Rev. Fr. Boniface Nkem Anusiem Ph.d at the 2nd Global Conference on Revenge. Oxford University United Kingdom.



Boniface  Anusiem


African cosmology is basically communal. In traditional African societies, individuals are born with their lives, plans and aspirations built within the framework of the community. The community as a superstructure with a supra-sensible prowess has a central role to play in the lives of individuals and groups within the community. In the traditional African society nothing essentially happens without necessary connection with the community. This stretches to even small details as a child’s insubordination.

Revenge is generally seen as a negative response to injury or harm; whether intended or accidental. It may come with one or more of the following reasons: the desire to get even, retaliation for injury, loss, or humiliation, an attempt to transform shame into pride, seeking symmetrical injury, harm, or loss.

In traditional African societies where the community transcends the individual, revenge becomes a viable socio-cultural arsenal when the life of the society is at stake. This seemingly primitive approach to adverse reciprocity of actions forms a strong basis for social justice in most communities Sub-Sahara Africa.

In this section, the author employs the rich ingredients of African studies to evaluate in broad lines the benefits of revenge in certain African societies when its occurrence adds value to the life of the immediate community. This expository study addresses revenge as a phenomenon with strong socio-cultural and religious relevance. Revenge is seen as having some contributive values to social justice when it is appropriately applied to appease the vertical and horizontal lines of relationship evident in the community. This afro-centric assessment of revenge is instructive while initiating scholarly discussions.


Key Words: Revenge, Afro-centric, Community, Religion, Morality, Cosmology, Africanity, Societies.


1.0       Introduction

Afro-centric studies and committed reflections on traditional African value systems are topical in our day and age. Scholars within and without the African continent have continued to explore the rich African traditional landscape in view of readdressing and re-evaluating those socio-cultural and religious attributes that are typically African and thus contributive to authentic “Africanity”.

Revenge as an action of paying back hurt or harm is not unknown in African communities. It is not only factual; it is also recommended especially when the peace and well being of the community in question is threatened. This paper has the task of exploring and establishing when revenge is justifiable considering the prerequisites of social justice.

To address this important and indeed very sensitive act, our insight goes through a deeper understanding of African traditional cosmology, revenge generally and particularly as it seen in African communities. This further goes into the relationship that exists between revenge and social justice.

For  Alyward Shorter (1998), one cannot speak and write about Africa as if it were a single, homogeneous society, or even a series of isolated, ethnic groups, all basically similar or comparable, instead there is (and was) social and cultural fragmentations. In the first place, there are diverse physical environments to which the various human groups in African communities have been adapted to both economically and socially. Furthermore, there has been no uniformity in these adaptations, but a variety of independent traditions and inventions even in similar environments. The different traditional systems have also been modified in different ways, according to the effect of historic personalities and the significant contact among ethnic groups. Consequently there is a huge variety of social and political systems, of languages, cultures and religions.1

In the midst of this pluralism it is possible to discover certain regularities. This is particularly because of the notable flexibility and absorbability of traditional African societies, which exchanged ideas and practices over wide areas without the need for great movements of peoples, conquests or reforms. Local cultures accepted ideal on their own terms, integrating them into their own systems of thought and symbolism. The consequence of all this is that, while there is no single concept of social justice which can be called universally African, there are a number of differing experiences which have a relatively wide currency. These experiences relate to different social levels: the family community and the political structure; and to the different styles of life dictated by the various environments and cultural traditions. Considering the foregoing the research and presentation have particular focus on the worldview of Sub-Sahara African.


1.1       Understanding African Cosmology

African cosmology simply refers to the peculiar way the African understands the world and operates within it. For the African the world is made up of two inter-penetrating and inseparable, yet distinguishable, parts namely, the world of spirits and the physical world. These two realms are in active dialogue. For Uzodimma Nwala (1985) “there is no sharp line separating the two. The spirits are involved in the day to day affairs of men”.2

Within the aforementioned realms we have some identifiable hierarchy. In the spiritual realm there are as Parrinder (1962) would denote fourfold classification of categories, namely, the Supreme God, divinities or gods, ancestors, and charms or amulets. On the other hand the human realm is made up of human beings, animals, plants and other realities. These are however involved in a progressive interaction.3 There are basically in the strict sense no inanimate realities as even animals and plants are involved the cosmic dialogue. Some African folktales explain this very well. One will notice the interaction with among the various entities in both realms. A deeper appreciation of African cosmology can be seen in the African concept of religion.


1.2       African Concept of Religion

African traditional religion has proved to be very difficult to define. There is no single simple and precise definition to describe it. Unfortunately, many writers have misunderstood ATR by trying to define it under misleading terminologies such as animism, fetishism, magic, superstitions, primitive religion, ancestor worship, paganism etc.4 Actually the difficulty to define ATR seems to come from the fact that its propagation is carried out by living it other than by preaching it. Its followers are more preoccupied with its practice than with its theory. In ATR, dogmas and doctrines have a very little role to play in the life of its followers. Its definition becomes even more difficulty because of its integral / holistic character. There is no separation between the religious (sacred) and the profane. Its influence covers all aspects of life, from before the birth of a person to long after s/he has died. It is a way of life and life is at its centre. It is concerned with life and how to protect it and augment it. Hence the remark such as: For the African, religion is literally life and life is religion.

