Human Right in Pre-colonial Igbo Society

 The Igbo Nation in the Pre-colonial Era

Human Right in Igbo Society history of igbo cannot be without going memory lane and origin. The Igbo story is not the story of a localized community but one of the black people all over the continent of Africa. Ndi-Igbo therefore is said to mean the “Ancients, the first people, the Aboriginals (NdiGbo).[1]

Origin OF Human Right in Igbo Society

According to Acholonu, the origin of Ndi Igbo came from the Bushmen, who were direct descendants of the Homo erectus (early man).[2]

They traversed and migrated out of Africa as hunter gatherers. They were called Igbo by the earliest migrants, probably the Nri who met them in sittu on arrival in the Nigeria-Benue confluence area.

Origin of Igbo names by history

The Igbo went by many names, in South Africa they are known as San or Shan, Bushmen Twa and pygmies in other parts of Africa. In China, they were known as Shan (the creators of the Shan Dynasty of God-men) and in Igbo land as Eshi/Nshi or NwaNshi. According to Affigbo, the Igbo have lost all memory of their migration into the area they now occupied if it never happened. He maintained that the Igbo migrated from Okigwe cuesta and Awka-Orlu uplands to the southern areas of Uratta, Ikwere, Etche, Asa, and Ndoki as well as the west and east.[3]

However, the word “Igbo” is used to refer to: the language spoken by Ndi-Igbo. It can also be seen to mean the domestic speakers of the language and the territory of Ndi-Igbo.

Udobata opnion

According to Udobata, the Igbo believed that Eri  the gods came down to the earth from the sky, he sat on anthill as the land was morass or water logged – (Ala di deke deke). He was sent down from the sky with his wife Namuaku (mother of fecundity). Following Eri’s compliant, Chukwu (the Supreme God) sent down an Awka (blacksmith) who used his fiery bellows to dry the land.[4] This goes to portray the myth of human origin in the Igbo traditional thought.

BACKGROUND OPINIONS on Human Right in Igbo Society

Firstly there is a generally view that there is an early Igbo home land on the northern Igbo plateau…around the Awka, Orlu and Okigwe areas of Nigeria. Nri in Awka area has been looked upon as one of the earliest center from whence the founding fathers of the most Igbo communities came into existence  to their present abodes.

This was as a result of the fact that the Nri civilization believes to have risen around the period 320BC to 30 BC, and starts expanding and imposing its way on neighbouring peoples from about the period of 30 BC to 550, and probably got into Nsuka area now in Enugu State between 1130 and 1710.[5] The archeological evidence above goes to establish the emergence of Igbo communities and more probably their kingship institution.


What determines social status in Igbo Nation is basically economic power and hardly gender. Though males are always seen as being at the top and according special treatment and respect to their female folks. A rich man who is out spoken, hardworking and fearless can hardly  expects to be looked down upon by any member of the society or neighbouring town/village.

This situation is also applicable to the female counterpart but she must be seen as the husband’s property. She will get more respect where she is marries and lives in peace with the husband. This is in relation to the Igbo saying that Mma Nwanyi bu di (the beauty of a woman is her husband).[6]

Ardener opinions on Human Right in Igbo Society

Accordingly, Ardener opines that no woman in the Igbo Nation of the olden days ever comes to own or acquire any of her father’s land in any sense.[7] He averred that ownership of land is vested on males in the kinship unit. The married women/females have onus of the lands’ day administration. He further used the polygamous family as the model family unit for the Igbo.[8] HRH Eze Akpandu averred that: “females can acquire land through express transfer or handing over from their father especially where the man involved had no male issue.[9]This he called Ime Nri Ani in Uburu custom and tradition of Ebonyi state Nigeria.[10]


Generally, Umunne is collectively accepted as a major Igbo kinship maxim in present igbo Land. It is seen as the nucleus of the patrilineal descent, where the idea of relatedness is traced to the one woman/man at the apex through whom all the members of the patrilineages have descended.[11]This is the reason for Igbo saying Izu ka mma na nneji.[12] Umunne is also seen as anal-embracing word, it is used more often to refer to certain categories of kinsmen.[13] It may even be used to refer to a large extent of extended relations of same descent.[14] In the Igbo traditional though, wherever human is involved, Life (Ndu), confidence (Izu), humility (Umeani), beauty (Nma), and fecundity (Omumu)comes to play.

Humanity here has to do with sense of responsibility and is in itself strength (Ume) of the Goddess of Igbo religion, Ani/Ala. Ala is always said to be humble, this is always seen in its flat nature, in providing for life for all her children (Human) but very bewitching when it comes to moral  rectitude. Ala own all both the living and the dead and maintains the stage for all to perform.  Also the center of Igbo life (ala), so is the real Igbo though and life.[15]

The Igbo as it pertains to conflict resolution used non-centralized form of government. The Elders and the council of elders were most important peacemaking and conflict resolution mechanisms and such is still in existence.[16]

CAUSES OF CONFLICTS and Human Right in Igbo Society

The main cause of conflict among the Igbo is land, chieftaincy tussle and matrimonial deadlocks. The Igbo in the pre-colonial period did not fight total wars or pitched battles and did not celebrate war like most western countries. They did not jump into social control or wait for conflict to start before control; they rather had established institutions in order to control the suppression of weaker person from the stronger, the institutions[17] in question carryout the task of peace education building, confidence building, peacemaking and peace enforcement and also monitoring conflict outbreak.[18]

The institutions handle conflicts at different levels in the Igbo society. But however, the basic unit for teaching peace and preventing conflict was the family. The Okpara (first son) system had a lot to do. What the Okpara could not do shifted to Umuada or Umumma and necessarily to Amala.[19]   There were also supernatural forces which were noted for their impartiality and effectiveness in giving verdict; they were deities.[20] Such are known to be from neighbouring town and villages and within the very village.

Method of Settling Disputes

The Igbo in settling conflicts also make use of blood covenant simply called Inuiyi [21] and Igbandu.[22] This practice is a covenant between two or more individuals or a group of persons. The persons involved prepare a mixture with blood of each persons involved and every member drinks. It goes that none of the involved persons harm each other or allow anything which he perceives as harmful to harm that other.

