Proverbs with Juristic Elements under the Yoruba's Traditional Socio-cultural and Political system in Nigeria

Therefore, the origin of Proverbs as modes of thoughts can be said to have evolved with the growth and development of their peculiar society, reflecting diverse aspect of it's cultural beliefs and Prospect. While some Proverbs have been decidedly historical in origin like those relating to civil wars during the presence of the colonial masters in their contemporary societies which became colonies.

1. Proverbs with Juristic Elements under the Yoruba's Traditional Socio-cultural and Political system in Nigeria

The use of Proverbs is a worldwide phenomenon. Proverbs are judiciously employed in everyday conversations, especially among Africans because they help in conveying the deepest meaning in a simple message. "There is no part of the globe in which Proverbs is as important as in the continent of Africa,  indeed the Proverbs represent the quintessence of Africa life and thought.  Proverbs are just not merely

                 Platitudes but saying that carry authority".

                Owe l'esin oro
                Ili oro ba sonu, owe laa fi iwa a
                Proverbs are the Vehicles of thoughts, 
                When the truth is an enclave, it is Proverbs 
                that we employ to discover it. 

Hence, the juristic thoughts are nevertheless discernible, it would be shown that traditionally, the attitude of the Yoruba tribe was to the law, what broad principles of the law were recognizable in the society and what consideration lay behind the application of those principles in the regulation of interpersonal relations. 

Law in the traditional Yoruba society can be derived from the moral milieu in which operated its operation in a socio-cultural atmosphere dominated by a belief in the existence of supernatural powers and a social structure controlled by a hierarchy of authorities.  
In yoruba a combination of Proverbs could have been used to address the problem; the following Proverbs could be used to call the elders to actions as well as to psyche the king to accept the judgment. 

            Agba ki wa loja kori omo tuntun wo. 
When there are elderly in a place issues will not be allowed to go wrong. 
The following proverbs could be used to warn the two conflicting parties about the need to view conflict as a passing phase in life that should not be allowed to undermine an existing relationship. 

The utterances of the Proverbs;  Agbo ora la nso fomoluabi to ba so no sabi odidi: 

A word is enough for the wise,  would be persuasive to the king to accept the court's Verdict. Proverbs are persuasive because of their embeddedness.  Their reference to parallel experience in life makes it impossible for one to challenge their propositions unless with other proverbs. 
Therefore, the logic is that it would be out of sheer folly for one to be courageous enough to challenge a valid truth based on a collective experience as observed by elders.  The following examples of proverbs demonstrate intertextuality and it is used to resolve societal ills.  

              "Ogun  agbo tele ki,  paro to ba gbon (to before warn is to be fore armed)

The literary meaning of these proverbs clearly bears the embeddedness, this is when a leper is informed of a forthcoming war that particular war cannot destroy or kills him.
This means that upon hearing this proverb,  the way hard is expected to take heed and amend his/her ways before it is too late.  One would resist out of sheer folly and will bear the consequences. 

           "Eni ti a wi fun oba je gbo (when you are warned you should take the advice)

The point being made is that you can only ignore the advice at your peril because being given advice implies that people do care for your welfare. In the Oshindongo dialect of Oshirambo,  the following proverbs can be used in similar situations with the Yoruba and Shona:  "Okwenga kwiyageka ombizi"- (this person gets angry upon being given advice). It should be observed that these Proverbs can be used either to prevent conflict from occurring or to resolve conflict at various levels in society.  The intertextual referencing in the proceeds makes them both historical and experimental truths whose dictates can be trusted. 
  However, Olodumare,  has implanted in man ifa aya' (oracle of the heart) that guides him and determines his ethical life. The key to life is to attempt to live in complete harmony with the forces that govern man's universe" through good moral character. Hence, its maxims cannot be rigid rules, but only broad guiding principles or approximately or landmarks by which a general direction can be found.  "For the objective of the law to transcend the mere resolution of conflicts". 

The following Yoruba sayings support this assertion.

