Nnewi Ancient Legal System


The ancient legal system of Nnewi was not based upon a written law. It was purely natural law, involving custom, tradition, and civil and criminal cases. The legal process in Nnewi passed through the labyrinth of the extended family system.

A report against an offender or a criminal in the first instance had to be made to the head of his family at his ancestral home known as obi. The head of the family would invite elders and minor obis from his extended family unit to sit in judgment, while the complainant would also invite the elders and minor obis from his extended family side if both of them were not from the same family. This obi would serve as the court of the first instance, depending, of course, on the nature of the offence or crime allegedly committed. The trial might end here, if both the complainant and the accused were satisfied with the judgment given, or they might take the case to the next senior obi of the same extended’ family, in ascending order, until, probably, the matter got to the highest obi in the lineage. If the complainant was not satisfied at this point, he would appeal to the obi of the quarter and the leaders of his family could be summoned to defend their judgment.

Through this legal procedure, guilt or innocence could easily be established, as the decision was based purely on natural justice. Punishments for offences and criminal acts were given in relation to their gravity. A man who was found guilty of a serious crime might have no option than to be sold into slavery or expelled from the community for life. He would not be killed because the killing of human beings was against the injunction of Edo Goddess.

The judicial system in Nnewi seems to have recognized three classes of cases, the minor offences, the true criminal case, and the civil suits of debt, bride price and land. The breaking of by-laws was really an offence against some particular juju and as such was to be expiated by a sacrifice. It was, for example, forbidden to kill an “eke” snake, a type of python, or to eat “ewi,” rodent of the rabbit family. It is probable these laws were never broken willingly and if broken by accident, the offender would automatically perform a sacrifice without any form of the judicial trial being held.

The criminal code, with regard to serious crimes, appears to have been more developed in Nnewi than elsewhere in Igbo land. There were seven main classes of offences, which were known as

“ori-obi,” offences against the obi, as their investigation was always carried out in the obi of the quarter. These seven offences were as follows:

  1. Wounding,
  2. Destruction of crops
  3. Poisoning (including placing medicine on a man’s land)
  4. Child stealing,
  5. Arson,
  6. Stealing,
  7. revealing secret to other towns, espionage or spying.

Trial Procedure

The procedure adopted when any of these offences had been committed was rough as follows. Whether the complainant had or had not recognized the accused when the offence was being committed, he would go at once to the leader of the quarter concerned. If the accused was seized or recognized at the time of the offence, or if there was sufficient proof to identity the accused, he would be brought before the council of the quarter. There is little doubt that the accused would be allowed to say anything he wished, but of orderly procedure, there could have been little. Finally, if the council, after consulting, arrived at the decision that the accused was guilty, he would be seized and sold as a slave (usually to Aro-chukwu), his property being confiscated. The proceeds would be divided between the leader of the quarter and the complainant, the council members, no doubt, receiving a share as well.

If there was reasonable doubt as to the accused’s guilt, he might be asked to go to the Aro-chukwu oracle, a deputation from the quarter concerned being selected to accompany him. Which way it went, Chukwu’s decision would be accepted.

The murder was considered as a crime apart. It would appear that a murderer was not killed, or told to hang himself, but simply driven out of the town together with all his family. The accused’s relatives would do this by invading the murderer’s compound with force, the latter seldom waiting to offer any resistance. All his property would be besieged by the injured family and the compound razed to the ground. This idea of the whole family suffering for the crime of one of its members was probably the strongest deterrent of such a crime.

Civil Procedure

The procedure in a civil case depends on the usual principle of disturbing as few persons as possible in the matter. The common civil cases were naturally those concerning debt, bride price or land. Failing to obtain a settlement between themselves, the litigants would go to the obi-holder of the smallest unit of which they both were members. The obi-holder would call together if necessary; the old men of the unit and a settlement, or judgment would be made. At these meetings, everyone who wished could talk, plaintiff, defendant, witnesses and judges, all speaking together whenever a point in any single person’s statement might be held to be in dispute. There is little doubt, however, that after the usual consultation the judgments given were excellent and unbiased.

In cases of dowry, bride price or debt, the near relatives of the contracting parties would have been present at any of discussions concerning the matter. In land cases, certain reasonably definite laws governed inheritance or succession, as generally speaking, all that remained to be decided was a question of ancestry. Questions concerning the actual users of the land for the past generations could never have been in dispute.

All decisions seem to have involved an oath and there was little doubt that this used to give satisfaction to both parties. The elders might also be themselves required to swear an oath to prove evidence given by them from the bench, concerning genealogical trees_ custom or tradition.

Fees were paid by both parties, definitely, and both parties must present palm wine. The final enforcement of a civil judgment was always a resort to force, the successful party seizing goods, including domestic animals from his debtor’s compound to the value of his judgment. The enforcement must have been, as a rule, successful as it would always be supported by public opinion. In a land case, for example, a fight between the two disputing families would be the final result of a failure to accept a judgment of the elder-in-council. Such fights, however, were more commonly recorded between two large units, which had no really effective machinery for producing a council whose ruling each party was likely to accept.

Excerpt from, Nnewi: United Kingdom Of Anaedo by Louis E. O.Onunkwo

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply