1. Disagreement with the Masters
In the folklore amphitheatres of Ndiigbo of Southern Nigeria, a calabash of wisdom holds. Nza, the tiny bird (Canary), once ate himself into the stupor of conceit. A gluttonous meal was all it took to get his valves of reason switched off. He lost his mind. In the process he deigned challenge its “chi” to a wrestling match.
Chi, in Igbo religious cosmology, is the personal god guarding the portals and sanctuaries of destiny. The story ended like all invitations to self-destruction. Whoever the gods would destroy, they first make mad. This is why when death pays a dog an unscheduled visit; it first compromises its olfactory potency. It breaches its sense of smell!
Mr. Nza’s challenge was accepted. The gods rose to avenge an insult paid them by a mortal. As the proceedings receded, Nza and his arrogance lay in mortal defeat.
This reminds Ndiigbo of another, this time; a conceited man, who goes by the name of Ojaadili. He was a great warrior-wrestler, whose fame travelled far and wide. He commanded the respects of his friends, and the fear of his opponents. For his enemies, he is dread. And for his friends he is fame. Young maidens pined for his attention. Old women composed songs off his prowess. His triumphs were the stuff of legends. Men wished their children were like him. He was a warrior’s warrior. Greatness was his name. His community reveres him. The earth trembles as he walks. His reputation was so august that it gains admittance into all strata of social considerations. He inspires fear in the land of the living, the dead and the unborn. The animal kingdom quakes in awe at the mention of his name. Danger was afraid of him. He wrestled in all these realms and came home with laurels of victory on his head. He transcended the most difficult of opponents with comic ease. He reduced legends to pedestrians. He unmasked pretenders making them look common. Danger was even afraid of him. He was a prodigy of bravery.
To this end, he decided to crown his odyssey into fame, with a wrestling tour of the spirit world. This would seem an enterprise in tomfoolery. But adventure is his nature. Ojaadili resolved to go. He got ready for it. And he went.
Udumeje, the great flutist, whose art and dexterity communes with the spirit and coaxes their attention; elected to cheerlead for him. But eternal incapacity froze him out of the equation. He was killed by the Chimps; the last opponents of the Great wrestler. In his stead, plunged in Ogwumagana-the Chameleon; a privy to the secrets of creation. He elected to take his place and cheerlead Ojaadili through his most ambitious, and yet most dangerous wrestling enterprise; namely, his sojourn in the lands of the Spirits.
They formed an unbeatable team.
Ojaadili spurred by the inspiring tunes of Ogwumagana, won a string of preliminary fights, against all opponents that the spirits could muster and pitch against him. His strings of successes were so intimidating, that the gods were really taken aback. They were insulted. They decided to punish this affront. Ojaadili was only mortal. He could not divine the intention of the gods. But he was lucky to have a privy to the dawn of all things, who witnessed creation and knew its secrets-Ogwumagana-beside him. Ogwumagana noticed the tumult in the camp of the spirits. He understood their language. He saw their game plan, which was to avenge their defeat, by inflicting an eternal humiliation that would end in death on Ojaadili. They conferred, and invoked his “chi”-personal god-to make an appearance. He was to be their instrument for this vengeance. They roused him, and pitched him in battle against Ojaadili. They dressed him in insignificance to taunt Ojaadili’s conceit. And most unfortunately, they succeeded in hoodwinking him. This proves that the easiest man to hoodwink is one in the thraldom of conceit. Pride and self conceit blows out the light of reason.
The last opponent was thrown up by the spirits after conferring among themselves. This was no ordinary opponent. He was a spirit among spirits. He was so distinguished that he was the only one privileged to announce his appearance bearing an “Ikenga”-the cultic symbol of the personal god. On seeing this, Ogwumagana knew that this is a fight that no mortal could win. Ojaadili can never fight his chi, and live to tell the story. Ogwumagana called Ojaadili, and asked him to retrace his steps and beat a retreat. That was the only sane option. The obverse is supreme inconvenience. It is only a mad man, or one bent on suicide, who rushes headlong into an onrushing avalanche heading his way. Ojaadili floored by conceit, was bereft of any rational navigation system. He mistook appearance for reality. The bedraggled apparition before him could never amount to much, he thought to himself. He forgot that insignificance has always enclosed the most potent realities ever known to man. Ogwumagana warned him. He should never dare to fight that insignificant being in front of him. That being masquerading in insignificance is of the greatest significance to his life and existence.
