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Informal Channels for Conflict Resolution in Ibadan, Nigeria

Isaac Olawale Albert
Tinu Awe
Georges Hérault
et al.

1. Introduction

Texte intégral

1. Statement of the Problem

1This is a study of the informal channels of conflict resolution among people living in Ibadan. Although the informal channels of justice are generally preferred by the poor because they cannot afford to hire an attorney, this study has shown that informal channels are often the first choice of citizens who wish to solve their conflicts outside a court of law.

  • 1 The two major publications on poverty in Nigeria are Poverty in Nigeria, Proceedings of the 1975 A (...)
  • 2 John Iliffe, The African Poor: A history. Cambridge University Press, 1987, p.l.

2Poverty is a global problem, but is more widespread in the developing nations.1 For any society to achieve sustainable development the problem of poverty has to be addressed. In this regard, the seminal work of Professor John Iliffe on the problem of poverty in Africa is instructive. Iliffe identified a number of areas which require research: the identity of the poor; their numerical strength; their characteristics; their location, most especially within the urban system; the reasons for their poverty; what they think and do about their problems; and what the larger society thinks and does about them.2

3Poverty is difficult to define because it is relative. Absolute poverty has been described as a situation in which a person is unable to meet his basic food and shelter needs, such that he is unable to function in his surroundings. A person who is unable to meet these basic needs, whether in the developed or developing world, is absolutely poor. Relative poverty is measured against the average standard of living and reflects the degree of a person’s deprivation against what is normal in a given society. Whether relative or absolute, poverty is marked by lack of access of some members in a society to the basic essentials of life.

  • 3 Adebayo Olukoshi and Thandika Mkandawire, eds., Between repression and liberalization: Structural (...)

4Poverty in urban Africa has been compounded by rapid population growth, agricultural stagnation, environmental degradation, protracted civil wars and the mismanagement of human and material resources by self-imposed and kleptocratic rulers. The introduction of structural adjustment programmes (SAP) in the 1980s, rather than solving the problems of poverty, has been so unsuccessful that it has worsened the economic situation. Many political leaders on the continent, unable to cope, now rule their subjects by brute force.3 The negative ripples of political tragedies in contemporary Africa are felt in the form of increased urban conflict among political leaders, organized labour unions and employers, students and school authorities, etc. At the neighbourhood level, conflicts occur between tenants and landlords. Other conflicts include those between business partners, criminals and other members of the society, frustrated husbands and wives, and parents and their children.

2. Conflict in Urban Areas

  • 4 Omololu Soyombo, Some issues in the conceptualization and theory of urban poverty in Africa. In: T (...)
  • 5 E.H. Sutherland, White Collar Crime, Dryden, New York, 1949.

5Conflict is a universal human experience. Its origin and its nature are best explained within the framework of human nature and the environment in which man lives. Some human beings are naturally disposed to aggressive behaviour. More importantly, aggression as a psychological problem is aggravated by poverty, fatigue, competition and overcrowding. These four factors are typical of the urban environment. The vast majority of cities in Africa are overpopulated by migrants who have no skills to market in the highly monetised urban environment. The ethnic, cultural and religious heterogeneity of the urban settlers often makes them compete aggressively for the insufficient resources in the cities. Urban conflicts occur therefore, in competition for jobs, land, housing and other related opportunities. The problem of poverty as evinced in the inability of these city-dwellers to meet their basic needs, often leads to high rates of urban crime and delinquency.4 It does not necessarily follow that those who generate urban conflicts or urban crime are poor people. Delinquent behaviour is also found among the socially and economically privileged classes and as Sutherland observed, the poor are more likely to be law-abiding than the respectable, socially powerful people.5 As Mr. Justice Adewale Thompson once noted, members of the privileged classes sometimes push poor people to commit crimes:

I am not unmindful of the fact that cases have come to the court in which the evidence disclosed that some policemen and soldiers employ their privileged positions as members of the ruling oligarchy to aid and abet the commision of crimes.

6Persons who belong to the less advantaged social cadres, are often prone to harrassment and arrest by the police. Mr. Justice Thompson once alluded to this when he observed that:

  • 6 Sunday Times, 7 September, 1975, Lagos.

