Sunday, May 6, 2012

Weighing the Mind of Boko Haram

The Boko Haram video of the bombing of ThisDay on April 26, 2012 is a gory one. The question that comes to mind is: “How did we arrive here?” A man in white dress drives a black SUV into the premises of a newspaper house and detonates a bomb that explodes in a fiery ball. And the very moment of impact is captured on video. Incredible! Again, how did we arrive here in the premier league of terrorism? The question has since refused to vacate many a viewer’s subconscious. The more we look, the less we see of the rationale for descending to this level of animality in modern-day Nigeria.  

That is no good news for a nation that has been sitting on the edge of a knife since Independence. Boko Haram seems not to care a hoot, though, about national integration or cohesion. It has a mission, whether holy or unholy, to carry out. Showing mercy or respecting humanity is, therefore, out of the question. In Boko Haram’s jurisprudence, offence is offence, whether deliberate or inadvertent. And in its own peculiar nature, time does not heal. It does not change anything. Hence its decision to bomb ThisDay and other media houses. 

“Some of the reasons we decided to attack some media houses, especially ThisDay, is because the paper was used in dishonouring our prophet, Muhammed (SAW) during a beauty pageant in Kaduna in November 2002,” the Boko Haram “Public Awareness Department” explains in the video. It will be recalled that the bone of contention was a seemingly harmless write-up by a ThisDay reporter as part of the media hype for the first Miss World Beauty pageant to be held in Nigeria. A somewhat naive reference to the Holy Prophet by the inexperienced reporter was more than enough spark to ignite the dynamite of opposition that eventually led to the cancellation of the event. ThisDay duly apologised for the uproar inadvertently generated by the publication, and now the media house is being bombed for the mistake committed ten years ago! They try to justify this in the video: “No one has the power to forgive anyone for an offence that God himself has given judgement, especially on an offence that has to do with dishonouring Prophet Muhammed (SAW)... This lady that committed this crime, the judgement on her is to be killed at any opportunity, and the media house is also supposed to be driven out of existence...” Chilling?

That’s not all. For allegedly not being accurately reported, all media houses are now under threat of demolition. “These media houses have committed a lot of offences that are detrimental to Islam, and we don’t have the power to forgive them. We will take revenge on them by God’s grace...” Surprisingly, VOA (Hausa service) is included, too, for having recently “started campaigning for people to support the government against us by exposing us.” There is no doubting the fact that Boko Haram means business. In the process of doing this, it wants the media out of the way. How realistic is this? The press (media) is the barometer by which you gauge the pressure in the polity. Through the press, you are able to feel the prevailing mood among the people. It is a two-way traffic. You need it to know what is going on and what is coming in. A society without a press is a society in darkness. In every democracy, the press has a formidable, constitution-assigned role to play as the Fourth Estate of the Realm.

Hear what Thomas Jefferson, a former US President, said about the press: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” But Boko Haram wants a society without the press. It does not want criticism of its apocalyptic mission even if it debases and denigrates our humanity. That’s missing the point. You cannot afford to antagonise the press no matter the level of mutual distrust. Osama bin Laden, as hateful of the Western world as he was, he never downplayed the role of the media in propagating his self-appointed mission of confronting the West.

There is no doubt that Boko Haram has got it completely wrong. By declaring it is fighting a jihad in the video, it has laid bare its lack of adequate understanding or deliberate misinterpretation of what jihad is all about. A jihad, in the literal sense, means “a struggle,” just as Islam, in its literal sense, means “surrender,” but over the years, these meanings have been subjected to different interpretations and have suffered from the usual “wear and tear” in the hands of various moderate adherents and radical imams. In a jihad there are three different types of struggle. The first deals with the individual believer’s internal struggle to live out the Muslim Faith as well as he can. The second is the struggle to build a good Muslim society. The third refers to holy war, which is the struggle to defend Islam, with force if necessary. It is in this third struggle (holy war) that Islam assumes a more pungent meaning. In the beginning, it connoted “surrender to the will of Allah” but in the quest to expand the frontiers of the religion, surrender has come to denote “conquest.” This is what today’s radicalised, militant Muslims have interpreted to mean physical conquest of land and people “until the sword is finally dipped in its sheath.” Further interpretations seem to vary from one group to the other and from one clime to another.