This is one of the Igbo pre-colonial judicial and conflict management processes. It is in existence and a very effective means of securing reconciliation among individuals and group of persons. Anybody who breaches the Igbandu or inuiyi terms suffers mystical consequences.[23]

Accordingly , Ohadike[24] gave his own account of the origin of the Igbo similar to that of Udobata.[25] He posted that an Igbo creation myth relates that in the beginning the surface of the earth was encompassed by water and no humans lived on it. Then one day Chukwu (God) created the first human family, made up to Eze Nri, his wife, his sons and his daughters. Eze Nri and his family stood on the top of an anthill and had nowhere to go because the land was submerged. They were also hungry. Chukwu looked down and took pity on their condition and gave Eze Nri a piece of yam and said ‘Take this, it is edible’. Eze Nri and his family at the yam and found it was good.[26]


Not quite long they became famished, and Eze Nri prayed to God for more yams. Chukwu listened attentively and then give him some yam seeds and instructed him to plant them that he will have abundance of yams to eat. Eze Nri accepts it gladly but complains that the land was with water. Chukwu instruction to him was to send for Awka blacksmiths, who came with their bellows and blew until the land was dry to enable him cultivate the yam seedlings.[27]

This view establishes the Igbo people’s belief in a Supreme God (Chukwu) to have created all things and demand obedience. It also suggests that religion had long been an integral part of Igbo life. It also evidenced the origin of agriculture, the antiquity of the family and even the importance of iron working in shaping the Igbo community.

The Igbo lived in autonomous villages and towns, where elders or Eze rules. They organize themselves in patrilineal-lineage groups,   along lines of descent from father to sons. Relationships were on blood ties, and each person traces his or her descent to three groups. First, a person belongs to the smallest social unit known as Uno (house). This was a natural family, consisting of a man, his wife and their children. Hence, the idea of private family life as a right due to a person in Igbo traditional thought.[28]


The pre-colonial Igbo community were democratic extremists, they subscribed to the principle of direct participation in government. There entire social and political structures revolved around the notion of crosscutting ties. The five most important cross cutting institutions were the council of elders, age-groups, council of chiefs, women’s associations and secret societies.

The traditional Igbo communities indeed fall apart in the twentieth century when the Europeans destroyed their cross cutting ties in the process of colonial rule as evidenced in the case of Igbo community in Oyo. This is because in my opinion the cross-cutting institution should have sat and heard the matter, if not for the emulative nature of the Igbo in terms of dispute settlement brought by the white men.[29]

3.2 The Concept of Mmadu (Human being) in Igbo Traditional Thought

Human according to Boethius is “an individual substance of a rational nature”.[30] This he said means that human is a rational substance or being, adding that it is not enough for human being to be conscious but that Human should be conscious of the fact that he is conscious.[31]

Traditionally, Human being is an individual that possesses a spiritual nature. This definition is said to contain a genus “individual” and a specific difference “possessing a spiritual nature”.[32]

It was equally, the argument that Human beings by their very nature are individual beings and as such is one in himself and distinct from all other beings. He is a rational cum spiritual being and because of this qualities, he is also a moral being. To this effect, Donceel opines that “all real beings are individual that general entities exist only in the mind. But all real beings are not individualized in the same way.[33] This means that human being is one in himself and distinct from all other beings through the very fullness and affinity of his being.

Supremacy of life

Firstly, to the Igbo life is the supreme value: NDUBUISI. A typical Igbo female name is GINIKANDU?  A rhetorical question, what is greater than life? And the Igbo answer to this question is simply “Nothing”. Thus, within this life-valuing scheme, the Igbo assign man an apex position.[34]

The indigenous Igbo word for human being Mmadu or Mma-ndu translated as “the beauty of life”, the crown of creation, the glory of creation. Conceiving man in this highly romanticized away, the Igbo granted man the greatest possible right to autonomous existence. Hence, the Igbo concept of self is ONWE; a contraction of two words “ONYE NWE”, the possessor” “own Lordship”. The Igbo sees a given human being as “ONWE YA” a Lord unto himself. Therefore, to lose freedom to the proper Igbo is a logical equivalent of death. And he would prefer the death option under situations of bondage, for to be enslaved is not to be. That is to become a living dead: o din duo nwuka nma.[35]

concept of uniqueness and Human Right in Igbo Society

This Igbo word for human being “Mmandu” appears to sum up as well as provide a clue to the rich traditional Igbo perception of the uniqueness of human beings, their life and place in creative order. No doubt the traditional cosmology of the different African people sees the spirit world as superior to, as and more powerful than the human world. However, it is man and his world that form the focal point of the traditional Igbo vision of reality.[36] With respect to the words of Umeogu:


The masquerade is a symbolical or spiritual or mystic existence whose substance of being is a fractional of the reconciliation or synthesis of the material and spiritual worlds (ana mmadu naana mmuo). The masquerade is a trans-substantive piece of the universe.[37]

The above expression vindicates our understanding of the concept of mmadu. Mmadu is symbolismic or spiritual on the sense that though there is a physical representation as to the body that we see and to which depending on the circumstances of gestation and birth is given a name for proper identification and differentiation. There is an aspect of mmadu that remains spiritual, mystical (mmuo). Therefore, the mmadu that is perceived with the sense organs is a symbolismic portrayal of the real mmadu within. However, this is so because though the body of mmadu remains intact, the departure of that inner and spiritual aspect, noticed with the stoppage of breathing, renders the body stark and still.[38]


According to him African belief man does not take his existence for granted. He accepts that he owes his origin to God and that he is the supreme symbol of Gods authority over his creation. His life and activities are, therefore, seen in a religious context.[39]

The Igbo believe that mmadu is a supreme creature of “Chineke” (God of creature). The various or any contrary opinion on evolution be it spontaneous or otherwise are foreign to Africans. There are variations in the mythologies as shown by various parts of the Igbo world but these variations have as their common denominator.  That is “mmadu” was created by “Chineke”.[40]

