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Open Journal of Philosophy
2013. Vol.3, No.1A, 255-263
Published Online February 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojpp) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojpp.2013.31A041
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 255
A Theoretical Foundation for Understanding Law Subjects
and Rights in Igbo Philosophy of Law
F. O. C. Njoku
Department of Philosophy, Universit y o f N i g e ria, Nsukka, Nigeria
Email: ocnjokufrank@yaho o.com
Received January 6th, 2013; revised February 14th, 2013; accepted February 20th, 2013
This paper attempts to respond to a call to find an ontological basis for establishing African legal theory.
The African world of my choice is the Igbo world of South-east Nigeria. It is a world I want to examine to
see how its material and theoretical structures help articulate a philosophy of law in terms of projecting a
consistent understanding of law subjects and the foundations of their rights. The article builds on the con-
tributions of F. U. Okafor and his many African critics.
Keywords: Foundation; Law; Rights; Igbo Philosophy
F. U. Okafor’s contribution in his two works (1984: pp. 157-
164; 1992) is not so much in articulating a philosophy of Afri-
can legal tradition as chronicling materials that can be used in
building a theoretical foundation for African philosophy of law.
In other words, Taiwo is correct to point out that “philosophy is
not chronicles,” (1985: p. 200). Something must be said, from
the start, of P. C. Nwakeze’s criticism of Taiwo’s critique of
Okafor’s “Legal Positivism and the African Tradition.” Nwa-
keze asserts that Taiwo, in criticising Okafor’s claim that we
retrieve authentic African tradition from the rubbles of coloni-
sation, argues that we cannot talk about “African cultures,” or
“African legal traditions” in a generalised sense (1987: p. 101).
Certainly, we can talk of “African culture” or “African cul-
tures,” as Nwakeze rightly points out, “depending, of course, on
whether one is concerned with cultural peculiarities or cultural
uniformities,” (Ibid., 102). Taiwo’s point, however, is that
Okafor does not make this conceptual distinction, and not a
denial that such a consensus on certain elements is possible, as
William Idowu reads him, (2006: p. 8). A generalised treatment
of African cultures, institutions and legal systems would have
to show some comparative analysis; the closest Okafor comes
in mentioning other African legal traditions, apart from his Igbo
cultural background, can be read from these lines: “Traditional
Africans, in their native social milieux, recognised certain
‘rules’ or ‘norms’ as laws (which are either prescriptive in the
‘positive’ sense or restrictive in the negative) as opposed to
mere customs. Laws as such, as opposed to mere customary
‘rules,’ are called ‘Iwu’ and ‘Ofin’ by the Igbo and the Yoruba
tribes of Nigeria and ‘Se’ by the Ewe tribe of Ghana,” (1984: p.
These two tribes, outside of the Igbo circle, are not enough to
assume the level of pre-eminence, assigned to them by Okafor,
as speaking for the rest of Africa. A careful reading of Okafor’s
Igbo Philosophy of Law shows that he generalises from his
particular Igbo background without sufficient comparative
analysis and study to make claims on behalf of other African
legal systems. The lack of broad comparative base indicates
then that his proto-type African legal system is the Igbo legal
tradition. One agrees with Jare Oladosu that the Igbo case can-
not speak for the whole of African continent, (2004: p. 59).
Unlike what Nwakeze thinks, Taiwo’s criticism of Okafor’s
generalisation is correct. No one denies possible common ele-
ments in African tradition, but Okafor does not show how he
arrived at those common elements or what Nwakeze, in support
of Okafor’s studies, claims in his critique of Taiwo (1987: pp.
2-3). Okafor, in Igbo Philosophy of Law, appears to offe r a few
indications towards a philosophical articulation of Igbo phi-
losophy of law; but the book is essentially sociology of Igbo
legal institutions. One is grateful to Okafor for his knack in
documenting some of the needed materials for theorising.
However, it seems to me that both Taiwo and Nwakeze would
accept Okafor’s prejudice against legal positivism, which
means they accept largely his reductive presentation of it; oth-
erwise, why would Nwakeze conclude:
Finally, I will not end this rejoinder without touching on
Taiwo’s substantive problem. In his pursuit of the futile
arguments that the Africans would not share a tradition in
anything and that the “monetized” “Cola Cola” peasants
may no longer be really Africans; he grossly neglected the
central, and very important, issue raised by Okafor in his
article: the issue of reforming and making our contempo-
rary legal system philosophically and sociologically au-
thentic and more relevant to Africa, (Ibid., 105).
Okafor’s attempt is to insulate African legal systems from
the incursions of legal positivism, and align them with what he
presents as the natural law tradition, which, Okafor asserts,
merges law and morality.
In any case, both Taiwo and Nwakeze fail to dictate Okafor’s
defective treatment of the relationship between law and moral-
ity in philosophy in general, and in the positivist tradition in
particular. I shall not, at present, be detained by Okafor’s mis-
handling of the place of morality in his reductive treatment of
both legal positivism and natural law tenets. I intend to take it
up in a later article.
Towards the end of his Igbo Philosophy of Law, Okafor ex-
presses a desire that law-makers make a critical study of Igbo
F. O. C. NJOKU
indigenous institutions with a view to articulating the values
therein to be weaved in modern scheme of things; hence he
insists that “our ‘modern’ law makers and judges should resist
the urge to design laws divorced from our philosophy, from the
nature of beings, as we understand them, and from our view of
the world,” (1992: p. 92). A reviewer (1995: pp. 214-219) of F.
U. Okafor’s Igbo Philosophy of Law praised the work; but fur-
ther called for a better and deeper presentation or explanation of
Igbo philosophy of law built on a more comprehensible meta-
physics and philosophy accessible to philosophy and law audi-
ences, (Ibid., 215-216).
