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Forensic Science: A unique interdisciplinary tool helping to combat crimes in Africa, a review



Forensic Science has helped solve several crimes in Africa. Embracing such a new development took quite some time. This study reviewed briefly, some of the improvements that forensic science has brought to the criminal justice systems in Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. The review identified several challenges across the three countries that can be resolved by employing advanced analytical practices, enacting laws and policies, adequate regulatory systems, quality management systems and provision of funds. The study also revealed that forensic science could be a vital tool for sustainable development.
FSSGH Newsletter | Vol. 2 | Issue 1| 2019 |1-7
Forensic Science: A unique interdisciplinary tool helping to combat
crimes in Africa, a review
Albert Koomson1,2
, Emmanuel Kelvin Gaisie3, Douglas Tetteh Ayitey1, Nathan Amuquaye Antiaye4
1 Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana.
2 Department of Laboratory Technology, University of Cape Coast, Cape Coast.
3 Department of Medical Laboratory, Ghana Police Hospital, Accra, Ghana, Cantonments, Accra, Ghana.
4 Testing Division, Ghana Standards Authority, P. O. Box 245, Shiashie, Ghana.
Forensic Science has helped solve several crimes in Africa. Embracing such a new development took quite
some time. This study reviewed briefly, some of the improvements that forensic science has brought to the
criminal justice systems in Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. The review identified several challenges across
the three countries that can be resolved by employing advanced analytical practices, enacting laws and
policies, adequate regulatory systems, quality management systems and provision of funds. The study also
revealed that forensic science could be a vital tool for sustainable development.
Keywords: Africa, Forensic Science, Sustainable development, Policies, Regulation.
Forensic science is still an evolving interdisciplinary profession that applies science to the matters of law
(1). It encompasses a myriad of disciplines ranging from the social, medical and natural sciences. The
discovery of this invaluable field has been a vehicle driving the necessary investigative methods,
adjudication, solution and curtailing of crimes worldwide (2).
This profession is aptly diversified. It is an embodiment of various disciplines hence called an
interdisciplinary profession. Each specialty may be a complement to the other. This is actually done for
corroboration and confirmatory purposes (3). An example is how a forensic pathologist is able to identify
that the cause of death of a person is by poisoning. This is further confirmed by a forensic toxicologist or
biochemist through quantitative or qualitative analysis on body fluids and organs using internationally
accepted standards. This creates harmony in the criminal investigation process (4).
Despite forensic science improvements in developed countries, Africa, on the other hand, took quite some
time to embrace this emerging science (5). It happened in the late 20th century in Africa. The field crept
arduously into the African Criminal and Legal Justice Systems and is still in developmental stages. This
discipline over some few decades has helped law enforcement agencies across the African continent to
solve complicated crimes. However, evolving and emerging sophisticated crimes will require parallel
sophisticated techniques and crime investigative approaches (6) .
Corresponding author:
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Koomson et al. FSSGH Newsletter 2(1) (2019) 1-8
The anticipation of fully embracing forensic science in Africa may be contrary to the necessary enabling
environment, facilities, expertise and funds allocated for forensic science. This is evident in the yearly
financial budget for Science in most African Countries (7).
This review seeks to highlight a few of the improvements that forensic science has brought into the criminal
and legal justice systems in some African countries, such as Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa as well as its
relevance for sustainable development. It will discuss some of their challenges and suggest some necessary
recommendations and potential solutions for improvement.
Forensic science developments in some selected African countries
The first Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Ghana was established in 1948 under the Criminal
Investigation Department (CID) of the Ghana Police Service (GPS) to serve as the main provider of forensic
services in the country. Since then, it has undergone some positive transformations. The FSL has received
a major uplift in Chemistry and Drug Analysis, Ballistic and Firearms, Document Examination,
Photography, and DNA analysis (8).
The Ghanaian FSL provides scientific analysis to private and public institutions in Ghana by way of
strengthening criminal investigations (9). This has helped in exonerating and incarcerating innocent and
perpetrators of crimes, respectively (10). It is also interesting to note that advocacy in forensic education is
gradually improving. Some government and public tertiary institutions have gained the necessary
legalities and accreditations by the National Accreditation Board (NAB), to train and educate students in
varying forensic science disciplines. Some institutions have also been funded to periodically provide
capacity building and training to law enforcement agencies to help combat crimes (11).
Regardless of some initial contributions to the criminal justice system, challenges still persist. Inadequate
forensic science legislation, governance framework, accreditation and regulation, quality assurance and
forensic science research and development are some of the challenges facing forensic science advancements
in Ghana. Resolving the policy issues identified by Amankwaa et al. (12) will guarantee a vigorous
application of forensic science in delivering safe justice and enhancement of public security in Ghana.
