Kwesi Amoak


Kwesi Amoak

Caesar A. Atuire (2020). Philosophical Underpinnings of an African Legal System: Bulsa. Nigerian Journal of African Law, #2-2020 2NJAL, 62-78.
Dr. Atuire is a Senior Lecturer at the department of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Ghana.
Kwesi Amoak is a Mellon PhD Fellow at the Institute of African Studies (IAS), University of Ghana. He is currently pursuing research in anthropology of education with special focus on indigenous Bulsa creative onto-epistemologies and pedagogies.

In recent years, there have been incessant armed robbery attacks, murders and other violent crimes in many Bulsa communities, often times during market days. A clearly worried paramount chief, Nab Azagsuk Azantilow who attributes the violent crimes to the exposure of youth to violent movies (Endnote 1), has requested for an increased presence of the police (endnote 2) in the area, even though the police themselves have often been accused, particularly by tricycle (Mahama Cambo or Pragiya) riders of extorting monies from them. Now, juxtapose the present state of affairs to the security and peace that prevailed in Buluk/Bulsaland, a few decades ago when the indigenous system of justice was usually relied upon. Could it be that we have deviated from the indigenous paths of justice and harmony to our own detriment? Dr. Caesar Atuire’s paper titled, “Philosophical Underpinnings of an African Legal System: Bulsa” provides timely illumination and an appreciation of ways of knowing and being in harmony within traditional Bulsa society, characterized by a communitarian conceptual scheme.
Dr. Atuire’s paper highlights a classic case of adjudication about the theft of donkeys as witnessed and reported by anthropologist, Dr. Rüdiger Schott in 1974 under the reign of Nab Ayieta Azantilow. It is based on this case that Dr. Atuire guides us through a philosophical understanding of the important elements of conflict resolution in Bulsa communities.
Let’s consider how the revered late paramount chief, Nab Ayieta Azantilow went about the case in his court, after listening to the parties claiming ownership of the donkeys. Rather than pronouncing a final judgement, Nab Azantilow referred the matter back to the village (of Kanjarga) for the elders to try to jaw-jaw it (the case). Before the case was reported to the paramount chief, it was initially sent before the chief of Kanjarga who admonished the quarreling parties to consult the baano (diviner). The complainant’s father consulted the baano who settled the matter in favour of the complainant. However, the defendant challenged the validity of the consultations with the baano and the settlement on the grounds that the complainant’s father failed to offer sacrifice to the bogluk (earth shrine) as he was required to do as part of the process of consulting the baano.
Before discharging the case from his court, Nab Ayieta Azantilow warned the defendant with the following reported words: “If you keep his (complainant’s) animal to eat (i.e. to possess it), but it’s not your own animal, you will die indeed.” And to both the defendant and complainant, he instructed them to go together and offer sacrifice of chicken before a certain river the community regarded as a bogluk, adding that, “if you don’t go to kill (sacrifice) the chicken, the case will not leave you, it will kill all of you.” The chief also advised both parties to ‘sleep’ over the matter for a period of six months after the sacrifice before reporting back to him.
According to Dr. Atuire, the details of this case are, “emblematic of the complexity of the justice system of an indigenous African context,” and that, “For a Western trained mind, it may seem the case was not judged. The chief did not make a clear ruling, based on evidential proofs, that the donkeys belonged to the complainant or the defendant. Neither did he apply any sanction on the party that wrongly claimed ownership of the donkeys. Everything seems to have been left hanging in the air: there was an invitation to further dialogue (biisi biika, ‘talk the case’), an invocation of unseen forces (bogluk), an appeal to time to placate or to vindicate and eventually punish.”
