24-July-20 Achebe and retributive justice

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My current read is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (first published by William Heinemann, 1958 though my copy is Penguin, 2001). Born in 1930 in Nigeria, Achebe studied in London and worked for the BBC, later becoming Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

The book has a great back story. In 1957, an advert was published in the Spectator, offering to type author manuscripts for a fee. Achebe, then 27, was working for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in Lagos but aspired to be a writer, and had a handwritten manuscript ready. He sent it to England.

Months passed. Achebe sent follow-up letters to check the status of his manuscript, to no response. Can you imagine, first, the act of bravery in sending away the only copy of your creation to another country and, second, the rising panic when you hear nothing further?

A British colleague from the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, taking her annual leave in England, sought out the typists firm for Achebe and returned to Nigeria with the finished product. It was published by Heinemann the following year, to critical acclaim.

The book tells the story of Okonkwo, a famed wrestler and warrior in the village of Umuofia, who has made his name and wealth through personal graft, catalysed by shame at the indolent reputation of his father. Okonkwo has three wives and many children whom he governs harshly: his eldest son, Nwoye, concerns Okonkwo, since he seems to have inherited his grandfather’s sensitivity and indifference to work.

One day, a woman in Umuofia is murdered in a neighbouring village; Okonkwo is sent to threaten war unless the village give up a young man and a virgin in atonement. Okonkwo returns with both. The young man, Ikemefuna, is sent to live with Okonkwo until a decision is made on his fate.

He ends up living with Okonkwo and his extended family for three years, becoming inseparable with the younger Nwoye – who matures significantly in Ikemefuna’s company – and comes to be considered as a son by Okonkwo.

Yet one day, news is brought that the Oracle of the Hills and Caves says that Ikemefuna must be taken outside of Umuofia, as is the custom, and killed. The boy is told that he is being returned to his family – much to his sorrow, as he has learnt to love his new home – and is led out with a party of men from the village, up through the forest. Okonkwo is among them. In a dense part of the trail, Ikemefuna is hit by a villager:

As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his matchet, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, ‘My father, they have killed me!’ as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his matchet and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak. (Achebe, 2001, p. 44).

Okonkwo has taken five human heads in battle, yet in the days that follow the boy’s death, Okonkwo cannot eat. Instead, he sits drinking palm wine ‘from morning till night’: what modern readers would describe as ‘self-medicating’.

This passage made me think about justice systems, retribution and harm. He didn’t know it, but Ikemefuna’s time at Okonkwo’s house was a happy death row. He suffers through separation from his family and then, much later, death. In common with a few prisoners on death row, he is innocent and his interim sentence and execution are pronounced and managed by authoritative others.

It is common across indigenous (Cunneen and Tauri, 2016), restorative and Westernised justice systems to view harm committed against an individual as a harm borne by, or committed against, the whole community. This is why an apparatus is in place to bring together the offender, the victim (or victim’s family) and the community (represented in most contemporary states, by judges and legal professionals, but in other settings by elders, community leaders or mediators) to decide what action should follow. In principle, what separates restorative and some indigenous justice from Western practice, is that the sentence that follows should repair the harm done and restore victim and offender to their status prior to the offence.

Native American justice, for example, “is rooted in notions of relationship and dialogue rather than adversarial dispute, harmony and balance rather than proof and guilt, and renewal rather than punishment” (Peat, 1996). In Zulu culture, there is the concept of ubuntu which represents group solidarity, the collective, the importance of humanity one to another.  Retribution or punishment is not absent, but the goal is reconciliation. Given the difficult history of division in South Africa, there was a recognition that the future had to be founded on peaceful co-existence.  To that end the 1993 Constitution specifically recognises the need for ubuntu and it was this philosophy the underpinned the establishment and process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In Maori culture, two concepts in particular are important in understanding how justice is dispensed: whanau (the extended family group) and hapu (groups of families).  Responsibility is collective, rather than individual.  Offending may both be caused by, and produces, a disharmony within and between families and the community.  This means that the focus is on restoring the relationship between the offender (and their family) and the victim (and their family).

What is particularly interesting is that these justice systems and principles operated before colonising Western Europeans arrived, who took a fairly dim view of such practice, and who, over time imposed their own vertical, codified and ‘professionalised’ legal structures. Yet today, the discourse of restoration and reparation are de rigeur among justice policy-makers and have been appropriated and translated into systems around the world – with varying degrees of success. Indeed, Maori, Native Americans and others are recovering and re-interpreting their own justice heritage.

It is important to recognise the limitations of all systems, however.  As the story of Ikemefuna demonstrates, some indigenous or local justice forms have been discriminatory and punishments brutal.  Equally, contemporary state justice systems can be discriminatory, unduly retributive, convict the innocent, fail to restore or rehabilitate, or meet the needs of victims or communities.

The second issue that the story raised for me is the potential harm caused by retributive systems to the administrators of justice.

When Ikemefuna joins Okonkwo’s household, he has no real identity or value: he is the outcome of a justice barter. But as time progresses, the boy becomes someone worthy of affection and respect. Okonkwo is profoundly upset by the death sentence, yet participates even in the final act, because of his concern to maintain face.

Achebe describes Umuofia as a strongly patriarchal society. Men’s reputations are built and maintained through acts of power and force. There are a number of passages in the novel which refer to Okonkwo’s internal affection for some of his children, but he never shows it outwardly with kind words or touch. This is an example of the toxic aspects of masculinity and of social duty, which only harm those who feel obliged to embody them.

Through time, prison and punishment systems have been maintained through acts of power and force. Prisons are tough, disciplinarian spaces where collective order must be placed above individual need or subjectivity. In the UK, as in most countries, the public are distanced from the realities of prison life. Instead, prison and probation officers, governors, youth offending team and social workers, administrators, cleaners, chaplaincy, medical and counselling staff do this work on our behalf. And currently, our prisons and youth institutions are often violent and challenging places, with high levels of self-harm, dirty protest, drug-taking, untreated mental health conditions, histories of abuse, minimal rehabilitation and overcrowding. They are holding spaces for those who have offended, sometimes gravely, but they also often warehouses for the marginalised (Wacquant, 2011), the flailing and the harrowed. Unsurprisingly, prison officers report ‘considerably higher levels of psychological distress than other occupational groups, including ’emotionally demanding jobs’ such as policing and social work‘.

So retributive systems deliver on justice as punishment, but containment and violence exert a high price on those charged with its administration. High recidivism suggests the wider public are not protected longer term. Problem-solving approaches and restorative justice take us some way, but need further development in different contexts and need to gain victim and public confidence.

We have yet to grasp fully what makes justice just.


Cunneen, C. and Tauri, J., 2016. Indigenous Justice. Bristol: Policy Press.

Peat, D., 1996. Blackfoot physics, London, England: Fourth Estate Limited

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

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