In an article (See 2006: pp. 37-48) that followed his “Legal
Positivism and the African Legal Tradition” and Igbo Philoso-
phy of Law, Okafor continues to make general affirmations
about African legal traditions from limited comparative back-
ground; his call, however, to African scholars to reflect on Af-
rican legal tradition rooted in African ontology must be taken
seriously. Law is as territorial as philosophy is not presupposi-
tionless. Jurisprudence or philosophy of law is a reflective en-
gagement on, and employment, of law as an organising social
instrument among other social phenomena. Understanding the
specific African ontology and social tradition will make one
realise how it is not counter-intuitive for a woman, for example,
to marry another woman to raise issues for her dead husband or
counterbalance her barrenness (See Ibid., 38-42); this is a sense
of natural justice that is better appreciated from the specific
vantage point of African ontology and social order. The point,
Okafor insists, is that African law is conceived along a different
ontology. Until this is noted, African and Western philoso-
phers/jurists will continue to talk pass one another on African
social or legal realities, (See Ibid., 39).
Okafor’s desire for a theory rooted in our world view is
reminiscent of other previous calls that insist that the key to
grasping the present Igbo life and world is buried in better “un-
derstanding of the operative conditions,” (Anya, 1982: p. 13) in
the Igbo world, says Anya (1982: p. 13). We must take on
board the integrative and interactive dimensions that give
meaning and substance to it. Since the Igbo-African world or
individual has a unique environment of occurrence, attention
must be paid to the perception of life patterns and belief sys-
tems. The persistent reference to the operative conditions in
Igbo world or Igbo institution is a pointer to the fact that a po-
litical, social or metaphysical theory that ignores Igbo cosmol-
ogy is bound to distort such a world. In other words, there is a
conviction that philosophy can be drawn from non-philosophy
given that Igbo society, like most African societies, still has
much anchor on their traditional roots. Therefore, a philosophi-
cal attitude towards the Igbo world should at once be descrip-
tive and interpretative: descriptive to present them the way they
are grasped and interpretative because the task is to make ex-
plicit the meaning/philosophy implicit in it. As T. Okere rightly
claims, we need to do a hermeneutics on African cultural sym-
bols. African cultural symbols offer us data for philosophical
tinkering; in fact, “for any reflection to take place at all, some
data have to be taken initially for granted, without proof, and as
it were by decree. They have to be believed or, as is rather more
often the case, subconsciously presumed, at any rate, unques-
tioned,” (1983: p. 88). Thus, in studying and interpreting our
cultural symbols we shall make explicit the philosophy implicit
in them, (See Ibid., 114-115).
This paper intends to articulate the ontological foundations
for understanding law subjects, and Igbo philosophy of right;
this project shall be conducted under the following four broad
headings: Inspirations from Igbo cosmology and folklores; a
hermeneutical attempt at understanding Igbo world; Towards
an Igbo philosophy of law and right; and Covenant-based the-
ory of law/right. This project concentrates on the Igbo African
world, with a conviction that with similar researches on other
groups we can build a basis for comparative studies that can
yield a systematic formulation of a comprehensive African
Inspirations from Igbo Cosmology
Some Aspects of Igbo Cosmology
Okafor’s Igbo Philosophy of Law founds Igbo law and right
within an understanding that Igbo traditional universe was or-
dered, a coherent socio-legal cohesion that traces an ordered
and moral society to God-Chukwu; hence the sacralisation of
the profane is inherent in Igbo conceptual and theoretical
schemes. George Ekwuru, in his The Pangs of an African Cul-
ture in Travail: Uwa Ndi Igbo Yaghara Ayagha (The Igbo
World in Disarray), laments over a socio-political and religious
chaos or confusion which he blames on the Igbo’s contact with
Western values, which quest has brought out the worst in the
Igbo. Ekwuru writes: “In the Igbo language, the phrase, Uwa
yaghara ayagha, which, for want of an appropriate term, has
been interpreted here to designate a ‘disorganised situation,’
which gives the picture of something that is highly ‘decentred,’
‘dismembered’ and ‘scattered,’ a situation of utter confusion,”
(1999: p. 83). If the Igbo world is presently in disarray, it
means that Ekwuru is lamenting over a situation that was not
part of the original set-up of the Igbo society/cosmos. In other
words, the chaos element is foreign, Ekwuru implies. But a
study of some Igbo cosmogony or cosmology contradicts this
image. Here we can appeal to an Igbo myth of origin. A myth is
a story of a time when time began, proclaiming, according to
Mircea Eliade, “the appearance of a new cosmic situation or of
a primordial event; hence it is always the recital of a creation; it
tells how something was accomplished, began to be. It is for
this reason that myth is bound up with ontology; it speaks only
of realities, of what really happened, of what was fully mani-
fested,” (1959: p. 95). Paul Ricoeur believes that “behind
speculation and beneath gnosis and anti-gnostic construction,
we find myths,” (1969: p. 5). In trying to bring about the truth it
proclaims, Nwoga insists that a myth transcends reasoning,
(1984b: p. 41), as it demonstrates the truth of life of a people.
Anya argues that Igbos do not have one myth of origin like
the Yorubas, (1982: p. 26) Agu Justin asserts that the least that
could be said on this issue is that “what local traditions the
Igbos have do not provide clues to their origin,” (1985: p. 111).
He remarks that in spite of the fact that Igbos speak a common
language, they are not a single people; they are separated
groups, H. Chukwuma insists, (see 1994: p. 1).