However, Some Western scientists as Tilhard de Chardin note, see man as an animal like others “so little separable anatomically from the anthropoids and so classify him among the same super family”, the hominidae”, the African makes a thorough distinction between man and the lower animals. In fact, it is not just an insult but also a curse to call an Igbo man” anu manu” (animal). It is considered a complete depersonalization of the person in that “mmadu” enjoys an ontological existence distinct from the mere ontic existence of the animals.[41]

Awolalu on the composition of “mmadu”( human being):

Africans believe that man’s nature is partly material and partly immaterial. He is composed of body, which is tangible, concrete and measurable by which means he acts and reacts on his physical environment as well as the immaterial entity, which is immeasurable and intangible.[42]

Mmadu” as noted above is a composite of body and soul. The soul (mmuo) in the Igbo traditional thought is the essence of life in man. This unlike the soul of the animal which is mortal, the soul of man is considered immortal. Therefore, life of man to the Igbo is not just mere life which is common to both man and all living creatures, but goes on to include the intellectual and moral faculties as well.[43]

This Igbo perception of human being as well as life explains why human life  holds on high esteem, such that no man can unlawfully take the life of another or even his own life without sanctions. Various Igbo groups and religion had different kinds of measures and customs which  firmly anchors on the protection of man, his dignity, liberty and even properties from the unlawful suppression of others.[44]

3.3 The Igbo Concept of Human Right in the Pre-colonial Era

It has our observation that human right among the pre-colonial Igbo society is more of their perception or worldview. Thus, among the Igbo’s the expressions; ‘Igbo Kwenu, symbolizes consensus and collective will and such idiomatic expression as ‘Biri ma Mbiri (Live and let live); ‘Egbe Bere Ugo Bere Nke si Ibeya Ebela NkuKwaya’ (let both kite and the Eaglet perch, if any one of them obstructs the other from perching, let it loose its wings); Ndu Mmiri Ndu Azu, Mmiri Atala Ma Azu Anwula’ (Both the stream and the fresh should live. May the stream not dry and the fish not die); ‘Mee Onyeka Emere Ibeya Bu Iyi Di Na Asaa’ (Equal treatment to all is the traditional oath binding on everybody) emphasizes the notion of justice, fair play and freedom and therefore, the notion of Human rights from early times.[45]

Onumajulu opinion

added that, there were rules that enjoined respect for human life, property and other rights. Indeed, the Igbo traditional societies in pre-colonial era in their areas of Human and other related rights did not differ essentially from the conventional ideas of the West and other developed systems.[46]

3.4 Categories of Human Right in Igbo Pre-Colonial Society

         The ancient Igbo contemplated the phenomenon of Right in their worldview and concludes that there is no universal world view: “Uwa Abughi Otu!”. Thus, different men, different world views! One man, one world view!Those who claim to share God’s view would be considered mad and allowed to be by the ancient Igbo. This is because the ancient Igbo even in recent time anchored the origin of man on “Chukwu” Supreme Being or “Chineke” God of creature.

The Igbo do not trust the individual mind, which they hold, is subject to illusion: “agwo otu onye hurun agho eke”. Based on this profound conclusion, ancient Igbo civilization had granted man such far reaching fundamental freedoms. This still appear strange or incredible to many other people.[47]

 The Fundamental Freedoms Granted to Man in the Igbo Tradition:

Firstly,Freedom to be: Onyenakeya

Secondly, Freedom to a world-frame: Onyenuwanya

Thirdly, Freedom of thought: ONyenucheya

Fourhtly, Freedom of Religion: Onyenachiya

Also, Right to freedom of life: Onyenanduya etc.[48]

  1. Right to Life-Onyenanduya

       Generally, under Traditional Igbo societies thought are high of life, such consider it as the supreme gift of God.[49] The Igbo perception/promotion of human life is guided by some fundamental religious beliefs and ethos. The whole perception of life of the Igbo has its basis in religion. The Igbo sees life as God’s gift to man. Thus, it is holds sacred, highest good and understand as part of an integral reality, involving mere mortals and immortals.[50]

Madu’S opinions:

African’s cosmological base underscores the belief in the Supreme Being, deities, and the spirits forces and ancestors. Man relates and communicates with these spiritual beings in cults, otherwise called ritual actions. In fact, man’s helplessness in the face of the mysteries surrounding him makes him recognize and acknowledge his dependence on these forces, a situation which necessitates his reciprocity to God/gods and his creator; sustainer and preserver.[51]

The point above is that the Igbos and indeed all Africans understand life as a special gift from God, the source of life and creator of the universes. Njoku also observed that African conceives life as having divine origin. Thus, that God is the originator of life, the creator of man, that the ancestors play an important role in the communal life. And that life is a communal affair. It involves a relationship and communion between man, God, ancestors, divinities, other men and the land (Ala). That this relationship and communion must be based on certain rules and regulations for it to succeed.[52]

This African religions ethos accords to life a supreme sacred value. That is to say, life is sacred and ought to be treated as such. Since the gift of life falls within the prerogative of God, who is the sole master and controller of human life and the entire created order.  Since his creator (Chineke) merely calls man to the stewardship of his creation, then the Igbo man being deeply religions and godly cannot but treat life with an utter sense of sacredness.[53]


Indeed, life is seen as sacred for which any willful dangerous attitude, action or intention against life is interprets not only as evil but as a taboo against the community. Thus, any inhuman treatment unduly given to a person which threatens his life violates the sacredness of life. Beyond the Igbo notions, Life is generally perceives men of every race, tribe and culture as inviolable. The worst sin or evil or crime therefore becomes the one against human life.Life generally whether that of human or animals for the Igbo is to  treat them with respect.

This is why the blood of animals, say chicken or goat meant for celebrations or rituals, worships, festivals etc. is not spilled anyhow. Thus, since the Igbo held the life of man very sacred, it is only the life of animals which is lower than that of man that can be taken for special purposes for instance rituals and during festivities. Even when the animals are killed they are killed in a careful way and their blood disposed with reverence. This is because of the high value placed on life in its entirety by the Igbo.[54]


In most Igbo places, pregnant women and their husbands were required to offer occasional sacrifices to tutelary deities and ancestral spirits for the protection of the life of babies yet unborn.Pregnant women are shielded by numerous taboos mainly to ensure that the baby’s life is safe.[55]

Since the Igbo hold life as supreme and sacred, they believed that man shall not on whatever account take another’s life. Consequently, murder of any type was severally treated, in the case of intentional murder the punishment is perpetual exile or banishment. Where the culprit fled the community, the community will unleash their anger and vengeance on the property of the violator, his houses, personal effects and farmlands were set ablaze because their sacred places had been desecrated as a result.