Boko Haram has borrowed a wandering leaf from latter-day groups like al Qaeda to spread the influence of Islam in Nigeria through its home brewed jihad, a jihad in which anybody, including a fellow Muslim, is target for slaughter. What kind of religious extremism is this? As it is usual in a copycat game, suicide bombers are today queuing up to take part in the “holy war,” ready to die as martyrs and go to heaven to marry virgins. Unknown to Boko Haram, and its followers, the reward of suicide bombers is no longer in heaven but right here on earth.

Recent revelations as to how Osama bin Laden lived his secretive life in Pakistan before being found out and killed by the Americans last year show that some fundamentalists do not really live what they preach. Bin Laden reportedly never encouraged his children, and they are many, to become suicide bombers. He apparently believed life is too precious to be blown away in a backpack. Until death came calling last May, he had three women in his harem in Abbottabad, his Pakistani hiding place. The youngest is 29. The two more elderly ones, 55 and 62 respectively, are PhD holders. For Boko Haram, education is anathema! One day the people would ask: Who are you deceiving? And Boko Haram would need the media to pass their reaction back to them, which is what they tried to do with their video.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Oteh’s Magic and the Paradox of a Faux Pas

The encounter between Arunma Oteh, Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, SEC, and Herma Hembe, erstwhile chairman of the House of Representatives’ Committee on the Capital Market and other Institutions, continues to generate comments and analyses both at home and abroad. Some describe it as a political fiasco while others say it was a collision foretold and, therefore, not unexpected, judging by the antecedents in both arms of the legislature. Indeed, it is not an unusual development. The encounter goes beyond a drama enacted on the floor of the National Assembly. It’s a kind of literary tour de force that draws anchor in Thomas Hardy’s novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge.

For students of literature the circumstance, the dramatis personae and the ingredients are virtually of the same stock. To put it more succinctly, it is too much of a coincidence that something that “happened” in the fiction world of Wessex, England, a couple of centuries ago was being played back on reality television in the Nigeria of 2012. Perhaps this goes to lend credence to the argument that while art truly mirrors life, life can also, through some kind of mystical or divine machinations, mirror art. In journalistic parlance, this is a case of man biting a dog. By all ramifications, this is hot news. And this is the literary dimension of the Oteh-Hembe clash on the floor of the Green Chambers on March 15. At the risk of being mischievous, the writer is tempted to believe that Oteh was already aware of this literary episode or had probably scanned through Hardy’s novel before she came out smoking on that fateful day, and almost choked the daylight out of her cross-examiner-in-chief.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, a seemingly normal court process was turned into a nightmare for the chief judge, Henchard, by the accused, an old woman, a beer (furmity) seller who was being tried for disorderly conduct in public after getting drunk. Her defence was way out of this world. It was a bomb! She literally scattered the Town Hall, venue of the court hearing. She narrated how some time ago, a man, drunk like herself, behaved in a disorderly and unethical manner by selling his wife and child to a sailor for five guineas (five pounds, five shillings). And who could have done such an evil, something akin to a deliberate violation of the moral order? The woman did not leave that question hanging as she pointed in the direction of the judge himself, the mayor! Then came the clincher. “It proves he’s no better than I, and has no right to sit there in judgment upon me.” It was a damning vote of no confidence in the judge and the legal process. The judge had no choice but to voluntarily step down from his Olympian height and go down the dale of ignominy.

Oteh did no less. Accused of not running SEC very well and piling up a Mount Kilimanjaro bill in the hotel, she stayed in for eight months, while awaiting government accommodation, she looked like a piece of cake ready to be devoured by the hungry lions in the lower arm of the legislative assembly. The implication was pretty obvious – a spendthrift and incompetent person is not fit to head SEC. Like the woman in The Mayor... who took the mayor to the cleaners, Oteh screwed up courage to question the integrity of the chairman of the committee probing the affairs of SEC of which she is the DG. She rose up to stoutly defend her integrity, or what remained of it, after the battering she had had the previous day when her competence was called to question. She accused the chairman of unethical conduct by demanding money from SEC and collecting flight ticket and travelling allowance for an official journey he never undertook. She made it clear to the world that the committee was too compromised and not fit to question her or sit in judgment over her integrity. Hembe, like Henchard, his co-traveller in the temple of “justice,” had to abandon his post as chairman of what she described as a “kangaroo court.” It was a blow barely above the belt but its effect was nevertheless devastating to the committee and its members.

