Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.2, 116-122
Published Online May 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Igbo African Legal and Justice System: A Philosophical Analysis
Bonachrist us Umeogu
Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria
Email: ojiakor99@y
Received February 23rd, 2012; revised March 20th, 2012; ac cepted April 2nd, 2012
Law is a body of rules whether formal, written, informal or unwritten that is used to maintain relative
peace and order in any given society. Before the advent of civilization, the Igbo people had their own le-
gal system which though might look different in form from the western law but have the same purpose of
guiding man into the state of ‘oughtness’. This research paper mirrors the legal and justice system of the
Igbo people.
Keywords: Law; Justice; Igbo; Order
No law has been misconceived like that of the Igbo African
law despite the fact that Igbo-African law and other customary
laws are one of the most significant sources of what we know
as the Nigerian legal system. This is primarily because of the
fact that it is unwritten. Does the fact that it is unwritten make it
unworthy to be called a law? There are instances that the in-
digenous laws have been rejected by the courts because “they
were repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience”.
Examples of such laws can be found in status impling slavery
or servitude in Effiong Okon Ata Ekpan v. Henshaw & Anor;
family law in Amachree v. Goodhead; land law in Awo v. Cookey
Gam and a host of others. Before my answer, I need to under-
stand what is really meant by the word “law”.
Law is a kind of check to curb the human excesses. It clips
the wings of man’s absolute freedom so as to maintain order
and harmony in any given society. Law can be likened to the
bumps placed on a well tarred express road to act as a speed
breaker so as to check the speed level of drivers and to ensure
the safety of others. Without the speed breaker, people will
drive without caution at the detriment of other drivers and
passers-by. In our society, the law ensures that we are fair and
just in our dealings for a healthier tomorrow. At this point, let
us look at some definitions by other writers.
Abayomi (2002: p. 85) defines “law as a body of rules,
whether formally enacted or customary, which a State or com-
munity recognizes as binding on its members or subjects”. In
the same vein, Obiwulu (2007) went ahead to maintain that
whatever is known as law must “command what is good, forbid
what is evil, permit what is indifferent and punish what is con-
Barrister Obinewu, a legal practitioner during an interactive
session with the researcher gave a functional definition of law as
“Rules and regulations that orders the society; regulates
the behaviors of the people; regulates their land (that is
why they have different land laws); regulates the family
lives of its citizenry (as embodied in family laws); the
way the men take wives; relates to their partners; and laws
that govern their children”.
In the three definitions, I was able to deduce the fact that
what makes law is what it is able to achieve; how far it suc-
ceeds in realizing the set objectives, and the overall effect of its
adherence in the society. This means that whether written or
unwritten; traditional or western; civilized or uncivilized; law is
law. Having said that, my answer to the above question raised
earlier if the unwritten nature of Igbo African law makes it
unworthy to be called law; is in the negative. You may like to
refer to the cases of status implying slavery or servitude in Ef-
fiong Okon Ata Ekpan v. Henshaw & Anor; family law in Ama-
chree v. Goodhead; land law in Awo v. Cookey Gam cited in the
introduction. The Igbo people of Nigeria, since time immemorial,
have evolved for themselves some mechanisms of checks and
balances which regulate interpersonal relations and order soci-
ety for progressive transformation. These mechanisms of
checks and balances form the structure of what is regarded as
Igbo law.
The Igbo African law has been misconceived despite the fact
that Igbo African law and other customary laws are one of the
most significant sources of what we know as the Nigerian legal
system. Not minding its role in the composition of the Nigerian
legal system, the body of what constitutes Igbo African law
remains, for the most part, unwritten. However, the unwritten
status of Igbo African law has not vitiated its ability to maintain
relative peace and order; adjudicate matters and pronounce
sentences where necessary.
This paper undertakes a philosophical analysis of what con-
stitutes Igbo African law. While doing this, it seeks to identify
the salient points that make the Igbo African law stand out from
other forms of law.
Characteristics of Law
I strongly believe that at one point or another, there exists a
form of confusion as to what is really law. This made Thomas
Aquinas to list some signs that will signify what can be called
law. Aquinas in Obiwulu (2007) explained that:
Law must be an ordinance of reason.