Igbo origin has been variously traced from without and
within Nigeria: the outside origin hypothesis claims that the
Igbos are not a single people; it is sustained on the basis of
cultural similarities between the Igbo and the Semitic cultures-
precisely the Jews, given the many migrations of many Igbo
groups in history before they finally settled at their present
location, (See Ibid., 3). Some disagree with the outside origin
thesis; hence E. M. P. Ede insists that “there is a stronger prob-
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F. O. C. NJOKU
ability for tradition that the Igbo did not migrate from outside
but rather they developed independently like other indigenous
African peoples,” (1985: p. 12). Archaeological finds by some
scholars concerning some parts of Igbo land trace Igbo settle-
ment back to 205 AD, probably through different migrating
routes from within. This is a view widely held by many Igbos
as against the outside origin hypothesis. In his Ahajioku lecture
titled A Matter of Identity, Michael J. C. Echeruo attempts the
difficult task of tracing Igbo history from within Nigeria and
only succeeded in unearthing claims and counter claims re-
garding Igbo origin and the contribution of slaves of Igbo stock
in the Western world whose impacts were felt in the 18th cen-
tury. Almost in desperation, Echeruo states: “it all seemed as if
there was really no coherence to the world from which these
men came, that they had no identity. The explanation-or part of
the explanation for this may lie in our own refusal to acknowl-
edge a common ancestor, in our centripetal search for origins,”
(1979: p. 13). Given the possibility that Igbos are not a ho-
mogenous group, with various migrating routes and experiences
(though with apparently one language), depending on each
community’s experience, there will be many ways of mythiciz-
ing the story of Igbo origin. Whichever myth abounds in any
area of Igbo land, it will, in whole or part, narrate the Igbo story.
I have, here, adopted the Nri myth for my purpose.
Nri Akwa myth is an Igbo myth of origin, dominating the
Anambra section of Igboland. Chukwu (God) sent Eri—the
first man-and he landed at Nri, according to Odinani (tradition).
His great task was to come and put order in the people of
Anambra. When he landed, because the earth was waterlogged,
he complained to Chukwu who sent him to a blacksmith from
Awka to use bellows to dry the flooded land. When in need of
food, Eri complained again to Chukwu who demanded him to
sacrifice his first son and first daughter. This he did, and from
the spot where he buried his son, yam and palm tree sprouted
up; and from the spot he buried his daughter, vegetables and
cocoyam grew up. It is because of these events that the earth is
regarded as the greatest supernatural deity (alusi) that produces
man’s food. It is sacred. One day, four great supernatural be-
ings visited Eri who, by trick, got their names as Eke, Afor,
Nkwo and Oye (Orie), whose names bear the Igbo market days,
(Isichie, 1977: pp. 22-23).
In adopting the Nri myth, I want to insist that a careful read-
ing of Igbo world shows that the world or cosmos is funda-
mentally chaotic. Chidi Osuagwu concurs with the view that
Igbo world is chaotic; hence it needs an ordering force-
Chukwu: “Only an ‘ordering-force,’ God, can infuse organiza-
tion into chaos. Life inheres in organization,” (2003a: p. 17). In
a later book, Osuagwu further attributes the chaos element (so-
cial chaos-dishonesty in dealing with other in contemporary
world) to an infiltration into the Igbo world: the contact of
Igbo’s with their neighbours-a nation of liars (Osuagwu, 2003b:
p. 13), and this sounds contradictory given his earlier claim that
Igbo world is in disarra y but i t i s o r d e r e d by truth and justice.
However, Osuagwu believes that the concept of truth in Igbo
is dynamic; hence truth (ezi) is analogous to “thermodynamic
order and predictability,” (2003a: p. 1). It is conceived and
defined operationally and externalised with the physical symbol
of the uzi tree. Uzi is the most erect tree in Igbo cosmology or
world. Truth (ezi) means “correct, ordered, positive, proper,
array, rectitude, genuine, upright or valid” (Ibid., 3); that which
corresponds to what is said of it becomes eziokwu-truth. The
root word of ezi is zi, from which other words, like “izi, to
show; to direct, onyeozi, directed-one, messenger; Ikuzi, to
straighten, to beat into shape; Imezi, to rectify, to do right,”
(Ibid.) come. What is true is as straight or unbending as the uzi
tree, which is naturally straight or ziziriri.
Truth (eziokwu) is contrasted with that which is bent or in
disarray, rascality-agharigha, that is, falsehood or falsity. The
Igbo root word for falsehood is “Igha, to scatter, links up all
chaotic processes as the Igbo see it,” (Ibid., 5). Thus, igha is to
turn something that is ziziriri (straight) into disorder; that is, put
in a way that it is not. The physical symbol of falsehood then is
ayaghara or avaghara, that is, disorder, or something turned
inside out, represented by the symbol of a kind of fowl whose
feathers are turned inside out-avaghara. Falsehood, according
to Osuagwu, perpetrates unpredictability (Ibid., 13).
The Igbo links everything to God or Chukwu; hence Osuag-
wu is correct to say that Chukwu is an ordering force in Igbo
world. In fact, the Igbo person is not always interested in sec-
ondary causes. Hence in Igbo construction of reality, although
Chukwu is not part of the construction, he holds together the
chain of causes. We can buttress this idea with a story in tradi-
tional folklore. A commotion arose in the animal world about
the death of a sickly bird (nwankelu) that would otherwise have
been ignored. But justice and the fact of importance of every
being demanded an investigation; thus, an answer was needed
as to the cause of death of t he sickly bird called nwankelu. The
interrogation was stated thus:
Who killed nwankelu?
-The breadfruit killed it.
What happened to the breadfruit?
-A digger pierced the breadfruit.
What happened to the digger?
-The digger was infested by a termite.
What happened to the termite?
-A cock was eating the termite.
What happened to the cock?
-A hyena was pursuing the cock.
What happened to the hyena?
-A man-hunter was pursuing the hyena.
What made the man- h u nter?
-Man was created God.
What made God?
-We do not know what made God, who made man; man
was in pursuit of hyena, the hyena that was going after a
cock, a cock that was eating a termite, a termite that in-
fested a digger, a digger that pierced the bread fruit, the
bread fruit that eventually fell and killed nwankelu.
The point of this story is that a single act of Chukwu initiated
a chain of events or secondary causes that is ultimately traced
to God (Chukwu), the source and origin of all things.