Where the murder is unintentional, the murder will go into exile for some specific period of years after which he will  to return at the end of the years of exile. However, must perform some ritual upon return for purification and to cleanse the community of his abomination.[56]

NOTABLE TABOOS AND Human Right in Igbo Society

Generally speaking, Suicide or killing of oneself is a taboo in Igbo land of yesteryears even in recent times and so much frowned upon by man and gods that the victim must never be buried within the bounds of the community. Because his body is unclean such burial is  forbidden except in evil forest or outside the community to prevent such evil from befalling others.

Killing only takes place during war. Even during war, killing was also a transgression against the earth goddess (Ani). Consequently, when men return from war, they perform elaborate rituals for cleansing before they could rejoin their lineage.[57]

His Royal Highness Eze Akpandu opines that when a man would have married and have children. The more violent one whose acts poses threat to life would be sold off as a means of mitigating the threat to life. This is because the Igbo believe that one cannot take life to safeguard life.[58] Thus, no real  Igbo  foils with  life as every Igbo tradition protects life, any action that poses threat to life becomes one of the greatest taboos, be it one’s own life or that of another.

(2) Freedom of Religion – Onyenachiya

The traditional conception among the Igbo of Right to freedom of worship was most unlike of what it is today.[59] It is evident that within the spirit-category of beings, that there is one that occupies the highest position whose name is CHI (God) as noted in the preceding pages. But because the Igbo man has no specific or generic name for God, and indeed, because God’s principal name CHI is the generic name. it also applies for all the deities in the spirit-category, the Igbo devices a means to avoid this ambiguity or equivocal nature of the term Chi. One such device or alternative is to add a suffix Ukwu (Greatest) to the root word Chi.


Hence the name of the ultimate being in Igbo ontology is CHI-UKWU (the greatest God). Thus, where the suffix Ukwu (Greatest) is not added to the root word Chi (spirit).  The meaning is immediately and correctly determines from the context in which it is uses, that is to say other deities.[60]

The Igbo have therefore some concept of the supreme or ultimate being. They are not religiously illiterate or ignorant of this unique concept. That is to say that the ultimate object of their traditional religious worship is Chiukwu. Its other principal names and qualities among different Igbo localities include: CHINAEKE, EZECHITEOKE and OSEBULUWA. [61]

Thus, the question about whether the Igbo conceive God at all is no longer a dispute. In Obukpa-Asadu of the Northern Area Group of the Igbo, God is known  as Ezechitoke Abiamura or Abiama. This according to their believe means that God is the creator who cares and nurture his creation. He is also worshiped as Anyanwu Ezechitoke (the sun, the king spirit, the creator).[62]


Osebuluwa is another principal quality of the Supreme Being in which the Igbo in their worldview worship. It is derived from three Igbo words Ose: Olisa (God), Bulu (carrier), Uwa: (world), to mean God the carrier of the world or universe visible and invisible. The Igbo area of Asaba, Ika,Ndokwa and some areas of Onitsha worship God by this name. This indicates that the Igbo recognize that God has a plan for the world and he supports and directs his creatures to a realization of this plan.[63]

Notwithstanding, some other part of Igbo still observe and worship the ultimate being as Chinaeke. For instance: the Owerri dialect Igbo. This to them means that it is God who creates and apportions.[64]

The Igbo practiced pantheism which is the worship of a plurality of gods. There was a hierarchy of gods, with the supreme deity at the apex. Below him were several other gods or sub-gods. The Igbo were of the view that it was arrogance and condemnable for anyone to attend to worship the supreme deity (God) directly.  So they had intermediary of gods, even these  lesser  gods,  were not approached directly but through intermediaries known as priests and priestesses.


However, there was a point when families could choose how to worship. Thus, outside the family, there was uniformity of worship but within the family. They could worship their personal God or chi as they pleases. This is however through the instrumentality of the head of the family, who offers sacrifices to that personal god in accordance with the means of the family.[65]

Eze Akpandu add’s that before colonialism that Igbo race were idolaters and each family has idols or deity they worship and pay tribute.[66]

However, in the Igbo traditional thought every person and family is at liberty to worship his chi or the supreme being as he pleases. It can either be by raising an alter or paying tributes in front of the Obi by standing and pouring libations.


Chukwu’s alter or most common symbol is an Ogbu, cotton, or Awha or (chi) tree. Or sometimes sampling a post some four to six inches high, usually accompanied by round or flat stones, and a pot or pots containing water and sometimes yellow wood, eggs, phallic chalk-cones, round stones and palm wine.[67]

He added that in some places, as among the Afikpo Edda, Chineke has cult symbols, personal family and public alters. This regular sacrifices are to Chukwu.[68] The Igbo also believes in the existence of ekwensu,the equivalent of Satan, whose prime occupation was to lead people astray. They believe ekwensu uses people to offend others and would then turn around to punish same people who served him.[69]

(3) Right to Freedom of Thought/Conscience – Onyenucheya

  This right which exists in the Igbo traditional thought has to do with the fact that every Igbo man is free to conceive ideas. It can be such which will benefit him as a person or his family or the community generally. The Igbo community harshly frowns at any conception of idea which will pose threat to life. Also, threat to properties of individuals and the well-being of the entire populace in general. Individuals and groups are also free to nurture whatever belief and practices on the condition that it must not be such that the community frowns at.[70]

(4) Freedom of World-Frame-Onyenuwaya

   The freedom of world-frame I would opine is probably all encompassing. History bears witness that there is no culture or people without a world frame. That it is difficult to come by two groups of people who have identical world frames. Even within one group, different segments or individuals may have different world views. Thus, there are as many world frames or views as there are many cultures, groups of people. There is the western world frame, Christian world frame, and the African traditional world frame view.[71]

We talk of world frame or view when referred to people’s essential or basic outlook on life, reality as a whole and man’s place, role, and prospect in it.  Thus, gives unity and purpose to a people in their relationship to God or supernatural realities, nature or the physical reality and to one another. Generally, this has to do with a set of values, concepts, attitudes and images which guide man’s perception and interpretation of facts and events. It constitutes a mental map of the understanding of the universe in relation to the subsequent act of men in the community while dealing with others.[72]

(5) Right to Freedom to be-Onyenankeya

  This indigenous Igbo right is not different from that guaranteed by the Nigeria constitution.[73]

In the Igbo traditional thought individuals are has freedom to their private life either in group or personally. Individuals live their individualistic life but not necessarily derogating from the norms and values of the society.

