African Legal Traditions: A Comparative Study with Natural Law and Legal Positivism

On this page, we indicate how African Legal Traditions resonate with Natural Law Thinking and Legal Positivism legal philosophical schools of thought?

Africa, with its myriad cultures and societies, presents a wide array of legal traditions that offer unique perspectives on the nature and origin of law. This article explores the similarities and differences between African legal traditions and two major Western legal philosophies: natural law and legal positivism. These philosophies offer lenses through which we can better understand, appreciate, and critique African legal systems.

Quick Article Highlights:

  1. Natural law theory posits a universal moral order as the source of law. Some aspects of African legal traditions, such as the Ubuntu philosophy and the belief in a divine moral order, resonate with this theory.
  2. Legal positivism, on the other hand, asserts that laws are created by human beings and their institutions, with their validity not necessarily tied to morality. This is evident in African legal traditions through statutory and constitutional laws, as well as the evolution of customary law.
  3. Despite appearing to be dichotomous, both natural law and legal positivism can coexist and interact within a single African legal tradition, reflecting the rich diversity and complexity of African societies.
  4. Both natural law thinking and legal positivism provide valuable frameworks for understanding the multifaceted nature of African legal traditions. An appreciation of these philosophical resonances can enrich our understanding of law and justice in the African context.

African Legal Traditions: A Comparative Study with Natural Law and Legal Positivism

African legal traditions, though varying greatly across the continent, often share common themes that resonate with the Western philosophical traditions of natural law and legal positivism. Both philosophical schools provide useful lenses for understanding, critiquing, and appreciating the complexities of African legal systems.

Resonance with Natural Law Thinking

Natural law theory posits that law is derived from a universal moral order, independent of human decisions, and is inherently just and right. In this context, laws aren’t mere social constructs, but are seen as grounded in a deeper ethical or moral structure that transcends individual cultures and societies.

Certain aspects of African legal traditions align with this perspective. For example, Ubuntu philosophy, primarily from Southern Africa, places emphasis on communal relationships, shared humanity, and moral responsibilities to others. This ethical framework forms a vital part of the region’s customary law, which is derived from the beliefs, customs, and traditions of the community, and could be viewed as a sort of natural law – a set of inherent moral principles guiding communal life and justice.

The notion of a supreme being or divine forces that underpin moral order and influence human conduct is also prevalent in many African societies. These transcendental sources of law closely mirror natural law thinking, where there is a belief in an overarching moral order that shapes human laws.

Resonance with Legal Positivism

On the other hand, legal positivism asserts that laws are created by human beings and their institutions, and their validity is not necessarily tied to morality. A law is considered valid if it has been properly established by a recognized authority, regardless of its ethical implications.

In terms of African legal traditions, there’s a clear resonance with this perspective, especially in the realm of statutory and constitutional laws. Many African states have well-established legal systems where laws are enacted by parliament and other legislative bodies, without necessarily relying on morality for their validity. Moreover, colonial legacies have also shaped the positivist nature of many African legal systems, as imported Western laws were often applied without reference to indigenous moral and social norms.

African customary law can also exhibit elements of positivism. Despite its basis in the traditions and norms of a community (which may appear akin to natural law), customary law is subject to change and modification as society evolves. It is, therefore, a product of human decision and agreement, reflecting the central tenet of legal positivism.


African legal traditions display elements resonant with both natural law thinking and legal positivism. While the importance of moral order and communal ethics aligns with natural law theory, the recognition of human-crafted laws and evolution of customary law mirrors legal positivism. It is essential to understand these resonances and intersections when exploring the complexities and unique features of African legal traditions. The rich diversity across the continent means that both natural law and legal positivism may coexist and interact within a single African legal tradition, a reflection of the multifaceted nature of legal philosophy itself.


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