A Hermeneutical Attempt at Understanding
Chukwu brought a change by sending Eri to the earth-an en-
vironment of seeming confusion. Through Chukwu’s advice,
Eri was empowered to humanize the earth. The chain of causes
in human and animal world is traced to Chukwu-the actor in
history who released man to the earth. Humans are then in a
seemingly chaotic world which they must humanize in order to
survive. The point, therefore, is not to create a world where
chaos is absent but to achieve survival in a seemingly chaotic
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F. O. C. NJOKU
universe. If we do not accept this fact of the world of individu-
als, we might be confused as to what kind of laws should guide
or be operative in their environment.
The Ontology of the Individual
Every individual person has received chi from Chukwu, a
part of divine nature which each has received at birth. E. Ilogu
writes: “Whatever abilities, good or bad fortunes, successes,
failure or weaknesses posse ssed by the man are often attributed
to his chi. Children of the same parents are, therefore, variously
endowed by different kinds of chi. Through this chi, God (Chi-
neke) connects himself with all created human beings and the
closer such men are to one ancestor the nearer they are to each
other,” (1985: p. 36). The particularity of the individual is
rooted in the chi God or Chukwu has imparted to him or her.
The Igbo individual is linked to Chukwu who commissioned
him to harmonise the world. The Igbo notion of identity claims
that one is the same, and has his actions attributed to him be-
cause one has a personal link to Chukwu, and unique mission to
accomplish in the singularity of his being. The particularity of
uniqueness is the basis for identity in the Igbo. And it is the
particularity of the existing individual that restores him as the
subject. It is the manifestation of personal ontology that is at
the root of social construction and constitution of reality. Thus,
“personal ontology is an assertion of the metaphysics of par-
ticularity. It is the endeavour to raise the particular to the pri-
macy and ultimacy which transcends the changing world of
coming and going particularities; not to attach fixity to the
‘many’ as if they were the ‘one,’ i.e. absolute, unique and irre-
placeable,” (Zizioulas, 1991: p. 35).
The essence of each entity is its chi, that is, what it is that
makes an entity what it is and links it to Chukwu; hence “Chi is
God’s manifestation in all things. It is held by the Igbo that chi
is the divine force directly involved with the affairs of men,”
(Okafor, 1992: p. 20). Chi is that which is responsible for ap-
portioning lots. While Chi or Chukwu embraces all, chi indi-
viduates. One thinks that B. Abanuka is right when he writes:
“as a determination of reality (chi), eke/oke (individual destiny)
contains the full and complete details of the characteristics of
the real allotted to each particular person and to him alone
(akara aka),” (2004: p. 72). For the Igbo African, things have
chi; hence T. Okere argues that what the West understands as
category of being can, without a loss of meaning, be rendered in
the category of chi in Igbo conceptual schemes (1983: p. 124).
The Social Dynamics of the Chi-Ontology
Through chi, Chukwu (God) manifests himself. Humans in
their actions leave imprints of their destiny. Their actions are
judged within the public arena, that is, in the world shared by
others. And human events are instantiations of divine course of
action, which explains the complex intermingling, and em-
bodiment in the Igbo African, between the sacred and the pro-
fane. Every entity is different with a different mission.
Chi-Individual on Mission to Order/Organise (Imposition
of Law in the Cosmos)
Osuagwu makes an important point when he considers the
individual Igbo as a “randomly moving thought particle,”
(Osuagwu, 2003a: p. 9). However, since there is an ordering
force behind entities, it is possible that notwithstanding their
nature as moving particles, entities can live in a symbiotic rela-
tionship in order to make the most of their environment, for an
encounter with another increases one’s enrichment and mini-
mizes the horizon of conflict, given attendant relationships that
emerge from symbiotic encounters. The Igbo individual, ac-
cording to this arrangement, is a thought moving particle within
the system Osuagwu describes as “thermodynamic.” The indi-
vidual is part of the thought motion released by Chukwu, and
linked to Chukwu. Osuagwu insists that Igbos have one God
called Chi-Ukwu, who is distinguished from all little-chi or
The interesting thing, though, is that “chi” is the root from
which “ICHI,” the verb for to hold together, to rule, to ar-
range, to order, to organize comes. In this sense, CHI-
UKWU is THE SPRING OF COSMIC ORGANISA-
TION. God is SOURCE OF COSMIC ORDERING AND
ORDER. God as creator flows, logically, out of this defi-
nition. Creation is an organizational act of chaos. Hence
comes the Igbo appellation ISIYI NKE NDU … SPRING
OF LIFE for God. Life springs from God’s ordering ca-
pacity, (Ibid., 17).
Since “all particles in nature are in perpetual state of ran-
dom,” man, as part of this system of moving particles, needs
Chukwu to be ordered not to be disordered. To be ordered,
according to Osuagwu, is to be in truth, and disorder is false-
hood, (See Ibid., 8). In other words, the truth of random moving
thought particles is to remain in motion! Disorder or falsehood
would imply a denial of possibility to continue in motion-pre-
senting a world that is not the real one for the thought moving
particle. However, since the individual has chi, which allows
him to make claims in the world, he is capable of rule and to
bring about order-ichi and ichizi, that is, to rule/govern/order
and to organise/order well. Like Chukwu, the individual has an
ordering force over the cosmos; after all, he has some part of
Chukwu-an ordering force (chi).
Order and Disorder Co-Exist in Igbo World
The application of the law of thermodynamics to Igbo world
is interesting. One needs to take the implication further. What
actually is the law of thermodynamics?
Thermodynamics deals with the law of conservation of en-
ergy-that energy could be transformed without loss. The idea is
that “all natural events involve a transformation of energy from
one form to another. But the total quantity of energy does not
change during the transformation,” (Rutherford, 1981: p. 305).
