Evolving African Philosophy of Law Overshadowed by Western Principles

Evolving African Philosophy of Law Overshadowed by Western Principles


Although African philosophy of Law has its roots in African customary law, it can be seen as an evolving jurisprudential tradition overshadowed by western principles. This opinion is buttressed by the fact that African legal philosophy generally lacks formal recognition in our legal system. In proof of this assertion, the discussion will be broken down into three parts.  

This introduction will be the first part. The second part will examine the concept of customary law as it pertains to Africa. The second part discussion will, therefore, deal with the development of customary law in general; the origins of customary law in Ghana, the Bond of 1844 and its impact on the development of customary law in Ghana, the formal recognition of customary law in 1874, and the case of Angu v Atta[1] where the court held that the traditional customary law is alien law.  

The third part will focus on how the African philosophy of law has been overshadowed by western jurisprudence. A typical example plays out in cases where there is a conflict in the provisions of a customary law will or Samansiw, and a will made under the Wills Act of 1970 (Act 360) which has its root in the English Wills Act of 1837. In In Re Okine,[2] the Supreme Court held that the such a conflict should be resolved in favour of the statutory law will. Also, in Edet v Essien,[3] the decision of the court entrenches the position that western jurisprudence prevails over African legal philosophy when the court held that where a traditional law is repugnant to natural justice, reasoning and equity it is invalid, regardless of the customary law rule.

Part 4 will conclude the discussion by making the point that African philosophy of law which has its root in African customary law has been overshadowed by western principles. 

African Customary Law

As earlier noted, the purpose of this discussion is to trace the growth of customary law as the foundation for African philosophy of law and its survival in spite of the many challenges it has encountered over the centuries. It can hardly be disputed customary law had been limited to the written sources standing in the name of early European writers who only had brief encounters with the people of the then Gold Coast. The impact of the works of these foreign text writers has led to the situation where some lawyers dismiss customary law as primitive because some aspects of it were presented by the foreign writers in a manner that tended to make them appear ridiculous. 

Origins of African Customary Law

Custom is the main source of African law. Custom in this sense refers to the body of standardized patterns of behaviour that have been established by usages, practices and observances of the people in a given community having the force of law. However, Lord Denning found a fitting description of the variety of laws which prevailed on the continent of Africa with these words[4]

“It is at the moment a jumble of pieces much like a jig-saw. One group of pieces is founded on the customs of the African peoples, which vary from territory to territory and from tribe to tribe. Another group of pieces is founded on the law of Islam, with all its many schools and sects. Yet another group is founded on the English common law. Another on the Roman-Dutch law. Another on Indian Statutes. And so forth.” 

On this note, the development of African customary law, although having its origin from different African customs, has been predominantly influenced by western legal philosophy and culture dating as far back as the colonial era.

Challenges of African Customary Law

In the case of Ghana, there can be no doubt that British colonialism posed the first challenge to the existence of our customary laws. Colonial rule in this country began in earnest when the inhabitants of the Gold Coast agreed to subject themselves to new judicial arrangements introduced by the British. The Fanti chiefs within the sphere of British influence assembled at Cape Coast on 6 March 1844 and executed the “Bond of 1844” whereby they acknowledged the power and jurisdiction of the British Queen. 

Under the Bond, the Fanti chiefs also renounced human sacrifices and other barbaric practices. Finally, they agreed that murder, robbery, and other crimes should be tried by the Queen’s officers whilst moulding the customs of the country in accordance with general principles of British law.

The effect of this is that, upon the coming into force of the Supreme Court Ordinance in 1876 which finally established British system adjudication, African law in Africa was declared foreign law for the convenience of colonial administration which found the administration of justice cumbersome by reason of the vast variations in local and tribal customs. African law had to be proved by experts. But no law can be foreign in its own land and country and African lawyers, particularly in the independent African States, must quickly find a way to reverse this judicial travesty. This was in the case of Angu v Attah[5]

Even without reading the case, if you think about it, this was not a really sensible assessment of the position. How else were the foreign judges expected to administer law that they did not know? Even today, customary law unless judicial precedent exists must still be proved by calling experts which is understandable. So we can round up and come back to the same spot only because the challenge of customary law with western legal philosophy is still eminent.

Formal Recognition of Customary Law

From the Ghanaian perspective, with the British common law system firmly established, and pursuant to article 11 of the 1992 Constitution, the Courts’ Act 1993 (Act 459) has recognized customary law as a component of common law[6]. In Debrah v The Republic, the verdict of the court was that the accused person’s conduct did not amount to an offence of insult to a chief in view of Chieftaincy Act, 2008, (Act 759), although his conduct is an insult in their custom[7].

Act 759 provides the procedure for the declaration or recognition of a customary law rule as law. This entails a draft of the customary law rule by the Regional House of Chiefs to the National House of Chief. The draft is then submitted to the sector Minister with a statement that the customary law rule be given effect to the area concerned. The Minister may by legislative instrument give effect to the customary law rule in consultation with the Attorney-General[8].

Essentially, a customary law is the rules of law which by custom are applicable to particular communities in Ghana[9]. In effect, this is how customary law is formally recognized in the common law system of Ghana. 

