Justice in Pre and Post Colonial Ibo CultureUnit 3 Ea1
By Britney Bickford and Tara Flubacher
The Ibo people are a group of African natives inhabiting Nigeria. During the 1800's Imperial Europe entered Africa and colonized it for the purpose of collecting the natural resources. Missionaries were sent to African tribes to convert the natives to Christianity and develop a Christian-Judeo civilized society. However, the Ibo natives were already living in a civilized society when this occurred. One cultural aspect of the Ibo society that made them civilized was their system of justice.
The pre-colonial justice system established in Ibo villages shaped their distinct culture. The justice system was based around their religious beliefs of multiple gods and ancestors. Similar to a jury, the egwugwu acted as ultimate judges for conflicts in the village.
The egwugwu are a group of village elders who disguise and embody the most powerful ancestral spirits. When a village conflict arrises, they will greet both parties, the prosecution and the defense. The parties will state their sides and the egwugwu will go into the sacred hut and consult on a solution (Achebe 88). Justice in Ibo culture focused more on restitution and solution rather than punishment (Nightingale).
In the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, clansman Uzowulu presents his case in a great village meeting with the egwugwu. He claimed that three men came and beat him up and stole his children and wife. These men were his in-laws. In return for the loss of his wife, Uzowulu wanted his bride-price back. The in-laws then spoke and claimed that Uzowulu had abused his wife. They do not want to give back the bride price because she had run for her life.
After hearing the two sides of the case, the egwgwu consulted in the sacred hut. When they returned, they had a solution. Uzowulu was to beg his in-laws for his wife back and bring a pot of wine. If he does this, the in-laws are to return the wife.
The Ibo people were able to effectively control their people with a government of their own . Everyone in the village had a say, however; those who were older or had more titles were given more weigh in their opinion (Mahanta). There was no one leader, but elders had the most control. This kind of government is called a gerontocracy (Sloggett).
When the white missionaries came to the Ibos, what they observed made them believe that they were completely lawless and unorganized. However, the Ibo lived by a justice system that controlled society and supported a government that effectively organized the village.
When white men lived among the Ibo tribes, they began to transform all aspects of culture, especially the justice system. In Things Fall Apart the District Commissioner orders six leaders of Umuofia to meet him in court. Six men went, including Okonkwo, to met in court. The DC told the men that he only wanted to "hear your grievances and take warning" (Achebe 198).
Instead of actually working with the Ibo men, the court men handcuffed Okonkwo and his companions. The men refused to cooperate with them, leading the court men to beat and whip them. The court men would not release the Umuofia leaders until the village paid them 250 bags of cowries (196).
Eventually, the white men's control over Ibo villages became so extreme that when the Ibo men followed Ibo law they would be punished. The villagers would be forced to spend long amounts of time in jail. Some were even killed (Street).
The native Ibo people were forced to live under rules that they could not understand as they were written in English. They were forced to be policed by the white men and sentenced by the white men. In many cases, the English-based law system could not solve the issues that arose in the village leaving deep-seated issues between parties (Okafo).
Many of the English laws imposed on the Ibo people did not line up with their beliefs. This, as well as a lack of communication to the Ibos, probably prompted them to reject the English justice systems landing them in jails (Okafo).
In Pre-colonial Ibo tribes, the justice system allowed a sense of control in the villages. The laws of the land aligned strongly with their religious beliefs. When the European powers came, they imposed a new justice system upon them that ripped apart their customs and culture. Some Ibo conformed and participated with the new power heads. Others, like seen in Okonkwo's fatal end, tried their hardest to hold on to the little they had left.