The sense of religion is the most significant of all the values that are pertinent to Africans. J.S Mbiti (1975) was right to remark that in African traditional societies there are no atheists.In a more obtrusive way, he maintained that the African is notoriously religious. This view point is plausible judging from the fact that every activity undertaken by the African has a direct or indirect connection with his or her religious creed. Giving reason for this Oliver Onwubiko (1991), remarked that:

Religion in the indigenous African culture, was not an independent institution. It is an integral and inseparable part of the entire culture. Religion in the African sense was practical. One’s entire action is reflective of one’s religious concept and practice as seen in the ordering of society.6


Africa traditional religion is not limited to beliefs in supernatural beings [God and spirits] or to ritual acts of worship, but affects all aspects of life, from farming to hunting, from travel to courtship. Like most religious systems [including Christianity, Islam, Judaism] African religion focuses on the eternal questions of what it means to be human: what is the meaning of life, and what are the correct relations among humans, between humans and spiritual powers, and with the natural world? African religious systems [also] seek to explain the persistence of evil and suffering, and they seek to portray the world as operating with some degree of order and predictability. They uphold certain types of ethical behavior. These ideas are expressed in sacred oral [and written] traditions, handed down from generation to generation through the performance of ritual [dance and music] and through intensive periods of education, including rites of passage.

From the forgoing we understand that religion pervades all aspects of the life of an African. In this direction everything happens under an anticipated religious ambient because of the continuous intervention and obtrusion of the spiritual realm on the physical. We shall be looking at revenge from the point of view of morality.


1.0              The Phenomenon of Revenge in African Morality

Revenge generally and from the African point of view implies but not strictly restricted to the following:

  1. The desire to get even,
  2. Retaliation for injury, loss, or humiliation,
  3. An attempt to transform shame into pride.
  4. Seeking symmetrical injury, harm, or loss


Morality in Africa in Africa on the other hand has to do with what is right and what is wrong in human actions and relations. Joseph Ilori (1994) sees it as compliance with a code of conduct covering a broader field. In his estimation:

A moral person is one who does what is right, according to approved standards. Or more frequently, he is identified as one who does no wrong. To be moral, for example, a person must not be dishonest, must not steal, and must not hurt other people.7

Notably morality has a lot to do with the religious creed. In fact morality derives its force and mandate from religion. From the viewpoint of T.N Quarcoopome,

In West African Traditional Religion morality is the fruit of religion. This means that in the traditional context there is no such distinction between morality and religion because there is close relationship between religion and the moral life. The social and moral ordinances are the injunctions of God, who had himself, instituted them.8

The consideration of revenge as a negative reciprocal action is based on the fact that it seeks to address an anomie. It seeks to redress some misapplication of justice and fairness; revenge is sought for as a necessary compliance with the ethical prerequisite of the community. In Africa the community is a very important entity. To be is to be a member of a given community. For Oliver Onwubiko (1991) the community is the custodian of the individual, hence he must go where the community goes. The community thus owns the individual.9 It is actually on the basis of what the community says that revenge is applied and used.

2.0              Revenge at the Service of Social Justice

The definition of Social Justice as a concept is notoriously hard. This is on account of the fact that societies and communities differ on many grounds on what is socially just. However we understand in essence that social justice is concerned with equal justice, in all aspects of society. This concept demands that people have equal rights and opportunities; everyone, from the poorest person on the margins of society to the wealthiest deserves an even playing field.

Social justice as a term was the original thought of the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli (1840) based on the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas.10 It was given further exposure in 1848 by Antonio Rosmini-Serbati.11 The idea was further elaborated by the moral theologian John A. Ryan,12 who initiated the concept of a living wage. Father Coughlin also used the term in his publications in the 1930s and the 1940s. Religiously it is a part of Catholic social teaching and the Social Gospel of Episcopalians. Politically it is one of the Four Pillars of the Green Party upheld by green parties worldwide. By the late twentieth century, it became more of a secular concept influenced primarily by philosopher John Rawls.

Many critics are of the view that social justice is a figment of imagination; nay an Eldorado. They adopt this viewpoint on the grounds that equality and solidarity among the diverse elements of a given society are naturally unattainable. In this paper, social justice is seen as productive of peace and social harmony. This is actually the purpose of justice in African communities.

We have so far presented revenge as a payback action for an injury or hurt. In Africa it is not every offense that calls for revenge. In fact a distinction should be made between revenge and punishment. Punishment is a penalty given for a fault or an offense. In the case of punishment the retribution is known to a reasonable degree. Revenge on the other hand is a step above punishment. The offender gets a penalty not basically on account of the offense in question but more on the perceived consequences it brings to the offended.  Hence revenge is only supported when the injury or hurt in question counter balances or is capable of counter balancing peace and harmony in the society. When an act it is capable of aggravating the anger of the spirits and unleashing disaster for the community revenge is necessarily sought. For instance wilful murder of an innocent person is immediately avenged because the blood of the person in question will appeal to the spirits for some form of retribution that can cause cataclysmic distortion of harmony. The spirits are in constant contact with the humans such that human activities receive their infallible approval or disapproval.