Thus,persons run their family affairs, businesses, farmland and other affairs to his personal whims and caprice. Also, such must conform to the general regulation of the society. This right gives an individual the freedom to do things the way and manner that pleases his conscience and thought.

Eze Akpandu opines that, when a stripling is of age to marry in the olden days, he either look out for a damsel by himself or seek for the help of his parents, family, friends and well-wishers. That once he marries and settles with his family he exercises control over his family and they live together to the joy of their desires.[74]

(6) Right to Fair Hearing and Human Right in Igbo Society

firstly, the concept of natural justice was not alien to traditional Igbo society.  Indeed their idea of fair hearing predated the twin concept of fair hearing and Natural justice in English societies. According to victor Iyisi in his book Abominations and Taboos in Igboland, it was a taboo for a man to be accused of wrong doing without being giving the right to defend himself. Also, it was a taboo for a person to appoint as arbiter consciously or deliberately give a wrong judgment.[75]

Similarly, the Igbo society is on the concept of fair play and justice. This is because the Igbo society practices open court system.  Issues comes in the village square and nobody will be in doubt of the ground for which judgment or decisions.

(7) Right to Political Participation and Human Right in Igbo Society

Generally, Ohadike observes that the Igbo communities were known as extremely democratic society. However,they had no centralized government. The Igbo generally subscribed to the principle of direct participation in government.[76]

Participation in political affairs is exclusively masculine affairs. Every male person who is of age is expected to converge at the village square at the sound of the gong. This is because the Igbo man believes that each member of the family has specific and special duty at meeting. That everybody cannot leave the house at the same time, so the women stays back.The males therefore has freedom to take part in politics and intimate their family members upon return. To this end, it is difficult for one to be bound by the decision to which he is not a direct party. Thus, every member participates directly or indirectly through the head of the family.[77]

(8) Right to Property and Human Right in Igbo Society

Accordingly, the view of Eze Akpandu, all land were fallowed in pre-colonial Igbo society.  To this end whichever quantity one can farm or cover during farming and such person continues to farm such land, the land subsequently becomes his. This evidenced how ownership to land emanates.

Upon acquiring ownership, the first male child of the family inherits the land at the demise of the family head. He becomes the rightful person to appropriate their father’s estate in nuclear family behalf of others. Others can carry a calabash of wine and four kolanuts to the elder and telling him of his intension to acquire land. In the case of polygamous family, when the land is duefor apportioning, the family will gather according to their gates. The land  shareing will in accordance to the number of gates in the household or family.

Pattern of sharing land as of right and Human Right in Igbo Society

Firstly, each gate will make available to the kindred (Umunna) four tubers of yam, four kolanuts, a goat and 2 calabashes of palm wine. This is follows apportioning the land to the various gates that made up the household. Eze Akpandu added that after the initial demarcation that a little portion of the land will be deliberately left. Which will add to the first male child of the first gate.  it is their believe that the dead father of the gates (Head of the household) first began to toil with the first wife who was the mother of the first gate.[78]

Hence, Traditional Igbo communities recognizes the right to property. In the words of Victor Iyisi, “it was an abomination for anyone to destroy or damage the property of another. It does not matter how little such as his houses or farmlands or even taking the property of another without his consent which may amount to stealing”.[79]


The value that the Igbo places on property made them to dedicate their properties to some powerful deities for protection .[80]

It is generally a believes that women were does not own properties or acquire same. This is far from the truth. According to the words of IbomEze II of Enu-Uburu Kingdom, women were also given land just like men for farming purposes. He also adds that any woman who first acquire the fallowed land and continues to cultivate such becomes the owner as of right. At  her demise, her last male child inherits the land and other properties of the mother.[81] He also adds that a dead father while alive can at will hand over his land to his daughter who will gain title to the land.

However, this is after performing the Ime Nri Ani (the traditional rigghts of the people). The Ime nri ani is a traditional ritual that will give the female daughter who was to gain title to the land access. It was after the Ime nri ani ritual that she gains full title to the land to the exclusion of every other person.[82]

(9) Right to Freedom of Association and Human Right in Igbo Society

The traditional Igbo societies had many associations starting with age grade, Umunna,Umuada and Nze na Ozo. Virtually all the other associations were based on compulsory membership.[83]

Eze Akpandu opined that membership of these associations is at will and not compulsory and that one can withdraw his membership any time except in the case of Omabe cult (masquerade  cult). In such, membership is at will, and no member can denounce his membership but withdraw from active participation.[84]

This right of association though was manifest in the Igbo traditional society, it has some short comings. This is so because association was predominately male, that of Nze na Ozo discriminates between the so called freeborn males.  Also, those within the Osu caste system, and more so the compulsory nature of its membership. The Court in modern time frown at associations that restricts the liberty of persons to join at will and exit at will. Thus, in Agbai v. Okagbue,[85]the Court struck down compulsory membership of any association on the ground of its being unconstitutional.

(10) Right to Dignity of Human Person and Human Right in Igbo Society

The concept or respect for human life and the general well being of people means that people must avoid doing wrong to others . This corresponds to the golden rule in the expression of “what you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others”. This has a clear ethical vision, it contains in a sense some ethical principles (dignity of human being) and it considers ethics the foundation of the genuine way of enhancing human life. This concern for human well being is only possible because the Igbo strongly believe in the dignity of every human being.

In the Igbo traditional thought, a person fulfill his or her humanness when he or she is capable of respect. It includes, respects for himself/herself and for others. Thus, whenever a person does not respect the life and dignity of other persons, he/she automatically empties his/her life force; “. The essence of a real human being”, because it is the essence of the human person. Any conduct that does not respect and pay regard to the dignity of human life is bad.

