Agbai v Okogbue: Any matter that relates to fundamental human rights of the citizens is a sacrosanct one. Fundamental human rights are considered inalienable. Thus, they are enjoyed by citizens by the mere fact of their existence. Some of these rights can however be derogated from in certain constitutionally prescribed instances.
This instant case of Agbai v Okobue is a notorious case when it comes to the right to freedom of association. The court in this case made a resounding pronouncement that a person is at liberty to belong or not to belong to an association, notwithstanding that such person lives within the vicinity where the association operates. The court also made a pronouncement on the barbaric nature of any custom which infringes upon the rights of citizens in such manner.
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Facts of the Case of Agbai v Okobue
The plaintiff instituted an action against the defendants at the Chief Magistrate Court at Aba. The plaintiff was a tailor. He claimed for an order of general damages, payment for the loss of use and an order for the return of his butterfly sewing machine on the basis that the defendants invaded his place and seized his butterfly sewing machine for his failure to comply with the activities of their Umunkalu age grade, particularly as to the payment of levy which they wanted to use to build a community health centre.
The levy was to the tune of N109 naira. The defendants were acting on the basis of the fact that the plaintiff’s age is within their age grade and as such, his membership to the Umunkalu age grade was not a matter of choice, as it was part of their custom to group the members of the community who have attained the age of 18 years into age grades.
The plaintiff in fact showed that he was not against paying levies for the development of the community, as he had in the past paid various levies for the community development of which he tendered the receipts as exhibits. He contended that he turned down requests to participate in the activities of the age grade, even though he was aware that the community grouped him as a member of the age grade. His refusal to associate with the Umunkalu age group was based on his religious beliefs.
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Issues Determined By The Court in Elesie Agbai and 5 others v. Samuel I. Okogbue (1991)
Whether it is constitutional for one to be compelled to join an association.
Decision of the Court in Agbai v Okobue
At the Chief Magistrate Court, the court sought to determine the question as to whether there exist any custom that compels members of the community to join and associate with a given age group against their will. The learned magistrate held that there is no such custom that compels members of the community to join and associate with a given age group against their will. And in fact, that if such custom did existed; it offends the provision of section 37 of the constitution 1979 which guarantees right to freedom of association. The court thereon ordered the defendants to return the plaintiff’s butterfly sewing machine. The learned magistrate further awarded general damages of N200.00 and specific damages of N740.00, and an additional cost of N100.00.
The appellants being dissatisfied with the judgment of the Magistrate Court lodged an appeal to the High Court. The learned judge in his judgment made a distinction between being grouped into age group and joining age group. He observed that the plaintiff/respondent was grouped into age group of which he recognized as one which carried out its activities for the development of the society. The judge noted that the plaintiff/respondent was not being asked to join the age group but merely to obey his civic responsibilities of contributing to the development of the society such as building the health centre, as he had been grouped into the age group.
He further noted that the evidence of the plaintiff/respondent did not disclose anything from his religious beliefs precluding him from contributing to the development of the society. The court perceived his act as the act of avoiding civic responsibilities, and held in that order. The high court held that nothing was wrong with the custom which allows the community to seize the properties of members who refused to comply with community development objectives. Thus, it is not repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience. The court ordered the plaintiff/respondent to pay the levy, and further awarded against him the cost of N50.00.
Being dissatisfied, the plaintiff/respondent filed an appeal to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal judicially recognized the existence of the custom of Amankalu which groups the community members into age grades. The court however frowned at the custom which allowed the members of the age grade of the community to resort to the self-help of confiscating the properties of members who did not comply with the objectives of the age grade. Thus, the court declared the act unconstitutional, as it constitutes the usurpation of the power of the court.
Being dissatisfied, the appellants (now the respondents) appealed to the Supreme Court. The court found that the grouping of members of the community into age groups does not by itself form an association, and that the appellant was in fact not a member of the association. The Supreme Court noted that the courts below were more interested in enforcing community development or the performance of civic responsibility than they were in enforcing the rights to freedom of association and religion as enshrined in the constitution.
The court held the custom to be against the principles of natural justice, equity and good conscience. More so, the court held that the community age grade were the claimants, judges and enforcers in their own case. The court noted that the court would recognize and enforce customs as long as they are not repugnant to natural justice. On the issue of self-help, the Supreme Court also followed suit and condemned the action of seizing the properties of the members who did not comply with the objectives of the age grade, as such act promotes breach of peace.
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The case of Agbai v Okogbue is a landmark case which laid to rest and drew a line as to the extent the right to freedom of association can be enforced against the need for civic responsibility or community development. The case also made a remarkable pronouncement on the abhorrence of resort to self-help; it being an object for the promotion of peace. Also remarked from the case is the right to freedom of religion. The case generally hinted on the sacrosanct nature of the fundamental human rights.
Edeh Samuel Chukwuemeka, ACMC, is a lawyer and a certified mediator/conciliator in Nigeria. He is also a developer with knowledge in various programming languages. Samuel is determined to leverage his skills in technology, SEO, and legal practice to revolutionize the legal profession worldwide by creating web and mobile applications that simplify legal research. Sam is also passionate about educating and providing valuable information to people.