In order to appreciate the indigenous Bulsa justice system, we have to unlearn the whole individualistic centred notion of justice with its reliance on evidential proofs which tends to lend itself to a perversion of justice, an injustice of “might is right,” whereby one’s might could be a connection to the powers that be or money to pay bribes to chiefs, police and judges for justice delivery in one’s favour. The indigenous system of justice among the Bulsa, like many other indigenous African contexts, is different in the sense that it is anchored on communitarian principles. And by the communitarianism of the Bulsa we do not mean a community of only persons living now in flesh and blood. Just as the chief referred to unseen forces such as the bogluk, the notion of community among the Bulsa encompasses an active community of souls/beings/spirits that traverses the present moment of those living physically. As Dr. Atuire succinctly puts it, “Among the Bulsa, the concept of community extends beyond the physical human beings that we encounter daily. The members of the Bulsa community are the living humans, the ancestors, and the earth. Each of these members has rights, duties, and responsibilities towards the community.” Thus, every person is connected to a cosmic vision of humans presently living, those who are dead and by extension, unborn souls.
It is crucial to note that among the Bulsa, the overarching aim of settlement of any dispute is social harmony and the ancestors are deemed what Dr. Atuire’s refers to as, “the real legislators of the community,” ensuring that peace and harmony prevails. The diviner (baano) plays the role of an intermediary between the world of the living in the physical form and the ancestors who live in the subliminal/spiritual abode. The chief who leads the community of the living humans is mandated by his judicial duty to restore communitarian harmony and knows that he cannot settle disputes without consulting the ancestors, hence the admonition to consult the baano and perform sacrifices at a bogluk.
Then there is the pivotal role of teng, that is the earth. The word teng could also refer to a place, space, a piece of land, a settlement, among others. The teng is an indispensable component of a functioning Bulsa society and it is inherent in the meaning of what it means to be human. Thus, within the Bulsa conceptual framework, you cannot define a human being without reference to the teng (earth) which as Dr. Atuire indicates, “…is a constitutive part of the identity of every human.” He further states that, “Belonging to a teng or the teng is what makes life possible physically, culturally and ultimately morally. Humans do not own the earth; they belong to it. For the Bulsa, humans are part of the earth (tengka) and the earth is part of the life of every human.” It is based on this ontological grounding that we derive the normative principles of justice among the Bulsa such that an individual who commits a crime or evil offends the earth, which forms an integral part of who s/he is. And the earth has the power to avenge any wrongdoing by its own metaphysical forces. Indeed, many indigenous societies in Africa have similar conceptions and personification of the earth as a living entity, for instance, the Akans who call the earth Asaase Yaa (Asaase means earth or land and Yaa is the name for a female born on Thursday). It is important to emphasise that the normative presence of the teng among the Bulsa is what accounts for why sacrifices have to be offered at an earth shrine (bogluk) and rituals such as teng nyuka (earth drinking) by which the earth is invoked to punish evil doers thereby restoring peace to the community. It is in this context that we can appreciate Nab Ayieta Azantilow’s warning to the parties in the dispute that, “if you don’t go to kill (sacrifice) the chicken, the case will not leave you, it will kill all of you.”
Apart from attributing the spate of crime in Buluk to violent movies, we urgently ought to consider doing a serious introspection about the epistemicide of valuable Bulsa cultural values in general and the values of justice in particular. For, if the indigenous ways of ensuring and maintaining a just and harmonious Bulsa society served our ancestors well, why do we continue to disregard these ways of the ancestors in exchange for the ways of colonial exploiters that continue to alienate us from our cultures and peaceful coexistence? Consequently, Dr. Atuire, the erudite philosopher who was born and bred in Sandema, concludes his paper by posing a series of questions for our reflection: “Do our modern post-colonial legal systems promote social harmony and virtuous lives? Have we lost something in the transition from the indigenous systems? Is it too late to imagine forms of integration of these systems?”
It is crucial that we ponder on these questions as we strive towards social harmony and elimination of armed robbery and other forms of crime and social vices in Buluk.


Endnote 1:   Ayamga, E. (2021, April 6). “Violent movies are the cause rising armed robbery attacks-Builsa Chief”. Pulse. Last Accessed: 28 Jan 2022.

Endnote 2: Polkuu G.A. (2021, December 20). “Nab Azantilow calls for increased Police Presence in Buluk”. GNA. Last accessed: 28 Jan 2022.

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