There is a constant called energy in certain measurable quanti-
ties, determinable in a system of interacting bodies, given that
the system remains isolated, (See Ibid., 313). Quantitative
statements about the transformation of energy could be made
through work. And the concept of work or “duty” is used to
measure the amount of energy transformed from one form to
There is an irreversible principle that accounts for disorder or
chaos in a system of interaction of bodies. In other words, the
energy contained in two interacting but isolated bodies has
measurable quantities that remains constant, but communicat-
ing within the operation of a chaotic principle (entropy); hence
the theory of disordered states. The point is that besides equi-
libriums, thermodynamic syste ms are also interested in systems
out of equilibrium, and “in these systems, certain fluctuations
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
F. O. C. NJOKU
instead of contracting, expand and diffuse throughout the whole
system,” (Lonchamp, 1999: p. 115). There are times when the
tendency to equilibrium passes to disorder through some kind
of dissipatory structure or an open system. What is happening,
for example, at the point when changes in temperature bring
about fluctuations is that “such a system is receiving energy
from external environment, energy which engenders and main-
tains within itself a certain ordered structure; at the same time it
gives off heat to the outside,” (Ibid., 115-116). In other words,
“order and disorder are encountered together,” (Ibid., 116), a
point Osuagwu seems to ignore. The law of conservation of
energy also involves the science of disorder which one notices
in situations of determinist chaos. Evidently, what is ordered or
chaotic might be relative to the subject and his perceptive ca-
pacities to make a p p ropriate judgments and calculations.
In applying the law of thermodynamics to the Igbo world,
one asks. How does one account for the truth of a world where
entities are enclosed in a system as randomly moving thought
particles that are subsistent, still require an outside corrobora-
tion? Or, how is meaning (harmonisation) to be found in a
world of seeming chaos? How do energy-packed entities open
and expand or interact in a chaotic universe? How does a closed
system of circular encasement retain its individuality and at the
same time collaborate with others, and adhering to rules? As
Okafor rightly points out, the end of Igbo rules (both human
and divine) are to help maintain social or spiritual harmony,
(1992: p. 64). This paper certainly does not pretend to address
these questions, but it can cast some light on some.
Towards an Igbo Philosophy of Law and Right
Okafor talked about divine and human laws (See 1992: pp.
43-66). We can say that people discover divine laws and follow
them. Human laws are products of people’s judgements articu-
lated by the help of human language. Given the fact of linguis-
tic employment in the expression and ritualisation of laws, it is
important to note how reality (whether legal or otherwise) is
expressed or linguistically constituted by the Igbos.
How Reality Is Expressed in Igbo Language
D. I. Nwoga has pointed out that Igbos structure reality at
three levels: the physical, the spiritual and the abstract, (See
Nwoga, 1984a: pp. 17-18). Given the fact that concepts and the
things they designate are operative, these three forms of being
are capable of being transformed into one another. It is not that
at one point a physical object changes into abstract and at an-
other point it becomes spiritual; it is that the reality of an entity
is definable from the point of view of its function. The function
of a thing gives its existential stand or validity. Thus, there may
not be permanent functional roles or dominant functional
stances. In other words, Igbos conceive being as action, (See
Ibid., 19). Action involves change of position, (that is, anaghi
ano ofu ebe ekeri nmawu). Because contextual application is
what gives entities their identity, their identity is predicated
performatively and not always descriptively. Description is
reducible to truth functions, but performatives are speech acts
(See Austin, 1962, 1979) that are effected through the doing of
things with words in conventionally designated contexts. Igbo
traditional deities were honoured so far as they were effective
and they can become that which they are called in those con-
texts generated by their believers. This shows that some of the
realities included at the level of the divine in the Igbo world are
mental creations, for humans cannot be unseating divine reali-
ties at will. Thus, in Nwoga’s thinking, “the ontological status
of things in Igbo thought is determined and recognized not by
any static characteristics that the objects might have but by the
action that the object performs,” (Nw o g a, 1984b: p. 19).
The Ofo, Okafor talks about, is an authoritative emblem,
symbolising justice, righteous and truth. The symbolism of Ofo
lies not in the piece of wood as it is used in the context of ritual
ratification of accepted norms of behaviours passed into law,
(See Okafor, 1992: pp. 59-62). In fact, Ofo does what it does
and it is respected accordingly because of its contextual rituali-
sation or application; hence it plays a performative role. The
conducts over which Ofo is invoked do not become otherwise
in the absence of Ofo’s ratification; hence it is not the Ofo that
makes such behaviours moral or legal. The content of laws
should be distinguished from the ritual language invoked in
promulgating or administering them.
Through convention Ofo becomes a performative symbol,
which prescriptive function is not explained by its materiality.
Whatever is said in the Oha (people’s assembly) (Ibid., 53),
which form of government is termed “Ohacracy” (a system
where the people rule or what can be called “initiative democ-
racy” (See Njoku, 2004: pp. 178-188), following the normal
procedure, has a tone of finality; one however insists that final-
ity is not co-extensive with infallibility or morality as Okafor
presents in his Igbo Philosophy of Law.
In other words, the statements made about reality are not
how things necessarily are, that is statements of facts, but our
perception of reality. In this sense, Igbo metaphysics or form of
government (Ohacracy) is metaphysics of the relation of man
and of his experience of God, the other and his environment.
Since order and disorder are encountered together, the prom-
ulgations of Ohacracy are approximations; thus, it is likely then
that the judgements of Ohacracy do not have the ethical or
epistemological infallibility Okafor assigns them, or the degree
of fairness which Bonachristus Umeogu, in support of Okafor,
would ascribe to Oha’s legislative ability, (Umeogu, 2012: pp.
