Sources of Nigeria Law

Nigerian law comes from a variety of sources.  The main ones are discussed below.

  • The Received English Law
  • Nigerian Customary Law
  • Nigerian Legislation 
  • Islamic Law 
  • International Conventions, Treaties and Protocols 
  • Judicial Precedents 
  • Textbooks

1. The Received English Law
This comprises the English Common Law, the rules of equity and statutes of general application (meaning laws passed in England) before 1st January 1900. These were forced on Nigeria as part of the colonization process. Where there is a statute, it overrides the received English law. The list and extent of override is increasing rapidly.
2. Nigerian Customary Law
This is the body of laws that guide the indigenous people of Nigeria from time immemorial. As held in Esugbayi Eleko v. Government of Nigeria, it must be recognized as law and accepted as an obligation by the community. Though it is unwritten, it is a valid source of law but must pass the repugnancy test and must not be in conflict with any written law presently in force.  Customary law has three main characteristics: 

(a) It is a mirror of accepted usage among the community in question. The community must recognize the particular usage as a law and not merely moral one.  

(b) It is not rigid but change from time to time, in line with the evolution of the higher values of the society, e.g. customary land law. This was recognized even in the early days by English judges.  One of them, Justice Speed, who declared, in the case of Lewis v. Bankole, that expediency, flexibility and adaptability to altered circumstances were its strong points.

(c) It is not uniform but differs from community to community.  

3. Nigerian Legislation 
These are statutes passed by the various Regional governments, State Governments and Federal legislature over the years. They also include decrees passed by the various federal military governments as well as edicts passed by the various state military administrators and governors, which are now converted and re-designated as Acts of National Assembly and Laws of State Assemblies, respectively.

Local government councils also have legislative arm that make or are supposed to make by-laws. The legislative arm is made up of elected councilors, who are to receive appropriation bills from the chairman who heads the executive arm (made up of himself, the deputy chairman and appointed supervisors (acting as commissioners)).  The by-laws are sources of law.

4. Islamic Law 
This is the body of laws that guide the conduct of muslims. It has two parts. The civil part has been in use in Nigeria for a very long time. The criminal part was recently introduced in some northern states. 

Although the power to enact criminal law is a concurrent power which the States can exercise, it is subject to, as are other enactments, to the provisions of the Federal Constitution.  The import of this is that where a provision of any state criminal law is at variance with the intendment or clear provision of the constitution, it will be declared void to the extent of that inconsistency.

5. International Conventions, Treaties and Protocols 
International law is a source of Nigerian law. Nigeria is a member of the international community, especially the United Nations Organization and its various organs, Councils and affiliates. Such international “laws” become our domestic laws where they are ratified and enacted into Nigerian laws. 

6. Judicial Precedents 
Judicial precedents mean that judgments of higher courts must be followed by lower courts when considering matters have similar facts and circumstances. 

Judgments have two parts: ratio decidendi and obita dictum. The ratio is the basis of the judgment which lower courts must follow.  A pronouncement by a Superior Court such as the Supreme Court on a point of law is called ratio decidendi which must be followed by lower courts. The rule is based on an age-long believe that a higher court is necessarily more experienced and tends nearer to infallibility.
7. Textbooks.
Textbooks also provide a source of law.  Learned writers discuss, analyze, and criticize the provisions of the law and thereby bring out suggestions for improvement which the legislature as well as judges find useful in advancing the course of justice in the society.  Textbooks writers also shape the country’s laws by pointing out where there is lacuna, i.e. where there should be a law but there isn’t.  Textbooks also shape judicial thinking. 

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