It was his personal god; the very author of his existence!
He dimmed his significance to camouflage his supreme potency over his opponent. Just as Christ the Son of God lay in the manger at Bethlehem (wrapped in swaddling bands, hiding the greatest divinity, in the most extreme of weakness, that it took only two sets of disposition to perceive that; namely simplicity of heart and wisdom. It took the simplicity of the shepherds, who are simple and meek of heart to open themselves up to the message of the angels on that Christmas morn. It equally took the heritage of eternal wisdom consulted by the Wise men that journeyed from afar to recognize this great miracle).
Ogwumagana possessed of the wisdom of the ages; being privy to the mornings of creation, saw through the camouflage. He saw great personal divinity wrapped in the insignificance standing before them; announcing his appearance with Ojaadili’s Ikenga in his hands. He saw danger staring them in the face. Defeat! A mortal one flashed before his wise eyes. He was roused to work. He must restrain the bundle of unthinking conceit roaring to take a go at danger. He saw clearly, that the dwarf is girding his loins to wade the waters that swallowed an elephant. He knew that Ojaadili is now the fool treading the path that wise men have forever avoided.
Ogwumagana cried, kicked, pleaded, and fought to make Ojaadili beat a retreat. His entreaties fell on some well constructed pair of deaf ears. Power and pride have this facility to corrupt good sense. This great wrestler-warrior seduced by his wrestling prowess took leave of his common sense. He thought that his “chi”, who was more vertically challenged in outlook than the whole bunch of spirits he had floored, is an inconsequential pushover that he can dispatch with the least resistance. He was absolutely wrong. Deep waters are always silent, while empty vessels contrive the most noise. The long story curled to a climax, as the conceited head of Ojaadili sponged a generous helping of sand, and laid still in defeat. His arrogance appropriated Nza’s fate.
The lesson is that no man challenges the gods, without paying for this conceit in self-destruction.
There exist parallel wisdom pieces in other lands and climes. But the above is chosen in allegiance to my heritage. In the hermeneutical prisms of Paul Ricoeur, no man speaks from nowhere. To that end we carry the subconscious baggage of the various psycho-social and cultural persuasions that attended our birth or environ our lives; which go a long way to colour all our perception and appreciation of reality. We must never apologise for that. It constitutes the major furniture of who we are. That is no apologetics for our dec
ision, but a clarification.
We are going to join Nza and Ojaadili of yore. We know that defeat is certain. But we want to capture and freeze even for a moment, the thrill of that risky adventure. In fact, this is what we are going to do in this piece. We would attempt viewing the conflict from Mr. Nza`s perspectives; the perspectives of conceit.
We are going to disagree with the masters! We are going to wrestle with some gods of literary philosophy! Do not hold your breath like fanatics fighting in defence of bigotry, because we have elected a battle that will be a joy to lose. Our defeat is certain. So, we are going to lose bravely! To do this, we must invade sacrosanct sanctuaries of certain philosophic assertions that have carried the force of dogma, because of the grains of truths contained therein.
In faithfulness to the demands of this odyssey, we presume it is now time to disagree not with the Grecian anachronisms of Aristotle. We are going to disagree with one of our most illustrious intelligences. We are going to disagree with Chinua Achebe-The eagle on the tallest Iroko; one of the greatest Africans in the house of literature. We are accusing our enterprise of brilliance. But most fortunately for the world of scholarship, we would fail in this voyage. This failure is a foregone imperative because pontificating over an issue that dwarfs our insight, is simply tomfoolery. This is why we are going to question the masters, with the kind of certainty, which profound ignorance breeds. This is because, masters are eternal. And theirs have remained considered wisdom. Hidden in their apparent foolery is the wisdom of the ages, which neither the ravages of time, nor the buffetings of tide could ever erode.
All in all, we are going to give the dwarf in us his five minutes of fame. We are going to offer up ‘common sense at the shrines of logic’
2. The Trouble with Nigeria!
In 1983, Achebe came out with a little book with big consequences. It was a pamphlet that rose to become a masterpiece. It was a summary of the Nigerian problem. In the opening chapters of that little, explosive piece, he wrote that the trouble with Nigeria is leadership. He went on to advance reasons for holding that view. His reasons all hit the mark, as Nigerian history seems to bear him out. Like a social prophet that he was, he sounded not only a jeremiad, but portrayed the problem in its nakedness.
