Judging judgment in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease

Judging judgment in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease

Katherine Isobel Baxter

Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease opens in the High Court of Lagos and the Southern Cameroons. Obi, the novel’s protagonist, is in the dock receiving judgment from Mr. Justice William Galloway. He is being sentenced for accepting a bribe of £20 in his position as secretary of the Scholarship Commission. However, this crime is only made explicit indirectly through conversations about the case in the subsequent pages of the first chapter. Instead we see Obi’s pride crushed by Galloway’s exclamation that he ‘cannot comprehend’ how Obi ‘could have done this’ (2). This oblique presentation of his crime, and the Justice’s stated incomprehension of it, challenge us as readers to understand the nature of what Obi has done and draw us in to the narrative of his life that the trial scene, to which Achebe briefly returns at the very end of the novel, thus frames. Indeed, as will become evident, Achebe’s narrative challenges us not simply to understand and judge Obi, but further to judge the processes of judgment themselves in Nigeria’s late colonial administrative period.

Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, had been published in 1958 by Heinemann to critical acclaim. Achebe’s success with Heinemann led to him taking the helm of Heinemann’s groundbreaking African Writers Series in 1962. As series editor, Achebe did much to shape the image of African writing in the Anglophone world, to which his own fiction made a significant contribution. No Longer at Ease appeared in 1960 as a sequel to Things Fall Apart, and a brief outline of the novel’s story is necessary before we can begin to examine Achebe’s engagement with questions of judgment. Obi Okonkwo is the son of a Nigerian catechist in the Anglican Church and the grandson of Okonkwo, the central figure of Things Fall Apart. Whilst grandfather Okonkwo had resisted the incursion of Christianity and colonialism in Umuofia, the village of which he was an elder, Obi is the product of that incursion – missionary school educated and the beneficiary of a local scholarship which enables him to study abroad in Great Britain. Obi’s scholarship is paid for by the Umuofia Progressive Union (UPU), a collective of Umuofians who have moved out into the burgeoning urban centres of Nigeria. They realise that to have an Umuofian voice in Nigerian politics and administration they must ensure that the brightest of the next generation receives a British education, thereby gaining access to the colonial civil service. That brightest is Obi, the first recipient of the UPU’s educational scholarship.

The UPU had intended Obi to read law, ‘so that when he returned he would handle all their land cases against their neighbors’ (8), but Obi instead chooses to read English. Returning to Nigeria Obi settles in Lagos and takes up a position in the civil service following his examination by the Public Service Commission. He also takes up with a girl, Clara, whom he falls in love with but who is an Osu, an outcast. Obi is determined to marry her despite the fact that both the UPU and his family oppose the marriage on the basis of her Osu status. Meanwhile Obi falls into debt as his costs mount up – tax returns, financial support for his family, running costs for his car. When Clara becomes pregnant he pays for her abortion but the couple split up. At the same time his mother dies and soon after he begins to accept bribes from those wishing for their children to be considered by the board for scholarships.

The overt cause for Obi taking the bribes is his financial situation, which Achebe takes pains to enumerate throughout the novel, demonstrating how the high salary he earns comes with high expectations from his family and the UPU both for financial support (he is expected to pay back his scholarship in instalments) and with regard to his dress and deportment (for example owning a car). Clara too loans him £50, which is promptly stolen from the glove compartment of the car, leaving him in even greater debt. However, throughout the novel Obi has always argued against accepting bribes of any kind and prides himself early in the novel on his refusal to accept them. Indeed he had even read a paper at the Nigerian Students’ Union in London against corruption amongst the older generation of Nigerians in administrative power (44). Why then does Obi capitulate? We might take into consideration the recent loss of Clara and his mother, the two women most important to him. Or we might argue, as various critics have done, that the dilettante environment of Lagos has had a deleterious effect on his morals. But neither of these explanations seems satisfactory. What then are we to do with a problem like Obi Okonkwo?

I propose to examine this question in the light of Alexandre Lefebvre’s exploration of the creativity of jurisprudence in The Image of Law: Deleuze, Bergson, Spinoza. Lefebvre’s idea of this creativity revolves around what he calls, in Bergsonian fashion, an ‘encounter’. This encounter occurs where a potential case cannot be readily subsumed to the precedents of case law and therefore demands an imaginative spiral of association, circling through the information presented and back into the judge’s repertoire of precedents in order to construct a (new) case. Creativity occurs in this formation of the case: in the judge’s associative manoeuvres to fix the facts presented into the form of a case that is available for resolution. Rather than identifying creativity in the resolution of a given case, Lefebvre argues that in fact resolution is inherent in the recognizable case. Once the case has been formed it contains within it the formula for its resolution – a case is something that can be judged. Creativity therefore occurs not in the judgment itself but in the construction of something judgeable. Structuring his argument around an examination of Deleuze’s various writings on law and judgment, Lefebvre thus reads Deleuze against the grain to demonstrate the creativity of jurisprudence. Lefebvre’s argument then is twofold: firstly that the law can be, and at times inevitably is, creative; and secondly that despite Deleuze’s particular critique of the law as wholly uncreative, in fact, his writings gesture to how and where that creativity takes place.