1. Eso l’aye gba      – The world should be approached with caution 

2. Pele-pele ni ejo ngun agbon – The snake does not climb the coconut tree in a hurry

3. Oni suuru ni yoo j’ogun aye. – The patient shall inherit the world

We see then that temperance is one of the ideals of life which derive from the Yoruba worldview, the basic outlines, and presuppositions of which have been discussed above. Other ideas which play a  significant role in the definition of good character and the regulation of conduct include truthfulness, humility, compassion, trustworthiness, love, respect for elders, etc. Creative singers in  Yoruba society also has this song which says:

1. Ema s’ika l’aye   – Let us avoid doing evil on earth 

2. Nitori a ti r’orun  – Because of the journey to heaven

3. Ema s’ika l’aye   – Let us avoid doing evil on earth

4. Nitori a ti r’orun  – Because of the journey to heaven

5. Bi a ba de bode   – When we get to heaven’s gate 

6. A o ro’jo.  – We’d give an account of our deeds.

The above song implies that an idea of ultimate human destiny plays a role in the inculcation of moral values on Yoruba society. It is clear that the Yoruba also recognize in their wisdom that religious exhortations, however persistent, are not enough to make a person become an Omoluabi (a person of good character). For them, moral training is very crucial to moral development. Some of these ways which were considered very important in traditional Yoruba society include, among others: apeere iwa (leadership by example, particularly by parents), itonisona (moral guidance), imoran (counseling), itan ati alo (short stories and tales) and eewo (taboos). Ofin (law) in the traditional Yoruba society cannot be divorced from the moral milieu in which it operated.

It operated in a  socio-cultural atmosphere dominated by a  belief in the existence of supernatural powers and a social structure controlled by a hierarchy of authorities. 

God, Olodumare, has implanted in man ifa-aya (oracle of the heart) that guides him in life. The way to a good life is to live in harmony with forces that rule man’s universe through good moral character. Iwa, good character, is of great importance which everyone must cultivate because this makes life a joy; it is pleasing to God, providing sufficient amour against any untoward happening in life. Good character encourages good social relations within the community.  Odu  Ifa  (unwritten scriptures)  emphasizes the different features of  Iwapele.  They include hospitality, patience, and consideration for others. The Yoruba concept of morality prohibits acts like lying, stealing, cheating, and wickedness.


This is evident in the Yoruba proverbs which state:  

1. Eke o sunwon ara eni   – Falsehood is not right for one

2. Odale o sunwon ara eniyan  – Covenant breaking is good for no man 

3. B’eniyan ba nyo‘le da   – If anyone surreptitiously breaks a covenant

4. Ohun buburu a maa yo won se. – ills surreptitiously will befall him

Emphasizing these moral principles, there is a belief in the capability of the spiritual forces to influence the physical world.  The ancestors are believed to be spirits that are omniscient and in addition to this are the complex hierarchies of gods, goddesses, and unfamiliar spirits, carrying with them their swords and scale of justice. As said earlier, the law in traditional African society derives its essence from this moral milieu.

The maintenance of a peaceful social order is regarded as the duty of the ruling elites. This is evident in the saying “agba  kii  wa l’oja,  k’ori  omo titun  wo (elders in the market will never allow a newborn baby’s head to go astray). A dispute between two parties is the responsibility of the elders to settle and also to maintain the cord that binds humanity. Law cannot be viewed in the same sense of right and wrong as such.

The objective of law goes beyond the mere resolution of conflict but for the maintenance of the equilibrium of the society… as a corporate whole. The application of law cannot be removed from some circumstances of a conflict such as the inevitability of humans independence.


A proverb reinforces this thus:  

1. Otun we osi    – When the right-hand washes left 

2. Osi we otun   – When the left-hand washes right 

3. Ohun ni owo mejeeji fiimo. – Both hands are clean.   

The primary aim of law in resolving any dispute is not adjudication but settlement and the traditional court has its eyes on the future relationship between the parties which are so vital to the life of the community itself.  


This is evident in the following proverbs:

1. Ti a ba k’ilo fun ole    – When we warn the thief 

2. Ki a k’ilo fun onisu.    – We must also caution the owner of the yam.  

3. Ti kukuru ko ba g bon  – If the short one has been unwise

4. Kinni se eyi gigun?     – Why has the tall one not exhibited greater wisdom?


It could be inferred from these proverbs that extra-legal conditions may be taken into consideration in the process of settling a dispute; this could include the age of the disputants, status in life, and modes of behavior at the time of the dispute. African law encourages the largeness of mind, especially on the part of the superior of the two disputants.

