Traditional Methods Of Litigation


Human beings live in families, hamlets, villages and in larger communities or cities. As they interact dispute occur. Disputes are therefore an integral part of human nature which date back to the origin of human beings. All the members of a family can hardly share the same view. There is well bound to be divergent opinions as when friends or members of a family disagree or as when clans, town or states hold tenaciously views that are diametrically opposed.

In order to forestall escalation of conflicting views an organised society lays down in advance well guarded policies of conflict resolutions. The formulation of such policies in advance is necessary to avoid taking an on the-the-spot haphazard decision to settle an outstanding dispute which may likely be misinterpreted by the dis-favoured party. But once the policies are there before any dispute occurs, the chances of leveling accusation of discrepancy and unfairness in judgment are reduced to minimum.

Before the adulteration of various cultures by alien cultures, the traditional methods of settling disputes varied from one society to the other. These methods were essentially based on each society’s ways of life. Prior to the advent of alien culture Ihiagwa community had a well laid down traditional process of conflict resolution. Not that the citizens were quarrelsome nor litigious but to enhance the fraternal relations which existed among the people.

There were no established courts, trained lawyers, judges and police. There was also the absence of court messengers and warrant chiefs which were the off-shoot of the British colonial Imperial Administration. The Ihiagwa community was closely knit and homogeneous because there was the belief that all the members of a clan had the same ancestral origin. Only very few of the citizens lived outside the community, so it was possible to rally people to settle disputes.


If the bone of contention cannot be resolved by the parties involved either of them may invite a common relation or friend to arbitrate.


If a man and his wife cannot settle their dispute, the man’s parents are invited. If the wife still disagrees with their advice or judgment a message is sent straight to her parents to come possibly with a confident. Usually they arrive very early in the morning and the parties – the man with his parents and their confident – consider the issue. If the woman is found guilty she is requested to apologize to her husband. She may be urged to cook a delicious meal for her husband to beg for pardon. Her parents may also invite her to their home where she is advised to “change her behavior” and take a new leaf.

Conversely if the man is at fault he will be advised to apologize to her wife though not publicly, but rather do so when they are alone and possibly to buy  her gift e.g.  wrapper (traditional Igbo attire). If the man has falsely accused the wife of adultery he will be urged to kill a goat for her publicly to vindicate her.

Traditional marriage in Ihiagwa involves the active participation of all the man’s kindred as well as the woman’s family hence she is generally and fondly called “Nwanyi anyi” our wife. What she does concerns the man’s larger family and everyone takes interest in her ways of life. That is why a conflict between her and the husband may attract the unsolicited intervention of the man’s larger family depending on the intensity of the quarrel. The woman’s children are called “Nwanwa anyi” – Our daughters children at their maternal home and are generally regarded as great children who must not be harmed. This intertwined relationship of both families makes it mandatory for all members of both families to encourage the preservation of the marriage which they were witnesses to and had a share in the marriage gifts.


When two brothers disagree the elders of the family may intervene or may be invited. If they fail to effect a resolution, daughters of the family married elsewhere, ´Mgboto´, could be invited. This class of women though married outside the family still have the interest of their parental family at heart and will do their level best to maintain stability in it. In the traditional Ihiagwa community their powers were the dispute eludes their grip the elders of the village are invited.


If two disagreeing townsmen cannot resolve their differences, either could report to a selected town elders referred to as Ikoro-Oha. The Ikoro-Oha in turn invite the parties in the conflict to settle the case.


Usually the one who feels being maltreated report to the eldest member of the family who in turn reports to few other elders of the kindred and invites the two parties. If their judgment is unacceptable to any of the parties, that party can urge them to invite other elders of the village or can even invite them. If their decision ties with the previous one it will be unreasonable for that party to go further.


If two families are quarreling over a piece of land for example either of them can report to the elders of the village or villages who will try to settle it. whereby they fail, the case is reported to the central Ikoro-Oha comprising elders from all the villages in the town. Where the case defies their settlement it is return to some of the priest of our deities called “Ndi-Ishi-Agbara”. These men were feared by everyone in the traditional Ihiagwa society because of the powers of their Gods, and their decisions were taken seriously for fear of their Gods letting lose their wrath on an erring or disobedient citizen.