Yes, this is not an all comers affair. For law to be called law
means that it must be an embodiment of reasons and objectives
that are meaningful, relative and achievable. Yo u don’t just wake
up and sign anything to la w. It is normally thought through. O ne
can now understand why the long and rigorous processes in-
volved before a bill is signed into law. Okafor (1992:54) ex-
plained this point when he wrote that
through the legislative processes involved, the Igbo ensure
that any pieces of legislation must have a reasonable foun-
dation and be fair, honest, and easily observable by the
law abiding.
It must be for the common good of the people for who it is
made. A law should not be made for selfish purpose of the
makers or in the interest of certain number of people.
This is exactly the opposite of what is obtainable nowadays
but totally unheard of in the Igbo-African society. Owing to the
capitalist nature of the modern world, every law is made to
favour a group or groups of capitalists somehow. The powers
that be always lobby every bill to tilt or add a clause that will be
to their advantage. Here, Aquinas is saying that any law that is
not for the good of every member of the society despite the
class; social status, financial status, is not worthy to be called
The traditional Igbo law also had this covered in the words of
Okafor (1992: p. 57) that “the Igbo legislative process which is
founded on the principle of ohacracy makes it absolutely im-
possible for any piece of legislation with sectional bias to be
enacted into law”. Ohacracy means nothing else other than the
general assembly and the power it wields over whatever that is
considered to be law. According to Okafor, the tediousness and
long processes involved in the legislative process is solely to
ensure that the law is in the interest of the common good; that
the interest of the poorest and less privileged are protected
without compromise.
It must be made by someone who has care for the commu-
nity for which the law is being made.
At this point, I would have loved to ask Aquinas who really
has care for the community . This is because th e people that we
believe to care never make it to the corridors of power; and
those who made it to the position of authority has another and
unique form of caring in mind, and that is caring for their pock-
ets alone. If that is the case, do we still accept the laws made by
them even when the care is not directed for the greater good?
Or is it okay that a form of care is involved? I still insist that the
promotion of the common good is one of the most important
criteria for assessing the efficiency and goodness of any law
and through it; people in the society are able to achieve their
private individual goals.
The Nature of Igbo African Legal and
Justice System
Igbo African law may be referred to as the indigenous native
laws and customs of the Igbo people of Africa or native laws
and customs of various nationalities or national of Africa.
Technically, for the purposes of systematization of studies, it is
referred to as customary law of the various people, for example
in Nigeria; there are customary laws which are as many as the
various ethnic groups in Nigeria. This means that we have Igbo
customary law, Hausa customary, Yoruba customary law and
what have you. Customary laws have been the body or corpus
of laws and customs that is indigenous to each ethnic group and
evolved from time imme morial. We note that the possession of
those native laws and customs is not peculiar to Igbo people.
As such, every ethnic group in Nigeria has its own legal system
and body of laws.
Within the Igbo native law and custom which is the focus of
this paper, there are shades of variations. The north of Igboland,
like Nsukka area that have a boundary with Igala kingdom,
have laws that are quite different from the Western and Eastern
Igbo. To this effect, the Igbos have a saying that “mba na asu
na olu na olu” which means that every community has its own
way of doing things.
English/Western law is the type of law that the English or
British people came with into Nigeria and other English speak-
ing colonies. They came in with their body of law that is called
common law of England that evolved over long period of time.
They also have statues which the Imperial parliament made.
They have a standing law making body called the parliament.
Among it also are the proclamations made by the crown who is
either a man-king or a woman-queen. This body of law is what
is called western law.
The functional definition of law is applicable in the Igbo na-
tive setting. They have laws that govern virtually every aspect
of their lives ranging from marital life, succession, to even their
streams. The communities that have rivers and streams and
ponds have ancient maritime laws that govern the waters. For
example, Umuchu in Aguata local areas of Anambra State have
a stream called Uchu. One of the laws that govern the stream is
that you do not wear any form of clothing to swim in the water;
one who wishes to fetch water from the stream must ensure that
his or her clothes do not touch the stream. Perhaps, the essence
of this law may have been the need to avoid contamination of
the stream with dirty clothing materials. In some other Igbo
communities, their maritime laws have strict prescriptions
about days that fishing in the water is permitted. The necessity
of this may have been informed by the need to conserve both
nature and environment.
