PROPERTY, as defined by Hoebel is 'a web of social relations with respect to the utilization of some object (material or non-material) in which a person or group is tacitly or explicitly recognized as holding quasi-exclusive and limiting rights . . . in relation to that object'.1 Property relationships are thus but a part of that 'whole network of social relations in which are involved the members of a given community at a particular time' by which is defined the concept of social structure.2 Social structure embraces the forms in which people are grouped in society and the socially recognized ties reflected in the behaviour of individuals to one another -- the norms of the society. Much of the confusion which surrounds Yoruba customary law is due, one feels, to the failure to analyse the social structure of each of the traditional kingdoms; for as the examples given later will demonstrate there are some striking differences between these kingdoms. The purpose of this chapter is to define some of the basic terms and concepts which will be used in the second part of this book to describe the social structure and customary law of each area.
Yoruba culture is remarkably uniform for a people so numerous and inhabiting such a vast area. Differences in dialect were, in the past, pronounced, though a standard form of Yoruba is now coming to be accepted; the internal differences of dialect are now considerably less than the differences between the Yoruba language and that of neighbouring Benin, Nupe or Fon. The Yoruba myths tell of the descent of the whole people from Oduduwa and suggest, even if we cannot believe that the Yoruba were created at Ile Ife, that they migrated there as a body of people whose ethnic composition has remained unchanged; but an analysis of the myths quickly leads one to suspect waves of migration and conquest. Kinship terms and relationships within the family seem to most Yoruba to be uniform throughout their country; they are often unaware of the differences in the composition of the family group. Again, the similarity seen in the regalia and ritual paraphernalia of obas and chiefs and in the ceremonies of their installation and burial has concealed the differences in the constitutional roles of these leaders in their respective kingdoms. Yet it is the structure of the groups of kinsmen, and the political constitutions of the kingdoms, which have a determining effect on customary land law.____________________