The term “customary law” has been variously defined by the judiciary, legislatures and by academic lawyers who have attributed to it equally varying characteristics. In the former Eastern Region of Nigeria, the term has been defined to mean a rule or body of rules regulating rights and imposing correlative duties, which obtains and is fortified by established usage. The Evidence Laws of Nigeria similarly define custom to mean “a rule which, in [a] particular district, has from long usage obtained the force of law.” Allott, the pioneering scholar of African customary law, also defined it to refer to “the rules which trace back to the habits, customs and practices of the people which engender and support the norms expressly formulated from time to time for the decision of disputes.”
“African Law” has come to be identified as a term that describes the customary laws of the various peoples and communities who have come under a colonial power.
The study of customary law was initially undertaken by curious anthropologists who went far and wide throughout the colonial possessions of their mother country to discover and describe the lives of the natives for the consumption of their academic colleagues. In their endeavor to understand their subjects better, colonial administrators often commissioned or otherwise sponsored such studies and ultimately put these discoveries to good use in the service of the imperial power. The anthropologists were followed—or, some would argue, were preceded—by legal and administrative officers in the service of the colonial office. While they were writing their memoirs or otherwise commenting on their experiences in the service, they occasionally described how the received English law fared in its transplanted soil but they hardly took any interest in analyzing its interaction with and impact on the native laws with which it co-existed in the colonial territories.