It was not the best way to end a hitherto noble assignment in the supposedly hallowed chambers of the legislative arm of government. By now, Hembe may still be wondering what hit him. Did he see it coming? Did anybody ever warn him to beware of the “Ides of Woman”? Hembe fell foul of the much dreaded feminine mystique and had his nose rubbed against a jagged rock. You don’t toy with an angry woman because heaven knows no fury like a woman scorned. An angry woman fights with anything she can lay her hand or head on. She can pour hot water on you, drown you in a pot of hot soup or take razor blade and redraw the contour map on your body. Check the evening papers or soft-sell magazines to see angry women in action.

In more extreme cases, a woman can manhandle her man’s manhood, bite it or sever it from its root, all in a fit of anger which goes to prove that a woman provoked to anger is like a time bomb ready to explode. Perhaps Hembe might not have run into this cul de sac if he had ample knowledge of the feminine mystique. Women may be perceived as the weaker sex but that is just on the surface. They have a fascinating aura of mystery and power that only the uninitiated would toy with. Hembe could have scored a victory, a pyrrhic one at that, the previous day but little did he realise that when a ram gives a head butt and retreats, it’s not out of cowardice but a tactical move to regain its energy and plan a new strategy. He had Oteh pinned down to a corner, March 14, but let go of her to recoup and regroup for the mother of all battles the following day. It was a tactical error or what a Malawian critic is wont to call “blunder in Blantyre”! He virtually succumbed to what students of oral literature would also describe as the “osoronga syndrome,” a kind of feminine mystique, not in the negative, demonic, cultic form but in its positive, affirmative, dynamic, revolutionary sense. They can be decisive and deadly if unjustly and disgustingly provoked, especially in public.

By now, Hembe would have learnt that women are not objects to play yo-yo with in public but who should be adored and respected for their own contributions for the advancement of the country. In whatever position politicians find themselves, they should learn to be humble. Having the power to summon people before committees should not be equated with having superiority over everybody. They are and should remain servants of the people who braved the elements and all man-made obstacles to cast their votes for them. And like in The Mayor... every public officer should always remember the day the past may walk in to question the present and spray his coffee with granulated sand. That will be quite unpalatable.

And for Oteh, it is not yet Uhuru despite her “disrobing” of the young and inexperienced committee chairman, the 2005 graduate of law from the Benue State University. She still has many crocodile-infested rivers to cross. Yes, she has an outstanding academic record and a glittering working experience both at home and abroad but her filibustering style of defence may not survive any form of legal scrutiny. “I’m-not-the-only-thief, you-are-also-a-thief” kind of argument is not, cannot and will never be a necessary or sufficient defence in any theft case. The furmity woman admits her guilt but her argument is that the mayor is equally guilty of a similar offence and should not sit in judgment over her case. Is that Oteh’s argument, too? If it is, then we don’t need a WAEC examiner to return her script with a score of F9. That goes beyond any feminine mystique.

Monday, March 5, 2012

O My God! Where’s Radio Biafra?


The Nigerian crisis and the Biafra war (1966-1970). Just like yesterday.

Those were horrible days, days that one would not want to remember again. I mean days of headless bodies, decapitated limbs, naked torsos, blood-stained bags, torn sacks and tattered cartons containing what remained of the belongings of those lucky to survive the massacre in the North. They just kept arriving in quick successions in the East. South-bound trains were always full of bloody cargoes to be delivered at the doorstep of Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of Eastern Region, as gory mementos of a bloody saga. The newspapers did not shy away from publishing these gory pictures to the chagrin of whoever had the courage or misfortune to take a glimpse. Almost on a daily basis, the town crier would beat the gong for Ojukwu to address Easterners via radio wherever they were to pack their belongings and head home. At the same time he would advise settlers and strangers in the East to go to their respective homes because he could no longer guarantee their safety. That was the time brothers did not know brothers again and Nigerians became strangers, nay, expatriates in their own land. Everybody listened with rapt attention.

