Supreme Court judicial system conceptualised by the Igbo, Achebe’s community, not the West

Chinua Achebe

The late Chinua Achebe, author of "Things Fall Apart" and "The Voter". 

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

The events of August 9, 2022, when the most competitive elections in Kenyan history took place, the subsequent challenge of results at the Supreme Court, and the hearing and determination of the case on September 5, 2022, will remain edged in the minds of Kenyans.

Though the election results continue to be a subject of debate, that is neither within the scope nor the jurisdiction of this article. Rather I would wish to juxtapose the judicial system of the Igbo community from where Achebe draws his raw materials for his classic novel Things Fall Apart against the modern judicial system of the apex court.

I would wish to mark Chinua Achebe’s 10th year since his demise (to be marked on March 21, 2023) by using his classic novel to challenge the colonialists’ ideology inculcated into the minds of the colonised that their systems were not in existence and where they existed, they did not meet the civilisation threshold. 

The judicial system in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, led by the Egwugwu principle, is enough evidence that Supreme Court was not introduced by the West, rather it existed in Africa albeit in a different form.

In one of the many events where the Egwugwus, the ancestors of the clan believed to come from underground (in a real sense they were successful men of the clan accorded the status of judges), there is a gathering to determine a marriage dispute between Mgbafo and her husband Uzowulu.

The two, together with their witnesses, have brought their case to Egwugwu's house to be heard and determined by the nine Egwugwus whose leader is Evil Forest after Uzowulu is dissatisfied with all other judicial systems presided over by ordinary elders.

Evil Forest calls the meeting to order, salutes the gathering with “Umuofia Kwenu” salutation then sits down to listen to Uzowulu, the plaintiff. They also take time to listen to Udukwe, the accused. He then calls two witnesses, Uzowulu’s neighbours, to corroborate the accusation. 

Once the hearing is over, he calls the other eight Egwugwus into the Egwugwu house to consult together after which they emerge with the judgment. 

Evil Forest, once again, is charged with the duty of delivering it. His introductory words demonstrate a seasoned judge who does not hold the monopoly of jurisprudence: “We have heard both sides of the case...our duty is not to blame this man or to blame that but to determine the case”.

He then issues orders on what Uzowulu must do in order to get his wife back, which is within the dictates of the clan’s customs.

From the above happenings, it is evident that a very sound pre-colonial jurisprudence system existed in Umuofia and, indeed, Africa. It is indisputable that every bit of the modern Supreme Court is implied in it; complete with the Supreme Court president in the personage of Evil Forest, Egwugwu house which is the Supreme Court itself, the Plaintiff and the Accused, the process of listening to “lawyers” and “witnesses” before retiring to “write” the judgment and “reading” it, a duty entrusted to Evil Forest, the Egwugwu house “president”.

Kenyan case

Evidently, the concept of the Supreme Court, which recently determined the presidential electoral case between Raila Odinga and William Ruto, is not a preserve of the West. 

Again, the declaration of African customs as barbaric, backward and uncouth and the presentation of Africans as pitiable beings swimming in miasma of darkness, in need of salvation, was a fallacy fed to the colonized with a view to effecting their subjugation anchored in self-hatred and lack of self-esteem, leading to their acceptance to be authorised by the Western culture.

Now that the apex court pronounced itself on the matter of presidential elections but still one party felt disgruntled, let us continue with the research, to see what we can borrow from African customs to enrich the mostly Western-leaning judiciary.

By so doing, we will not only enrich our judicial system but also vilify Achebe’s agenda of writing back to inform the West that African culture is not anti-civilisation.

Dr Muneeni teaches literature at Kenyatta University


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