techniques and assays to criminal investigations. These techniques and assays include: Forensic DNA Analysis, Forensic Ballistics, Ballistic Fingerprinting, Impression Evidence Analysis, Forensic Toxicology and Trace Evidence Analysis.
Forensic DNA Analysis takes advantage of the fact that the DNA is a blueprint molecule. As such, every individual has a unique DNA through which precise identification of a suspect from a crime scene can be done or in some cases, paternity or maternity disputes can be resolved. Forensic Ballistics deals with all methods involved in analyzing and profiling the use of firearms and ammunitions used in a crime while Ballistic Fingerprinting analyzes the unique "marks" that firearms leave on bullets when fired in order to match a bullet to the gun.
Furthermore, Impression Evidence Analysis integrates two distinct sub-analysis, that is, the study of fingerprints known as "Forensic Dactyloscopy" and the study of foot, footprint and footwear as well as its traces known as "Forensic Podiatry". In addition, Forensic Toxicology is the study of drugs and poisons and their effects on the human body while Trace Evidence Analysis is simply the analysis of glass, paint, fibers or even hair found in a crime scene.
Forensic science, hence, plays an important role in the criminal justice system of countries all over the world by providing investigators with scientifically-based information through the analysis of physical evidence. However, that is not the case in Nigeria where innocent persons can be accused and tried wrongly because criminal investigations are carried out from its beginning to conclusion without the application of forensic science.
One cannot, however, put the blame solely on the police investigators alone due to a number of reasons. For a start, there is a shameful "blank" (not literally) in the laws of the nation where the Evidence Act, Penal Code and the Criminal Code Act make no "detailed" provision for the use of forensic analysis in solving crimes. Thus, investigators resort to crude methods, for example, torture to identify criminals responsible for fraud, murder, robbery, kidnapping, rape or any kind of assault. Like a domino effect, this lack of forensic science has also led to an increase in alleged atrocities by law enforcement officers as evidenced by the recent social media campaign to put an end to the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police Force due to allegations of torture, extrajudicial killings and extortion.
Another issue is this; of all the licensed tertiary educational institutions in the country, none (to my knowledge) runs a forensic science degree at undergraduate level while only a handful have recently taken off with courses such as Forensic Anthropology, Forensic Dentistry and Forensic Biotechnology at postgraduate level. With this lack of skilled manpower, some cases requiring an urgent need for forensic analysis have always been referred to experts abroad but that, I hope may change now with the Lagos DNA forensic center in full swing.
Meanwhile, at the commissioning of the forensic centre, the Lagos state Police Commissioner, Mr. Imohimi Edgar spoke to reporters and journalists about reopening a number of "high profile" case files that have been rendered "unresolved" over the years due to a lack of proper forensic application. I sincerely hope that there are no innocent persons rotting in jail as a result of these so-called "cold cases".
Thus, we must address the issues stated above urgently and put forensic science at the forefront of all things "criminal justice" in Nigeria. After all, a good criminal justice system must protect the public from criminals or protect the innocent from unjust punishment. In addition, the establishment (by law) of a DNA Database for the entire country and her citizens and the subsequent replication of this DNA forensic centre across the remaining thirty-five (35) states of the nation must be a priority. This would enable trainees at our Police Academies undergo an intensive theoretical and practical training on forensic science. Through this, our "Intelligence Community" can function effectively and efficiently since security and justice delivery are key components of good and sustainable governance. Therefore, a "Forensic Science Revolution" is a must!
Enemona Greg Ademu is a Scientist, Academic and Sportscaster. He writes from Abuja, Nigeria.
About Author / Additional Info:
Scientist, Academic and Sportscaster. Holds a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from Godfrey Okoye University, Nigeria and currently pursuing an M.Sc. in Biotechnology at the Nigerian Defense Academy.