Legislative System in Igbo Traditional Society
Worthy of note is that in the Igbo society, there is no stand-
ing legislative body as existing in the modern democracy. An
example is the type brought by the westerners. Just like we
have the State houses of assembly and the national assembly, it
was not so in the Igbo society. Despite not having a law making
body, the Igbo people have law making process which is called
“iti iwu” (to make laws). Sometimes it is spontaneous or delib-
erate but is all in a bid to control a mischief or wrong in the
society. Every member of the Igbo society is involved in the
law making venture by the virtue of their membership in one or
more of the various legislative agencies in the Igbo African
society include the following:
1) Umunna: the Umunna includes every person born into a
family as well as those born into a number of interrelated ex-
tended families who share common ancestry. While member-
ship is automatic for the listed category of persons, attendance
to meetings and important gatherings is strictly reserved for
only male adult members of the Umunna.
There, they discuss, make rules and regulations about how to
farm, allot the lands left by their ancestors, farming time, clear-
ing of bush paths and so on. After such sessions, each person
goes home and explains to his wife/wives who will in turn
passes/pass the message to their children. Through this way,
they are able to maintain uniform order in the community.
2) Age grade: The age grade is formed at the village level. It
comprises of people who are born within a stated period of time.
They are usually not in the Umunna but in the village level.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 117
They go and make laws relevant to their own circles. Whenever
they overstep their boundaries, the elders will call them back to
order. It is the age grades of the young people that were used in
the acquisition of lands and wars. Writing on age grades, Oka-
for (1992: 9) opined that
age grade serves as a social indicator which separates the
seniors from the juniors, the age grades association is a
means of allocating public duties, guarding public moral-
ity through the censorship of members behaviour, and
providing companionship and mutual insurance of mem-
3) Umuada: The ‘umuada’ are women that are married and
automatically regarded as ‘nwaada’ or ‘umuada’. This group of
women also makes laws that regulate their members since the
Umunna cannot make laws for the ‘umuada’ and vice versa.
Each of these groups does not make laws that will outlaw the
other. I think it is always done in the spirit of “biri kam biri”
that is, live and let live.
4) Umuokpu: Umuokpu is a collection of umuada from vari-
ous Umunna. The “okpu” means that they are old; they are
more elderly people. In fact, the Umunna dread them so much
so that if there is a domestic, matrimonial or land dispute and
the Umunna fails, the umuokpu steps in and always addresses
the situation.
5) Umudibia: The Dibias in the Igbo setting are medicine
men who undertake a number of roles in Igbo society. Some of
the function attributed to Igbo dibia including: divination and
provision of cures for people’s ailments. The dibias are always
seen as half human, half spirit (okala madu, okala, mmuo).
They make laws that have religious undertones after which they
take to the people for acceptance and approv al.
6) Ndi nze: They are the titled men and are highly respected
in every community. They are one of the legislative agents in
the traditional society. They also have the powers to deliberate
and agree on laws that will guide their society.
7) Deities/divinity/gods: The deities have known shrines and
known priests and priestesses who act as their mouthpieces. As
the protector of the community, it has the right to make laws
that will not hamper its protective functions.
8) Oha can also be called the general assembly. They are the
supreme group or the highest human legislative agency as far as
the Igbos is concerned. The Igbo people have always believed
that power belongs to the people. They act as a legislative agency
because what they sanction is what law becomes. Without the
oha vetoing , it becomes a mere decree and not law and there-
fore not binding on the members since it is considered illegiti-
9) Mmanwu: The mmanwu is the guild of masquerades.
Membership to the guild is open only to male members of a
community. The laws made by the masquerades are said to
reflect the wishes of the ancestors who even though are no longer
physically present, express themselves through the masquerades.
