Villains of the Old Empire

by Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Bandits & Beggars

Bandits and Beggars by Kunle Adebajo; Lantern Books – Literamed Publications Ltd, Lagos; 2008; 111pp

It is an everlasting truism that when brothers and sisters fight to the death, strangers end up inheriting their homestead. Toward the end of the play Bandits and Beggars by Kunle Adebajo, Oba Gezo of Dahomey bares his mind thusly: “You will tell us what has brought you here and how the Yoruba, you children of Oduduwa, have turned to beggars and refugees.”

Paradoxically, Dahomey had been a part of Oyo Empire until 1818 when the territory broke away under the watch of Oba Gezo. The flight of the people of the old Oyo Empire to the neighbouring country of Dahomey could not have been more telling. It is akin to the collapse of the cosmos.

Bandits and Beggars was first produced on May 11 and 12, 1996 at Flamingo Banquet Hall, Kofo Abayomi Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, by Odu Themes theatre company with Bode Sowande as Director.

Bandits & BeggarsThe historical context of Bandits and Beggars by Kunle Adebajo underpins Oyo Empire after the peaceful and prosperous reign of Alaafin Abiodun when the successor, Alaafin Awole Arogangan, starts out without finding matters easy. With money from slave-dealing drying up following the abolition of Slave Trade and the economy of the Oyo Empire in dire decline, Alaafin Awole faces untoward challenge from the Supreme Council of Oyo Mesi led by the treacherous Prime Minister Bashorun Asamu. Awole’s appointment of his power-hungry cousin Afonja as Are Ona Kakanfo deals a tragic blow to the time-honoured rule that the title should not be given to any member of the royal family. When Awole orders Afonja and his army to invade Iwere, a town under the charge of the revered Oni of Ife that ought not to be attacked, the fall of the king and his kingdom becomes writ large.

Like in the plays King Oedipus by Sophocles and its African remaking as The Gods Are Not To Blame by Ola Rotimi, Bandits and Beggars by Kunle Adebajo starts on a note of societal turmoil. Amid the tragic foreboding there is the subtle depiction of the brewing of love between the famous soldier, Balogun Edun, and Awole’s kitchen maid, Apeke.

Matters are hardly ever helped for Awole because the imperious ways of his wife, Olori Iyunade, alienates the throne from the people, as she says to her husband: “Don’t let the fate of the people upset you. Can you change their fate? What if they look depressed? They were born that way, and have never known anything better.”

With the quisling Afonja failing to take Iwere and the Oyo army being massacred at will, there is the clear and present danger of the Bandits closing in. Bashorun Asamu and the Oyo Mesi decide to end the days of Alaafin Awole Aregangan by mutinously placing a calabash with parrot eggs in front of him.

Awole utters the curses: “Mark my word, your deed has thus heralded in a terrible storm. This land will never know peace again. To all the points I shoot my arrows will you be carried as slaves. Your water will turn sour. My curse be on you for your disloyalty and disobedience, so let your children disobey you. If you send them on errands, let them never return to bring you words again. My curse will carry you to the sea, and beyond the seas. Slaves will rule over you and you, their masters, will become slaves. Your babies will die before your very eyes. You will sow but never eat of the harvest. On foreign soils will your sons and heirs die. As harlots will your daughters serve. You, Asamu, have brought shame to Yorubaland.”

Awole then takes a gourd of poison which he pours into a dish and drinks before smashing the dish on the gourd, stressing: “A broken calabash can be mended, but not a broken dish. So let my words be irrevocable.” Then he dies.

The reign of the Bandits holds out the promise of the fabled Robin Hood as per taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Their promise of doing good turns to nought. General Offa, the leader of the Bandits, takes control as the Alaafin of Oyo “due to the failure of the provincial Oba’s council led by Ooni Ife, to come to terms with the soldiers.”

The fear that Awole’s baby son could be supported by a faction of the soldiers to come back to the throne leads to the order for the infant Crown Prince to be arrested. Apeke saves Prince Aremo, carrying him against insurmountable odds to Abeokuta, and finally to Dahomey. Olori Iyunade also gets to the court of Oba Gezo in Dahomey. Iyunade wants her son back, but Apeke insists on having the child for keeps.

Oba Gezo directs that the child be put on the floor to see if he would crawl to his chosen mother. The child does not move to either woman. Then like Solomon in the Bible, Gezo orders that the child be cut into two with a sword, but following Apeke’s utterance, to wit, “Let her have him; if you are going to slay anyone, then slay me,” she is eventually given the baby.

Kunle Adebajo operates within the Epic Theatre scheme of the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht who in the play The Caucasian Chalk Circle makes a peasant girl to keep a baby she rescued because she’s a better mother than the child’s wealthy biological parents.

Bandits and Beggars by Kunle Adebajo is a treasure trove of modern theatre. The play deserves celebration.

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