The Role Of The Customary Court In Protecting Nigerian Cultural Expressions And Dance
The Role Of The Customary Court In Protecting Nigerian Cultural Expressions And Dance

By Hon. Ehusani Abel Simpa

The Role Of The Customary Court In Protecting Nigerian Cultural Expressions And Dance


Dance is the animate expressions of native laws and customary practices. Unlocking the culture and content of Africa’s oldest art form truly has a multifaceted dimension. Customary laws are known to be largely unwritten. This is why dance has always been recognized as a medium through which cultural realities are appreciated, perpetuated and developed. Unity in diversity has been the most desirable expression of the preferred reality in Nigeria. with 36 state and the Federal Capital Territory, this great country has a population so colorful with peculiarities inherent in different languages, custom, culture, tradition and belief systems. In Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, there is the conspicuous enthusiasm of urbanization which accounts for the identifiable presence of residents who speak diverse native languages and subscribe to different cultural and traditional realities. So many people, tribes and tongues; Gbagyi, Hausa, Ebira, Yoruba, Fulani, Igbo, Igala, Tiv, Ijaw etc., indeed almost every dialect, all live, work, do business and inter-marry or just share experiences.

The business of Dance is undeniably intrinsic and innate to all life dimensions in Nigeria. The cultural implications, the legal approach towards protecting intellectual properties, the preservation of values, among others, makes this meeting completely appropriate.


Customary law which is a mirror of accepted usage is one source of Nigerian law.

It is a source of law which is no less important than the other source of law.[1]

More times than few, the customary courts have been faced with resolving conflicts that have their roots traced to a traditional dance pattern used in ancient times for conflict resolution.

The Gbagyi tribe in the Federal Capital Territory of Nigeria, for example, have a saying; “You can only truly be part of us, when you can dance our dance”. During the installation of an Etsu who is the commonly known traditional ruler among the natives, there is the royal dance steps that is peculiar to the Etsu which is done in synchronization with the peculiar drum. The customary law is that the coronation of a traditional ruler is not complete if that dance is not done.

There is also the dance used by the youth to test the strength of each other and to entice the ladies in order to attract potential spouses.

Farmers have a traditional dance used during cultivations and even harvest seasons. They both invoke the blessings of the ancestors and by the same stroke use it as a source of inspiration to get the needed strength to work for longer hours. ‘onya’ is the Gbagyi word for dance.  When a person is advanced in age, there is a particular song and dance done by women “akanyi’ is the song the dance is crazy, people fall to the ground and go unhurt. This is also a way to remind people of the inevitable reality of death and the need to celebrate life to the fullest. All occasions have different songs and dance patters which have deep traditional and customary significance.

Traditionally, disputes are resolved and indeed rights are established through dance festivals, rituals and even dance fights. The most iconic dance step of the Tiv people of Benue State is called ‘swange’. It is used in many ceremonies with usually a mixture of male and female dancers dressed in the foremost Tiv regalia of black and white stripes clothing. The dancers have some shells attached on a ribbon to their ankles and sometimes their waists. As they hit the ground dancing, the shells make a rhythmic sound in accordance with the traditional drums. There is traditionally the flute man who dictates the pace of the dance by changing vocals bringing in new songs intermittently.

The ‘tsuwe tsele’ dance, also of the Tiv people is a special dance mimicking a cat. The dancers adopt extremely flexible moves akin to the mannerisms of a cat. It is believed to be an intentional dance used to defuse the erroneously held belief that a cat is a mysterious or possessed animal. The ‘tsuwe tsele’ dance is also  traditionally used to reiterate the customary law principle that recognizes the versatility of humanity and the unlimited ability of the human body.