Masters create universes. They create paradigms and inspire paradigm changes. They equally create epistemic galaxies, light years ahead of their contemporaries. Tomorrow is already fully formed in their prodigious imaginations. Their minds are factories of ideas. They either create paradigm changes in meaning or inspire movements in that direction. Their vision changes our visions of reality in a field; in a certain way that revolutionarizes the way we come to view them many moons after they are gone. Epochs begin with them and bear their impress. Masters create or inspire what rises to become orthodoxy.
Achebe was a master.
He created or rather recreated a dysfunctional universe of meaning about Africa, which held sway in Western conceptual schemes, until he happened on the scene. With him, African writers rose to life; bearing the gifts of their story and experiences, which not only made us reclaim our story that has been mangled, and used as a weapon against us; but showed the world that painting us as savages was an imperialistic colonial trick that mis-educated us in order to perpetually conscript us as willing tools in our own exploitation.
Achebe in one swoop told old Europe to go stick their colonial, supremacist hangovers where it belongs; namely in the trashcans of irrationality, because African reality does not justify their racisms. He taught them that African history and reality never justifies their savage conclusions about a continent they know and appraise through their goggles of greed.
Achebe was in that class again, when he made the assertion fingering leadership as the trouble with Nigeria. Here again, he showed his master class. He went into the eye of the monster and laid the blames at its feet where it rightly belongs. That was Achebe then; although he never elevated it to solitary sacrosanctity that excludes other factors.
Even before Achebe made those submissions, leadership as the problem with Nigeria has been the mantra of the pedestrian and the genius alike, whenever the searchlight beams on a Nigeria; a country of wasted opportunities. Very much prior to Achebe’s 1983 book, Nzeogwu and his friends rejected becoming historical witnesses to the reign of rascality, which was First Republic Nigeria. Scoundrels in power held Nigeria hostage, to the point that the Western Nigerian crises threatened to scuttle the aspirations of a newly, independent creature of British convenience. After Nzeogwu, a civil war that saw genocide being perpetrated against a section of Nigeria, and an incredible succession of military coups essayed to underline the fact that leadership was really Nigeria’s waterloo.
But ever since Achebe articulated what every Nigerian knew at that time, leadership as our problem has coagulated into an impregnable orthodoxy with a life of its own. Over eighty percent of all disquisitions and articles or listserv discussions on Nigeria dovetail into the issue of leadership, thereby consolidating this orthodoxy. But since Achebe summarized this view, he will have the ill-fortune of owning the fallouts of his articulation. That is the price that geniuses pay for being light years ahead of their peers. That is why I would lay it at his feet and not mention the generations of those who pointed the same thing out before him or those that deployed him for their uses.
This is the orthodoxy that must be challenged today because of its inherent dangers. Orthodoxy may be a socio-epistemic and cultural parameter that helps in ordering the epistemic disorders of the universe environing us. But orthodoxies are susceptible to becoming epistemic totalitarianisms and intellectual monstrosities that brook no affront or entertain any questioning of its validity. Orthodoxies have this uncanny ability of matriculating into dogmas. And once“orthodoxy” becomes a dogma, it gathers a lot of imponderable irrationalities under its wings to defend this privilege. It then cashes a blank cheque that warrants it to stifle every rational inquiry into its raison d’être. This is the stage where an orthodoxy that was supposed to be a platform of further inquiry becomes a cemetery where inquiry goes to die. This explains why orthodoxies in history have always convoked funeral pyres or inquisitorial bonfires to barbecue inquiry or opposition to death.
Following from this, it is my view that if leadership continues to be the problem with Nigeria after all these years, and that did not engender any revolution or attempts at changing a situation that is of supreme inconvenience for the majority of the people; then it graduates into a symptom of a deeper pathology. That means that we have to look further than leadership to discover the subterranean pillars sustaining this problem; since leadership alone cannot account anymore for the excesses of leadership, which is a given in all political embraces; and the stony silence and inaction of the majority of Nigerians, who are the victims of this inconvenience.
We cannot solve today’s problems by applying the ways of the past, which has not offered any solutions to that problem. Leadership has been our problem. That it persists has reformulated the equation. Leadership is now a symptom of a deeper pathology. It is no more a problem. It must now be degraded to the status of a symptom. Why is that the case? It is because every society gets the leadership it deserves, and the leadership works to stabilize the status quo. To th
at end, to change our leadership or to make the leadership effective, the whole society must through its tendencies, value formations and social reinforcements show itself worthy of a functional government. If that happens, a functional government will happen. If not, the obverse will forever obtain.
