From Anarchy In Action

The Igbo are a people in Nigeria with a tradition that combined stateless communism with patriarchy and slavery. In the 1830s, when they first had contact with the Europeans, there were 5 million Igbo. They lived in decentralized, autonomous communities. They had three classes: free-borns, slaves and outcasts.[1]


The Igbo traditionally had a patriarchal and patrilineal culture, where the “authority of the father was not questioned by anybody in his family”.[2] The novelist Chinua Achebe describes the centrality of dominance in the traditional Igbo concept of masculinity, in his novel Things Fall Apart: “No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man.”[3].

To resist abusive men, women had a tradition called "sitting on a man". When a man abused his wife, the women assembled outside the man's house and yelled at him. If he did not apologize, the women “might destroy the fence around his house and his outlying storage buildings. If his offense were grievous enough, the women might even storm into his house, drag him out, and beat him up.”[4]


Each community was autonomous and controlled its affairs with five major institutions. People made decisions at general assemblies, which were convened by a town crier who went around the village sounding a gong. To this day, assemblies are a major part of Igbo life. The community's decisions were implemented by the council of elders, the age grades, and the secret societies. Finally, a women's council known as the umuada could veto any decision that directly affected women and children. [5]


The precolonial Igbo had “communal ownership of land.”[6] They grew food using communal labor.[7]


The Igbo employed a variety of diffuse sanctions to punish people who committed offences against communal law. Punishments for serious offences included restitution, temporary exile and public beatings. The pre-colonial Igbo did not have prisons or a death penalty.[8]

There were four levels of courts. First, at the household level, the male head would punish women and children for transgressions of his rules. He would sometimes convene a court of his wives and oldest children. Punishments included denial of meals, beatings, and, for repeat offenses, rubbing hot peppers in the offender's eyes. Second, each village had a council of elders that tried cases at the village level. Third, the council of elders would sometimes appeal to the village's diviner,in order to determine the identity of an offender. Finally, the council would sometimes ask the village's oracle, whose decisions were final.[9]

Onyeozili and Ebbe write, “Up till today, very few criminal cases reach the post-colonial court system. Many criminal and juvenile delinquency cases are disposed informally in towns and villages. The Council of elders serves as the trial courts and, the age grades serve as the main enforcement arm of the village justice.”.[10]

  1. Emmanuel C. Onyeozili and Obi N. I. Ebbe, “Social Control in Precolonial Igboland of Nigeria”, African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies (2012), http://www.umes.edu/assets/0/22/7883/ed29161b-c310-44f6-9e4b-e11246babcb7.pdf.
  2. Onyeozili and Ebbe, ibid.
  3. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), 53.
  4. Peter Gelderloos, Anarchy Works.
  5. I.E. Igariwey and Sam Mbah, African Anarchism: The History of a Movement (Anarchist Library, 2009), https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/sam-mbah-i-e-igariwey-african-anarchism-the-history-of-a-movement.
  6. Onyeozili and Ebbe, ibid.
  7. African Anarchism.
  8. Onyeozili and Ebbe, "Social Control."
  9. Onyeozili and Ebbe, "Social Control."
  10. Onyeozili and Ebbe, "Social Control."