The crime and vice of stealing is as aged and ancient as the advent of society itself. From time immemorial, wherever people have congregated to live together and partake communally in nature`s beneficence, stealing has always sprung up in varying degrees and for variegated motives. Some have been driven by crunching lack to steal and others by sheer greed. Others yet, by ferocious avarice.
As society has evolved and sought to improve and expand the necessity of community, it has also found ways to excise those traits which make human co-existence difficult and vulnerable to the lure of other less palatable options.
This quest for peaceful co-existence brought about by a mutual respect for the rights of persons and over property informed in no mean measure the very beginnings of law as an instrument of social engineering.
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Thus, because the society needed to exist as a society, the society adopted laws to guarantee and protect its existence and viability as such.
Nigeria`s situation has been no different. Nigeria has always been a country of laws even if opinions are divergent on whether these laws are allowed to rule in Nigeria.
These laws implemented in varying degrees and sometimes in breach have to a large extent held the Nigerian society together.
After all, it does no little good that the existence of laws regulating various aspects of Nigerian life and conduct makes for the absence of the uncertainty, chaos and abuse which would result and reign if people were allowed to speculate on what the law is and dangerously act on those speculation.
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The crime of stealing in Nigeria
Stealing is one of the most marked signs of a breakdown in human relations in Nigeria, for at the core of stealing lies both a moral and legal infraction which is a juddering attack on the rights people have, which the law invariably extends to their property.
In other words, it is the right which Nigerian law, chief of which is the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,1999(As Amended), recognizes and guarantees in the Nigerian people that the same law extends and recognizes in their property such that once there is incontestable proof of ownership over property, any unauthorized taking of such property with the intention to steal to steal it would invoke dire consequences under the law. The law does this to protect the sanity of any society in which it operates.
In Nigeria, the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria(As amended) prescribes irreducibly that for a person to be convicted of a criminal offence. The offence and penalty must be prescribed and proscribed in a written law.Section 36(12) CFRN 1999.
Thus, it is only constitutional that before any person is taken to court, tried and convicted for any offence, that offence must be contained in a written law, which written law could be an Act of the National Assembly or a Law of a State or a subsidiary legislation or instrument under the provisions of a law.
For stealing, the Criminal Code Act of the Federal Republic of Nigeria condensed into criminal law legislations in different states of southern Nigeria and the Penal Code which prescribes and proscribes crimes in northern Nigeria pays obeisance to the provisions of Section 36(12).Both legislations define stealing and prescribe the punishment for it.
Section 383 of the Criminal Code Act defines stealing thus:
383(1) A person who fraudulently takes anything capable of being stolen,or fraudulently converts to his own use or the use of any other person anything capable of being stolen is ,is said to steal that thing
(2) A person who takes or converts anything capable of being stolen is deemed to do so fraudulently if he does so with any of the following intents:
a. an intent permanently to deprive the owner of the thing of it;
b. an intent permanently to deprive any person who has any special property in the thing of the property;
c. an intent to use the the thing as a pledge or security;
d. an intent to part with it on a condition as to its return which the person taking or converting may be unable to perform;
e. an intent to deal with it in such a manner that it cannot be returned in the condition that it was at the time of the taking or conversion;
f. in the case of money, an intent to use it at the will of the person who takes or converts it, although he may intend afterwards to repay the amount to the owner.
388(3) The taking or conversion may be fraudulent, although it is effected without secrecy
Or attempt at concealment
383(6) A person shall not be deemed to take a thing unless he moved the thing or causes it to move.
Section 389 provides that “Any person who steals anything capable of being stolen, is guilty of a felony and is liable if no other punishment is provided to imprisonement for three years.
Section 1A of the Criminal Code Act provides that “The provisions of this Act shall take effect subject to the to the provisions of the Penal Code(Northern States) Federal Provisions Act.
At this juncture, it is noteworthy that the Penal Code which prescribes and proscribes offences in the North uses a different terminology for stealing. It calls it Theft.
Section 286 of the Penal Code Act is rich with definition of, llustrations for, and punishment for the crime of theft.
Section 286 of the Penal Code Act:
a. Whoever, intending to take dishonestly any movable property out of the possession of a person without that person`s consent moves that property in order to take it is said to commit theft.
b. Whoever dishonestly abstracts, diverts, consumes or uses any electricity or electric current is said to commit theft.
a. A cuts down a tree on Z`s ground with the intention of dishonestly taking the tree out of Z`s possession without Z`s consent. Here as soon as A has severed the tree in order to take it, he has committed theft.
b. A puts a bait for dogs in his pocket and thus induces Z`s dog to follow him. Here, if A`s intention is dishonestly to take the dog out of Z`s possession without Z`s consent, A has committed theft as soon as Z`s dog has begun to follow A.
c. A finds a ring belonging to Z on a table in the house which Z occupies. Here the ring is in Z`s possession and if A dishonestly removes it A commits theft.
d. A finds a ring lying on the road not in the possession of any person. A by taking it commits no theft ,though he may commit criminal misappropriation of property.
Section 287 of the Penal Code Act provides that “Whoever commits theft shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine or with both.”
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Stealing and Theft Punished
In a country where citizens` frustration with corruption and their elected representatives make sniping about the perceived injustice in punishing acts of stealing commonplace and strident, it is imperative to note that the law acting through the instrumentality of the courts does not hesitate to punish stealing by whatever name called.
In the case of Ayeni v State  All FWLR(PART 838)917,Julius Ayeni was accused of stealing the sum of 1.2 million naira from a co-operative union in Ikole Ekiti,Ekiti State.
He was convicted by the trial High Court and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment without option of fine. He appealed without success to the Court of Appeal. On further appeal to the supreme court, his appeal was dismissed as the supreme court held that the prosecution proved:
b. Converting; and
c. Fraudulent intention in the taking and/or converting of the subject matter of the stealing/charge.
It can thus be seen that the under the Criminal Code and the Penal Code, stealing and theft could be punished with terms of imprisonment from 3 years and five years respectively. The court can also decide in its discretion to give an option of fine in place of the term of imprisonment.
The above of course are to be considered the floor of the punishment for stealing, not its ceiling, this is because any legislation which criminalizes an offence as stealing can stipulate the term of imprisonment for it.
Also, where the presence of arms and violence transforms stealing into armed robbery, the ultimate punishment of death can be imposed.
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Also, when public funds are stolen, the law under various legislation like the Economic and Financial Crimes Act, Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, Advanced Fee Fraud Act, Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act prescribes varying degrees of punishment.
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