The Colonial Interlude and the Igbo Judicial Systems. Changes and Continuity

Colonial Impacts on the Judicial System of Administration

Term Paper, 2017

12 Pages, Grade: 1

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A Geographical Survey of Igboland

Pre-colonial Igbo Judicial System of Administration: Nature and Process

The Colonial Interlude and the Igbo Judicial Systems: Changes and Continuity


Notes and References


When the imperial powers promulgated the partition of colonial territories at the Berlin conference in 1885, Nigeria existed in three separate administrative units: the Colony and Protectorate of Lagos, Protectorate of Southern Nigeria and Protectorate of Northern Nigeria. By 1900, when the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria was formed from the British Niger Company’s administrative jurisdiction and the Niger Coast Protectorate, Igboland was considered a British colony even before it was officially subjugated. As a result of the British conquest certain Igbo oracle such as the lofty Long Juju (Ibini Ukpabi) at Arochukwu, were ruined by the British colonial government.1 in 1906, the Colony and Protectorate of Lagos and the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria were merged into one administrative unit known as the colony of Lagos and the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria. However, by the time the latter and the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria were amalgamated in 1914, there were approximately twenty-one British military expeditions in Igboland. Hitherto, in order to permeate and consolidate their administration in Igboland, the British colonial government appointed “Warrant Chiefs” and court messangers in order to administer the unprecedented Native Courts under the system of Indirect Rule.2 A decision which not only alter the religious, political, economic but as well the judicial front of Igbo societies.

A Geographical Survey of Igboland

Igboland is inhabited by the Igbo (also spelt Ibo), and located between latitude 50 and 7 0 north and longitude 60 and 80 east; bounded to the north by the Igala, Idoma, and Ogoja people, in the east by the Ibibio, the south by the Ijo and to the west by the Edo. It covers an area of 40,922 square kilometers. It is split into two unequal parts by the River Niger with the greater proportion lying to the east of the river.3 The dominant physical feature of most Igbo country is thick tropical forest. This physical environment has greatly influenced the history of the Igbo people. First, the forest provided excellent natural defense against invasion from the external enemies. There was therefore no conquest of the Igbo people which could have resulted in the establishment of an empire.4 Second, the inaccessible nature of the forest made mobility and intercourse among the Igbo people themselves who were mainly sedentary farmers difficult. Consequently, no one Igbo group was able to unite the people under one government through conquest. These reasons explain why the Igbo never evolved a centralized polity. Moreso, the Igbo by nature are extremely egalitarian and individualistic. They have intense love of personal freedom and very strong resentment for autocratic government over them. As a result, they preferred living in small village republics where every grown-up males was regarded as important as everyone else.5

Pre-colonial Igbo Judicial System of Administration: Nature and Process

A description of the pre-colonial Igbo judicial system necessarily makes an explanation of the indigenous political system of these forest communities inevitable. For one is to the other what the quiver is to the arrow. In other words, the judicial was embedded in the political sphere of their lives and judicial functions practically leaned on the shoulders of the political elites.

In place of large political units, states or empires, pre-colonial Igbo society was organized around hundred of villages (Ogbe) and village-groups (Obodo). Although they had some social and commercial interaction, each of the units had its own government and thus constituted a relatively independent social and political unit. There are qualifications to this generalization, for it is now accepted that the social diversities among the Igbo also translated into different political systems. Afigbo has identified four systems ranging from the Okigwe, Orlu, and Owerri regions where politics was based on kinship and lineage networks; to the Onitsha, Awka, and Nsuka regions where title-societies were the medium of political participation, to the Ohuhu (Umuahia) and Ngwa regions where government was shared by lineage-based structures and title-societies.6

In Afigbo’s type four, found among the northeastern and Cross River Igbo, “the business of government was met largely by a combination of the kinship and the age-set systems.”7 Similarly, Onwuejeogwu has identified nine sub-types of pre-colonial Igbo political organization: these, he fits into three broad categories; centralized democracies, middle range republics, and non-centralized democracies.8 these three categories needs no examination here, for they only differ from Afigbo’s in detail not substance.9 Inspite of their structural differences, these systems has a common denominator: lineage or kinship principles constituted a key feature in the recruitment of political participants. This explains Ebere’s contention that all three types are variants of the segmentary lineage system.10 One obvious deduction arising from this is that the segmentary lineage system expressed itself in various subsystems or variants.