It is interesting to note that forensic science, since its introduction in the Nigerian criminal justice system,
has helped in investigating some criminal activities such as cybercrime, armed robbery, fraud, corruption
and kidnapping (13). CNN, on September 18, 2019, reported the arrest of three suspects by the Nigeria
Police Force linked with “serial killingsof women in Port Harcourt, Nigeria (14). The Police were able to
link the several class and trace evidence on victims at various crime scenes.
In May 2019, the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) and Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) joint operations in Nigeria recorded some successes against Nigerian fraudsters in wanton cases of
cybercrimes in Nigeria and across its borders using digital forensics. Suspects in both Nigeria and America
have been arrested and are assisting in the investigation. Significant amounts of money have been
recovered from these operations. This was reported in a joint press conference by Nigeria’s anti-graft body
with the FBI (15). Forensic science would help improve measures to solve crimes when it is given the
necessary attention. This is because traditional detective methods alone may be less effective in to emerging
crimes and providing safety for Nigeria (16).
Koomson et al. FSSGH Newsletter 2(1) (2019) 1-8
Although cases of kidnapping and terrorism are prevalent in Nigeria, the Police have been able to rescue
17 kidnapped victims in Rivers State alone and 13 more kidnapped victims in Imo State using forensics
(17). This evidence shows a progressive approach to tackling crimes to some extent. The Establishment of
a National Police Forensic Unit lab and Lagos State DNA and Forensic Centre in Abuja and Lagos States,
respectively, have been instrumental (18).
South Africa
In retrospect, each discipline of forensic science in South Africa has its distinct history, owing to the
dominance posed by segregated authorities and Eurocentric African traditions. It was seen in the division
and racialism in all aspects of the system. The new democratic South Africa had seen little progress in terms
of forensic science developments, until the DNA bill”, the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedure)
Amendment Bill B09-2013 was introduced into Parliament on 8th May 2013 (19). Drastic changes were
witnessed in forensic science as well as other spheres of society. There was, therefore, a necessity for high
regulation of such professions by the Statuary Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCA). The
influx of illegal migrants and other foreigners in the country increased the crime rate and so there was a
need for a steep reduction in crimes (20). These regulations gradually metamorphosed into robust
legislation and policies backed by the constitution to counter crimes (21).
In the case of the State vs Van der Vyver, 2007, the accused was tried for the murder of his girlfriend in 2007,
Judge Deon Van Zyl acquitted him, criticizing the police investigation. Much of the criminal trial focused
on a fingerprint said to be found on a DVD cover in Lotz’s flat which police linked to Van der Vyver. Lotz
rented the DVD around 3 pm on the day she was killed. After hearing from expert witnesses from both
sides, forensic evidence from the defence showed that the fingerprint was lifted from a drinking glass and
not from a DVD, this testimony exonerated Van der Vyver (22).
During 2013, about 314,613 cases were processed under the DNA unit in South Africa’s FSL, thus helping
the criminal justice system. This was realized when the forensic Short Tandem Repeat (STR) typing was
implemented (19).
Relevance of forensic science for sustainable development
The United Nations and its member states on 25th September 2015 adopted the 2030 agenda for sustainable
developments with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This Agenda is intended as “a plan of action
for the people that seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom”. It is worthy to note that, United
Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) extensive works on drugs, crime, health, peace, justice and
strong institutions are invaluably linked to multiple targets of the SDGs: 3, 5, 8, 10, 11, 16 and 17. This
could help heighten forensic science practices, legislations and policies in most countries, thus making it a
tool for sustainable development and peace (23).
Additionally, UNODC is to provide normative, analytical and operational assistance to its member states
for strengthening the effectiveness, fairness and accountability of their criminal justice institutions to tackle
crimes, corruption and terrorism. This is evident in some International Collaborative Exercises and
development of forensic hubs organized by this noble body to help its member states standardize forensic
practices and policies in order to understand the intricate nature of diverse crimes and also help curtail
them (24). The accomplishment of the afore listed SDGs would revolve around good forensic science
practices. All specialists who carry out activities specific to crime investigations and are participants in the
Koomson et al. FSSGH Newsletter 2(1) (2019) 1-8
criminal proceedings also promote the goals proposed by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
in their respective countries (25) .
Challenges of forensic science in Africa
Albeit the aforementioned improvements, most African countries are still faced with challenging problems
with forensic science legislation and integration into the criminal justice system (26). The Ghana Police
Service still has some crimes of public interest unsolved. There is a lot of difficulty in evidence collection
and synchronization of evidence to the appropriate quarters of the law. One of Ghana’s greatest unsolved
murders was the serial killing of women that plagued Ghana from 1993 to 2000. It took the intervention of
America’s FBI to help solve the crime in 2001. The nine murders that he was convicted were probably those
with the strongest witness corroboration. The then Director of FBI, Louis Freeh echoed that they had
encountered a lack of competent investigation in Ghana (27).