As whatever contributes to the protection and the intensification of the human life is good. The same can be said to other African cultures.[86] In addition to this concept of human dignity among the Igbo, there exists the spirit of “togetherness”. This generates the spirit of hospitality, solidarity and distinguishes the Igbo ethics from the Marxist notion of “class struggle”. This is seemingly the reason for the compulsory association in the Igbo traditional thought.

Thus, the unity and solidarity of the Igbo in all spheres of life makes social life bearable for the people. Therefore, all human thought and behaviour is expected to conform to this value to ensure social harmony.[87]

(11) Right to Provision and Human Right in Igbo Society

This right was prevalent in Igbo pre-colonial traditional thought system. The idea here was to provide for and protect minors till the age of majority. Children under their parents have the right of  care and providence of  necessaries. They also have the right as to proper guidance of their general well being and career, say farming, trading, fishing or even education.

The Igbo in the pre-colonial era did not make caricature.  It is upon themselves that every minor in the family or society must be cared and provided for adequately so as to prepare and equip him for his future independence.

Marriage and Human Right in Igbo Society

More so, when a child is of age to settle on his own, the father would show him some piece of land.Equally, some yam seedlings to start off his own farm land, he would help him lay foundation for house or even erect the house. He also, then proceed to get him a wife. When any male person is of age, he shares the some portion of the community land without necessarily paying for it.

This right I would humbly submit was more enjoyable in the pre-colonial era compared to recent time.  In the present days any person who is of age and is in need of land must have to purchase it.

3.5 The Philosophical Foundations of Human Right in Pre-colonial Igbo Society

    E.A. Udu wrote:

However, Human Right in Igbo Society is part of the Natural right as conceived and also seen in an inherent part of natural law.  This exist independently of rights created by government or society. It is equally known as “positive law”. Natural law therefore, regards as a philosophical system of legal and moral principles  deriving from a universalize conception of human nature.  Or divine justice rather than from legislative or judicial action.[88]

This is to say that what is known as human right in recent time stems from the philosophical perception of individuals. Or  rather their understanding of natural right and wrong. This is not far from being the case in the Igbo traditional thought.


The concept of human right in Igbo traditional thought system culminates from certain theoretical foundations. The motivations that hold its advocacy in the Igbo society. This is to say that there are certain situations gives motivation to the beliefs in human right. It is this motivation that constitutes the philosophical foundations in this regard which I would submit is the same everywhere.

In the words of Ikenga Oraegbunam, the words “Aka nkwu moto” and “Ikpe nkwumotoor Ikpe ziri ezi”. He notes that Aka nkwumoto derives from the three other Igbo words: “aka” (hand) “nkwu” (stand, remain) and “oto” (upright, straight, erect not crooked etc). Thus, the word “aka nkwumoto”.  Literally, this means keeping ones hand upright, while “Ikpeziriezi” refers to the expression of this virtue to practical judgment at the event of dispute.

METHOD JUDICIAL ADJUDICATION and Human Right in Igbo Society

Thus, truthfulness in making judicial decision or judgment that is straight and not crook.[89] There are however other expressions like Obiara be onyeabiagbulaya, mgbe o ga-anamkpumkpuapunaya. (The guest should not harm the host and while going, the host should see that he goes home peacefully or may the peaceful visitor go home without hunch back); Onyeiro m dirika m diri (let my enemy live and let me also live). Onyesianyiadina, yaburuokukouzonabaura (he who wishes us death, let him experience it prematurely).  Onyesiala a dinamma, ya doo yan’azu (let him who glories in sowing seeds of discord not live to see order and harmony restored).[90]

These expressions as noted above were philosophical rules that were gears towards respect for human life. Also applies to properties and other rights enjoyeable in the Igbo society. Truth is life (eziokwubundu).

3.6 Human Right and Equality in Pre-colonial Igbo Society

The Igbo idea of equality among the Igbo society is tied ultimately to their world view. Majority of the aspect of these principles of equality has to do with their religious values and customs.  Their notion of personhood, their view of individual as against the community and their value of human life in general. The ideas of equality I would submit are not abstract perceptions but the product of the Igbo world view. In that regards all men as emanating from the same source- The Supreme Being.

Onumajulu notes that among the Igbo in the pre-colonial era, such expression; “Igbokwenu” symbolizes consensus and collective will. It is an idiomatic expression as Biri ka m biri (live and let live). egbe bere ugo bere, nke si Ibeya ebela nkukwaya (let both kite and the Eaglet perch, if any one of them obstructs the other from perching, let it lose its wings). The idea of losing its wings is based on the principle of common law in modern time.

CONCEPT OF EQUALITY AND Human Right in Igbo Society

The Igbo from time immemorial have such conception of equitable principle or the doctrine of “equity”. This is because a typical Igbo will say …ya go siya ebe ozo o gaebe (let him show that other another conducive place to perch). Instead of such common lawn expression…nkunkwaya (let him lose its wings).

Another typical expressions are Ndummiri, nduazu, mmiriatala ma azuanwula (both the stream and the fish should live,May the stream not dry and the fish not die). Mee onyeka emere Ibeya buiyi di na asaa! ( equal treatment to all is the traditional oath binding on everybody).

All these emphasizes the notion of justice, fair play and freedom in the Igbo traditional. Though the system which in turn enhance the notion of human right in the pre-colonial Igbo  society. Equally,  because disputes are settled and blames apportioned based on these philosophical expression.[91]

3.7 Human Right and Justice in Igbo Pre-colonial Society

It goes without saying that among the Igbo, justice is symbolize of the word Ofo. Therefore, all Igbo names that have the word ofo as a suffix or prefix have one thing or the other to refer to or demonstrate about justice.[92] Justice is a cardinal pillar of Igbo judicial and legal systems. The Igbo have a very strong sense of justice which is litteres in many Igbo cultural ethos and pathos. Igbo justice is practical in all sphere of life of the Igbo society say in land matters, inheritance issues, socio-community development strategies and inter personal relationships.[93]


There is no gainsaying the fact that the traditional Igbo concept of justice is more often in a number of areas. Thus, in criminal matters, the Igbo recognizes two main classes of offences: those that are “nso” and those that are not. The former is refers to as taboos and to the latter as natural offences.