Judiciary System in the Igbo Society
There is no judicial institution in the sense of professional
judges, courts as is obtainable in the British sense. The judicial
system in Igbo society is more or less jury based or trial by peers.
Also, all the legislative agencies starting from the Umunna to
the general assembly also double as the judicial bodies. In other
words, there is no clear cut distinction between the different
arms of body. For example, the Umunna that make law can also
adjudicate on matters. That is why somebody will say “ka m
gaa ghanye oji na Umunna”. This is like taking somebody to
court. Age grades and umuokpu also perform the same func-
tion for its members.
The role of the deity is also prominent in this area. The chief
deity in the Igbo African society is the ani pronounced differ-
ently as ana, ala etc. Ana is a female deity who functions as the
custodian and giver of morality. Any breaking of the morals is
called “nso ani” or abomination. These gods are the supreme
courts of the various Igbo society. In a case of dispute with lack
of evidence, the alleged will swear to his/her innocence or take
an oath starting with the Ofo. The powerful shrines known for
this are the Ibine Okpabe of Arochukwu, Agbala of Awka,
Ogwugwu Akpu Okija to mention but a few.
In discharging justice, the Igbo judicial system looks beyond
an offender to all the social groups upon which he is attached.
Thus, when a suspected criminal stands before the traditional
Igbo seat of judgment; his family, his age grade, his kindred,
and his entire community stands with him. As a result of this, it
can be said that no one commits a civil or criminal wrong alone.
Every civil or criminal offence or wrong has a social dimension.
That is why; at the end of the Igbo legal judgment day more
than the individual offenders or person are convicted and
blamed for the offence or wrong he or she committed. Of
course, in the Igbo African courts, the offender does not come
alone. He or she comes with his or her people whether they are
invited or not. When a guilty judgment is pronounced and
atonement is required, all individual that are related to the of-
fender must rally round to make sure that the offender meets
the demands of punishment his crime attracts. Whenever an
offender fails in making proper atonement for his misbehaviors
the consequences, often deadly, does not discriminate between
the offender and his relations.
Executive Body
Like I mentioned earlier, there is a fusion of these arms in the
Igbo society. There is nothing like the executive arm of govern-
ment. Rather, what they have is a collection of elders or council
of elders. The Igbos never had any form of monarchy except in
the Onitsha, Nri area which they adopted from where they mi-
grated from.
A critical study of these arms of government will show you
that they perform the same function as those obtainable with
western law or in the English society.
Follow Up Discourse
The traditional Igbo African law differs substantially from
the English law upon which a large chunk of Nigerian law is
based. The Nigerian law, as it is practiced by the advocates and
professionals of today, deals with the rights and duties of indi-
viduals to persons, properties, and all that; but on the contrary,
Igbo African law deals with communal rights and duties and
actions. There is the tendency to regard Igbo African law as
“native law and custom”, as “customary law” or “traditional
law etc simply because, Igbo-African law is unwritten (Agra-
pha), not read in the universities and neither does its advocates
attend any form of law school. As such, the conclusion was that
Igbo African law is not professional law (What makes a profes-
sional law?).
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
I regard what I have said so far as a popular illusion. It is an
illusion, because, there is not the faintest logical reason to sub-
stantiate the conclusions. It is popular because many people
believe the conclusions to be true. Well, does the fact that many
people believe it to be true makes it acceptable? Is it then the
fault of Igbo African law that it has been misunderstood? Or is
it our fault that, despite our use and practice of the law, our
eyes have never penetrated the reality of Igbo-African law? I
think it is our fault that we have been led astray by the profes-
sionalism of the west. I strongly believe that it is our fault that
we have trusted so much on the written “constitution” of the
west. I still maintain that we are responsible for the misconcep-
tion of Igbo African law because of the confusion roused by the
western individualistic approach to studies.
However, it is not just our fault but also the fault of our an-
cestors both remote and proximate but, are we going to lose
hope? Not at all, for, in the heart of the land inside Africa, the
Igbo African law has become a reality, no more a possibility.
