A Congolese Proverb

Given the erroneous, but pervasive, notion of culture as having to do exclusively with the past, people often fail to note how culture is capable of explaining and articulating the present – and even the future. If we examine some aspects of specific African cultures in a rigorous manner, we can find explanations for the most sober and even the most trivial events in contemporary society. It is quite striking that what some might find shocking, disappointing or even disgusting in present times have been explained by, and in, African proverbs. As one watches, with a feeling of déjà vu, the drama that is unveiling, one is reminded of a Congolese proverb that lays bare what appear to be the intricate, tactical and secret moves of power and the powerful in the polity. One feels some sense of relief with the realization that the proverbial wisdom of our forebears has already captured the essence of the African experience with power.

A pithy Shaba (Democratic Republic of Congo) proverb has it that, “Power is Eaten Whole”. If this wisdom is incontrovertible in the “modern”, that is postcolonial, African experience, why then do we expect the powerful to eat and be content with a half loaf of (power) bread – particularly in a society where the baking of bread is never at issue as people struggle, not only to eat it, but to eat it up? Joannes Fabian, an anthropologist, constructs an entire book on this Congolese proverb. The book is called, Power and Performance.

A single question that Fabian posed about the proverb inspired a theatre group in Lubambashi, Congo, to turn it into a play. As Peter Geschiere reminds us in his own book, The Modernity of Witchcraft, the actors in the play appear to be intrigued by the “profound”, even if befuddling, manner, in which the notions of Eating, Power and Totality – the latter denoting such things as “end”, “finality”, “irrevocability”, “finishing”, etc. – inter-relate and inter-mesh, because the actors “live in a situation where accumulation and the arbitrary nature of power have taken on disconcerting forms.” Geschiere, based on his own close study of Cameroon, concludes rather mournfully, that, “In Africa, people often feel that power has lost all sense of proportion”.

The Congolese actors would have felt that they were confronted with a striking reality revealed by the proverbial wisdom of the ancients and needed to fictionalize and dramatize that reality. Despite the grotesque nature of their recent history, if the actors were to have lived in Nigeria, they would have been confronted with Professor Adebayo Williams’ challenge, in a recent private correspondence, that fiction writers on (and in) Nigeria should abandon their craft, because the reality is far more interesting!

Power, particularly in Africa, despite its disappointing and evil history in the post-colonial trajectory, continues to intrigue. Power has become, and remains, the greatest obstacle to national greatness and glory, if in no other country in the continent, at least, in Nigeria. And because “power is eaten whole”, and also because power eats whole, the Nigerian experience has been indeed deeply troubling. Power is total; so, power totalizes. We are reminded here of the banned National Party of Nigeria (NPN) – which, by the way, was neither national nor was it a party; it was a club of buccaneering and daring elements – which attempted to show that power must be eaten whole and that, at the same time, power has the capacity to eat whole. It moved from its marginal victory over other parties in 1979 towards a “landslide” and “moonslide” victory in 1983. So “successful” was NPN’s routing of the opposition that one of its leaders, in a state of near-dementia, declared that the only rival party in town was the Nigerian Armed Forces! NPN ate power whole, but power eventually ate up the party too.

Central to the modality of power in Africa is the attempt to cancel out the Other and other’s power; which is why there is a certain paradox at the heart of power. Power has power over power. Power over-powers power. Power ends power. This also explains why power and the powerful (holder of power) often play dangerous games with each other. It is power that inaugurates the powerful; yet, in actual practice, the temporally powerful may establish him/herself as Power itself. The powerful pretends, or assumes himself/herself/themselves, to be the Power. Which was why General Ibrahim Babangida, in his last days as military president – in a bid to elongate his self-allotted tenure – reminded the anti-military coalition and protesters that “we are not only in office, but we are also in power”! Ironically, IBB, the dictator, was acknowledging the fact that the powerful is not Power itself – even though for about eight years, that is, until that moment, IBB had acted as if he were Power itself, and not one who was only in temporary possession of power. The powerful was attempting to eclipse Power.

As Babangida and the murderous general that succeeded him, Sani Abacha, showed, the powerful can assume so much power that he or she can be confused for (and with) Power – as illustrated by that abject, self-loathing young man, Daniel Kanu, who failed to fulfil his vow to commit suicide if Abacha failed to transmute himself from a military to a civilian head of state. In such contexts, it becomes difficult to distinguish between the Power which makes the powerful possible, that is, the Power which enables the powerful – that gives power to the powerful – and the power that the powerful (currently) possesses or exercises. The first power is the Power that gives power, that is Power itself, as a tangible and intangible agency that resides outside of, and independent of, the individual; the second, is the power that, at a particular point, holds power. But, because while holding power, the powerful can also give some part of his or her power to others, the powerful assumes that he or she is the original Power. This assumption is what Judith Butler, the professor of Rhetoric and Literature, describes as a “metaleptic reversal in which the subject produced by (P)ower becomes heralded as the subject who founds power”. Also, it is this assumption, fatal in virtually all cases, that there is no greater temporal giver of power, that makes the powerful exceed the power that he or she is given. And here, we are not talking of God as the giver of power. We are talking of a temporal order in society within which Power exists, within which even the power

ful is subordinated.

In our recent experience, some groups of people who assumed that they were the Power in the polity decided among themselves to invest one who they desired to be safe enough with the headship of the ship of state. But, they were sorely, and even tragically, mistaken by assuming that Power was such a straightforward thing that one or more people can own, take around, give and/or withdraw intact, whenever they pleased. As Butler alerts us, “the act of appropriation may involve an alteration of power such that the power assumed or appropriated works against the power that made that assumption possible”. Now they know! But, they have, as they say on the streets, “not seen nothing yet!”

Those who think they own Power now know that, at best, they only held power temporarily and that Power is so slippery and ambivalent that, at the end of the day, we – the powerless and the powerful – are all vulnerable to Power. Power can violate and abuse the powerful in the same ways that the powerful can violate the powerless. In the end, even the most powerful can only have a tenuous hold on power; because there is a tenancy to power that makes it such a tentative thing. For power has a temporal (in the sense of time) dimension in the hand or hold of wo/man. Power ends for one person when it begins for another. Yet, power can circulate simultaneously and even instantly between two opposing or contradictory domains – which is why a scholar once asked that the study of power be banished! It confuses and confounds.

Even if Power never ends, power ends. Even the most powerful will have to become a past tense some day. Otherwise, Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, will still be here. His name (Nabu-kudur-uzur), in the Babylonian orthography, means “Nebo [that is ‘prophet’ or ‘proclaimer’], protect the crown!” or “Nebo, protect the frontiers”. For how long was Nebo, who fancied himself as Power, able to protect the crown or the Babylonian frontiers? Despite Nebo’s might, eventually he became a pathetic victim of his own distorting power. He was eventually eaten whole by the same power he had used to eat (others) whole.

The Holy Writ would insist that, “as it was in the beginning…” In those dark and darkening corners of our national life patrolled by vile ambitions, we have found out that the Congolese are right. Power is consumed whole. Power is consuming and power consumes. But, in the end, Power consumes power. The consolation has been articulated before by better informed compatriots: We will be here when they are gone!

Written by
Wale Adebanwi
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