From Nigeria to the world: Professor Okeja’s quest to define justice

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Professor Uchenna Okeja
Professor Uchenna Okeja

By Uyanda Ntloko, School of Journalism and Media Studies student


As per tradition, Rhodes University recently hosted an inaugural hybrid lecture by Professor Uchenna Okeja, titled ‘What is Justice’. Due to the large volume of numbers and diversity of the audience, this auspicious event represented not only academics but also students, colleagues, family, and the public.

In the felicitation of Prof Okeja, Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sizwe Mabizela started the lecture as a speaker who welcomed all who attended and welcomed Okejas’s attending family (wife Oge, two children Aka and Beluchi, as well as Okejas’s parents Sir Christopher and Lady Felicia Okeja).

Prof Mabizela said: “This milestone of significance is a promotion to the rank of full professor and reaching a pinnacle in academia.” 

Prof Okeja was born in Nigeria and lived in different places throughout the world as he didn’t grow up in his village. He spent most of his time in this world as a nomadic person who enjoyed freedom at an early age.

In his introduction, Prof Okeja gave a distinct appreciation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, as Okonkwo described the value of events such as the one we are observing today in the following way: “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gathered together in the Moonlight village ground, it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.”

“The aim of our gathering today is indeed not because you cannot grow in wisdom if you do not listen to this lecture. As you know, I am neither an academic celebrity nor an intellectual superstar. Besides, Zoom has made access to the wisdom of others possible from every location,” said Prof Okeja.

He spoke about Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in the representation of appreciating and recognising those who value the community in solidarity. He accentuated the value of community in his journey as a scholar and teacher in university, with the contribution and support of an extensive community.

“It is only fitting that I begin this lecture by expressing my gratitude to this community. I am going to be brief about this, but this should not be taken to mean that I do not value some of the help I received over the years,” said Prof Okeja.

He gave a brief detailed background about his upbringing at school. “I’ve been a lucky student, as most of my teachers in high school wouldn’t even remember my name, so anything I learnt from them beyond the classroom was not because they liked me more than other students,” he said.

“Beyond high school, I continued to enjoy good luck with my teachers. With that, I would like to thank Jörg Disse, Richard Hartman, Thomas Schmidt and Matthias Lutz-Bachmann for their support and contributions to my development during my undergrad and postgrad studies in Germany. Matthias Lutz-Bachmann has been exceptionally supportive in ways I cannot even describe adequately… my friends during undergrad and postgrad deserve special thanks for all kinds of reasons,” said Prof Okeja.

He gave respect and gratitude and said, “South Africa has been generous to my family and me; here we have found a family and lasting friendship”.

In his introduction to the lecture, Prof Okeja gave all that could be presented with one prominent example and distinct theoretical explanation underpinning justice. “We feel very strongly about injustice, as when we believe we have been treated unjustly, we may feel a sense of indignation, humiliation, resentment, anger or a combination of these emotions, although we do not react to injustice, in the same way, it would be correct to say that no reasonable person would want to live in an unjust society,” said Prof Okeja.

He continued: “Besides our basic instinct to survive, we imagine that we deserve to live in a just society because we have an interest in living a decent life, and the problem, however, is that justice is an intractable concept – this means we can hardly agree on the form of an ideal society that justice is supposed to motivate us to create.”

In this lecture, Prof Okeja introduced Phil Clark, whose work on the Gacaca in Rwanda provides a penetrating insight into the pursuit of justice in the shadows of deliberation. He recounted the following extract of a Gacaca session (Clark 2001, 1 -2):

“In a Rwandan village near the Burundi border, a crowd chatters impatiently beneath a tattered blue tarpaulin shielding them from the midday sun. Before them on a long, wooden bench sit nine elders, mostly middle-aged men and women, led by a young man – the president of the panel – who stands and addresses the gathering. The president explains that in their midst today is a prisoner, released from jail a week ago, who has confessed to committing crimes during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which in a little over three months claimed the lives of between 500,000 and 1 million Tutsi and their perceived Hutu and Twa sympathisers. The task of this gathering, the president explains, is to listen to anyone from the village who saw what this prisoner did, to hear from the victims’ families of their pain after losing loved ones during the genocide, and for the nine judges – who have been elected by the community for their wisdom, love of truth and justice and dedication to the well-being of the village – to decide the case of the accused.”

He stated: “The main goal I have tried to attain in my research has been to understand the nature of justice and the role its imagination plays in helping people negotiate the realities of living under unjust social and political conditions.”

Prof explained that “my reflection on this theory has led me to the conclusion that this approach to defining justice is inadequate, and I think it is neither plausible nor necessary to assume that justice can be understood by imagining it as the opposite of injustice.”

He gave reason to this conclusion, as when we experience injustice, we experience something real, as this is the same with the experience of justice. He continued: “This means that we will fail to explain the nature of the experience we call injustice if we imagine it merely as the opposite of justice. Besides, the experience of injustice can lead to fundamental damage to agency and dignity that cannot be repaired by imagining even the most amazing conception of an ideal just society…more is needed.”

He concluded: “From this understanding of justice, we can derive a number of basic values that should guide our conduct in different spheres of life, but, to do this, we have to provide a justification of this account of justice, and this task is the core of my research for the next couple of years.”