Perhaps, I will go straight to tell you why the reality of the
Igbo African law is a “madness” to the west, as well as a hur-
dle our professional people can never overcome. That point is:
law as it is practiced by the advocates and professionals of to-
day deals with the rights and duties of individuals to persons,
properties, and all that; but on the contrary, Igbo African law
deals with communal rights and duties and actions. You see
that! Law as it is read in the universities; taught in law schools;
and practiced by advocates and professionals deal with the
individual qua individual but the Igbo African law deals with
the individual qua community. You can already see that that it
will not be exactly correct for us to measure the Igbo African
law, with the yardstick of professional law.
In Igbo Africa, the custodian of law is a human being; mostly
the oldest living father of the community who adjudicates with
the authority of all the dead fathers, those who have gone be-
fore him. His word is a living oracle of law, backed by all the
legal echoes of the past. He is the holder of all the rights of the
community, the judgment of which he exercises with either the
words of his mouth or his staff of authority or Ofo. He has a
judgment seat from which only he gives his judgment. His
judgment has the backing of Chukwu who alone places elders
on that seat and takes them when he wants. At times, the only
reason for taking such a judge of the people is that he has
judged amiss.
You can now see that the justice which the Igbo African
gives is justice according to the truth of Chukwu, because
Chukwu is truth. It is not justice according to the law, with
which at times, a criminal that has bought a good lawyer or
even judge with his stolen money is freed from his crimes. The
word of the Igbo African judge is his bond; it is his life; it is his
presence. That is why such a word is also his staff. So, it is not
even necessary that such a judge keeps an ofo or staff of au-
thority. His word is all the ofo that he needs.
The judicial position for such an Igbo African judge is
unique, because he also judges with the authority of the dead.
That he judges with the authority of the dead does not mean
that he communes with the dead; he never does that. That he
judges with the authority of the dead simply means that, as he is
the only living person, next to the dead, he maintains the tradi-
tion and cultur e h i s prede ce s s or s h av e maintained.
To be sure, he is the link between the living and the dead. It
was the consideration of the judicial significance of this Igbo
African judge that made this proverb: let the elders not die, lest
children will mistake the vulture for the fowl”. The elders know
what has been, and maintain what is and what will be in accor-
dance with what has been. Yet, it has to be said that the Igbo
African judge or elder or lawyer is not only a person, for there
is not only one Igbo African community. Each community or
town or village or family has her own judge or elder or lawyer;
and of course, there is a college of such judges or elders or
lawyers for common or general matters. They all know the Igbo
African codes of conduct, statutes of life and principles of exis-
tence, almost by heart, and direct the Igbo African life and be-
ing accordingly.
At this juncture, let me give the theory and practice of Igbo
African law and legal occasions.
What Makes a Professional Law?
If what guides the Igbo African society cannot be called a
professional law, then it is logical to explain or in the least, list
what makes a law to be called a profe s s i o n al l a w.
Firstly, the law must be written or documented in hard copy.
In these globalized age with the advent of computer and inter-
net, the law of any country that is worth calling a professional
law must be on the internet. If that is the case, Britain is a de-
veloped country with an unwritten constitution, does it mean
their law is not professional or are we being sidelined because
Nigeria in general is still a developing country or a third world
country? Commenting on this, Okogeri (2006) explained that:
there were institutions exercising judicial power in the
respective societies even though the laws were unwritten.
The laws administered by these institutions were formu-
lated by the political authorities of the respective commu-
nities which were consistent with their system of govern-
ment. It is therefore not correct that prior to the arrival of
the colonial powers, the people in present day Nigeria
were without law and order due largely to the absence of
This is also in consonance with views of Obilade (1991:1)
who wrote that “Law is a body of customs accepted by mem-
bers of a community as binding on them
Customary court in Okafor (1992: p. 94) also sees law as
a rule or body of rules regulating rights and imposing
correlative duties, being a rule or body of rules which ob-
tains and is fortified by established usage and which is
appropriate and applicable to any particular matter, dis-
pute, issue or question.
To throw more light on the question of being written or not,
Ibekwe (1975: p. 297) has this to contribute: “European laws
are written, because the art of writing and reading had long
become part and parcel of their civilization. Regrettably enough,
our own customary law is unwritten. It was handed down the
ages from generation to generation. Like a creed, it seems to
live in the minds of the people.
Secondly, accessibility is another major characteristic of a
professional law. This is more or less a sequel to the above
mentioned point of being written. This is in a bid to rule out the
plea of ignorance because if one is ignorant of the law of a
particular society, how then do you know what they consider as
being illegal.
Thirdly, the practitioners must be trained. Normally, this in-
volves studying law in the university; one year in law school
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 119
and acquiring the necessary certificates that will be a proof that
he/she is qualified to practice law.
Finally, it is not enough to acquire the necessary certificates
and dump. It has to be practicable and is actually being prac-
ticed by the legal practitioners. This could mean that it is con-
sidered as a profession on its own. If all the medical doctors
abandon their certificates for other things, will there be any-
thing like the medical profession? After all said and done, pro-
fessional law is more or less Western law.
The Metaphysics of Igbo African Law
Tradition and culture are the legislators of Igbo African law.
There has been and will always be a way of doing things, a way
thing are done. Such ways determine the codes of conduct, the
statues of life and the principles of existence. Such ways guar-
antee the preservation of life, the maintenance of order and the
control of characters.
Since such ways are based on tried traditions and cultures,
that have, according to good ordinance of reason and spirit
organized the life of the community with the rule of peace and
progress, to break or to act against such a way of life is to
commit an offence, to commit a crime, against the community,
and against the members of the community.
In the light of what has been said, a member of the commu-
nity becomes dangerous, if by intention and act he or she en-
gages in crimes destructive of the properties or lives of other
members of the community. In such occasion, the criminal rule
of Igbo African law judges that such an individual or member
of the community wants to live at the expense of the commu-
nity. He wants to be against the community. So, the c ommunity
must bring him or her to order if the community must live.
From what has just been said, it will easily be discernible,
that a criminal is punished, not necessarily because of the crime
he has committed, but primarily, because he or she wants to
subvert the order or force of the community’s way of life. This
of course explains why the Igbo African court or council is
usually very sensitive, more than the western court, over even
“useless” offence or misdee d; so much so, that an offender may
not be convicted on the first day he poured oil away, but on the
second day he poured the “useless broth” away.
The Igbo African Rule of Law
The Igbo African rule of law is a rule of social and political
control wherein bodies of unwritten codes of conduct, statutes
of life and principles of existence naturally born out of the tra-
dition and a culture of organized and lived ex perien ce, are known
and applied for the management and administration of justice.
From all these, it will be easily discernible that the Igbo Af-
rican judiciary is a college or council of judges or elders or
lawyers where the oldest or at times some other person unani-
mously elected or appointed is the supreme judge; and the func-
tion of such a council or college is not necessarily the invention
of laws for all possible offences and all foreseen and unforeseen
criminals, but the communalistic and systematic discovery and
application of the force of traditional and cultural laws for the
control and rule of the life of Igbo African community.
As I have pointed out earlier, Igbo law judges rights and
wrongs as they affect the community and not necessarily as
they affect the individual. What has just been said is why the
western law can never fully understand Igbo African law, not to
talk of replacing it in Igbo Africa. Yet, there is another surprise
from the Igbo Africans law: the community as understood by
Igbo Africans, is an individual, it is a person. This must puzzle
the legal—heads of western legal practitioners and even make
their hairs to stand and their knees to knock together. But I say
it again the Igbo—African community is an individual, it is a
person. That is why it has rights that ought to be respected and
duties that it must perform. Yet I must tell you again, both for
now and forever more, that the Igbo African community is a
corporate individual. It i s a corporate individual; it is a corporate
person; it is a corporate life and being; it is a corporate con-
Because of what has been said about the Igbo community
that no one commits a civil or criminal wrong alone, every civil
or criminal offence or wrong has a social dimension. That is
why, at the end of the Igbo legal judgment day, one or more
than one persons are blamed for the offence or wrong he or she
committed. Of course, in the Igbo African courts, the offender
does not come alone. He or she comes with his or her people
whether they are invited or not.