It is not unlikely from our experience that detention could be arranged of innocent men by some anti-social members of the force to either assuage a personal vendetta or to support a partisan cause.6

7A poor man, because of his inability to ‘pay’ for justice, might end up in prison for an offence he did not commit.

8Conflict, whether created by poverty or other factors, can be resolved using two basic approaches: peaceful negotiation or arbitration and force. Resolving a conflict by force is generally inadequate and can make the conflict protracted and difficult to manage. Most societies, therefore, prefer peaceful resolution to open combat. All societies have a framework of laid down conventions or rules by which conflicts are resolved. In a city where there is no law, says a popular Yoruba adage, there can be no offence. Every society, traditional or modem, has a body of rules which defines and qualifies men’s relationships with each other and the state. These rules and regulations form the law of the land which derives from a groundnorm: the constitution. Some societies do not have written constitutions and it would seem that in such societies the constitution is the basic set of standards which each individual member has been socialised from youth to conform to and from which other standards in the culture derive.

3. Yoruba Attitudes to the Formal Judicial System

9In colonial and post-colonial African society, the police and the courts were and still are responsible for ensuring compliance with the laws of the land. The police arrest law-breakers and bring them to trial before legally constituted courts. On the other hand, the court interprets and applies the law as found appropriate in resolving civil or criminal conflicts.

10The judiciary, however, does not go out in search of law-breakers or people in dispute. They only handle the cases brought before them by: (a) individuals and corporate bodies who seek to redress injustice done to them and (b) public officers charged with the responsibility of law-enforcement. However, not all conflicts resulting from violation of the law get to court. Many are resolved without calling the police. Among the reasons for this is the intimidating size of the formal courts as contrasted with the informal places used for resolving neighbourhood conflicts. The formal courts are located in quiet places where the least amount of noise or irresponsible behaviour could put one in contempt and attract punishment. The robes of the judges and lawyers are intimidating. The exchange of highly technical legal vocabulary among lawyers on the one hand and judges and other court personnel on the other is alarming to the ordinary man; until the judge hands down his verdict the outcome of cases handled by the courts may seem unpredictable to the uninitiated. The man who believes he has a good case might end up in prison, especially if he is unable to pay the fine imposed on him by the judge. Though the formal courts always refer to the possibility of going to the appeal courts if one is not satisfied with the nature of the judgement passed in lower courts, many people do not understand the basis for such appeals, especially as the proceedings of the original case were conducted in a manner and language not understood by them. Therefore, the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria always pray: Atebi atare Olorun ma je a rejo (whether for good or bad may God not let us have a court case).

11The numerous court adjournments serve to keep conflicts fresh in the minds of the disputants, which by normal standards should have been quickly resolved so that friendship and good neighbourliness could resume. The adjournment of cases often leads to unequitable situations, thus, the epithet: justice delayed is justice denied is applicable to the modern judicial system in Nigeria. Additionally, the poor, who live from their daily income, find that legal proceedings are time consuming, during which time they are prevented from earning their living. Many see the formal channels for justice — the police and court systems — as being both expensive and corrupt. Writing on this in one of the Nigerian dailies, a disturbed Nigerian observed that:

  • 7 Wale Ojo-Lanre, High cost of justice: Litigants groan under the financial jackboots of lawyers, co (...)

... In reality, it seems the agents of the judiciary have placed money above the welfare of the judiciary... What matters to them is the financial gains. ‘What’s better than money?’ seems to be their watchword.
For instance, the lawyers who are supposed to be the midwives of social justice are madly in love with money, the judges who are mothers of social justice are poor in spirit and only give justice to the highest bidders, while the police, bailiffs and court clerks, who are the agents of the judiciary are all in love with money.
Because of these scenarios, many people who have genuine causes to seek redress in law courts are discouraged and disillusioned.7

12The corruption in the formal court system can be better explained within the setting of the general economic climate of Nigeria. The police, like most other Nigerian workers, are so poorly paid and ill-equipped that it is elementary for them to devise excuses to make disputants subsidize their services. In a police station that has no operational vehicle, preference is usually given to a complainant who can provide transport for the policeman in charge of his case. In some cases, complainants have to provide the stationery for recording their cases. It is therefore not surprising that the rich always have an advantage over the poor in the formal legal system.

  • 8 ibid.