Ultimately revenge is sought based on some reasonable grounds which primarily include (but may not be restricted to) the following:

1         For Justice: This appears to be the foremost reason for revenge. It bears on giving each person his or her due. It functions in restoring lost dignity and respect occasioned by the injury or hurt. The Igbos of southeast Nigeria would say: “egbe bere ugo bere nke si ebe ya ebela nku kwakwa ya!” That means “let kite and the eagle perch anyone that says the other will not perch let its wings twist”.

2         For Deterrence: This is a dispassionate response calculated to change the other’s behavior in an on-going relationship or negotiation by imposing a negative consequence (punishment) for their decision. Here revenge functions in precluding a possible reoccurrence of the hurt. The Igbos of southeast Nigeria would say: “onye anu agbara na atu okporokporo ijiji ujo!” “Anyone bitten by a bee fear large fly”.

3         For Reprisal is a retaliation for an injury with the intent of inflicting at least as much injury in return.

4         For Retribution: a measured or restrained reprisal; a proportional response intended to communicate a message:  for instance “this is how wrong your actions were”.

5         For Reparation: This has to do with payments intended to compensate a victim for a loss.  While these may be largely effective in repairing the damages resulting from loss or theft of material goods, it is impossible to restore a lost life, a physical injury, loss of health, destruction of unique objects or those with sentimental value, or a missed opportunity such as a successful career or time spent with a loved one. It is also difficult to restore lost pride. The goal of reparations is to keep promises and restore a damaged community.

6         Eliciting Remorse: Remorse is feeling genuinely bad about the hurt I have caused and taking responsibility for the hurtful choices made. The idea is to make the offender enter into the state of the offended and feel the hurt or injury

7         For Atonement: Atonement is seen as remorse followed by reparations. It is similar to apology but not apology.

8         For Retaliation: This is the idea of fair payback, often expressed as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” and is captured in many primitive traditions. The concept is to cause as much pain to the aggressor as he has caused the offended to suffer. Unfortunately the magnitude gap—the fact that pain felt is more intense than pain inflicted—often causes the violence of the retaliation to exceed that of the original offense. Unending escalation, destruction, and violence often results. Also, because many losses cannot be restored or undone, the retaliation does not provide satisfying reparations to the victim.

9         As a Precondition for Reconciliation: In some situation revenge in terms of paying back a hurt done to someone serves as a veritable ground for reconciliation. If  an offense is not revenged, the offended often feel humiliated even after peace talk has been made.

3.0              Conclusion

Moral actions in Africa are connected with religious creed. Religion itself forms the basis of African life. Life cannot be lived by the African without reference to spirits. Hence there is a connection between the physical and the metaphysical, the human and the spiritual. Human actions are thus under the surveillance of the spiritual being.

Based on the afro-stated, human actions are continuously directed in such a way that they will be accepted and acceptable to the spiritual segment of the African cosmology. Revenge is one of those actions that are speedily applied to certain offensive actions in view of not disrupting the social harmony in the community and at the same time instituting social justice and peace.





1Shorter, Alyward. “Concepts of Social Justice in Traditional Africa” in Pro Dialogo Bulletin, 1977, p.32.

2Nwala, Uzodimma. Igbo Philosophy. Lagos: Literamed Publications, 1985,p.57.

3 Parrinder, Edward. African Traditional Religion. London: Sheldon Press, 1962, p.17.

4Quarcoopome, Theophilus West African Traditional Religion. Ibadan: African University Press. 1987, p.5.

5 Mbiti, John ,African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann. 1975, p.262.

6   Onwubiko, O. A. African Thought, Religion and Culture.Enugu: Snaap Press. 1991, p.24.

7 Ilori, Joseph. Moral Philosophy in African Context. Zaria: Ahmadu Bello University press. 1994,p.4.

8 Quarcoopome, Theophilus. Ibid. p.160.

9Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) says, “Justice is a certain rectitude of mind whereby a man does what he ought to do in the circumstances confronting him.”

10  Antonio Rosmini-Serbati was an Italian Roman Catholic priest and philosopher. He founded the Rosminians, officially the Institute of Charity or Societas a charitate nuncupata.

11 John Ryan was a theologian of create repute and thoroughly orthodox. He is also know as the prophet of Social Justice.




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Mbiti, John.  African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann. 1975.

Nwala, Uzodimma.. Igbo Philosophy, Lagos: Literamed Publications, 1985.

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Quarcoopome, Theophilus. West African Traditional Religion. Ibadan: African University Press. 1987.

Shorter,  Aylward “Concepts of Social Justice in Traditional Africa” in Pro Dialogo Bulletin, 1977.


Boniface Anusiem PhD is the Chief Media Consultant of Trinity Media Consults Abuja, Nigeria. He is a motivational speaker, writer, and human development enthusiast. He has interest in effective media use in human development and African cultural studies. He has authored five books and a good number of articles in magazines, newspapers, and journals. He intends to bring to Africa.


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