African Philosophy of Law

The African Philosophy of law is amalgamation of laws that pre-existed colonialism. It is not religious law, although it is sometimes predicated upon supernatural beliefs and ritual practices. It has been at various stages been referred to as “native law”, “native law and custom”, “customary law”, etc. African law differs radically from all other systems of law examined; in that, it is not strictly speaking a single system or even one with variant schools, but rather a family of systems that share no traceable common parent.[10]

Since independence, African governments have tried to rid their legal systems of inherited colonial legislation of the negatively ethno-centric attitudes towards indigenous African law. This has usually been done by adopting terminology which seems to diminish the inferior attributes attached to this law during the colonial era.[11]

Influence of western principles on African philosophy of law

The first common feature is that African law is generally unwritten, largely due to the predominantly ‘illiterate’ environment in which it operates. Indeed, according to Apaloo J.A (as he then was) in Anthony v. UCC,customary law knows no writing.[12] It is mainly due to customary practices and usages that have been solemnly observed by the community in which it operates and has handed down from one generation to another. There is no written legislation, law reports or accounts of juristic analyses. To diminish some of the uncertainty caused by its unwritten nature, there have been attempts in some countries to reduce customary law into writing through codification, but the desirability of this exercise and its effect on some of the inherent qualities of customary law remains a matter of considerable debate.[13]

Secondly, although the legislature has intervened to regulate customary law in most countries. These attempts have been mainly to provide procedures to facilitate the recognition and enforcement of customary law rather than to actually create substantive rules of customary law. For instance, in the case of In Re Okine,[14] the court held that where customary law will conflicts with a statutory will, the customary law that is inconsistent with the statutory will is invalid. This implies the subservient nature of customary law to the western principle of law.

Thirdly, although customary law varies, sometimes considerably, from tribe to tribe and from country to country, most of its basics structures, precepts, principles, institutions and techniques are fairly similar and have been influenced by foreign principles. For example, across the continent, certain practices and usages such as female genital mutilation (FGM) has been abolished in most countries with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Fourthly, the legal process in customary law is generally localized rather than remote. Disputants and judges are often seen as neighbours. Since the judge is not a remote member of an official order but rather a local person who knows the parties well, this makes it easier for the judge to be influenced. However, in the Ghanaian context, with the coming into force of the western system of adjudication, the traditional is operating in the shadows of the Court system; and the Constitution has established the House of Chief to deal with matters of chieftaincy with the Supreme Court having appellate jurisdiction.[15]

That notwithstanding, although African philosophy of law has been dominated by western principle, at the heart of the African adjudication process is the notion of reconciliation or the process of harmony through consensus building. This principle has been embraced by the western system of adjudication as Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) being an essential part of Court adjudication – to provide for disputing settlement through mediation and arbitration.  


It summary, the African philosophy of law has its root in African customary law. Unfortunately, the African philosophy of law has been overshadowed by western principles. We have seen how the legal system is structured in a way that permits statutes to override customary law. A case in point is In Re Okine,[16] where the court held that where customary law will is made with a statutory will, the customary law that is inconsistent with the statutory will is invalid. Another case that entrenches the position that western legal principles have outdone African legal philosophy is the case of Edet v Essien,[17]where the court held that where a traditional law is repugnant to natural justice, reasoning and equity it is invalid, regardless of the custom law rule. 

[1] Kobina Angu v Cudjoe Attah Privy Council Appeal No. 78 of 1915 

[2] In Re Okine (Decd); Dodoo & Anor v Okine & Ors [2003 – 2005] 1 GLR 630 

[3] Edet v Essien (1932) 11 N.L.R 47

[4] Prof. Ekow Daniels, Development of customary law [1991-1992] Vol. XVIII RGL 68-94

[5] Supra

[6] Section 54 of Act 459

[7] Section 63 of Act 759

[8] Section 51 of Act 759

[9] Article 11(3) of the 1992 Constitution 

[10] “African Law” in D Derrett (ed), An Introduction to Legal System, London, Sweet & Maxwell (1968) p 131

[11] A N Allot (ed) The Future of Law in Africa: Record of Proceedings of the London Conference, London, Butterworths (1960)

[12] [1973] 1 G.L.R. 299

[13] Balandier & Maquet (eds) Dictionary of Black African Civilization, London, Leon Amiel (1974) at p 210

[14] Supra 

[15] Article 273 of the 1992 Constitution

[16] In Re Okine (Decd); Dodoo & Anor v Okine & Ors [2003 – 2005] 1 GLR 630 

[17] Supra

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    Wilma 4 years

    Interesting reading. I will be looking forward to the coming parts.
    I am interested in the possibilities of customary law beyond establishing that African philosophy of law never got a real chance of being well developed due in large part to colonialism. I have no doubt that the philosophies underlying ‘African law’ are valuable and need recognition. Yet given the nature of customary law would you say, that there is a chance to establish a recognizable body of customary law that is distinct from mainstream law (statutory and common law), particularly as customary law as you have argued, is in itself pluralistic, is already tainted with foreign law and constantly evolving, and exists (as with religion) in a republican state?

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