116-122). The inability to appreciate the Igbo pragmatic atti-
tude that largely permeates Igbo life underestimates the possi-
bility of injustice and oppression that may frequently be found
in Igbo traditional and legal set-up. It is true through the palaver
method issues are discussed before judgements are passed;
there have been cases where whole communities have passed
laws for their self-interests. If this is the case, the line between
some principles of legal positivism and the natural law tenets
ascribed to Igbo legal realities by Okafor is thin. Oha cannot
always pretend that its rulings or judgements are also in the
nature of things; thus, it can arrive at some standard of judge-
ments that betrays the natural disposition ascribed to it in the
My contention here is that in the typical Igbo social set-up
the people’s affairs whether executive, judicial or legisla-
tive, revolve round the Oha-the people themselves. This is
what I mean by “Ohacentrism”-Oha-centred. And the lo-
gical consequence of this social atmosphere is that tyran-
nical laws are not enactible because of the rigid checks
and balances; favouritism or sectionalism, twin social
diseases which pervert justice are not thrivable in the po-
litical climate; and Ohacentrism promises the greatest
happiness for the greatest number, (Okafor, 1992: p. 60).
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Most Igbo would accept the authority of Oha; however, un-
just laws can still be unjust even whether or not there are ele-
ments of favouritism and sectionalism; thus Oha might have a
note of finality but not infallibility regarding morals or truth. If
Oha’s rules aspire to realize “the greatest happiness for the
greatest number,” then Okafor agrees with the legal positivism
of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin that founds good law on
the utility principle. Natural law morality does not aspire to
make the greatest number happy.
Sources of Rules in a System of Thermodynamic
In an environment of the Igbo type where order and disorder
co-exist, there are two ways one might, in the Igbo universe of
meaning, arrive at rules: first, to discern through practical rea-
sonableness the rules/laws inherent in the nature of things be-
cause onye ma akwa okwa na-achi ya (he who knows the par-
tridge’s eggs handles them better-divine laws discovered in the
nature of things); second, rules that arose in the context of in-
ter-subjective interaction (positive laws). In the later, pragmatic
and utilitarian principles can abound, after all, although all may
not be posited fact, there is always a social element to their
coming into being and execution. Therefore, Oha is a kind of
clearing room or sorting room for the community’s under-
standing and knowledge; it cannot claim more certainty in
knowledge and judgement than things themselves present. Oha
discerns and makes approximations about reality based on some
kind of precedence and experience.
Two Basic Natural Rights
From the study of Igbo world and its hermeneutical applica-
tion, natural rights can be noted. Natural rights are founded on
the inherent and ontological nature of beings-to be recognised
as such. Two fundamental natural rights can broadly be under-
lined: the right of identity/life and right of property. Okafor
calls them rights of life and property, although he does not say
how they arise or are discovered, (See 1992: pp. 77-78).
Right of Identity: To remain in existence as a randomly
thought moving particle or subject and cognised as such is to
remain as one is, and have space and activity. This is justice. To
injure a being is to fail to recognise or cognise it as remaining
in being as a randomly thought moving particle. Attacks on life
are injuries that hit at the heart of one’s being. Justice is here
ontological, that is, to continue as Chukwu has thus constituted
and set the entity in being; no being sets itself in motion, but
put in existential motion along side others by Chukwu; hence
egbe bere ugo bere or onye awula ibeya efula (let the kite perch
and the eagle perch, or let no one die or get lost). Justice is not
just a social status confirmed by individuals in terms of return-
ing what belongs to people and their persons. The justice im-
plied in egbe bere ugo bere (let the kite perch, and eagle perch)
is cognition of ontological act of life-line of each entity, given
and confirmed by Chukwu. In this respect, the right of identity
is co-extensive with the ontological understanding of justice; it
is a matter of right or identity that that which is, has the right to
be as such.
Right of Property: Everything moves and occupies space at
the same time. Matter is highly competitive, for the space each
entity occupies it wants to retain while continuing in motion.
This existential fact is consistent with the operations of the law
of thermodynamics-that energy is transformed, not lost.
The natural rights of identity and property are ontological
predicates tied to the nature of entities, and cannot be thought
without them for they are transcendental attributes of being.
The denial or negation of these rights will remain major sources
of intractable conflict between persons and communities. How
does one then make law for a being that is at once perpetually
in motion and retains the space covered?
It must be noted that in the world of randomly moving parti-
cles, every being has right to his identity and space gained –
that is, the rights to life/identity and property respectively. The
need to create an atmosphere of organising function incumbent
on the nature of chi-individual is part of an inter-subjective
exercise of rationality by chi-individuals for an organised ful-
filment of their mission. An awareness or recognition of other
chi-individuals in the existential space is a move to search for
the other. Igbo cosmology counsels that the task of humanising
the world is one that involves the other, no wonder Chukwu
sent Eri to his neighbours to help him bring order to the water-
logged earth. Mission is an exercise in the spirit of confraternity
and symbiotic relationship.
Covenant-Based Theory of Igbo Philosophy
of Law and Right: An Exercise in Legal
Social and Political Rights
Okafor has noted natural rights at the ontological level,
which I have reduced to two as rights of identity and property.
And we have conceived such rights in terms of transcendental
attributes of randomly thought moving particles. Since the mis-
sion of the individual is to humanise the earth, there must be
ways of regulating movements that all randomly thought mov-
ing entity will invariably remain in motion per excellence.
There is much enough space for chi-individuals with their inte-
gral package of missions to ply their trade. To bump on one
another in the existential space is not consequent on being re-
leased into the existential space. However, the inter-subjective
world is one inhabited by the individual and others; as a world
of immediacy, it can only be negotiated through communica-
tion, through the understanding of carriers of meaning placed in
the public world.