Thus the following sayings:  

1.  Bi a ko ba tori epo j’esu – If one is averse to taking yam with palm oil 

2. Ki a tori isu j’epo.  – Let him, on account of yam, take the palm oil. 

3. Bi a ni k’aje ekuru ko tan l’awo – If we intend to eat up the ‘ekuru meal’ 

4. A kii gbon owo re s’awo.  – We do not drop the crumbs back into the plate


In the adjudication process, the principle of fairness to both parties is adhered to. For instance, both parties to the dispute must be heard before a judgment is passed. This is evidenced in the popular

Yoruba proverbs thus:                                            

1. A gbo ejo enikan da – He who based his judgment on a party’s complaint 

2. Agba osika ni.  – Is a wicked elder

The importance of social cohesion cannot be over-emphasized in the African juristic thought. This explains the inherent principle of collectivity in the definition of a legal person. In the African juristic thought, the legal personality goes beyond the individual. John Mbiti made this point when he said that,  The guilt of one person involves his entire household including his animals and property. The pollution of the individual is corporately the pollution of those related to him whether they are human beings, animals, or material goods. 

Hence the Yoruba proverb:  

1. Isu eni – It is a man’s yam (in the process of being eaten) and  

2. Ni k’owo eni bo epo – That pushes his hand into the palm-oil.  

Collective responsibility imposes a collective obligation to ensure cordial relationships in society.

Thus the following proverb:       

1. Bi ara ile eni ba nje kokoro buruku  – If one’s  kinsman/neighbour eats poisonous insects

2. Ti a ko tete wi fun un                      – And was not warned Here 

3. huru re koni je ka sun l’oru.    – The resulting itching and discomfort will keep the whole family awake. 


However,  the principle of collective responsibility will not come to play in matters of crime and punishment. But the family’s reputation would be tarnished because of a  singular act of one of its kinsmen.

Thus this proverb:   

1. Ika ti o ba se – It is the finger that offends 

2. Ni oba nge.   – That the king cuts.


In the application of law in the traditional Yoruba society, the reasonable man’s test was often applied. This test was not applied in abstraction but was usually based on the status of the disputants  which include the age, experience and responsibility, and such persons are expected to act according to their status in the society.

Hence the followings:

1. Agbalagba to w’ewu aseju – An elder that wears garb of immoderateness 

2. Ete ni yoo fi ri.  – Earns disgrace.

3. Bi omode ban se bi omode – If a youth is behaving like one

4. Agba a se bii agba.            – An elder should behave with maturity


Finally, as said earlier, the principle of collective responsibility does not mean a denial of individual rights. Thus;

1. Oko kii je ti baba ati omo – A farm that ostensibly belongs to the father and son 

2. K’oma ni aala.                 – Invariably has its boundary of demarcation.  

3. A kii gba akata lowo akiti         – One cannot deprive the monkey of its agile spirit

4. A kii gba ile baba eni lowo eni. – A man cannot be deprived of his family property. 


In Conclusion, the problem of the African jurisprudence projection is multifarious and this is animated by the quest for  relevance. This quest stems from one end of intellectual consideration to another. In other words, it arises both from the problem of substance and method.

But while the problem of method is far-reaching due to the fact that  African jurisprudence still requires a  method for its activation and intellectual clarity,  the problem of substance only needs to be excavated.  It  requires  an  honest uncovering of Africa’s past. This was the focus of the paper and we were able to establish this with the examination of law in traditional Yoruba society/philosophy.  

We were able  to underscore the fact that  law in the traditional African society  is part of a complex social totality in which it constitutes as well as it is constituted. The premise of law is that the individuals should be seen in the light of the whole, and the whole ever conscious of the individuals within. African law hinges heavily on the moral solidarity of the community and was never divorced from socio-cultural considerations.


Thus, justice in traditional African legal system and administration of justice was based on the moral rectitude of the parties as well as the reconciliation of both parties. Conflict resolution mechanisms can therefore be found in Africa’s own indigenous systems through the hierarchical system of jurisprudence embedded in most traditional  African societies.  What  is  also glaring is that many proverbs may be regarded as legal maxims since they are utilized most frequently in disputes resolution and determination of criminal cases.  

"… just like every other traditional societies, the traditional Yoruba communities have conscious desire to maintain solidarity of the group, and an unconscious acceptance of whatever is customary, indigenous and the norm. It is thus a truism that an average Yoruba man or woman throws his/her weight into the enforcement of traditional codes expressed and encoded in proverbial wisdom and anybody that flout the social norm faces the social correction and sanctions".