From all that I have tried to clarify, it will be discernible that
the enforcement of law is not a significant problem for the Igbo
African judiciary. It is not, because the greatest thing that every
Igbo African fears is to be ostracized from the community. It
will be better for the Igbo person to face death, than to face
ex-communication from the community; for outside the com-
munity, an individual is nothing. So every individual in Igbo-
land avoids offending the community. However, action groups
and masquerade groups actually enforce the rule of Igbo Afri-
can law, traditionally speaking. Today, there is no reason to
suppose that they should not be changed. Just like the codes or
statutes or principles of Igbo African law, they were unwritten
yesterday, there is also no reason to suppose that they must
remain so today or that they should not be written down today.
Differences between Western and
Igbo-African Law
Whenever there are two things on opposing sides, the weak-
ness of one automatically heightens the strength of the other.
Having said that, let us look at the most significant differences
between so called professional western law and Igbo African
traditional law.
1) Western law is studied in the university followed by law
school and the necessary certificates. Also the lawyers and
custodians of the law are trained in the western legal system. It
does not end with training but are practicing as well. This is
unlike what is obtainable with Igbo African law.
On the other hand, Igbo African law has no formal network
for training of any kind. It does not require any form of training
besides the fact that there is no provision for that. Experts in the
Igbo African law learn the demands of the Igbo African law in
an informal manner by being present in occasions where cases
are adjudicated. This explains why, most often, again, the law-
yers of the Igbo African law are the council of elders who by
virtue of their age and wealth of experience can be said to have
acquired a lot of training by virtue of their having been present
in past occasions where judicial decisions were taken.
2) Western law is basically universal while the traditional
law is culture-specific. Western law is universal because it is
the same law that applies to every town or city as the case may
be. With Igbo traditional law, there are as many laws as there
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
are communities and towns. One can now understand why it
has been said that traditional law is not uniform in substance
and in form. Aniagolu (1975: p. 105) stated that
customary law is not constant but relative and varies
sometimes within special localities; in land with the place
where the land is situated; in other civil causes with the
personal law of the parties and in other circumstances
with the area of the jurisdiction of the court.
What he is trying to point out is that customary law and cus-
tom varies from society to society. Society to society is even far
reached; what is obtainable in a village is different from what is
the situation in the next village.
3) Western law is individualistic while traditional law is
communalistic. Before people started feeling the influence of
European culture and the influence being exerted by Chris-
tianity and its ethics, the people lived communally and I believe
that they still do to some extent. Oputa (1975: p. 7) explains
“the individual was a member not only of his immediate
family but also of his extended family, and even village,
and this group membership was very real. He dares not
break any laws or face ostracism”.
He went on to explain that the society at that time and now
provided few opportunities for “individualism” in behaviour. In
other words, what affects one affects all. Also commenting on
this is Ibekwe (1975: p. 297) who maintained that the European
way of life is fundamentally individualistic, while our own way
of life is particularly communal. There is communality of
landed properties, wives etc. It is more like “I am because we
are and since we are, therefore I am”.
4) Traditional law is more superior to the western law. How
do I mean? Western law is made by a few people for all the
people. This is unlike what is obtainable in the traditional soci-
ety where everyone has a say before the final deliberation and
subsequent adoption into law. This is exemplified in the term
coined by Okafor called “ohacracy” where whatever is adopted
as law passes through the people. This might look contradictory
considering that the agencies in the Igbo society do make laws.
I wish to point out that the laws made by the Umunna for in-
stance is primarily meant to guide the members of a particular
kindred and cannot be binding on other kindreds. The essence
of the laws by the agencies is to guide and direct their members
because “ana ama mma esi na ulo” which means that being
good starts from the home or inside. However, I wish to reiter-
ate that the laws meant for the whole community must be ve-
toed by the people.
5) Furthermore, western law is written in texts and docu-
mented. Well Igbo law is written but on the tablets of the hu-
man heart. By writing on the tablets of the human heart, it is
more or less based on moral or conscience. Everyone in the
community including its lawyers have it in bold prints. Worthy
of note is that in most extreme case, the lawyers in the tradi-
tional setting includes the Dibias who by virtue of the authority
attached to his ofo and his relationship with the spirit world,
can also participate in adjudicating cases.
6) The western or professional law as the case may be is
based on rationalism, while the Igbo African law is based on
the force of the conscience; that is why it is said that it is writ-
ten on the tablets of the human heart. Sequel to the above point,
in the case of a default or committing a legal error; by implica-
tion, the conscience first condemns before the society con-
demns. The Igbos even has a saying to that effect that “con-
science is the best judge”. Here, the conscience judges you
before either respectively or collectively the traditional legal
custodians will deliberate and label the offence so as to deter-
mine a corresponding punishment or penalty.
Despite their differences, both western and Igbo traditional
laws strive to maintain peace and order in the society; protect
lives and properties .
Relevance or Strong Points of
Igbo Traditional Law
1) Speedy hearing free of endless adjournments and unend-
ing trials. After all, it has been said that justice delayed is jus-
tice denied. There are no closed sessions so that what you see is
what you get. Writing on this, Oraegbunam explains that the
most striking feature of the customary adjudicatory system is
the speedy dispensation of justice. Hearing was done openly
with all the parties and the witnesses hearing each other unlike
the Western system of ordering witnesses out of court and out
of hearing. Hearsay evidence was allowed. Proceedings were
conducted and Judgment given instantly unlike the Western
system which is fraught with the possibilities of endless ad-
journments and delays
2) Secondly, trial in the Igbo traditional society is economi-
cal. There is economy of money, time and mental stress associ-
ated with endless proceedings.
3) Family law: Under family law in t he Igbo society, we have
marriage rites, dissolution of marriages, introduction of families,
bride price, guardianship etc. All these and many more are regu-
lated under the native law and custom. The advent of Christianity
and civilization has not been able to change it. Even if one gets
married in faraway London, the marriage is not considered
complete until the traditional rites are completed. There are no
ways around it.
4) Land law: With the recent fuss over land ownership vis-à-
vis the western law. Who had or ever possessed certificate of
ownership in the Igbo society? For them their word is their bond.
Again, people were not as greedy as they are now, so there was
no room for documentation for land ownership. Onwuamaegbu
(1975: p. 361) stated that the federal government “observed that
the making and giving of receipts are unknown to native land
law, and the giving of such is not within the nile of native law
and custom”.
5) Succession: In the absence of a written will, how do they
Igbos succeed the dead? How do the children of a man succeed
him after death? Till today, the Igbo society has their laws of
succession that are still applicable. For instance, if a mother
dies, it is her daughters even if they are married that will share
her things and not her daughter in laws. Depending on the rela-
tionship that exists between the daughter and the daughters in
law, the former may decide to give them a share of the booty
though it is not binding on them.
Igbo African law is the body of unwritten codes of conduct,
statutes of life and principles to which Igbo African people
ought to conform their lives, and which the college or council
of elders or judges or lawyers as the case may be, adjudicate
and some action-groups enforce.
Igbo African law is meant for the systematic control of the
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Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
whole life of individuals, but only as members of the commu-
nity. The promotion of the common good is one of the most
important criteria for assessing the efficiency and goodness of
any law and through it; people in the society are able to achieve
their private individual goods. After all, as can be seen from the
words of Ibekwe (1975: p. 297) that “European laws are writ-
ten, because the art of writing and reading had long become
part and parcel of their civilization. Regrettably enough, our
own customary law is unwritten. It was handed down the ages
from generation to generation. Like a creed, it seems to live in
the minds of the people”.
From time immemorial, our native laws have been and are
still there for us. Does the fact that our law does not conform to
that of the Westerners make it less a law? If we discard our
identity to look like the westerners, who will look like us? No
wonder the Igbo saying that “aham efuna” which translates to
read “let my name not be lost”. The Igbo native laws just like
every other law is always open to amendments considering the
fact that law is meant for man and not man for law. That not-
withstanding, the ultimate aim is an ordered society. That
means that it does not matter the origin or the people that has
the law as long as it brings peace, order and harmony to the
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