13Lawyers hardly consider the economic status of their clients before fixing their professional charges. Ojo-Lanre observed that the problem of the poor man becomes compounded when lawyers collect money from their clients and fail to make any appearance in court.8 Some advise their clients to commence cases they know cannot be won. The working conditions of judges are also very inadequate. As a result, some judges in Nigeria are motivated by acquisitive tendencies when deciding cases. As a line in an oriki (Yoruba praise poem) suggests, these tendencies sometimes result in a society ‘where the thief defeats the owner of the stolen goods (in the court).

14These various disparities in the formal legal system often result in people seeking alternative means of resolving their conflicts. Disputants, therefore, often take their cases to neighbourhood mediators who can be depended upon to resolve conflicts with dispatch, in a local language, using familiar standards of behaviour.

15In Yorubaland, conflict is seen as unavoidable, a positive development through which people understand each other better. A popular Yoruba adage says: Gbogbo nkan ko ni ija nbaje, meaning ‘It is not all things that conflict spoils’ (it can also be constructive). According to the Yoruba belief system, kinsmen that smile at each other on a daily basis without having any dispute at any time are only deceiving one another. It is believed that deep down in the hearts of such people conflict-related thoughts are harboured. Such grievances are better managed if the concerned parties come out to express them frankly and get the issues resolved. What is being implied here is that disputes should be amicably resolved, as they arise. Another popular Yoruba epithet says:

Ahon ati eyin nja
Ka ja ka pari re niyi omoluabi.

The tongue and teeth often come in conflict
To quarrel and get reconciled is a mark of responsibility.

16A corollary to this is:

Ko si awaiye maja
Be si ni kosi a ja mare.

No sojourner on earth is immune against dispute
No disputants remain enemies forever.

17Yoruba culture encourages reconciliation; however, going to court is often interpreted as a sign that the disputants do not favour reconciliation. Those who choose to take their neighbours to the police station or the court are therefore often seen as wicked people, whom peace-loving people should avoid. Thus another popular Yoruba adage says:

A ki ti kotu bo sore

We do not come back from the (formal) court and remain friends.

4. Characteristics of the Traditional Judicial Process in Africa

  • 9 M. Gluckman, The Judicial Process Among the Barotse of Northem Rhodesia, Manchester University Pre (...)

18Traditional judicial process in this study refers to that system of law in use in pre-colonial Africa, and which is still used today. As noted by Gluckman, the objectives of the traditional African courts are to right wrongs, adjust claims, defend norms and prevent good relationships from being broken.9

19The traditional legal system is regarded as informal in this study in contrast to the modem judicial system and such other systems of conflict resolution created by statute and constitutionally recognised. Customary courts, the lowest in the hierarchy of courts, may be regarded as a bridge between the formal and informal court systems in Nigeria in the sense that they use the wisdom of both local and foreign concepts of right and wrong.

20The customary courts provide ‘common-sense justice’. They are characterised by the following:

  • 10 A.N. Allot, A.L. Epstein and M. Gluckman, Introduction. In: Max Gluckman, ed., Ideas and Procedure (...)

…simplicity and lack of formality; reliance on ‘irrational’ modes of proof and decision...; the fact that the parties (and often the judges too) are normally involved in complex or multiplex relations outside the court forum; relations which existed before and continue after the actual appearance in court, and which largely determine the form that a judicial hearing takes; a common sense as opposed to a legalistic approach to problem solving; the underlying desire to promote reconciliation of the contesting parties, rather than merely to rule on the overt dispute which they have brought to court; the role of religious and ritual beliefs and practices in determining legal responsibility.10

21The informality of African judicial procedures is marked by the manner in which the litigants present their cases, how the judges obtain their evidence and how the court itself functions. Parties are allowed to bring in their witnesses only after evidence has been taken from the two sides. The judges play the role of counsel by cross-examining disputants and witnesses. The court system allows circumlocution and digression unrelated to the original case, which might later help the determination of the case. Allot, Epstein and Gluckman noted further of informal court systems in Africa:

  • 11 ibid., p. 23.

