This profile was prepared when Onimim Briggs was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.
The New Idea
Customary laws passed down orally through generations of Nigerian societies are used widely throughout the country to render justice. Because they are undocumented, however, they often lead to distortion and manipulation. In some cases, they contradict the Nigerian constitution, for example, when they are used to sustain the oppression of women or dispossession of the indigent. Onimim sees a need for legal reform, but she also recognizes that one must know the law to change it. She is thus developing this obscure, yet commonly invoked, source of law into a visible judicial reference point. Through a participatory research methodology that takes her and her team into communities to learn, document, and verify customary laws with the people who know and use them, she is systematically documenting Nigerian customary laws to make them widely available to public officials, researchers, lawyers, and the public. Using this methodology, her model goes beyond research to create a dialogue about customary law and its reform. She ultimately aims to have customary law included in law school curriculums. Documentation, dissemination, and education of these laws will reduce distortion and provide Onimim and other legal reformers a basis for future reform efforts.