The first group of offences  often identifies abomination (alu)or (aru) which consists of acts regarded as violations against the divine laws ranging from murder, incest to theft of some highly valuable properties such as yam. The second groups of offences are the natural crimes such as other forms of stealing, failure to join in the community project and disobedience to man-made laws.


The Igbo retributive and penal justice is demonstrates  punishments in accordance to the respective offenders which includes death penalty. It also include in a very rare occasion, ostracism, banishment, restitution, fine, compensation, forfeiture, seizure of valuable properties, caricature and so on. Above all, the Igbo criminal and penal justice systems are the premises of the important value of its reconciliation and peace-making.[94]

At the event of land dispute say boundary dispute or trespass, the Igbo sense of justice comes to bear by way of traditional history and adjudication taking over by the council of elders.  At which point the principle Ikpe nkwumoto and aka mkwumoto come to play. Trees such as “ebenebe” and “ogirishi” which can survive the adverse effect of various weathers were used to effect boundaries at the end of the decision to bring about justice. What is just in land disputes here  identifies with the goodness of the title and boundary correspondence.[95]


There is also what the Igbo calls Omenala (tradition), which constitute the ground norm, therefore justice more often becomes any action that conforms to this Omenala. That is conformity with the requirements of the custom and tradition. A man who keeps the injunctions of the Omenala which contains the duties of a citizen in all ramifications is regarded as a just man. In the same vein, the word Ikpe nkwumoto becomes a judgment that conforms to the tradition of Omenala.

In other words, any judgment that is not consistent with Omenala is not constitutional.  Such null and void judgment cannot be binding on any party. Because it somewhat violates what the English law would call the principle of “stare decisis” and it is bound to be unjust (Mmegbu) which condition aims at or attempts to deprive one of his life or entitlements.[96]

3.8 The Inseparability of Right and Obligation in Igbo Pre-colonial Society

   It can be gleaned so far that the concept of human right in the Igbo traditional thought is deeply rooted in rights and obligations or duty. This relationship between rights and obligation is based on the concept of human dignity in advancing and enhancing the dignity of the human person. The concept is of the view that a person is automatically worthy and honourable as a result of his ontologically inherently which embedds worth, that his worth and dignity cannot be enhanced in isolation from others in the society.

Hence no person is considers self-sufficient in the Igbo traditional thought. It is because in isolation no one can function adequately and cannot actualize his potentials.[97] This goes to show that as a person enjoys his right as a member of the Igbo community, he obligs to respect the rights of others.  Also to advances to the common good of the community.


In the Igbo community rights are derives from the responsibilities of the various members. This is so because the Igbo recognizes the rights of individuals and groups as a community.  Generally, this is through consensual means that provides almost sacred protection of fundamental human rights. This makes the concept of right inseparable from accompaning obligations.  However, the  demands the placing by individuals of the common good before that of the individual.[98]

In Africa, no single person, no single life is independent, strong or formidable enough to survive alone. Life is life when and only when it clings to others and with other realities constitute the whole. Thus in a language that emphasized the communal nature of the Igbo life.  It is also said that an individual’s life is never understood as alone; it is part of others.  Firstly, it is a believe that life has meaning only when it is lived in the community.  This means that outside the community or the relationship with others life is meaningless.[99]

Ozumba Opinions:

Man is a being-in relation-to-others who in spite of belonging to the community has a personality. However, such personality is unique and which singles him out from the crowd and bestows upon him sense of responsibility. But his personality has meaning and relevance within the context of the community.[100]


All these goes to show that for the rights of men to  protect and recognize, there is a corresponding duty.  Also each individual in the community will perform his duty and obligations. Thus, every person must respect the rights of others in their daily activities for their own right  in turn. Sequel to the above since the Igbo leads more of a communal life, from birth till the period when such individual will be integrated into the various associations. He has such obligations to maintain that is to say: respect the life and dignity of others in return for the preservation of his rights as such.


[1]C. Acholonu, the Female Essence in the Godhead; A Myth- Linguistic Analysis of the Godhead of African and Pre-historic Creation, Myths and Sacred Literature (New Orleans: Loyola University, 1991) p. 2.

[2]Ibid., p. 114

[3] A. Afigbo,Ropes of Land: Studies in Igbo History and Culture.(Nsuka: University Press, 1981) Cited by Philip Eyika p. 70

[4]Udobata, p. 17; Philip Eyika supra, p. 71.

[5]O. C. Eze and others, The Igbo: A Stateless Society, Mediterinian Journal of Social Science MCS ER Publishing Rome, Italy vol. 5 No 27( Dec 2014).p. 1316

[6] The Pride of every Woman is her Husband, from the Palace of IbomEze II of Enu-Uburu Kingdom, HRH Eze Godwin AkpanduOkoro.

[7] E. Ardener, the Kingship Terminology of a Group of Southern Igbo, Africa xxiv (1954) p. 87

[8]Ardener op. cit., p. 88-89

[9]From the Palace of IbomEze II of Enu-Uburusupra.

[10]ImeNriAni: A kind of rite performed where a father hands over land to his only daughter or one of them. The Daughter prepares food for the performance of such rite whereby the land becomes hers after such rite exclusively.

[11] C.E. Okonkwo and others, the Igbo: A Stateless Society supra, p. 78; from the Palace of IbomEze II of Enu-Uburu

[12] Confidence is better kept within the circle of persons of the same mother.

[13] HRH Eze Godwin AkpanduOkoro supra.

[14] Ibid.

[15]Okonkwo and others op. cit., p. 78.

[16] C.M. Okoye, Tiv and Igbo conflict Management mechanisms: A Comparative Study,International Research Journal of Social Sciences vol. 5(7) 22-29 July(2016) at>last visited on December 19, 2016.

[17] The Institutions are Ezinulo (family) Okpara (elders), Holder of ancestral spear and Ofo, Umunna clan, Umuada or umuokpu (council of elders), Nzukoobodo (village assembly), NdiMmanwu (masquerade group), otuogbo (age group), hunters’ association (ndinta) oracles and deities.