Achebe was a master. Challenging him is like challenging one’s Chi, like Ojaadili did. But challenge him; I must because this occasion calls for it. Though the possibility of my head sponging great helpings of sand hangs over me like the Sword of Damocles, I wish to risk it.
Achebe’s assertion that the trouble with Nigeria is leadership may have been the only realization that comported itself understandingly to this genius, after studying Nigeria since its inception till 1983, when he decided to publish his conclusions. Today, after years of studying Nigeria and studying Achebe as well, I can, standing on the shoulders of masters like Achebe, and with the benefit of hindsight, respectfully disagree with this assertion. My disagreement is that this assertion is simply a part of the causal factors accounting for Nigeria’s problems, and not the whole of it.
3. The Man Dies in Him!
While Soyinka sat in his dreary prison cell, review the lives and choices of his fellow countrymen, which led to the conflagrative injustices of Biafra; he stumbled upon a fact, which had eluded all pedestrian minds for so long. He came to that hill of realization, where every cloud is pushed back, and vision becomes so very clear as to mimic the mountains of transfiguration. On those isolated deserts of silence, he encountered that nebulous vision, which is destined to greet anyone, who dares to venture this far into the frontiers of conscientious self-examination. In those sanctuaries of quiet reflection, every dot connects to the centre from which it took its origin. Reality becomes one. Mind and matter embrace in ontological purity. At those altars of truth, every matrix of conspiratorial commission and the omissions of poltroonery yield their masks to the mind, like a body yields its opacity to the piercing gazes of x-rays; revealing the sinecures of diseased bones. In the tranquilities of an unjust prison sentence, the heavens of knowledge opened itself up to this genius, and uttered in his mind’s ear: The man dies in him, who keeps silent in the face of tyranny!
This social prophet gulped this realization. He did not mistake it for the synaptic meanderings of a tired brain. Soyinka the oracle did not keep it to himself. He knew he was only a mouthpiece of the gods. The temptations to hoard the message for his personal edification, though seductive stood no chance of winning the day. This national town-crier was never conceited to the metaphysic, which underwrote his relevance. He knew that his relevance rests in not hoarding this message, but in delivering it. He gave the message to the world. Like his kindred spirit-Achebe, who opined that to “go through life swallowing real insults is to compromise one’s self respect ; Kongi reverberated like Ogun his demiurge would, that “in any people that submit willingly to the daily humiliation of fear, the man dies” .
Every social embrace has its share of prophets. These have deluged history with messages of various provenances. Some sang the dirges of their most intimate heritages, when these heritages relapsed into the unsustainable lanes of debauchery, like Ezeulu did in Achebe’s Arrow of God. We have had pseudo-prophets too. These sang the praises of sycophancy; cheerleading the trains of societies hurtling towards perdition. The value of every social prophesy derives from its truth. Truth has forever been the benchmark for the prophet. This was the service that Wole Soyinka did Nigeria at that instance, when he uttered and set down those eternal words in print. The man dies in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny!!!
The man will forever die in him who keeps silence in the face of tyranny. Patrick Henry, a kindred spirit, who dialogued with history long before our greats showed up on the scene, was of the same view. For him, it was either death or liberty. There was no midway. He never cared what path men may choose. It never interested him that many of his fellows would prefer a life of comfortable slavery to the possibility of struggling a little, to reach freedom’s shores; it never scared him that his co-wayfarers may decide to sell their birthrights to liberty, for sordid money. He knew that liberty can only be attained through a vehement struggle against the armadas of toxic god-complex and entrenched sense of privilege. For him, the choice was clear. It was either you gave him liberty, or he will die fighting for it. He prefers to die a freeman, than to live a bondsman. The thoughts of flying under tyranny’s banners; owing one’s life and liberty to the caprice or good pleasures of some Lords of the Flies, was never on the table. It is an aberration that should never be dignified with a consideration on freedom’s negotiating table. And men who are fired up and ready to stand up for the ideals, which they hold dear, have forever remained the reason why freedom berths on those shores. Their absence in critical mass in other climes points to a fertile ground for the germination and blossoming of tyranny.