In this paper I discuss some aspects of the relationship of African customary law to the economy. Such a vast topic potentially embraces at least three different themes: the economic context in which African customary law has developed and operates today; the economic consequences and implications of different African customary laws; and the relationship between customary law and the economic aspect of society. These three themes inevitably overlap, but while recognising their interconnections I shall concentrate primarily on the third. My principal aim is to identify some of the linkages between customary law and economic relations, especially those linkages which become manifest during broad social changes.
An examination of the relationship between customary law and the economy in Africa almost ineluctably requires an historical perspective. This is so, first, because, as I suggest later, customary law is historically specific: it developed in particular historical circumstances and in close conjunction with the formation of the colonial state. Thus, the foundations of customary law in Africa lie partly in the development of capitalism and its expansion from Europe during the colonial era. These interrelated processes have decisively moulded and subtly shaped the law, legal institutions and legal professions of contemporary Africa.
More generally, however, it is essential today to envisage the possibility of new, alternative forms of development and social regulation. The particular forms of legal pluralism which characterise third world countries indicate, in many cases, that the subsumption of African economies within capitalist relations of production and exchange has thus far been merely partial and formal.