A typical resolution of dispute in Ihiagwa takes a common pattern. The members of the two parties in dispute are seated together. Usually each party produces a spokesman who rightly may be the eldest among the group or his representative who should be fluent. He is usually versed in the liberal use of anecdotes and figurative language. The spokesman of the plaintiffs is asked to state his case and this supplemented, amended or summarised by his supporters. Members of the other side may ask him a few questions and then present their own case. The defendants may then ask questions make corrections, rebuttals or denials. Thereafter some knowledgeable members of the audience may narrate their own versions as they saw, experienced or heard. hearsay evidence is freely admitted though more credence is placed on direct evidence.

Observers interest in the settlement of the dispute can give evidence for or against either party without being invited. There are basically no technicalities to halt the proceedings except where some people are delegated to go and survey the piece of land in dispute or where the priest of one of our Deity should be consulted to authenticate cases of poisoning or murder.

Otherwise the arbiters go out to confer where the members of the parties in dispute are numerous or ask them out to enable them (arbiter) take decision. Everybody is then called in and the spokesman of the arbiters who should be witty, fluent and persuasive and also independent enough in relationship with either of the parties to allay suspicion passes the judgment. He begins by asking the parties if they will like them (arbiters) take oath which reads thus (if we arbiters) will reject whatever judgment we shall give here if someone else passes it on us may the God kill us). This oath is designed to convince the quarreling parties of their impartiality. If any of the parties is suspicious of their judgment it spokesman will insist that the arbiters take the oath.

This is why facts are of greatest importance in traditional decision making in Ihiagwa. The spokesman makes a general comment on the specific wrongs committed by the parties as well as commendations for specific good behavior such as restraint in the face of provocation and keeping down the quarrel to manageable proportions in spite of temptations to aggravate. The punishment, reparation, compensation or retaliation is then awarded. If the bone of contention is a piece of land it could be returned to the rightful owner or shared between them. Or the erring party could be requested to apologies to the other party with a bottle of gin, keg of palm-wine and oil been salad or a sizeable portion of meat. If the dispute hinges on allegation of adultery, poisoning or revealing a cult’s secret, the reconciliation could be followed by the concoction of a native portion ´Ishioriko´ which members of the disputing parties taste or drink from the same cup, or swearing of oath not to harm the other. Such name as `Ikokwu´ could be given to a new born baby to consolidate the reconciliation between husband and wife. The location of a settlement between two clans may be given a special name.

The aim of adjudication in Ihiagwa is to reconcile the parties by arriving at an acceptable solution in accordance with the values of the community. If they had not been on speaking terms an injunction is given for them to resume communication. Though the winners may rejoice and entertain their friends to celebrate their victory, the losers do not bury their heads in shame.


Litigation fees in the traditional Ihiagwa community were paltry ranging from 25 kobo to N2 as at 1982 when this paper was published, payable to the chief arbiter.  Disputes between husband and wife or relations which were normally resolved by members of the families did not attract litigation fees. Judges in disputes were not paid as well, but they took the lion share of food and drink which the quarrelling parties were made to present.

The victor in a dispute may be refunded his own litigation fee while that of  the loser is shared among the judges. On the whole there was no class of paid advocates who were hired to present or defend the case for their clients. Rather individuals versed in the act of traditional litigation were consulted privately for pieces of advice.


If either party was dissatisfied with a judgment it could lodge a complaint before a high-powered tribunal or a more influential chief or some more respected elders and the case will start all over again not a re-trial or a review of the previous judgment. If a party rejected a judgment without seeking a fresh adjudication it incurred the displeasure of the community for such action was looked upon as destablising and harmful to the community. The party might then be ostracised in various ways which might include severing various links such as trading discussing or dealing socially with members of the party until it succumbed to the wishes of the community for settlement.


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The Ihiagwa autonomous community

The town Ihiagwa Autonomous community is organized into eight villages namely; Iriamogu village, Ibuzo village, Nnkaramochie village, Umuezeawula village, Aku/Umuokwo village, Mboke village, Umuelem village and Umuchima village. Ihiagwa is also home to the Federal University of Technology Ihiagwa, Owerri.


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