The political organization of the Igbo people was therefore a peculiar one. The society was made up of hundreds of clan, each clan comprising people who spoke somewhat similar dialect and have certain distinctive social and religious customs, traditions and institutions. A clan was divided into villages. The villages or lineage was made up of people who traced their origin to a common ancestor. A village was in turn subdivided into kindreds (Ummuna) – a kindred comprising a number of families who claimed descent from a great grandfather11 At the compound level (Obi), every household recognizes the authority of the compound head; every decision taken by the member of the compound must receive his approval. Apart from offering sacrifices for the welfare of his compound members, he acts as spokesperson at any gathering as well as settle disputes including matrimonial ones and gives names and performs naming ceremonies of children in his compound.12

The framework of Igbo political affairs is diminutive enough to institute direct democracy at the village level as well as in the representative assembly at the village-group level. Primarily, respecting the principle of equality, accompanied with political cohesion maintained by rules rather than laws, shows that the Igbo political structure was tenaciously maintained before the advent of British colonial administration.13 it follows therefore, that the Igbo had hitherto instituted a political cum judicial system of administration that fits perfectly the their essence.

The Colonial Interlude and the Igbo Judicial Systems: Changes and Continuity

As pointed out earlier, the Igbo political (by extension, the judicial) authority was largely a fragmented one. The highest political authority was the village government where the elders could only make political decisions with popular consent. Without traditional chiefs who could legitimately exercise political authority, indirect rule in Igboland was unworkable. Laggard’s solution to this problem was to create his own chiefs who were invested with the authority to rule like monarchs. These invented chiefs became known as “warrant chiefs.” Though they lacked traditional relevance, their warrant to rule was expected to enhance the authority now bestowed on them.14

The Warrant Chief System noted Afigbo15 was an attempt by the British government to rule the natives through their traditional political organizations. He also purports that the natives did not accept the novel idea, partly because the said chiefs did not posses traditional political authority prior to their appointment by the British colonial government. More importantly, it is believed that the Warrant Chiefs were appointed in order to maintain British laws within the Igbo territory. Basically, the Warrant Chiefs consistently protected British interest over the interest of the natives and, as a result, emerged as the new ruling class in Igboland.16 the system came into existence through the Court of Equity. The Court were set up to protect the commercial interest of European and African merchants within the Oil Rivers (later Niger Coast) Protectorate. Despite the similarities between the Court of Equity and the Native Courts, one major difference was that the members of the Court of Equity were mainly African and Europeans. Additionally, the Court have jurisdiction over British, native and foreigners whom were non-British. The earliest known court of equity were established in Bonny in 1854; and by 1870, akin courts were established in Brass, Okrika, Okpobo and Calabar.17 It is decidedly unfashionable to express any degree of skepticism about the wat the Court of Equity were established in the Oil Rivers Protectorate. Indubitably, however, the Courts were established principally to administer some form of justice between African and European traders along the Niger Coast. Writing in 1977 on the judicial system in Southern Nigeria from 1854 to 1954, Adewoye wrote:

In the absence of any international codes of jurisprudence to govern relations between African and European traders in the Niger Delta, the Courts of Equity were deviced to serve the interest of commerce. They concerned themselves largely with trading disputes and regulation of matters of common interest to European traders.18

While the Courts were set up to ensure fairness and honesty among African and European traders, it was in fact dominated by European traders, mostly chief agents and frontline trading firms, who also presided over the court sessions.19 As noted prior, local African rulers and head of houses (trading corporations in the Niger Delta) sat on the courts, but it is apposite to observe that the Courts remained an instrument of the European society. The attribution of the name “court of equity” is presumably from the English court of equity which operated closely with common law dispensing rules of law dissimilar in origin from the English common law. Oddly enough, the court dispensed no particular body of law; codes were judged upon the principle of what the “justice” of particular issues required. Yet the sessions of the court were not regular.20 in this light the European model of justice can even be said to be kangarooic in nature.

