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History of Courts In Nigeria: Nigerian Court System


In this article, i will discuss the history of Nigerian court system. If you have been searching for a lucid article on the history of courts in Nigeria, then you are in the right place. I enjoin you to read carefully, as i trace the historical development of courts in Nigeria till date.

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In coming together, there must be conflict and when there is conflict, there should be resolution. This is basically how court system came about in Nigeria. Courts are the major institution for conflict resolution in Nigeria. In other to understand the history of court system in Nigeria, we must trace it back to the period before and after European colonialism.

History of courts in Nigeria

Courts system in Nigeria before colonialism

Before the coming of Europeans in Nigeria, we already had ways that we used in resolving disputes in our different regions. To discuss this clearly, i will explain the nature of court system in the regions of Nigeria before colonialism. That is, the Northern, Western and Eastern region.

Court system in the western region


The precolonial western region of Nigeria was partially centralised and highly democratic. This is so because, they followed the principle of checks and balances. Unlike the Eastern region, the West had a ruler (Alafin). But powers were not solely concentrated on him. He was checked by the Oyomesi. When he fails in his obligations, he can be removed by Bashorun through the Oyomesi. This helped to ensure that the Alafin is not authocratic.

The Western region also had a particular way through which disputes were resolved before colonialism. They had the Oba’s court or palace. The Oba and his cabinet or council of chiefs were the judiciary, rooted with the responsibility of deciding cases of serious offences. Matters of less serious offences could also be referred to the Alafin. Implementation of decisions reached after court cases were done by the “Elege” (Also called the Elegbe). This was the nature of court system in the Wester part of Nigeria.

Court system in the Eastern region


In the precolonial era, the Eastern region of Nigeria was a federal community, which is composed of the family heads (That is, the village heads headed by the Okpara), Ala, Ozo title holders, Age grade etc. It was the largest and most complex community in Nigeria. The Eastern region had serious divisions and districts during the pre colonial era because of ethnicity.

The Eastern region of Nigeria (at that time) was acephalous in nature. They had no central administration. Anytime there is dispute in the society, parties in the dispute were reported to the village heads. The Village heads are people with high prestige, known to be the elders in the community. They will sort for ways to resolve the dispute pacifically among parties. That was the nature of court system in the pre colonial Eastern region of Nigeria.

Court system in the Northern region

history of Court system in Nigeria

The Northern region of Nigeria practiced centralisation. All administrative powers of the region was given to their ruler (The Emir). Emirs were the head of Northern emirates. They were responsible for revolving disputes in their emirates. Nevertheless, the emirs did not work alone. He is allowed to appoint officials who will work with him. But this does not reduce his ultimate power in the emirate.

The Emir serve as the judiciary in the Northern region of Nigeria before the colonial masters came.

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Court system in Nigeria during and after European colonialism

When the whites (Colonial Masters) came to Nigeria, they harnessed the indirect rule system (policy of association) to influence and change some of the culture of Nigeria. This system first worked in the north because of the centralisation of power practiced there. After ward, the western and northern regions joined the system after several attempts of duress.

Adjudicatory system of dispute resolution was later introduced by colonial masters in the 1980s. They started creating small courts like; customary courts etc. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of Nigeria was built in 1863 by the the Europeans through the enactment of the Supreme Court Ordinance No. II. Until 1963, the final court of appeal was the Federal Supreme Court to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. This was the highest court of appeal in Britain.

Note that it was the 1963 Republican constitution (Under section 111) that abolished the privy council of Britain and made the Supreme Court of Nigeria highest. The Supreme Court was later given jurisdiction on matters relating to state and federal laws.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal was created in 1976. It was established to entertain appeals from both federal high and state high courts in Nigeria.

From the above, it is apparent that the court system of Nigeria is evolving. From the informal disputes resolution system practiced in our regions to the Adjudicatory system introduced by the colonial masters.

Well, that is all for now. More information on the history of courts in Nigeria will be made here subsequently. Don’t forget to drop your comments and questions in the comment section below.

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