It was Ojukwu’s delivery of his messages and addresses that attracted many people on the “other side” to have sympathy and “undying love” for him. He was a good speaker, nay, an orator. He knew when to stress his syllables, when to pause, inhale and raise his pitch and when to lower it. He used this power of eloquence to capture the minds of his listeners, whether on the main street or in the diplomatic suite. ‘Uncle Bola’, a banker living in Inalende, Alawo (close to Abebi), Ibadan, was one of Ojukwu’s greatest fans in those days. His house was a sort of rendezvous for clandestinely listening to Radio Biafra every evening, clandestinely because if caught one might be accused of collaborating with the rebels, as the Biafrans were referred to then. But that did not deter Uncle Bola. He knew when the external service of Radio Biafra would start each day’s broadcast and what their programme schedule was. Before his arrival from his workplace in Bank Road, Dugbe, his younger brother, Supo, and I and other youths would have been waiting in front of his Grundig radio, the magic box that brought into the living room the voice of Okonkon Ndem or whoever was the Radio Biafra continuity announcer. And it was a herculean task trying every day to know the exact spot to pin down the somewhat elusive radio station. That was the era of analogue shortwave radio, no satellite digital receiver facility or other forms of precision tuning. Despite the daily hassle of finding Radio Biafra to hear the latest news from the other side, we all persevered because we believed so much in the eloquent Ojukwu and the big, big grammar he was belching out. We always had our notebooks and other writing materials to jot down new words like “massacre,” “genocide,” “pogrom,” “ambush” and “brinksmanship.”

One day we were too eager to hear the latest from “the owner of words,” as we used to call him, and we could not wait for the owner of the Grundig radio to arrive as we tried to tune the radio ourselves. We thought we could do it, after all we had been watching Uncle Bola do it for months. It was a disaster! For every tuning it was a strange radio station we ran into. “This is Radio Tirana transmitting from the People’s Republic of Albania.” No way. Next. “This is Radio Moscow.” Jesus! Where is Radio Biafra? We tried again and what did we get? “This is Radio Equatorial Guinea transmitting from Malabo.” Trouble! We fiddled with the dial again. “This is Radio Ghana transmitting from Accra.” O my God! We must be moving close. Then we tried to “fine tune” and what did we get? Radio Peking, China! Over the bar! That was it! Immediately we heard footsteps downstairs we just vamoosed. We knew what to expect from Uncle Bola after tampering with his “Radio Biafra.”

Thereafter we took solace in pulling resources together to buy Daily Times and New Nigerian newspapers for news reports about the war. We enjoyed the Times’ day-to-day coverage while New Nigerian supplied the photo album with the clearest war photographs any one could get from a newspaper in those days. Occasionally Radio Nigeria would dish out its own jingles to whip up national sentiments. “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done,” this was followed by some kind of gobbledegook in Hausa or what we later got to know as the lingua franca of the Nigerian Army. And there was “Go on with one Nigeria,” derived from GOWON, the name of the then head of state.

The lack of creativity in propaganda and the apparent lack of intellectual touch in the articulation of the federal cause deprived the government much sympathy at home and understanding abroad. Perhaps this explains why up till today Nigeria is still craving for the understanding of the international community whenever there’s need to articulate a government policy or when a new government comes to power.

One jingle, however, reechoes till today: “The soul of liberty is eternal vigilance.” It is a jingle worth exhuming and playing again in view of the Boko Haram menace, a seeming precursor of yet another political conflagration. To keep Nigeria one, from the look of things, has become a clichĂ© for the new generation of ethnic nationalities. But, honestly, I don’t want to listen to another Radio Biafra without an Ojukwu. It’s like eating hamburger without the beef.

That was the time brothers did not know brothers again and Nigerians became strangers, nay, expatriates in their own land. Everybody listened with rapt attention.

