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Last Updated: 10/23/2012
The nature of justice: Irony and the obligation to multiculturalism
Humphrey Sipalla

Responding to recent tensions in Kenya between government security forces and the Mombasa Republican Council, as well as the activities of unrelated vigilante groups, Humphrey Sipalla discusses the paradox of seeking justice in a largely unjust and essentially multicultural world.

Fightin for what they did not create cryin peace while inflicting pain
Man deciding another man's fate claiming power in their god's name
Words of love but their actions speak hate seems like mankind has gone insane
(Shaggy, “Repent” from the album Clothes Drop)

[…] there's a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches […]

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me and you
Is if the Russians love their children too
(Sting, “Russians”)

I firmly believe that we all, as human beings, want to live in a just world. There are few absolutes in the world, and this is one of them. But also undoubtedly, justice is not easy to come by. These seem like two opposing absolutes. A world full of justice thirsty people, but which lacks justice. How can this be so?

For the avoidance of doubt, opening with absolute statements is not perchance. My editing mentor, Silvano Borruso, never missed an opportunity to reiterate a lesson in logic. In fact, he was categorical: “Avoid categorical statements.” It only takes a rebuttal on one point to bring your entire thesis cascading down in glorious fallacy. I duly note the 7 billion possible rebuttals alive today – not to speak of all people back and forward into time – for the statement. But I am with Borruso on this one: we all yearn for justice. We all experience some form of injustice everywhere.

The dilemma of justice and its lack is therefore not one of poor imagination. We all want it, we have thought of it countless times. Those with young children will attest to how young we are when we start frowning at our parents saying “that’s not fair!” From very early on, we can identify differential treatment, and obviously, ill treatment.

Why the mismatch between imagination and reality? I fear that what lacks is an understanding of the necessary universal nature of justice. I must confess, the first time I read Julius Nyerere’s speeches vehemently opposing discrimination of white people in Africa, and Martin Luther King Jr asserting that black supremacy is “as evil and dangerous” as white supremacy, I was appalled. Why do they care for those people, under whose hand much cruelty and suffering has been visited on my people?

As the Swahili proverb goes, Kuishi kwingi, kuona mengi – the longer you live, the more things you see, and by inference, learn. I once met a Mai Mai commander in Eastern DRC. All through the long chat we had, he felt so justified by his suffering, his mission of liberation, his duty to his children. He was right in his eyes. A few years later, ethnic extremism started incubating in my country, and particularly in my town of Eldoret: at once home to most of Kenya’s greatest athletes, a very cosmopolitan little town in the heart of the bread basket, and the site of some of the most atrocious acts to have ever been committed by a Kenyan against another in our history.

In Kenya, I watched with horror as the “us-them” dichotomy decayed from a primary school lesson on personal pronouns into genocidal intent. Each camp had populistically valid “justifications”. They have taken from us and we must therefore protect our own. The linguistic categories were applied literally to real life. Human beings ceased to be, and the pronoun stood in their stead, rather than in their names. Anxiety begot fear. Fear numbed reason. Violence is irrational but cleverly self-fulfilling. As the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights described of the 1989 mass expulsions of black Mauritanians in its 1996 Report, “a collective insanity seized the country”. One day, I was an optimistic citizen, rationally and calmly exercising my right to elect a government of my choosing. Three days later, as the country exploded in unrestrained violent orgy and the state lost monopoly of force, I was transformed into a machete carrying neighbourhood watch militiaman. Again, we must protect our own from them.

When seized with generalised fear – and it does physically, tangibly seize – everything seems justified. Later, like the sated ogre/werewolf, as we raised our heads from the kill, Wole Soyinka’s words rang true: “Does a tiger declare its tigritude?” Is a lion appalled by its savagery as it looks down at the antelope’s throat it ripped apart?

At the time of violence and generalised fear, choices seem so clear, so true. It is either us or them. But must it always be so? If we must choose, elect between options, isn’t the true election then choosing the options to be presented? Nyerere and King rejected the false choice of a necessary dichotomy in humanity, between us and Them. The simplistic categories that force us to accept homogeneity and false choices are themselves the first act of violence against reason.

Allow me once more, a final categorical statement. There is no homogenous society. For our purposes, let us define all societies as multicultural. Society is a human creation. Even for ethnically or religiously homogenous communities, there are gender divides. There are socio-political, socio-economic differences, even in the basic unit of society, the family. This means we cannot ever escape the challenge of multiculturalism.