The trial of the prime suspect in the death of the Member of Parliament (MP) for Abuakwa North, the late
JB Danquah Adu has been delayed due to the questionable sanity and incoherence in testimony presented
by the suspected murderer, Daniel Asiedu, as well as inability of the Ghana Police Service to examine the
forensic evidence collected. Other unsolved murders include the death of Ahmed Suale, the investigative
journalist of Tiger PI fame, Mrs Josephine Tandoh Asante, Marketing and Public Affairs Manager at the
Tema Ports of Ghana Ports and Harbour Authority (28). The death of 5 police officers between the month
of July and August 2019 is an indication of identifiable lapses present in the Ghana Police Service (29). The
inadequate training of personnel in combating crimes using modern scientific tools of international
standards is having a detrimental effect on both the police and citizens of the country.
Despite the numerous successes achieved by the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), it is needful that they continue
to develop and diversify their modes of operations in policing to help combat crimes (30). Most of these
crimes have been attributed to the socio-economic problems such as high level of unemployment, poverty,
rural-urban migration and wide income disparities. The NPF recorded a total of 1,072,026 cases between
1996 and 2000. Among these, 462,528 representing 49.1% of the cases were prosecuted leaving 540,899
which constituted about 50.9 % under-investigated, undetected or unsolved (31). Incidences of crime and
criminal behaviours from 1980 to 2006 has increased tremendously (32). Some of these forensic anomalies
were attributed to the inadequate or lack of forensic technology and expertise in Nigeria (33).
To suffice, Olckers (34) evaluated these four cases in South Africa namely: State vs. Mlanga, 2013 (SvM),
State vs. Rapagadie, 2010 (SvR), State vs. Ackerman, 2002 (SvA) and State vs. Parker, 2000 (SvP). This study
concluded that there were challenges with the use of unvalidated methods of DNA evidence submitted to
the court; SvP, TT P121, (where TT, P and L means Testimony Transcript, Page and Line respectively).
Contradictory statements were also delivered under cross-examination even though the prosecution and
expert witness were very emphatic on the use of Standard Operating Procedures in the SvA case. The
scientific enquiries at a point in time during the above cases were sacrificed for the sake of convenience.
These shortfalls really need to be addressed using the appropriate systems.
This article has shown the contribution of forensic science to the success of some criminal investigations in
Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa, including high-profile cases. However, with some persistent challenges,
this review suggests the need for investment in resources to improve forensic science practice and research.
Further, an enabling environment by way of enacting laws and policies, adequate regulatory systems, total
Koomson et al. FSSGH Newsletter 2(1) (2019) 1-8
quality management systems and provision of funds will help increase the potential of forensic science to
assisting in criminal investigations. Best practice can also be learnt from other developed countries for
improvement in forensic science techniques. The need to utilize forensic science to assist the criminal justice
system with timely and efficient crime investigation must be highly advocated in political agenda, budgets,
legislation and governance systems in Africa. The restructuring and strengthening of policing systems,
discovery of forensic evidence, reliance on ethical testimony and admissibility of valid DNA evidence in
our criminal justice system can champion sustainable development and peace in Africa.
The authors would like to acknowledge Ms Grace Pinkrah Cobbold for proofreading the manuscript and
discussing with us her opinions.
Emmanuel Kelvin Gaisie, Douglas Tetteh Ayitey and Nathan Amuquaye Antiaye helped with technical
advice, literature review and manuscript editing. Albert Koomson conceived the topic and drafted the
Conflicts of interest
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
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... Laboratory technology is an embodiment of various disciplines, hence it is referred to as an interdisciplinary profession. However, embracing this relatively new developmental area has taken some time in Africa, and much later than in the western world (Full et al., 2015;Koomson et al., 2019) . ...
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An effective guided inquiry forensic case study (a pharmacy break-in) is described for first-year students. Four robust introductory forensic chemistry and biology experiments are used to analyze potential drug samples and determine the identity of a possible suspect. Students perform presumptive tests for blood on a "point of entry stain" sample; perform chemical presumptive tests on the "suspected drug" alongside known standards of codeine, morphine, and amphetamine; and carry out thin-layer chromatography analysis of the drug samples. They examine the specificity of the Kastle-Meyer and tetramethylbenzidine tests, prepare polymerase chain reaction samples from the suspects" DNA samples, and perform gel electrophoresis to analyze the results. Students are required to analyze and integrate the results and to apply their acquired knowledge within the context of an engaging forensic case study. This first-year laboratory is part of a forensic case study vertically integrated into the curriculum. © 2015 The American Chemical Society and Division of Chemical Education, Inc.