Relying only on radio and Daily Times (newspapers) for news from the war front

Ojukwu the “owner of words” at the microphone in Radio Biafra

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Ojukwu, the Okonkwo of Biafra

There is no celebrating the life and times of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu that mention would not be made of Biafra, for the name, Ojukwu, was and is synonymous with the former secessionist enclave and ambition. There is no argument about that. It is providence that brought about the Siamese-twins relationship which has unwittingly turned Ojukwu into a generic and iconic name for Biafra. Some will relish in this development while others may frown at it as an inevitable reminder of the Nigerian Civil War that culminated in untold hardships, loss of lives and properties.

Historians don’t give a damn about that. Their job is to chronicle, interpret and analyse past events. They are quick to point out that Biafra was an unmitigated African tragedy in which more than one million people perished in an unnecessary fratricidal war. Saying the war was unnecessary is, however, debatable. The extent of the human toll absolutely makes it an undesirable war but in terms of its purgative effect for the angry Igbo of the 1960s, it was a war worth fighting. It was a kind of diabolical catharsis and, no doubt, a just struggle for survival and self-preservation in the face of the wanton killings of the Igbo in the North following the January 15, 1966 coup that instantly but negatively changed the complexion and configuration of the Nigerian polity.

For the 30 months that the war lasted, Biafra was a tragic drama in motion or what the novelist, Zainab Alkali, would describe as a drama of pain in which happiness is just an occasional interlude. It was a tragedy of such magnitude that Biafra became another focal point to the rest of mankind, shortly after the bloodshed in the Congo. The chief protagonist of the ensuing drama was, of course, Ojukwu, a thoroughbred, well-educated and polished military officer who, by virtue of his bourgeois background and military training leaned more to the right of the centre than to the left. Yet an unusual kind of political leadership was thrust on his hitherto conservative shoulders, turning him into an accidental hero of an ideological struggle he least prepared for, a struggle to sustain the newly created Republic of Biafra.

However, since the once risen Biafran sun set in 1970 with the end of the war, many chroniclers of history, playwrights, writers and critics have made a kill of the Biafran tragedy in history books, plays, novels and analyses. It is a natural tendency, though, because it is from life that man draws inspiration and materials for building a corpus of literature. The critic can also, through an indiscernible aperture, peep through the prism of art to have a glimpse of the possible, the impossible, the congruous, the incongruous, the real and the unreal, to contribute to the mounting materials on Biafra and its dramatis personae. This write-up is equally an attempt to do the “uncommon,” nay, the unusual but, perhaps, the imaginable, to do a surreal, comparative analysis of Ojukwu, the Biafran hero, and Okonkwo, the strong man in the famous novel, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe.

But before we go into that, let’s take a look at the rationale for doing this. Both Umuofia, the setting of Things Fall Apart, and Biafra can be used to examine the tragedy in the two seemingly diametrically opposing worlds of fiction and reality. By the way, is the writer not over-stretching the elastic band of imagination? From where should playwrights draw their materials for tragedy? Should it not be purely from reality? Not exactly. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, believes tragedy should be built more on myth (i.e. a fantasised reality) than on history (i.e. a factual reality) as the basis for tragedy. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels seem to disagree with this Aristotlean postulate. They will rather opt for tragedy based on historical events such as we have in Ola Rotimi’s Kurunmi or Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. The Biafra and Umuofia tragic dramas oscillate between the two extremes. While the tragedy of Things Fall Apart is based on fantasised reality, that of Biafra is hinged on historical, factual reality. The two characters can, therefore, be easily accommodated under a common literary microscope for a forensic analysis. In doing so, we can see similarities and draw some parallels between the two.

The story of Biafra is the story of the Igbo people in the larger Nigerian society. They belong to a special breed – hardworking, daring, adventurous, enterprising, religious and ambitious. Before Biafra came into being, the Igbo were everywhere in the West, Midwest and the North, planting and hoisting the flag of their proud heritage to the admiration or envy of fellow Nigerians. Then came the military coup of January 15,1966, and hell was let loose. The centre could no longer hold... Umuofia was no different.