At UPEACE, multiculturalism is both the pride and bane of our existence. Sometimes, I just want to be me; speak my tongue, my mind. Sometimes, I do not want to greet people, listen keenly to extract the English from the accent and mother-tongue-laden expressions. Sometimes, I want to behave badly, shout at those… Sometimes, I feel like indulging in my stereotypes of gender, race, class, religion, ethnicity; socio-politics and economics. Sometimes, it is just easier to let myself think of them as I expect of them. As a fellow student shared, “multiculturalism is tiring. I never expected it to be this demanding and continuous”.

In Kenya, the last two weeks have seen sadly precedented state violence and popular support for it. A separatist movement, the Mombasa Republican Council, has been increasingly active, even threatening to disrupt the national school leaving exams – a highly regarded national custom. In the last two weeks, security forces moved in on their locations and quite simply, crushed the movement, and held up their brutally beaten leader as a trophy to the rousing roar of the public in the Kenya’s grand Coliseum, the media. It has been a spectacle to both loathe and admire. It has been heart-wrenching to debate on social media with my peers, my agemates, about this celebration of torture and violence in the name of justice and national values. The popular view is that of another age old Swahili proverb: Amani haiji ila kwa ncha ya upanga Peace comes not, but by the edge of the machete.

This last week in Kenya, suspected thieves and witches have been burnt alive – itself a most gruesome and barbaric convolution of justice. Vigilante groups in Kenya’s Central Province have arisen to counter the growing revival of another vigilante group - Kenya’s most feared - the Mungiki – who stand accused of having been hired to execute the organised crimes against humanity that are the subject of ICC trials of some of Kenya’s most powerful politicians. The cycle of violence is self-feeding and self-fulfilling. But my agemates, my peers are tired of the violence and criminality. They are good, rational people, very well-educated and cultured. They want justice and normalcy. The violent separatists, vigilantes and common criminals have caused such suffering! So, “let us kill them all”, they say. “They deserve it. In fact, they don’t deserve human rights. The Constitution is idealistic and inapplicable!”

And so we find ourselves where we began: before the irony of justice. In the heat of the moment, it is easy to forget that there is no respite to multiculturalism. We will always be faced with “the other”. The times we are conscious of it is only when we are obliged to respect multiculturalism, to be conscious not to injure the other. And that in itself is a manifestation of justice. Justice means an obligation to restraint, at the very least, and beyond this to positive tolerance.

Our universal yearning for justice exists alongside the challenge of multiculturalism. But do they, can they co-exist? Indeed they can, but only if we reject a reductionist view of the world that pretends to offer simple choices. Let us reject the generalised fear of the other, whatever such other may be – religious, ethnic, racial, political, economic, gender. Sometimes, we insist on seeing only the reduced world we wish to see, and then we erroneous apply “justice” to this reduced world. And no greater injustice there can be than to reduce justice.

I can only think of one answer to this irony of justice – and this tortured writing is a search. The nature of justice is wrongly taught to us as children, presented as the answer to personal individual reduced experiences. We start off conceiving justice as the solution for what is unfair to me, not what essentially is unfair. This is not just an incomplete concept of justice, it is precisely what injustice is. Injustice is the negation of justice. If universality is a necessary integral part of justice, then a concept of fairness without universality is lack of justice, ergo, injustice. And the more we grow with this beguiling concept of injustice, into positions of power and influence, the more we project a two faced, shape shifting “justice” to the world.

One cannot want justice for themselves. We might as well want the sun to rise from the north. It may seem unfair – and this is ironic – but justice can only be for all of us, or none of us. And it would be wrong to ascribe to justice a test of deserving action. No action makes one worthy of enjoying justice. More importantly, the converse is true. No action makes one unworthy. Justice is not a lack of punishment either, but rather the rejection of reactionary retribution and cruelty, physical or otherwise. To live in a just world we must unlearn what we have learnt and reconceptualise justice as necessarily universal. Otherwise, human dignity and multiculturalism will always seem to be burdensome.

Ironically, the irony of justice can be solved by reversing the prejudice, and placing oneself in “the other’s” place; walking a mile in their shoes. As the singer Sting suggests, “what might save us, is if the [other] love their children [as much as we love ours]”.

Humphrey Sipalla is a teacher, writer and editor. His research interests are in theology, social justice and the African renaissance.