The Ebira tribe in Okene Kogi State traditionally use the slit drum (Agidigbo) to herald information and remind the people of their roots. The word ‘Ebira’ when directly transliterated means ‘behavior’. It is part of the culture of the people to regard the content of a person’s character as paramount in defining the personality of a person as opposed to other known bias or discriminatory realities. There is a dance pattern that mimicks the movement of the drummer who sits on a stool facing the drum; “Akaka vizeiza, akaaka, vireche” (meaning “they say, they say, could be true or false”). This is an Ebira customary law principle that is akin to the law of Evidence on hearsay. The need for corroboration and substantiating claims are also particularly important in that customary law dimension.


The Customary courts generally have unlimited jurisdiction to determine questions of customary laws.[2] This has a conduit that his not limited to settlement of disputes alone. Rights are recognized &established, customary law principles are restated, declarations are made in the direction of promoting and preserving native laws and customary law practices.

Transactions made under customary law orally and without writing still exist and are valid. Section 66 of the Evidence Act 2011 enables oral evidence of transaction in customary law not reduced into writing to be adduced by the parties concerned wherever title or interest is in issue. The prevalence of writing has not wiped out the existence of oral transaction.

Title, interests, rights and realities are not limited to the conventionally known cases taken to court for litigation. Dance as a valid source of tradition, history and statement of customary law is fully recognized and the customary court has powers to determine questions and determine true dimensions of a culture both as an art form and as established rights to be protected.

Customary law is a question of fact which must be proved or ascertained by evidence.[3]Customary law is unwritten and is a question of fact to be proved by evidence except it is of such notoriety and has been regularly followed by the courts that judicial notice would be taken of it without evidence required in proof thereof. [4]


The fact that an issue, a right or a dispute emanates from native law, tradition and custom makes it fall within the adjudicatory powers of the customary court.[5] For declaratory reliefs and other judicial pronouncements and/or resolution of conflicts and arguments, legal practitioners, native chiefs and indeed any individual or group of persons can approach the customary court to enforce any particular customary law principle. Evidence can be taken through dance and other cultural displays either in the open court or through a move by the court to the locus-inquo which could be a dance festival, fight or traditional ceremony. From matrimonial disputes to custody and guardianship of children, civil causes, debt, damages etc. The implication of a dance or the essential elements of different dance patters and the consequence of either their abuse, neglect or alteration can be brought before a customary court for evaluation and necessary judicial action.


Stories of human existence are replete with the quest for identity and recognition. We write our own stories as we all participate in the development of humanity and the dynamics of law. The world is changing transitorily and many of our traditional values, customary laws and native realities are also being developed and improved upon. Urbanization and Globalization will never really deplete the potency of traditional African/Nigerian values because when push comes to shove, and every pretentions façade is removed, the identity of a person/community is found in their custom. Most contemporary dance patters are indeed variations or direct replications of ancient local dance moves.  The customary courts are also strategically positioned to bring customary law principles to limelight, apply them, interpret them and preserve them.

Thank you.

A Presentation of the Honorable Ehusani Abel Simpa, Honorable Judge of the Customary Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, FC; at the Intellectual Property Lawyers Association Nigeria session on the Business of Dance, which held on the 26th November, 2020.

[1] OKECHUKWU V. OTUKOKWU (1998) 8 NWLR (PT. 562) 405

[2] See the Federal Capital Territory Customary Court Act 2007 and the decision of the FCT Customary Court of Appeal in the case of EKWEME THOMAS & ANOR VS. AHMADU ABUBAKAR (UNREPORTED) FCT CCA 23/10/2013 APPEAL NO FCT/CCA/CVA/2010 P. 13 PARA. 2

[3] OKOLONWAMU V. OKOLONWAMU [2019] 9 NWLR PT. 1676 P. 19, PARA. E.

[4] ESUWOYE V. BOSERE [2017] 1 (NWLR PT. 1546) Pp. 321 PARAS. B-C

[5] E.A. Simpa, Substantial Justice at Little Cost and time: The Peculiarity of the Federal Capital Territory Customary Courts. Available online at–justice–at–little–cost–and.html    accessed 26/11/2020 at 08:10 AM

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