Hitherto, it was a clan which once thought like one, spoke like one, shared a common awareness and acted like one. Then came the white man and his confusing religion and the people could no longer act like one. “He (the white man) has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart,” Obierika, a leader of the clan, sums up the tragedy of Umuofia in Things Fall Apart, both depicting similar settings, similar moods, similar characters with dominant roles within their universe of influence.

The character of Okonkwo is so strong and all-pervasive that the title of the German edition of Things Fall Apart is Okonkwo, a reflection of his central role in the Umuofian tragedy. It’s the same in the world of reality. Ojukwu was Biafra. Biafra was Ojukwu. With his Che Guevara-like beard, he became so much a mythical figure that his face became a robust advertisement for African rebellion and war of self-determination to the rest of the world like Guevara’s in the South American jungle.

The Ojukwu story opens to the world at the height of his military career in 1966 when as a 33-year-old officer he became the first military governor of Eastern Region. He had everything going for him, an aristocratic background and a good education. Okonkwo’s story also opens at the height of his professional and sporting (wrestling) career when, at 18, he dethroned Amalinze, the hitherto undefeated wrestling champion of the time. His fame rose beyond his village and the entire Umuofia clan, not only on account of his wrestling prowess, but also for being a successful farmer and a respected warrior.

His fame and wealth notwithstanding, he was not a happy man. The source of his unhappiness and anger was his father. Unoka was an unsuccessful farmer, a debtor, a weakling and an agbala, a derogatory name for a title-less man. He was regarded as a failure by his contemporaries. It was fear of failure that made Okonkwo steel himself against an open display of any emotion except that of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness, the only thing worth demonstrating was strength, even at the wrong time. He shot at Ojiugo, his second wife, during the Week of Peace. It was his machete blow that finally felled Ikemefuna, the boy who grew to know him as “my father.” It was an unnecessary display of bravery. Ojukwu also had such a steely mien. He hardly laughed in public but he was wont to display grimaces to reflect the ugliness of human nature that warranted the mass killings of his kinsmen and women in the 1960s.

He had smelled the blood of his fellow Igbo, victims of revenge killings in the barracks and other slaughter slabs in the North, and was not afraid to shed some too to water the seed of rebellion. Suspected renegades and saboteurs must be hanged while those with dissenting voices like Victor Banjo, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Phillip Alale and Sam Agbam had to face the firing squad. The price of liberty was not only vigilance in Biafra but also the systematic elimination of opposition. Anger and fear of failure seemed to be controlling his inner being and pushing him into a tragic denouement, despite his enviable pedigree.

Louis Phillipè Odumegwu Ojukwu, his father, a knight, was not like Unoka, the fantasised father of Okonkwo. He was a wealthy businessman, one of the richest of his time, hardworking, urbane, savvy and suave. Ojukwu only took advantage of his family pedigree to acquire high quality education both at home and abroad. He was to later sacrifice a life of opulence to join the army as a private when there were better options! He did not stop there; he also sacrificed his military career to lead his people in a secession bid against the federation, a federation that was justly or unjustly perceived to be bent on annihilating the Igbo race. It was a disastrous miscalculation. The badly equipped and hurriedly trained young troops of Biafra had a daunting task facing a better trained, better equipped federal army at the war front. Soon the cookie crumbled and Ojukwu had to flee into exile “in search of peace” in Ivory Coast, abandoning his lieutenants.

Okonkwo, too, had to go into exile through the barrel of the gun. His gun had misfired during the funeral rites for Ezeudu, killing the deceased’s son. Though it was an inadvertent killing, he had to be banished into exile and off he went to Mbanta, his mother’s hometown. In exile, the virile strongman of Umuofia was literally reduced to a eunuch, an impotent, helpless, toothless bulldog who could only bark but not bite. He heard stories of the new changes taking place in Umuofia and he felt like going back to knock some sense into the white man’s head. His rantings were just like those of a column of ants, calling his people back at home weaklings and effeminate men “clucking like old hens.” Those who had decamped to join the missionaries were nothing but degenerate, gutless and “ball-less” (effeminate), efulefu (worthless) men.