Fairness in dealing with others is expressed in such phrases
as: ya bara onye bara ibe ya or eme nwata ka emere ibeya, obi
adi ya nma (when like children are treated alike, they are
happy).In paying heed to justice at the ontological and social
levels, one is affirming rectitude in the order of being and rela-
tionship. Since identity (matter of right or fairness) is not con-
stituted by individuals, but discovered by them; therefore, to do
right or justice is to affirm or avow to the order of being-the
truth of things. Chidi Osuagwu is thus correct when he defines
truth in terms of ziriziri, derived from uzi-the most straight of
all trees in Igboland cosmology, (2003a: p. 3). Since truth is
correspondence to what is out there like uzi tree, right and jus-
tice are virtues that are independent of the individual even in
the world of seeming chaos.
How Individual Worlds Are Bridged through
John C. Kelly writes that communication is a sharing of
meaning, and meaning is found, not in the world out there, but
“lodges in the mind and in the heart,” (1981: p. 57). Meaning is
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F. O. C. NJOKU
an intelligent grasp of an intelligent pattern of reality or rela-
tionship within the world of immediacy, (See Ibid., 61). Each
person’s apprehension and interpretation of the world is his or
her meaning of the world. So, meaning is apprehended and
interpreted in a socially constructed and approved typifications
or ways transmitted within a network of social interaction or
Carriers of meaning are material perceptible objects that help
us to share meaning between two separate conscious selves. In
communication, the communicator places something in the
world of immediacy, the interpreter makes a response to the
communicator; in turn the interpreter places a material object or
event in the world of immediacy, which can be recognised or
perceived or understood by the original communicator as a
response. When the original communicator discovers the mean-
ing of the response, he can then assess how effective or ineffec-
tive was the original communicative action, whether the mean-
ing discovered is identical with the meaning intended by the
original action of the communicator. Carriers of meaning in-
clude: marks, indications, signs and symbols. They indicate to
us how each other’s interiority is negotiated, showing when
individuals can yield to others to compensate for those times
they have benefited from others’ co-operation. There is true
meaning then “if the knower has been carefully attentive to all
the available data and if, in addition, by means of his intelli-
gence, he (or she) has grasped an intelligible pattern of rela-
tionships that explains no less and no more than all the avail-
able data of consciousness to which he directed his attention,”
(Ibid., 63). Meaning requires a strenuous effort to be drawn or
discovered or mediated to us in the real world. Only the person
who undergoes the same strenuous effort as one in discovering
meaning can be drawn to communicate, to share meaning, (See
Socio-political rights emerge within the world shared by in-
dividuals-the Oha world or the convocation of randomly mov-
ing thought particles. The Oha is thus constituted as a regula-
tory body in the designated space of immediacy; Ohacracy
becomes a form of government that safeguards the basic goods
that allow people and their environment to flourish; hence cer-
tain rules and rights are made and safeguarded. One can include
here the right to expression Okafor discusses, (See 1992: pp.
The Dynamics of Ohacracy in the Discovery and
Constitution o f Ri ghts
We can accentuate legal and socio-political dynamics. With
reference to legal dynamics, rules are generated to ensure that
people do not bump into each other in their existential space,
and also to specify when people can legitimately yield to others
in the space, and how through social interactions one is em-
powered to change the socio-legal positions of others, and how
people can through mutual association and interaction negotiate
each other’s existential highways. Laws then operate here as
instruments of social control of behaviour. And this implies a
movement from the world received from Chukwu to a world
humanised by individuals.
Oha is clearing house of intentions and motives through the
use of the palaver method to bridge the “field of experience”
(called homophily) (Bittner, 1989: p. 10) of others and negoti-
ate their existential space. By the process of dialogue, people
make themselves and wishes present to others. In this way, they
bear a new presence to themselves and to others. Through in-
teractions one minimises conflict and gains intellectual and
existential space, without having lost anything. This transfor-
mation in social relations could be explained through the helical
model of communication.
The Helical Model of Redrawing Relationship
The given from Chukwu is a universe constituted by ran-
domly moving entities. The random movement is natural, and if
we call it chaos, this cosmic chaos must be seen to be normal.
That is the world as it left Chukwu’s hands. Entities move in
life-system or universe as bubbles of subsistent energy-packed
thermodynamics, conserving themselves within their energy
constants, still gaining space and undergoing self-actualisation
in interacting with other entities. But how do entities interact?
The interaction in a naturally chaotic universe is done through
the process of negotiative communication. This can be ex-
plained using the helical model of communication. Each circu-
lar entity represents the individual or the cosmos, in which
individuals are connected to each other through helical move-
ments. An encounter with the other or movement towards the
other is a useful communication in which one is enriched,
without losing what one already has. In fact, “the helix provides
understanding in some cases where the circle fails. It directs
one’s attention to the fact that the communication process
moves forward and that what is communicated now will influ-
ence the structure and content of communication coming later,”
(McQuail & Windahl, 1981: p. 15). Against the backdrop of a
helical model, when a subject sends a message to the other,
who receives, processes the message, and by interpreting the
message, have a sense of its signification, he increases in
knowledge of what has been received; hence the helical model
of interpretation (See Ibid., 16). In like manner, interaction with
the other enriches one and minimises one’s hostile or strange
The need for an environment of stability to enjoy the rights
of identity and property demands that individuals hold each
other in trust. The helix comes into being as a result of much
dialogue and bridging of one another’s interiorities; hence some
law/rules and rights become evidence of reconciled opinions
and compromises for the sake of peace and stability of rights.
We can then describe the atmosphere of negotiating the various
interiorities for mutual enhancement as that of a covenant the-
ory of socio-legal relationship.
Covenant as Basis for R ationalisi ng Igb o Philosophy
From a religiously perspective, G. E. Mendehall, in The In-
terpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, defines a covenant is “a
solemn promise made binding by an oath, which may be either
a verbal formula or a symbolic action. Such an action or for-
mula is recognised by the parties as the formal act which binds
the actor to fulfil his promise.” In another place he writes that
the act of binding people by oath actually dates back to ancient
times, as can be seen in the character of Hittite pacts,
(Mendehall, 1970: pp. 25-26).