[18]C. M. Okoye op. cit., p. 27

[19] Ibid.

[20]Ibinukpabi, Amdadioha for example

[21] Oath taking

[22]Bond life.

[23] C. Mezie-Okoye, p.27, op. cit.

[24]D.C. Ohadike, Igbo Culture and History 1996.

[25] Footnote 4 Ante.

[26]Ohadike, op. cit., p. xxi.

[27] Ibid.

[28]Ohadike supra, p. xxii-xxiii; the right of privacy of citizens in Nigeria in s 37 CFRN 1999.

[29] Ibid, p. xxiii (emphasis added).

[30] J., Omoregbe, Metaphysics without Tears, A. Systematic and Historical Study (Lagos: Joja Educational Research and Publishers Limited 1996). p. 36

[31] J.I. Oguh, The Position of the Human Person in the idea of causality: An Exposition within the context of complementary Reflection. p. 2.1.0 <> 15/01/2017.

[32] J.F., Donceel, Philosophical Anthropology (Kansas: Sheed Andrews and Mcmeel Inc. 1967) p. 446.

[33] Ibid.

[34]<> last visited 21/12/2016 by 7:17am.

[35] Ibid.

Continuation of notes

[36] K. E. Obosola, Ethical Perspective of Human Life in Relation to Human Rights in African Indigenous Societies, International Review of Social Sciences and Humanities, vol. 8., No. 1 (2014). 29-35, p. 31. Department of Religious Studies,OlabisiOnabanjo University, Ago Iwoye, Ogun State.

[37] M.C., Ozumba, a Comparative Analysis of the Western Conception of Man and the Igbo-African Conception of Mmadu. The Nigerian Journal of Research and Production, vol. 18 No 2, April (2011) P.1.

[38] Ibid.

[39] J. Awolalu,The African Traditional View of Man in Orita: Ibadan Journal of Religious Studies vol. 1 & 2 Ibadan University Press of Ibadan (1972) p. 101.

[40] Ibid, p. 1-2.

[41]Ibid, p. 2.

[42]Awolalu J. Supra.p. 103.

[43]M. C. Ozumba supra, p. 2.

[44] E.J.O., Ndubuisi and A.M., Ogbuishi, Religion and the Reception/Promotion of Human Life in African: Examining the Igbo of South Easter Nigeria, Journal of Research in Business and Management vol. 3 issue 10 (2015) pp. 42-48, p. 43.

[45]T.O. Elias, the Nature of African Customary Law Manchester University Press, p. 13, cited in P.C., Onumajulu, p. 44


[47]C. G. Osuagwu, Freedom or Death<> Last visited 21/12/2016 by 7:17am.

[48] Ibid.

[49] T.O. Nwazuoke, Human Rights in Pre-Colonial African Society; (Ebsu: Lecture note delivered on Nov.7, 2016).

[50]Ndubuisi and Ogbushi p. 43.

[51] J.E. Madu,Rites of Passage in Traditional and Modern Igbo Society Readings in Humanities (Enugu: John Jacobs, 2003) p. 26.

[52] F.O.C. Njoku,Essays in African Philosophy, Thought and Theology(Owerri:Clacom, 2002) p. 167-169.

[53]Ndubisi and Ogbuishi, supra p. 44.

[54]Ndubisi and Ogbuishi, op. cit., (Emphasis added).

[55] K. E.  Obosole Supra p. 32

[56]T.O. Nwazuoke Supra.

Continuation of notes

[57]D.C. Ohadike, Igbo Culture and History supra, p. xxxvii

[58]Eze Godwin AkpanduOkoro, IbomEze II of Enu-Uburu Kingdom, Ohaozara Supra.

[59]T.O. Nwazuoke Supra.

[60]C.C. Mbaegbu,The Ultimate Being in Igbo Ontology (Unpublished thesis submitted to University of Nigeria, 1997) p 248-249.

[61]Ibid., p. 249.

[62]Ibid., p. 251.

[63]Ibid., pp. 259-260.

[64] Ibid., p. 253,

[65]T.O. Nwazuike supra.

[66]H.R.H. EzeAkpandu Supra.

[67] E.E. Metuh, The Supreme God in Igbo Life and Worship: A Thesis Presented to the University of London for an M.A. Degree in African Studies, Journal of Religion in Africa, vol. FASCJ (1971) p.6.

[68]T.A. Talbot,The Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 1926, London p. 4, cited in E.E. Metuh Ibid., p.1.

[69]Ohadike supra, p. xxxiii

[70]EzeAkpandu op. cit.

[71]C.C. Mbaegbu Supra.p. 129.

[72] Ibid.

[73]Section 37 of the CFRN 1999 as amended.

[74]H.R.H. EzeAkpandu Supra.

[75]T.O. Nwazuoke op. cit.

[76]Ohadike, Igbo culture and History supra p. xxiii

[77]EzeAkpandu op. cit.

[78] Ibid.

[79] T.O. Nwazuoke, op.cit. (Emphasis added).

[80]K.E. Obosola supra, p. 33.

[81]EzeAkpandu op. cit.

[82] Ibid.

[83]T.O. Nwazuoke op. cit.

[84]EzeAkpandu op. cit.

[85](1999) 7 NWLR (pt. 204) 391.

[86] K. E. Obosola op. cit., p. 33-34 (emphasis added).

[87] Ibid, Emphasis added.

[88] E.A. Udu Supra, P. 17.

[89] I.K.E. Oraegbunam. The Principles and Practice of Justice in Traditional Igbo Jurisprudence (2009) vol. 6 Issue 1, 53-85, a New Journal of African Studies p. 56-56.

[90] Ibid. p. 59- 60

[91]Onumajulu p. 43.Supra.

[92]IkengaOraegbunam Supra p. 61.

[93]Ibid p. 53.

[94]Ibid., p. 63.

[95]Ibid., p. 64.

[96]IkengaOraegbunam, op. cit., p. 58

[97] A.O. Tersoo Supra, p. 81 (Emphasis added).

[98] Ibid.

[99]Indubuisi and Ogbuisi Supra P. 44 (emphasis added).

[100] Michael Ozumba Supra, P. 3.

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