Ostensibly, the Court was called forth only when its members show willingness to attend court sessions. Court decision were by simple majority vote, and the usual penalty was a fine. In practice, the British consul stationed in the area was infrequently available for the supervision of the courts. Therefore, the Court seemingly possessed weak features. Appearing for the plaintiff in Oko Epella v. Goosey before the Okpobo court of equity in 1874, Niger Delta trade luminary King Jaja bof Okpobo defied and repudiated the Court’s ruling and procedure in toto. 21 Hence, King Jaja expressed no regard for the consul or the court, and he made it clear that he would implement his own law within the land.22 In this regard, acts of defiance were not limited to African potentates; records of defiance were also associated with European traders who denounced the ruling of the courts of equity. By virtue of judicial and administrative duties, the courts of equity succeeded in implementing some degree of law and order, despite the principal nature of the court. In fact, the role of the court of equity fostered British authority and influence in the Niger Delta.

Thus; with the rise of Indirect Rule, through institutions such as the Warrant Chiefs System, British colonial administration thwarted the traditional government of the Igbo people. Isichei23 noted that the role of Warrant Chiefs increasingly conflicted with the traditional values of the land. On one occasion, when the Warrant Chief position was offered to elders of Onicha-Olona, they completely rejected the offer because of the pseudo and corrupt nature of the system. In fact most historians believed that the System was introduced in order to serve as an instrument of political pacification and consolidation.

Afigbo24 indicated that the anomalous nature of the Warrant Chief System was expected to aid military subjugation and thus give stability to what was considered pacification. Basically, the Protectorate lacked troops capable of subduing all the people. For instance, in an effort in 1901 to subdue Arochukwu, a clan with a population of 5000, the British colonial government had to derive troops from Northern Nigeria and Lagos. At a point in time, the colonial government sought to borrow troops from Sierra Leone and British Central Africa. By putting the local chiefs in administrative positions is a form of bribery, it rendered the colonial administration time to plan mischief. This became plausible when Sir Ralph Moore reportedly stated that immediate action would be used to establish Native Councils, thereby serving as a means of settling disputes and difficulties.

It has been noted that the Warrant chiefs were selected arbitrarily for their opulence and influence in their respective areas. But they were also appointed as a result of some form of consultation with the people. Okereke Udensi, an Aro man, was appointed Warrant Chief in Ihiala, a non-Arochukwu community, in the sense that he aided the colonial government in disarming the village-group.25

It is instructive to note that the Native Courts included clans and sometimes sub-tribes. For example, the Owerri Native court served villages from Isu and Oratta sub-tribes. Theoretically, however, the Native Court was set up in a way to indoctrinate native law and customs, but in practice, the law was administered in such a way to suit British authorities, thereby consolidating British colonial administration in Igboland and Eastern Nigeria as a whole.26 The native court proclamation of 1900 noted Afigbo27 divided the native courts into two parts. A native authority or local chief presided over the lower division of the court, which were called Minor Courts. The second tier, the native council was above the minor courts and they were presided over by political officers. Both the Native Council and the Minor Courts were located at the district headquarters. Further, people on the bench for both courts consisted of people who held a judicial warrant from the high comminssioner.

It was also observed that the native law and custom guided the Minor Courts and Native Council. They operated in different jurisdictions, albeit the Warrant Chief members have equal status. The jurisdiction of the former was limited to a twenty-five pound fine to cases dealing with debt or damage, and fifty pounds for inheritance cases. The jurisdiction of the latter was limited to two hundred pounds in civil cases dealing with debt, damage, and inheritance.28

Among the Igbo, some communities opposed the nefarious and ruthless nature of the Native Court system due to its infringement on native law and custom. Consequently, in order to oppose the law, some communities passed laws prohibiting people from attending native courts. Ekechi29 indeed noted that when the Umuapu court in Owerri division was boycotted, the Native Court and its officials became powerless in the area. in response to the boycott, the government sent a well-harmed military to the communities that attended the Umuapu court. Despite this resistance by the natives, the government was determined to impose its authority on the subdued natives. In practice, the Native Court Proclamation of 1901 (revised in 1906 by the Native Court Ordinance) stated the only legal means to provide justice within the Nigerian territory was through commissioner’s Court or native Council. As a result, any law contrary to that was considered illegal.