A covenant group is a ritually established “blood-related en-
tity” whose being is by a common consent a common life. This
way of being can be delineated in some talks about friendship
in terms of contracted-blood-brotherhood, covenant meals and
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oath-taking, which epitomise aspects of people’s life in Africa.
A covenant can exist between individuals or between individu-
als and the earth or with God where a closer union is estab-
lished, (Marie de Paul Neiers, 1965: p. 117), in a symbiotic
embrace, (See Senghor, 1964: pp. 72-73). The making of cove-
nant involves a “third”—a witness or a guarantor, who is not
part of the covenant relation.
The Igbo verb igba-ndu is used to translate the word cove-
nant. Igba means “to join together,” and ndu means life. Thus,
igba-ndu means to join lives together. This understanding
brings out the meaning of covenant as a cultural expression
through which persons or families or clans enter into a pact
following some solemn ritual procedure. Covenant in the Igbo
context is not just a joining of lives, but a mating of lives. The
word “mating” carries the air of at once joining and co-min-
gling and producing a hybrid that is life itself. It also connotes a
biological and religious reality whereby the ideas of producing
a hybrid retains the biological dimension (blood)-closer rela-
tionship-highlighted within the arena of socio-religious com-
mitment. Persons, families, communities and nations want to
come together and recognize an atmosphere of trust and mutual
support as brothers. How much closer beyond brotherhood can
people get! People then relate to each other in the manner de-
manded by their covenanted commitments, for rights and duties
and models of social order emerge as products of wills of
covenant partners. Thus, individuals as well as communities
need the atmosphere of brotherhood and mutual acceptance to
flourish. Thus, the ethics of covenant is rooted in people’s lives
and family spirit, (Ruch et al., 1984: p. 8). In this sense, the
covenant theory of legal theorising incorporates the view of law
as “a reconciliatory instrument for the enhancement of social
cohesion,” (Idowu, 2006: p. 9). To survive, Eri, the proto-an-
cestor made a pact with the earth through the ritual killing of
his children.Against this background, we can talk of covenant
as a basis for Igbo philosophy of law and right.
Rights within Covenant Perspective
Covenant making creates conducive environment for action
and exercise. Through covenants individuals and communities
create an environment of trust and mutual acceptance, thereby
enlarging their space. Given that covenants are built on grounds
of accepted rules between peoples, they generate accepted
codes of conduct available to all partners. Thus, a covenant
generates its own ethics of doing anchored on a guarantor that
is above the sum total of the wills involved in the pact. The
actions and rights accepted within the covenant environment
come from within, that is, they are the products of the partici-
pants, and not something imposed on them; covenant ensures
the rights of individuals and rules arise to make sure the rights
are maintained. Now, the rights or laws are positive in the sense
that they are given by people to themselves, not as commands
of the sovereign to the inferiors. The laws can also be founded
transcendentally since the world between covenant partners is a
public world that belongs to all but to none, as it transcends
their isolated individual wills. Besides, the guarantor of the
world is a third, who, as guarantor, safeguards impartiality. The
covenant arena protects already existing natural law prescrip-
tions, establishes second-order rules for the regulation of con-
duct to safeguard first-order rights (right to life and property).
Contract laws and other rules regulating other aspects of social
relationships such as Okafor’s iwu obodo (community rules)
are positive as they express sentiments of different authorities
and peoples. To drive on the left or right is not a natural law
command; it is a particular positive law, but it can embody a
natural law principle to do good and avoid evil in a particular
instance. Through covenants people assume that the carriers of
meaning employed by individuals in Ohacracy are recognised
as such. Covenants ritualise and legitimise the concerns raised,
the agreements reached, basic goods on which all stand.
Again, Oha (or Ohacracy) is a clearing house for resolving
conflicts and making alliances in order to realize the mission of
each one; thus the Oha will recognize existing natural law rules,
and discover further natural law principles that are operative in
the inter-subjective world, and also generate new positive laws
to facilitate social cohesion; after all, law is an instrument of
social control of behaviour. In fact, the Igbo society will have
laws built on natural and positive principles. To attempt to con-
fine Igbo legal theorising solely to legal positivism or natural
law bent is restrictive; it incorporates all. In fact, its type of
theory can be referred to as legal coherentism. It is a view that
law or value or action is justifiable according as it coheres with
cherished or accepted principles beliefs. That something is
coherent does not make it necessarily right, but it could be right.
The point is that coherence is not co-extensive with truth or
good morals. According as Igbo rules or beliefs cohere with
their natural or pragmatic view of reality it is justifiably
adopted; its moral is not always right or the good moral of
natural law Okafor might claim for it. Reality, for the Igbo
person, has a lot of shifting inner throbbing and shades; value is
not co-extensive with facts, but the Igbo is armed with practical
reasonableness as he fixes his gaze in a world where order
co-exists with disorder, and where he can drag reality to con-
form to his own bidding or performatively concur to his needs.
To a certain extent, the Igbo would follow the natural law
platform as Okafor would agree; but the Igbos are also prag-
matic, and might at times go against the will of a particular
deity to conform to theirs; hence the common saying-anyi si eke
noro ebe ono-that is, it i s us who f ixed wh ere eke (the deity of a
particular market day) is to be honoured. In other words, some-
thing is at times what it is because we have named it so, at least
from the world’s perspective. Igbo language (ordinary or spe-
cial) is not always descriptive; words can be employed perfor-
matively or ritually. This is not a denial that deductive or de-
scriptive propositions hold truth values; it is, however, not right
to force the Igbo legal mind into one straight jacket confined
solely either to the camp of natural law theorizing or legal posi-
tivism. A careful study of Igbo world would be found to show
that the dichotomy Okafor creates in the Igbo legal world be-
tween natural law theorists and legal positivists is not necessary.
We might debate on the merits or demerits of each tradition, but
all homes existentially within the Igbo legal world. A synthesis
of these two legal traditions is what legal coherentism intends
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