In assessing customary law two quite contradictory tendencies exist. Some approach customary law deferentially, even reverently. This constitutes “our” law. It expresses “our” values. We must nurture it. Others take precisely the opposite perception. Customary law constitutes the law of primitive tribes; we aim to become modern; ergo, we must do away with customary law. How to choose between these quite conflicting perspectives?
We argue that to understand customary law, we must understand its political economy, that is, the function it performs in existing socio-economic and political structures, particularly with respect to the class interests involved. We undertake here to put forward our understanding of the political economy of customary law in the English-speaking countries of Africa. To do that, we describe, first, the difficulties which require explanation and solution, that is, the poverty and vulnerability of the mass of Africa's people; second, for that poverty, we attempt an explanation, which takes the legal order as the manipulable variable; and, finally, we suggest briefly options for reform and change.