In the absence of advance preparation and examination in court by counsel, litigants may not be able to present their grievances in coherent, logical, and relevant form. Here, traditional judges play the role of counsel, as an English judge may do on behalf of a litigant who appears without benefit of counsel. And, again similar to an English court, when traditional judges enter on judgement, they eliminate the irrelevant, and their arguments are couched in an accumulating logic leading to a verdict on the balance of probabilities in the light of the law.11

  • 12 N.A. Ollennu, The structure of African judicial authority and problems of evidence and proof in tr (...)
  • 13 Paula Brown, Patterns of authority in West Africa. Africa 21(4), 1951, pp. 262-263.

22Judgements passed in this kind of court are binding only if they are acceptable to the parties in dispute.12 The probability that a verdict passed in the traditional court will be respected by the disputants, however, depends much on the direct and indirect sanctions which the judge can invoke against those who seek his arbitration. Professor Paula Brown classified such sanctions into three categories: moral, ritual and legal.13 Moral sanctions are based on what is assumed to be right and wrong in the society. More often than not, children feel they have a moral obligation to respect the verdict of their parents and neighbourhood elders. Ritual sanctions are popular among people belonging to the same faith. Such sanctions are based on the need to respect what God or the gods want. An atheist might not see any force behind the threat that he will be punished by God if he refuses to conform with certain behavioural standards; a Christian or Muslim will, however, be most likely prepared to change his attitude positively after such a threat. Legal sanctions hinge on what is considered to be legally wrong or right in the society and who has the right to enforce such regulations. Legal sanctions permit the use of force by an official body to ensure compliance with existing rules. This could take the form of physical punishment, banishment, fines, etc.

  • 14 J.L. Comaroff and S. Roberts, Rules and Processes: The cultural logic of dispute in an African con (...)

23In their study of the Tswana people of Botswana, Comaroff and Roberts14 identified four hierarchical options for conflict resolution in the typical traditional African society. The first option is for disputants to try to resolve their problems themselves before inviting the intervention of a third party. The second option, which usually becomes relevant when the first option fails, is to seek the assistance of senior kinsmen to resolve the conflict. If the second option falls, the matter is taken to the headman of the neighbourhood in which the defendant lives. The last option is to take the matter to the local chief.

24The situation in Ibadan is not much different. The course through which conflict resolution proceeds is hierarchical and one would only need to go to higher levels when the lower has failed to get the matter resolved to the satisfaction of all. Ibadan provides a good example of an urban centre in Africa where these four options for seeking justice operate.

5. The Omoluabi Philosophy of the Yoruba

  • 15 For detailed information on this see T.O. Awoniyi, Omoluabi: The fundamental basis of Yoruba tradi (...)

25Omoluabi15 is a Yoruba word meaning a person of good character, or good behaviour. Yoruba people believe that every person is an omoluabi by instinct and that in a dispute, settlement can only be achieved by appealing to the omoluabi of both parties, which is believed to lie in the conscience/mind of everybody. Thus any appeal to omoluabi is an appeal to conscience (eri okan) intricately interwoven with the concept of the family (ebi) to which every person belongs, and of a higher being, Olodumare (God) to whom every person is accountable. Thus Professor Awoniyi observed that:

  • 16 TA. Awoniyi. op cit., p. 365.

To be an omoluabi is to be of good character in all its ramifications. Good character, in the Yoruba sense, includes respect for old age, loyalty to one’s parents and local traditions, honesty in all public and private dealings, devotion to duty, readiness to assist the needy and the infirm, sympathy, sociability, courage, an itching desire for work and many other desirable elements.16

26The traditional mode of dispute settlement in families and the larger Yoruba society recognises and is centered around this omoluabi philosophy. In any conflict this moral and spiritual element is invoked in the disputants, as well as in any persons willing to resolve such conflicts. The disputants must behave responsibly by respecting the judicial opinion of the elders that choose to mediate in the conflict. In the same manner, the mediators are expected to justify their position of respect by ensuring that their verdict is not partial.

27If a dispute occurs among family members, as a means of keeping the family intact, the disputants do not traditionally seek legal redress in court. The mogaji, the lineage head, and the baálé, the quarter head (usually elderly men) call the disputants, who in the true omoluabi fashion of respecting the elders answer this call and state their respective cases. It is important to note that the principle of fair hearing audi alteram partem; (hear the other side) is deeply entrenched in the dispute resolution mechanisms of the Yoruba. Thus it is said that:

Agba osika lo ngbejo enikan da

It is only a wicked elderly person that bases
his judgement on the evidence of a single person.

