Justice System in Pre-colonial Igbo land.
Before the advent of white courts introduced by the colonial masters, how did the Igbos of southern Nigeria administer justice in their society and maintained law and order?
The administration of justice in Igbo land and other parts of Nigeria did not start with the coming of the whites to this part of the continent. Before the first contact with the Europeans, many tribes in Nigeria had well-established kingdoms, trade networks, administrative structures, and sophisticated civilizations.
In parts of Igbo land, as archaeological evidence has revealed, there was the iron smelting technology already, pottery production, external trade even outside the Nigerian space, and agriculture.
The site of Lejja and other iron working archaeological sites such as Opi, Umundu, and Ukehe, revealed that iron-smelting started in Igbo land as far back as 2000BC. The archaeological site at Isiugwu Obukpa and the University of Nigeria Nsukka farm site revealed early pottery and agriculture in Igbo land which was indigenous creations. The Igbo-ukwu site dated 9AD reveals trade contacts outside Africa.
In the administration of justice in Igbo land, five cardinal institutions come into play:
1. The masquerade institution
2. The age-grade system
3. The village council (the otoboo, ama, obu)
4. The Igwe
5. The deity
Masquerades are seen beyond masked figures seeking to entertain the people; masquerades have deep cultural and religious interpretations which distinguish them as sacred and reverenced by the Igbo people.
Every Igbo society has masquerades and these masquerades perform three aspects of work: the religious, the political, and the social. Masquerades are demonstrations of the two-sided world of man; the world of the living and the world of the spirits.
Masquerades in Igbo land are administrators of justice. As spirits, masquerades can call out evil-doers in the night as well as pass judgment on them. This is because masquerades are seen as incorruptible. They speak the truth without fear or favor.
In Isuochi Abia state, for example, the ‘onyekurum’ masquerade calls out evil-doers in the night, and sometimes comes to the home of the person and carries the man or woman on the head to its forest for punishment.
Masquerades in Arondizuogu Imo state include Ubi oba, Atu Nderi, Konkri, Ezi Ohia, Egbu Ezi, Ngele owa, Ajagu, etc. Among the Nsukka people of Enugu state, there is the Odo and Omabe masquerade.
AGE GRADE SYSTEM
Age grades are common in Igbo land and they are still in existence in many Igbo societies.
Age grades perform administrative functions, social functions, and religious functions.
Age grades administer judgment passed by the village on an individual or a group of people such as exile, etc.
The younger age groups are often the arm of the society for enforcing judgments passed. They also settle disputes that arise among their members.
The VILLAGE COUNCIL
In the Nsukka area, there is the Otobo. The Otobo is a meeting place as well as a courtroom in pre-colonial Igbo land.
People cannot speak lie inside the otobo and this makes judgment delivered inside the otobo free and fair.
In Ebenebe, Anambra state, there is the obu which serves also as a courtroom. Obu usually belongs to a deity in Ebenebe and because of the presence of the deity, people do not lie.
Obu Umuonicha is one of the oldest obu in Ebenebe. Even in present-day Ebenebe, the role of the obu is still upheld; any judgment delivered in the obu can not be challenged in white courts, or even by the Igwe of the village. Because people believe in the fairness of the judgment delivered in the obu, they prefer to go there to settle conflicts.
The Ama is a village square where the village elders or men of a village meet to deliberate on key issues affecting them. Also, in the ama, conflicts, and misunderstandings are settled, and the judgment delivered here is upheld by the parties involved.
Igbo societies are largely egalitarian in nature, however, in some societies such as the Nri kingdom, there existed kings and these kings also administered justice over some issues brought to them.
Deities are spread across almost all Igbo societies. There are deities for kindred and there are deities that are for the entire community.
Deities administer justice either through their spokesperson which is the priest or by themselves. A deity may strike an offender as a way of administering justice between two parties.
There are other institutions in Igbo land that administer justice such as the Umuada group. The Umuada is a powerful socio-political organization made up of only women who have the power to wade into conflicts and administer justice. The Umuada group is revered in Igbo land because of the belief that their judgment is always for peace and fairness.