Whilst Lefebvre’s arguments about Deleuze are appreciably innovative, his argument about the creativity of jurisprudence is rather less startling to anyone with even limited familiarity with colonial law. Indeed his argument recalls, in particular, the many discussions in legal journals at the mid-century over the interpretation of the ‘reasonable man’ in the administration of law in the colonies.1 Who is the ‘reasonable man’ in the colonies, they ask? The reasonable man, whose paradigmatic status was itself a contested subject for English law, was all the more problematic for colonial law when the idea of a ‘reasonable native’ was presumed in and of itself to be questionable. Should the ‘native’ be held to the same standard of reasonableness as the Englishman? And if not, what standard of reason was valid? This question became even more complicated if the parties involved came from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds as could often be the case in places such as Nigeria, whose shifting borders encompassed multiple languages, religions, and cultures, so that even the application of customary law could be problematic.

Furthermore, the idea of the reasonable man, as a paradigm for Nigerian law was given another twist by the fact that despite a series of legal reforms that coincided with the various changes to geographical administrative boundaries (as indicated in Galloway’s jurisdiction of ‘Lagos and the Southern Cameroons’) the law that was to be applied was English law as it stood in 1900. Thus the law to which the reasonable man was bound was a law that remained fixed in time even as reasonable men changed and were changed by their temporally evolving contexts. As a result the reasonable man of Nigeria in 1956 could still be held to an English law of 1900 that, in England, might have already been altered or abolished altogether. The dissonance of such a situation is self-evident.

The idea and the legal ideal of the reasonable man are in many ways at the root of Achebe’s No Longer at Ease. Obi wants to embody that legal ideal of the reasonable man, as he appears in English law. His failure to do so provokes us to engage with his story as a Lefebvrian judge engages with an encounter. Achebe presents us with a figure whose crime demands to be judged but because of the evidence laid before us it cannot be easily subsumed to a singular family of precedent(s). We read the novel looping back repeatedly in order to make a case – that is to say something that can be judged and therefore something that can be resolved – from the material narrated and from the precedents to which that material gestures or which it causes us to recall. Lefebvre’s model of creative judgment helps us to recognise this process in Achebe’s novel.

The frame-setting of Obi’s trial encourages us to read the life narrated within it for evidence, by which to construct his case better than his judge. Galloway’s statement of incomprehension implies his failure to construct a meaningful, a ‘comprehendible’, case from the evidence laid before him. Achebe invites us to assume that rather than entering into a Lefebvrian creative process the judge gives up, unable to resolve why a reasonable man such as Obi could act so unreasonably. A further challenge to us is presented in the judgment of Obi’s boss, Green, who claims to understand Obi’s actions perfectly: ‘the African is corrupt through and through’ (3). However, Green’s explanation of why this is so is cut short and we are left only with his racist generalisation and a lack of corroboration for the claim. Achebe invites us to do better. Indeed, as we shall see, Achebe goes further to suggest not simply that we attempt to judge Obi more attentively, but that we turn our judgment on Nigeria’s legal system itself. This point is a crucial one for Achebe at the moment of independence, the same year in which No Longer at Ease was published. With independence came the potential for and the challenge of a creative response to judicial process. Inherited from the colonial administration was a legal system that had been patched together and repeatedly reworked from English law and a colonial pastiche of indigenous legal processes. This inheritance itself presented an ‘encounter’, a legal system that was not like any other, however much it had drawn on aspects of English law and colonial law in other colonies. The Nigerian legal system at the moment of independence demanded, as encounter, the exercise of imaginative response, creative judgment as to its own nature.

To understand this turn in the novel it is first necessary to examine the presentation of Obi, and how that presentation demands our attentive judgment. In what follows I explore three possible sets of precedents from which we might construct a judgeable case for Obi’s life and actions. The three sets to which I refer are firstly, extratextual precedents, secondly internal ones, and thirdly literary precedents.

It is worth pausing for a moment, however, to consider the work that the term precedent is doing in this context. Following Lefebvre I understand a precedent to be established through the act of judgment. If the act of judgment is what defines a case as such, that is to say identifies a case from the competing versions of events presented for judgment, then a precedent emerges as a product of this process: a precedent is established in the mutual formation of case and judgment. When we refer to precedent we are therefore referring to a paradigm for judgment that has been defined in a prior judgment of a similar case. Commonly, however, the fact that the case itself only emerges as a case in the process of judgment goes unseen. Instead the case is understood as auxiliary to its judgment in the establishment of precedent. By contrast, following the implications of Lefebvre’s argument, I recalibrate the term here to focus attention on the case itself as a source of pre cedent, which demands a creative response in judgment.

Beginning with extratextual precedents it is instructive to examine how far Obi’s story conforms to the reality of Lagos and civil service life in the final years of colonial administration. One useful source of information comes from a qualitative survey of civil service employees conducted by George D. Jenkins in the first years of independence.2 All those surveyed were in the service prior to independence and so their answers give a good idea of the backgrounds, education, training, and interests of civil servants at the time in which the novel is set (i.e. 1956–7). What their answers show is that while Obi conforms to some of the norms of the civil service Achebe ensures he is recognisably out of the ordinary as well. Not that he is unrealistic or unbelievable, rather he is shown to be of an unusual kind. For example, of the 35 men surveyed only one has a father in the ministry, although the overwhelming majority note Protestantism under faith (their choices are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim). Interestingly this respondent is one of the few who have no written Yoruba (or, in his case, any other written Nigerian language), indicating a mission school education from the start (presumably Anglican although his ‘some written’ French could potentially indicate a Jesuit education – his mark over the religious affiliation question seems to denote either Catholic or a rejection of all listed religions). By far the most common paternal profession is farming, with others in trade, and several in some form of administrative post (from Prison Warden to School Inspector).