It should be pointed out that the British penetration of the hinterland of Southern Nigeria was associated with the establishment of the Native Court. Writing in 1969 on the Niger Delta rivalry, Ikime30 noted that the primary function of the Native Courts was to dispense native laws and customs which were not opposed to natural morality and humanity. In short, they were required to have jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases pertaining to native law, in which all parties involved were natives. The Native Courts were allowed to exercise the above onus under Clause XII of the 1901 Native Court Proclamation.

On the whole, the Warrant Chiefs maintained their position and power by habitually telling the elders and the people of the village the reasons and the outcomes of their visit to the district headquarters. Because the village saw them as a link between local community and local government, the chiefs became confident, and by acting within this new rising order, it busted opposition within the region. Hence, the period of Luggard’s governor-generalship characterized the end of an era in many ways. At least, it witnessed the inception of Luggard’s plan for introducing into Southern Nigeria the system of Indirect Rule, already enforced in Northern Nigeria. Most importantly, it ushered in the epoch during which the forces that discredited the Warrant Chief System were noticed.

As many factors instrumental to the collapse of the British influence on the judicial system of Igboland as inherent in this discourse thus far, none is defining as the Aba Women Riot of 1929, which clearly addressed the ruthless British administrative system in Eastern Nigeria. This riot known as Ogu Umunwanyi (women’s war), was the result of the introduction of direct taxation to the Eastern provinces of Nigeria in 1928, as well as the imposition of taxes on women.


Before Sir Claude Macdonald, Ralph Moore and Sir Egerton established the Warrant Chief System, their thought was in line with that of Crocker31 that; “the Africans generally needs commanding, which he does not resent; freed from command he tends to go to pieces,” but “their most perplexing dilemma was whether to ‘aid’ the transformation of colonial society or to preserve the traditional order.”32 Of course, they settled for the System. For it is their candid belief that it would establish Indirect Rule within the Eastern Provinces of Nigeria and thus consolidate British rule in the area. The institution of the Warrant Chief System was deemed as the forceful destruction of the Indigenous politico-judicial system of the Igbo people. To the people, the native court was “native” in theory, but not in practice. For it is observed that the Warrant Chief System was built upon the British Courts, and not Igbo traditional system. Prior to the advent of the system, the largest political unit was generally the village group, while the clan, which constituted tracing of their descent to a common ancestor, was the largest unit of informal politico-judicial organization. The fact that the system has no social standing and recognition among the people elicited a frosty response from the locals. A manifestation of this was the popular Umuapu court boycott and Jaja of Okpobo’s defiance of court order (discussed prior).

Albeit, the natives were involved in the system, but the practicality of the scene was – as Adebayo33 puts it – “in its stark reality, an administrative device using native institution to cloak a system of authoritarian rule.” The system should not however be seen as a total uproot of the indigenous order or a blatant erosion of established traditional judicial order as some would want us to belief, rather, it was simply an overwhelming domination of the indigenous judicial structure and processes or at best, a violent re-modification of traditional judicial system of administration.


1. Studied from Obaro Ikime, The Fall of Nigeria: The British Conquest, Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1982.

2. Obinna Onwumere, Transitions in Political System of Igboland: The Warrant Chief System, 1900-1929, in Toyin Falola (ed.), “Nigeria in The Twentieth Century”, Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.

3. A.I. Okporo, and A.M. Ibeanu, Igbo Civilization: An Archaeological and Historical Ethnographical Profile in Akinwumi Ogundiran (ed.), “Pre-colonial Nigeria: Essays in Honour of Toyin Falola”, Asmara: Africa World Press, 2005, p.187

4. as was the case with the Fulani conquest of the Hausaland and parts of Northern Nigeria and Northern Yorubaland or the Oyo conquest of Dahomey or the Asante conquest of the Fante states. This view is also presented in F. k. Buah, Europe and West Africa, London: Macmillan Educational Limited, 1967, pp. 137-138.

5. K.B.C. Onwubiko, History of West Africa, 1800-present, Onitsha: Africana-Fep Publishers Limited, 1967, pp. 107-108.

6. A.E. Afigbo, Prolegomena to the Study of the Culture History of the Igbo-Speaking People of Nigeria, in B.k. Swartz, Jr., and R.E. Dumett (eds.), “Weast African Culture Dynamics: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives”, New York: Mouton, 1980, p.311.

