Africa Needs an African Definition of Justice

Six years ago, after the general election fiasco that was the 2007 December general elections in the country, Kenya tottered on the brink of full-blown civil war. Since then a lot of water has gone under the bridge. Kenyans have done what man does best; forget. Kenyans have been treated to a lot of theatrics, political ping pong, and outright intrigues during their quest for just justice around the events that happened in those characteristically dark times. A while back, I had opined that Kenya needed to balance her quest for international justice with national sovereignty. Africa needs a new definition of justice, a definition of justice that involves a look through an African prism with an African eye. I know regimes and institutions in Africa can be brutal, without a speck of care for such abstract concepts such as justice, but am not writing this so that regimes and institutions in Africa can read, these rarely find time to read, I am writing this for the African people. So that the African people can have a catharsis over what has been on this continent and decide what will be?  And it is important to tiptoe into the future with a sure footing a footing in which rights and freedoms are respected.

Over time Africa has been a crucible upon which all sorts of ideological and theoretical experiments are put to the test: the ideology and practice of slavery, imperialism(s), socialism and communism and pseudo-theocracies and many other exotic ideologies. As such it is not surprising that contemporary Africa has institutions, theories and ideologies that are not distinctively African and some do not have anything remotely African. Of all the things on the African continent, the one thing that screams and begs for an ‘African-ess’ is justice.  While I know that justice should have explicit universal definitions, there is something about Africans not defining justice that makes it an elusive concept in Africa.

So pronounced have been civil wars and armed conflicts on the African continent that it is far easier to name countries that have not been through post-independence civil conflicts than name those that have. Surprisingly, though, only a few of these countries have been able to institute mechanisms and semblances of justice through local mechanisms. As a consequence, the only purveyors of hope and justice when it comes to International Crimes and crimes against humanity have been International Courts and Tribunals. While this might be welcome at some point, it leaves institutions that are supposed to provide for justice on the African continent severely enfeebled. These institutions will not rise unless we fortify them with trust and until we stop outsourcing justice mechanisms from outside the continent.

Put this in perspective in the 2007 and early 2008; Kenya suffered unimaginable civil chaos after the disputed general election. An estimated 1200 people lost their lives; around 600,000 people were forcefully evicted from their homes and became destitute Internally Displaced Persons and property worth billions of shillings looted, razed or pilfered.  To date, only a few of perpetrators have been tried for their crimes in local courts, and none of them has been prosecuted for the offenses. Of those who were perceived to bear the biggest responsibility, only six were tried by the International Criminal Court: Uhuru Kenyatta – Kenya’s current president, William Ruto his deputy, Joshua Sang- a former radio journalist, General Ali – a former Inspector General of Police, Francis Muthaura –the former head of the civil service and Henry Kosgey – a former member of the Orange Democratic Movement party and the immediate outgoing minister of industrialization. Of the Hague Six, as they are synonymously referred to as, the later three were cleared by the pre-trial chamber and the cases against President Kenyatta and his Deputy look shaky. ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has admitted that she does not have sufficient evidence against the President, and the Deputy President’s case being dogged by witness withdrawals. From the onset, it seems as if those victims of the 2007-2008 post-election will not find satiation for the thirst for justice, neither in local courts nor foreign supra-national courts.

Victims of conflict have never had their quest for justice quenched, although 300,000 people have lost their lives and 600,000 displaced in the Darfur conflict, President El Bashir of Sudan trots the African continent without a care even though the International Criminal Court has officially issued an indictment against him. Joseph Kony remains a blight on the face of this continent launching attacks from his lairs in the bush on innocent children and women. None of these crimes will ever see the criminals prosecuted.


Part of the problem is, we have allowed others to define and determine what justice is for us. Justice, like democracy, is not foreign in Africa, and it certainly did not come with the advent of colonialism in Africa. We had courts, judges, and elaborate judicial systems before colonialism and we certainly need to anchor our philosophy and practice of justice upon our traditions. Justice is not foreign, and an African philosophy of justice is as good as any other, that way we will not have despots running away from fair justice under the guise that existing international judicial systems are un-African. Yes! It has been tried in Africa; Rwanda used traditional Gacaca courts to bring: truth, justice, and reconciliation to solve societal mistrust after the 1994 genocide.