Historically, in many traditional African societies, individual identities were derived from larger group identities such as clans, tribes, villages, and different social classifications. These groups emphasized rectitude and good behavior, and that influenced their judicial system, which favored harmony among the people. Disputes were mainly settled between individuals.
I am careful not to present Africa as one homogenous community, cognizant of the fact that the continent is often misrepresented as one big country, with one culture.
However, I can safely say that Africans are extremely involved in the social life of their communities, a trend that is very evident among African immigrants in the United States, who replicate African Communities, form clusters of vibrant groups of people and exhibit a strong sense of community.
Historically, the communities have been involved in the decentralized justice processes. The traditional authority systems encourage the community to take an active role in resolving the conflicts and fixing the harm done. It is common for people to approach justice through a restorative lens by making the victim central and focusing on their needs and how they can be met, while maintaining the unity of the community, clan or village.
In the past, it was normal to witness ritual feasting as the outcome of a process of reconciliation.
This is possibly due to the fact that in many African societies, neighbors, relatives and friends depended on each other. They raised each other’s children, harvested on each other’s farms, contributed to each other’s social events, and so it was only natural that they resolved conflicts together, through neighborhood “courts”. They focused on resolving conflicts through mediation, as opposed to pronouncing judgement, characteristic of their strong sense of community.
The approach to these cases was:
§ Involve dialogue and the community (Mediation and adjudication)
§ Promote individual and societal healing, through reconciliation. This sometimes ended with a meal or feast to confirm the start of the reconciliation process.
§ Emphasize harm & resulting obligations
§ Keep victims’ needs and interests central
§ Encourage offenders to understand and take responsibility for harm
Despite the weakening of pre-colonial indigenous restorative justice mechanisms by colonization, it is still evident to date. For example, my mother, was, until recently, a chairperson of the Local council, a village level administration of the country’s very decentralized structure, and when people in our “village” had disputes within the family or with neighbors, they came to our house to present their cases, hoping for a dispute resolution and some form of reconciliation. As a family, we offered refreshments or food to the victim and the offender, as needed, depending on the timing of their cases at our home.
The community I grew up in rarely opted for retributive justice.
There were many cases of retributive justice in the African societies too, but today, when we look at retribution, we agree that it worsens wounds because it separates justice from healing.
In modern East Africa, cultural and decentralized restorative forms of justice have played a big role in reconstructing social order in some post-conflict societies in Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa, and others. Rwanda’s Gacaca restorative process, after the 1994 genocide, played a significant role in curbing the retaliatory feeling of those who lost their loved ones. Uganda adopted an agreement on grass-roots reconciliation with the former Lord’s Resistance Army rebels. These are transitional processes of healing from very serious crimes like genocide that have negatively impacted the lives of people in these communities.
Vivian Kobusingye Birchall