28After both parties have stated their case, the elders deliberate on the matter and — with the help of proverbs, persuasion, subtle blackmail and the use of precedents — the disputants are brought to a mutually acceptable solution to the problem. The object of the whole process is a settlement which will not leave any animosity between the disputants. Any of the disputants who undertakes to do anything by the settlement is expected to do so because such is the mark of a real man. The only instruments of force or coercion which the elders can wield to make either party respect their decision are social excommunication and emotional blackmail. Yet this system of dispute settlement continues until this day, because whichever of the parties undertakes to do anything toward a settlement is morally obliged to fulfil his obligation. The Yoruba say:

K’a se leri ka mu se niyi omoluabi

To make a promise and abide by it is the mark
of a responsible personality.

  • 17 Thanks to The Honourable Mr. Justice S.A. Kolade of the Oyo State Judiciary, Ibadan Division for h (...)
  • 18 Such powers as possessed by courts in Nigeria include the following:
    a. power to enforce decisions
    b (...)
  • 19 A court or a judicial tribunal

29This system of dispute settlement within the family and within the society is legal, i.e., it has not, in the light of the establishment of formal channels of dispute settlement, been rendered illegal.17 But this is only in so far as the bodies which employ such methods do not try to exercise any of the powers18 which a legally constituted adjudicative body19 can exercise or to infringe in any way on the powers of such a body.

6. Background Information on the City of Ibadan

  • 20 Gavin Williams, State and Society in Nigeria, p. 115.

30The Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria are one of the most urbanised people in Africa. Ibadan, the focus in this study, is the political and economic nervecentre of modern Yorubaland. It was founded about 1829 as a war camp after the fall of Old Oyo, and became a city state. At various points in its history, Ibadan has played host to different kinds of migrants — from within and outside Yorubaland. The present-day heterogeneity of the city is attributed to an open-door policy on the receipt of migrants. The city has continued to have a magnetic attraction for migrants. Unlike Kano and Lagos, however, Ibadan has few industries and a high proportion of the people are engaged in administration, commerce and agricultural production.20 The high proportion of people engaged in agriculture in Ibadan has made Professor Akin Mabogunje describe it as a city village.

31Two kinds of poor neighbourhoods can be identified in Ibadan. These are the traditional neighbourhoods in the heartland (or core) of Ibadan and the new poor neighbourhoods scattered around the city. The core areas are populated largely by the indigenous people of Ibadan; Beere, Oja’ba, Mapo, Oje, Idi-Ikan, Ayeye, Orita-Merin, Foko, Oranmiyan, Olomi, etc. Essentially, the traditional Yoruba family lived in a big compound with various members of the extended family. Joys and problems were shared and solved within the framework of this traditional setting.The housing in these traditional areas has become overcrowded and dilapidated over the years. Many of the largest traditional family compounds have been broken up by modem development such as road building. A good proportion of the population are still occupied in subsistence farming, while a sizeable number are traders. The existence of several large traditional markets such as Ayeye, Oje, Agbeni and Oja’ba in these areas is an indication of the importance of trade in the economy.

32On the other hand, the new poor neighbourhoods consist of migrants from other parts of Oyo State and the whole of the old Western region (of which Ibadan is capital) and other parts of the country. These new areas also include Ibadan indigenes who have moved out of their traditional homes in the core areas to live in new neighbourhoods. The poor in these neighbourhoods comprise people who are often semi-literate and illiterate, and who are mainly employed as junior workers in government establishments and other sectors of the economy.

33Slums soon develop in these new settlements, which have the peculiar distinction of being multi-ethnic in composition. The majority of the people here live in rented, usually one-room apartments, sharing facilities with other tenants; sometimes as many as thirty (30) people in one house. People here usually operate in an individualistic manner, even though they are often forced to come together for functional necessities. The landlord operates in the fashion of a ‘demi-god’ with powers of eviction over the tenants. Such areas include Agbowo, Muslim, Oremeji, Academy, parts of Sango and Orita Challenge. Conflicts occur regularly in these new neighbourhoods which may lack the sanctions of tradition and proper behaviour associated with the older areas. Invariably, the task of conflict resolution in this setting is more problematic. Having made a distinction between the two types of neighbourhoods in Ibadan, certain clarifications need to be made. First, though the neighbourhoods can be differentiated in terms of composition, structure and character, each neighbourhood often contains pockets of other elements. Certain features of the traditional neighbourhoods can be found in the new ones and vice versa. Although the imprint of poverty is clear in both, these neighbourhoods are not exclusively poor. Some rich people live in poor neighbourhoods; palatial homes can be found in the slums. The gregarious nature of Yoruba society is such that a wealthy landlord who could build a house in a new less densely populated area, may choose to live in an overcrowded and noisy apartment building among his tenants.