The unsavoury changes taking place around him notwithstanding, Okonkwo, true to his character, made the best of his sojourn. He continued his farming business and prospered. Ojukwu also went into business to while away time in Ivory Coast. He started with transport business and later veered into interior decoration, using his connection with the powers that be to obtain rosy government contracts. Despite their success and prosperity, both still yearned for a return home. Okonkwo had heard a lot about the havoc being perpetrated by the white man on his people’s culture and wanted to return as soon as his seven-year banishment was over. Ojukwu, too, though in a safe haven, was like fish out of the Bight of Biafra. He wanted to go back home where he too could have a piece of the proverbial national cake that politicians were already scrambling for.

Okonkwo returned from exile with great hopes to lead the fight against the white man and his new religion. He could not comprehend the fact that “even titled men like Ogbuefi Ugonna had joined the missionaries.” He was eager to mobilise and rouse his people from slumber for the great fight against the new “usurper” religion. It was a new Umuofia that he met, an Umuofia that had lost its “balls” and the will to fight. Obierika captured the dilemma in a private discussion with Okonkwo. “How do you think we can fight when our brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

By the time Ojukwu came back to Nigeria from exile in 1982, the falcon could no longer hear the falconer. The old “Igbo party,” NCNC, – long dead, like others –had also given way to new parties like NPP, GNPP, NPN, and UPN into which the Igbo had scattered and sought political relevance. The entity that used to be Biafra had been balkanised into the four states of Imo, Anambra, Cross River and Rivers (in the 19-state structure). His attempt to rally the Igbo into a common front on the political level did not come to much. Personal ambitions seemed to have overtaken the old communal interest. For the second time, the “people’s General” voted with his feet by going into internal self exile in NPN, a party that symbolised the establishment that provoked the birth of Biafra. And he paid a price for his “indiscretion” as he was detained along with fellow politicians when the military struck again in 1983.

If Ojukwu chose to join “them” if he could not beat “them,” Okonkwo stubbornly refused to be like the Joneses. Even at gunpoint, he would not join the motley crowd of those who had desecrated Igbo customs and traditions. He vented his frustration on the white man’s messenger and, in anger, murdered him. It is his inability to recognise change that in the end forced him to commit suicide, an abomination. Obierika, his friend, looked at his dangling body and literally wrote a verbal epitaph: “That man was one of the greatest men in our community. It’s Okonkwo’s personal tragedy that he will be buried like a dog.”

Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Eze Igbo Gburugburu, was no doubt one of the greatest men of Igboland. Unlike the tragic hero of Umuofia, Ojukwu, the Biafran hero, will be buried as a god, not as a dog. And were there a real Obierika, he is wont to write a more befitting epitaph: “Here goes a true born Igbo man who sacrificed his silver spoon for the gun for the advancement of his people’s cause.”

In the realm of imagination, the mythical hero of Things Fall Apart probably lives on in the minds of the equally mythical “Ibo men” of Umuofia. There’s no obliterating Biafra also from the subconscious of the average Igbo man. The conditions that warranted it in the first instance are still present. Ojukwu was more of an accidental hero than an opportunist, as some of his critics are quick to label him, and he rose to the occasion to lead his people literally through the Red Sea, a very herculean task. In spite of the land and sea blockage, his besieged Biafra looked inward through improvisation. It was a vast workshop of native ingenuity. It produced guns, tanks, bombs and anti-aircraft guns to counter the enemy’s menacing arsenal westward even as far as Ore, in present-day Ondo State, where the mother of all battles was fought. The Biafran soldiers were ready to follow Ojukwu to war blindfolded. His charisma was magnetic and infectious. “Ojukwu led people with dignity,” wrote Obi Nwakama, an Ojukwu fan, in a tribute to the memory of the Biafran leader. “Biafra’s grassroots democracy thrived; men and women of ability were inspired to work; young men stood before their General and vowed to give their life to him… He earned their trust. He inspired them by his own sacrifice. He led them – with the flag of the rising sun fluttering – to believe that they were that sun rising.” Okonkwo did not have that kind of following. A man who fought and killed for Umuofia had nobody to fight and kill for him at the time he needed them most. The sun does not rise twice to wake a man. Unknown to Okonkwo, time had moved on without him. Therein lies his personal tragedy.

