The Nigerian Federal High Court recently gave a notable judgment wherein it held that residents cannot be compelled to be members of community development associations. The court also held that the mandatory imposition of dues and levies on residents of a community is unconstitutional. The judgment of the court has been received with mixed reactions from different sectors and members of the society. On one hand, many are excited that this judgment will check the excesses of the community development associations that impose unreasonable obligations on residents. While on the other hand, many are concerned about the adverse effect of the judgment on community development. This article revisits the hallowed constitutional right of freedom of association provided for by section 40 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Section 40 of the Constitution provides that ‘Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests’. The hallmark of this constitutional right is that the choice to associate with other persons, form or belong to any association must be voluntarily exercised.

No person can be compelled or coerced to join any association, whether or not it is considered beneficial to the person individually or the community generally. The courts have over the years interpreted this section of the Constitution and have clearly stated the import and implication of this right. I will highlight the decisions of Nigerian courts on the right to association in Nigeria.

In Ajao v Ashiru, a pepper grinder was forced to join an association of pepper grinders and prohibited from carrying on his business for refusing to join the association.[1] The defendant went as far as using the police to seize his pepper mill, in order to prevent him from carrying on his business. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the Court held the action of the defendant to be reprehensible and reiterated the rights of people to voluntarily join or refrain from joining any association.

Also, in Agbai v Okogbue, the defendant tried to compel the plaintiff to join an age group association of their community.[2] Levies were imposed on all the members of the age group. Since he was not a member of the age group, he refused to contribute the levy imposed on him, whereupon, the defendant seized his sewing machine. Aggrieved, the plaintiff sued and the court held that the idea of automatic [and forced] membership of an association is an infringement of the fundamental right of freedom of association.

Obligations that accrue by virtue of a person’s membership of an association are binding on him/her. Where a person voluntarily joins an association, the law is that he is bound to enjoy the benefits and suffer the disadvantages of the association,[3] therefore, any obligations imposed on him/her during his/her membership of that association is binding and enforceable against him/her.

It may be argued that it is desirable for a resident to join a community development association and to pay imposed levies and community dues, inorder to foster community development, as was the case in the recent decision of the federal High Court. In response to this argument, the courts have stated that:

No community leader . . . has any legal power to impose levies on anybody in the community. They can only encourage the people to participate in community development either by direct (not forced) labour or by financing contribution towards same and such financial contribution can only be a voluntary thing.[4]

The courts have also stated that even though community developments are desirable, caution must be exercised to ensure that the rights of citizens are not ‘trampled upon by popular enthusiasm’.[5] The best tool to ensure community participation is not the use of force but the efficient use of negotiation and persuasion.

It must be pointed out that when a resident of a community derives benefit from some utility in the society in which he/she resides, he/she may be bound to pay the cost for it. So the judgment of the court does not absolve anyone from the responsibility of paying for services such as electricity and water bills enjoyed as a resident of a community.

[1](1973 ) 8 NSCC 525.

[2](1991) 7 NWLR, Pt 204, 391.

[3]Aniekwe v Okereke(1996) 6 NWLR pt 452, 60 CA.

[4]Nkpa v Nkume (2001) 6 NWLR pt 710, 543, 559.

[5]ibid, 562.