34Often, due to the lack of accepted traditional authorities, the landlord assumes the role of mediator, and, in some cases, the organised judicial setting intrudes, if the police are called in. Even then, cases hardly reach the formal courts because the disputants cannot afford the cost of litigation and lack faith in the organised judicial system. Out of court settlements are thus the norm, even where the police have become involved.


1 The two major publications on poverty in Nigeria are Poverty in Nigeria, Proceedings of the 1975 Annual Conference of the Nigerian Economic Society, 1975 and P.K. Makinwa and O.A., Ozo, eds. The Urban Poor in Nigeria. Evans, Ibadan, 1987.

2 John Iliffe, The African Poor: A history. Cambridge University Press, 1987, p.l.

3 Adebayo Olukoshi and Thandika Mkandawire, eds., Between repression and liberalization: Structural adjustment in Africa, CODESRIA, Dakar (forthcoming); Eghosa Osaghae, Victor Isumonah and Isaac Olawale Albert, Liberalization policies and the changing structures of legitimacy in Nigeria, Final report, NISER-SSCN Research network on liberalization policies in Nigeria, January 1995.

4 Omololu Soyombo, Some issues in the conceptualization and theory of urban poverty in Africa. In: The Urban Poor in Nigeria, P.K. Makinwa and OA. Ozo, eds. Evans, Ibadan, 1987, pp.1-13; I.O. Albert, Urban Management and Urban Violence in Africa, Vols. 1 and 2, Institut Français de Recherche en Afrique, Ibadan, 1994.

5 E.H. Sutherland, White Collar Crime, Dryden, New York, 1949.

6 Sunday Times, 7 September, 1975, Lagos.

7 Wale Ojo-Lanre, High cost of justice: Litigants groan under the financial jackboots of lawyers, court clerks, balliffs, police and the judiciary in their quest for justice, Nigerian Tribune, 26 July, 1995, p.5.

8 ibid.

9 M. Gluckman, The Judicial Process Among the Barotse of Northem Rhodesia, Manchester University Press, 1955.

10 A.N. Allot, A.L. Epstein and M. Gluckman, Introduction. In: Max Gluckman, ed., Ideas and Procedures in African Customary Law, Oxford University Press for International African Institute, London, 1969, p. 22.

11 ibid., p. 23.

12 N.A. Ollennu, The structure of African judicial authority and problems of evidence and proof in traditional courts. In: M. Gluckman, ed., Ideas and Procedures in African Customary Law, pp. 110-122. 1969.

13 Paula Brown, Patterns of authority in West Africa. Africa 21(4), 1951, pp. 262-263.

14 J.L. Comaroff and S. Roberts, Rules and Processes: The cultural logic of dispute in an African context. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1981, p. 109.

15 For detailed information on this see T.O. Awoniyi, Omoluabi: The fundamental basis of Yoruba traditional education. In: Wande Abimbola, ed., Yoruba Oral Tradition, Department of African Languages and Literature, Ile-Ife, 1975, pp. 357-388; J.A. Majasan, Yoruba education: Its principles, practice and relevance to current educational development, unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Ibadan, 1967.

16 TA. Awoniyi. op cit., p. 365.

17 Thanks to The Honourable Mr. Justice S.A. Kolade of the Oyo State Judiciary, Ibadan Division for his exposition on this point during an interview with him.

18 Such powers as possessed by courts in Nigeria include the following:
a. power to enforce decisions
b. power to order persons to appear before it
c. power to punish for contempt
d. power to subpoena witnesses/to order production of documents

19 A court or a judicial tribunal

20 Gavin Williams, State and Society in Nigeria, p. 115.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 1995

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