Remembering Where our Justice Comes From

In Justice by Elizabeth Oyegunle

Somewhere along our journey as children of the diaspora, we lost the importance of looking back. I have come to understand this concept of looking back as an expedition into our lived experiences. It is a journey that strives to discover knowledge that is often lost, stolen, or hidden. It can reveal our ancestors’ organizational strategies and behavioral patterns; the majesty of our race, ethnicity, and culture. For me, it began with my experience as a Nigerian immigrant growing up amidst a settler-colonial structure—Canada. As I grew older, my memory of Nigeria slowly diminished, and at times even seemed distorted. Unknowingly, I was integrated into a structure of erasure that prevented me from seeing my place of origin as one deserving fascination or intrigue. Instead, my primary and secondary education coerced me to perceive it as a desolate nation of impoverished people who suffered from enslavement. 

It was only in coming to McMaster and studying Humanities that I began to yearn for exploration, questioning the structures that had created the image I was trying to reconstruct. I had to start at the beginning. I had to look back to find representations of my culture, ancestry and identity. This act of looking back is wondrous. It accumulates the lived experiences of past people as a rich archive of knowledge; one that became a template to discovering my own identity or purpose. The ability to look back can reveal historical remnants of how people thrived and organized in the past. Looking back at one’s place of origin or indigeneity comes from a place of privilege and security. As an African native in a settler state, one may lack the privilege of identifying a distinct location to confirm their culture, self, or purpose. 

The illustration of poverty and enslavement became a representation of my place in society and how unattainable success was. This idea could permeate space like a pungent smell; it was rooted in classroom structure, employment, and even the librarian that would kick me and my friends out of the library more aggressively than  white students. It impacted the way I navigated society. It became clear to me that we, as Black people, live within a structure normalizing colonial temperaments in systems we are historically foreign to.  Specifically – our justice system is a mechanism Black people suffer under drastically because it poorly represents them. When one looks back at early African societies, the attainment, structure, and purpose of justice contrasts with those developed by many Western nations. Until we look back, we won’t be able to understand the systems of justice we are predisposed to; the systems that uplifted and enlightened our ancestors for centuries. 

The Benin Empire has proven to be one of the strongest and longest African reigns encompassing western Africa. Slowly diminishing from its conception in the early 900s to the 1800 C.E, the length of its historical span still remains a topic of debate. Their existence reveals a predisposition to a way of life we are unfamiliar with as we live among and are prosecuted by Canadian systems of justice. To understand how justice looked to them, we will examine their community organization, governmental structure, the administration of rules, and the implementation of punishment. Their society reflects a communitarian structure Kwame Gyekye coins in An Essay on African Philosophical Thought, as inherent to African societies and neglected in Western societies like Canada. Their communitarian society encompasses all individuals as a part of the community. Their opinions, actions, and presence is definitive of how the community as a whole will act and flourish. Although the country of Benin today is small, its history is rich and expansive, as it preserves the footprint of a civilization that thrived for centuries.  

The political structure was held together by the successions of Obas, the leader of the kingdom who was given power through a kin-based system . The reign of Obas could be described as “war mongering” and “over-bearing imperial machines”. The assertion of justice was determined through theocentric conduct, centered around the belief of one God called “Osanobua oghagbon” – meaning “God Manifests” or Osa. Rules were often unwritten codes of conduct dispersed among the public by the chiefs who acted as interpreters. Although the laws were defined by Osa or God, it could be modified by the ruling Oba who was believed to be Osa’s chosen representative. The monarchical institution they developed survived so many centuries because of its adaptability and “self-correcting mechanisms” that allowed them to regulate cruel abuses of power when it defied the divine law given by Osa. This meant no power was completely left in the hands of any man, but a community of people who saw themselves as inferior to a higher power. When a community is united in its understanding that no one is superior, there is a shared communication that represents everyone. 

The Benin governmental structure encompasses four components, beginning with the royal family line, an extended ancestry who held a hierarchy of power. The community and the chiefdom follow, both of which acted as separate but coexisting advisory communities. The community was composed of elders who related to the early ancestors. They would often appoint an Edionwere or head chief, who acted as the ritual leader and guard of traditions; one who often dispensed the teachings given to him from the deities as directives or rules for the community to follow. It is these elders that upheld the old traditions and worship that the society organized itself around. After making a small shift away from the archaic ritualistic dependence, the kingdom moved into organizing these chiefs in chiefdoms or small communities where the Onogie family stood as the head. The fusion of both these communities established the core community of elders who acted as the governing body who discussed big decisions in the kingdom. The final ruling power was Oba, as the head, taking the counsel of his chiefs who represented the people. 

This social culture defined the political culture, which was often left at the mercy of rivalling kings. Threatening the stability of the state, the quest for power accompanied the adjacent military power, making a complex social hierarchy. This military system enforced rules and administered punishment to deserving wrongdoers. Justice was for God, but preliminary constituents acted on behalf of God to execute punishment. Before a penalty was administered, it was normal for individuals to declare their dishonour. This is why citizens would often willingly choose to enter battle and fight for their honor without the imposition of punitive assembly . Many myths speak of kings or Obas being usurped by avenging sons of kings they killed. Power was fragile and punishment was an unwritten mark of dishonour, self-imposed by the offending individual. The community drove status, as identity was often centered around honour.

The blood-thirsty reigns of kings were often depicted honorably because they fought to establish the way of life they wanted and upheld models of power that allowed their kingdoms to flourish with their strength. The Benin people acted according to Osa’s teachings, but to ensure all citizens aligned with the religious conduct, crime detectors were often employed to enforce the religious law, as designated officials who were divinely blessed by the Oba. If justice was to be given, everyone was content in the knowing God or Osa would advance it with the help of his servants. 

Systems like early Benin’s are based around a communitarian approach where each individual is part of an interconnected system of people. When they suffer, the society suffers, and when they flourish, the community flourishes with them. Compared to the Benin Kingdom, Canada has adopted a more individualistic societal structure, government, and economy. The power of capitalism reveals this, as it focuses on individuals pursuing goals for themselves and remaining responsible for whatever mistakes they make. Instead, our ancestors acknowledged all people as integral parts of a community, fuelling an idea of justice that is contingent on the participation, desires, needs, and opinions of all. 

The Benin kingdom shows us justice is not universal, but instead an invented norm that arises from varying cultures, religions, environments, or simply a means of survival. It is no wonder why Black communities are unable to thrive within a justice system that fails to see them as integral to the community, or reflect the systems they are predisposed to. As members of Africa and it’s diaspora, we must learn to embrace the act of looking back to discover the richness of our past. It is not just a history of struggle or marginalization, but one where we maintained order and prosperity. By looking back, we will reveal our history in its entirety, learning from our exploitation and triumphs, to develop a sense of identity and belonging amidst the justice we seek for ourselves.