7. A.E. Afigbo, The Indigenous Political Systems of the Igbo, in “Tarikh, Vol.4, no. 2” 1973, pp. 12-23

8. M.A. Onwuejeogwu, Evolutionary Trends in the History of the Development of the Igbo Civilizationin the Culture Theatre of Igboland in Southern Nigeria, Owerri: Ahiajoku Lecture, 1987.

9. Both agree that “centralized democracies” obtained only among the Igbo west of the Niger and in Onitsha-Awka areas, although Afigbo insists – correctly – that the “monarchies” in these areas “were in fact largely the highest titles in the communities”.

10. Ebere Nwaubani, Acephalous Societies, in Toyin Falola (ed.), “Africa, Vol.3: Africa Before 1885”, Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2000, pp. 280-281.

11. K.B.C. Onwubiko… p.108.

12. A.I. Okporo, and A.M. Ibeanu, Igbo Civilization: An Archaeological and Historical Ethnographical Profile in Akinwumi Ogundiran (ed.), “Pre-colonial Nigeria: Essays in Honour of Toyin Falola”, Asmara: Africa World Press, 2005, p. 192.

13. Obinna Onwumere, Transitions in Political System of Igboland: The Warrant Chief System, 1900-1929,… p.173.

14. Adebayo Oyebade, Colonial Political Systems, in Toyin Falola (ed.), “Africa, Vol.3: Colonial Africa 1885-1939”, Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2002, p.78., A. E. Afigbo, The Warrant Chiefs: Indirect Rule in Southern Nigeria 1891-1929, New York: Humanities Press, 1972, p. 61. Notably, the British government arbitrarily appointed the Warrant Chiefs without the consent of the people. Here Afigbo pointed that Anyigo Agwu, the first warrant chief from the Ikwo clan in the Abakaliki division, was never a traditional chief before his appointment as a Warrant Chief. Further, the British believed that since Anyigo appeared courageous and strong, he would be an effective leader in the Ikwo community.

15. In his; The Indigenous Political Systems of the Igbo, in “Tarikh, Vol.4, no. 2” 1973, p. 5.

16. Ibid., p. 258.

17. Omoniyi Adewoye, The Judicial System in Southern Nigeria, 1854-1954, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1977, p.33.

18. Ibid., p. 34.

19. Ibid., p. 33.

20. Ibid., p. 34.

21. Jaja of Okpobo was a slave who rose to the leadership of the Anna pepple House (a Niger Delta trading house) and later became King of Okpobo.

22. Obinna Onwumere,… p.174.

23. E. Isichei, The Ibo People and the Europeans: the Genesis of Relationship to 1906, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973, p. 161.

24. A.E. Afigbo, The Warrant Chiefs: Indirect Rule in Southeastern Nigeria 1891-1929, New York: Humanities Press, 1972, p. 50.

25. Ibid., p. 60.

26. A. E. Afigbo, Revolution and Reaction in Eastern Nigeria: 1900-1929, Journal of Historical Society of Nigeria, Vol.3, pp. 538-557.

27. A.E. Afigbo, The Warrant Chiefs: Indirect Rule in Southeastern Nigeria 1891-1929,...p.84

28. Ibid., p.541.

29. F.K. Ekechi, Tradition and Transformation in eastern Nigeria, New York: New York University Press, 1989, p. 146.

30. Obaro Ikime, Niger Delta Rivalry: Itsekiri-Urhobo Relations and the European Presence 1884-1936, New York: Humanities Press, p. 171.

31. W.R. Crocker, On Governing Colonies, London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1947, p. 15.

32. J.M. Lee, Colonial Development and Good Government, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957, p. 122.

33. Augustus Adebayo, White Man in Black Skin, Ibadan: Spectrum Books Limited, 1985, p. 114.

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The Colonial Interlude and the Igbo Judicial Systems. Changes and Continuity
Colonial Impacts on the Judicial System of Administration
Cultural history
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This piece is in no way an explicit account of British imperial activities in Igboland, rather a look into the changes and continuity as occasioned by the British Invasion and eventual colonization of Igboland to the Judico-political realm.
Colonial History of Igboland
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Raji Afeez Tope (Author), 2017, The Colonial Interlude and the Igbo Judicial Systems. Changes and Continuity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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