It could be sunset for Biafra of the 1960s but today, the sun is rising again and blazing for a new Biafra. If Arrow of God (not No Longer at Ease) can be regarded as the real natural “sequel” to Things Fall Apart, the emergence of a new Biafra (Ojukwu called it Biafra of the Mind) cannot be wiped away with just a wave of the hand.

History has a way of repeating itself either in mythical terms or in the reality of human circumstance. Meanwhile it’s adieu to the Ikemba of Nnewi, Eze Igbo Gburugburu of Nigeria and, of course, the “Okonkwo of Biafra.”

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Mayor of Asobridge

In recent times, President Olusegun Obasanjo has come under serious attacks and criticisms by both friends and foes for his uncanny style of administration. But the President is not a man who easily succumbs to the pains and pangs of leadership. A self-confessed stubborn man of the stoic Owo pedigree, Obasanjo does not fight and run away to fight another day, as the sages are wont to say. He would rather counter-attack and swim against the tide, if need be, to accomplish his mission, right or wrong.

That’s the stuff the Owu warrior and Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces is made of. But a question arises: Is it wise for the President to always fight to the finish? Is it not tactically expedient for a commander to beat a retreat when under persistent enemy fire, especially when there is no sign of imminent ground or air support? The President has fought many unnecessary wars in the past five years which have left the political landscape virtually in ruins. This write-up is not an attempt to bury Obasanjo under the debris but to take a rather unorthodox literary approach to do a psychoanalysis to unravel this enigma wrapped in a mystery.

If Thomas Hardy, English poet and one of his nation’s foremost novelists, were to be alive today, he would most probably be waiting on the wings for the end of Obasanjo’s second term to enable him write a Nigerian sequel to his famous tragedy – THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE – with an Owu setting rather than the fictitious Wessex countryside of 19th century England. Why pick on Obasanjo? The answer is obvious. To a certain degree, the entire ideological universe of the Obasanjo presidency rests on the concept of honour, integrity and transparency. Same goes for the cultural universe of Henchard, the tragic hero in Hardy’s novel. Both share similar characteristics and idiosyncrasies that prop them up as potential tragic heroes because of certain flaws in their characters.

Before we dwell on the particulars of these inherent flaws, however, we need to lay a philosophical framework for such an exercise. Hardy’s definition of tragedy is germane and very instructive. “A tragedy”, he says, “exhibits a state of things in the life of an individual which unavoidably causes some natural aim or desire of his to end in a catastrophe when carried out”. Henchard, Hardy’s hero in The Mayor…, is given to doing unreasonable things. This is much like his other characters which are always going off the handle, doing something nobody would normally do, something unimaginable, something out of this world like Henchard just deciding on the spur of the moment to sell his wife, after having a bottle too many.

The law of retribution cannot be bypassed with this kind of ignoble act which is a blatant violation of a moral order. To heighten his tragedy, Henchard became prosperous as a corn merchant and eventually appointed as the mayor of Casterbridge. But his character continued to pursue him like his shadow. His temperament had no pity for the weak or the strong. He was stubborn, self-righteous and self-opinionated. He suffered no fools gladly. He tongue-lashed both farm hands and customers alike and wrote caustic letters to agricultural extension officers for daring to complain about his farm produce. Out of envy, he dismissed Farfrae, his experienced farm manager, who later turned out to be a more successful farmer.

As his callousness, harshness and pitilessness became more apparent, his fortunes also declined. What started in his desire for a “tussle … at fair buying and selling” soon developed into unhealthy rivalry with Farfrae and eventually led him into economic ruin. His hatred for Farfrae was instantly transferred to whomever had the misfortune of relating to or being friendly with him. If you were not with him (Henchard), then you must be his enemy. Thus, he had no qualms dispensing with both enemy and friend. Yet, Henchard was not like this at the beginning. He was a man of rustic humility, kind-heartedness and scrupulous integrity, one who was ready to pawn his wristwatch in order to help a needy cottager. Ironically, it was this same humane, selfless, unassuming personality that auctioned his wife for the proverbial pot of porridge. It was at the peak of his career as mayor that the furmity woman, who witnessed the abomination, reappeared to expose his ugly past, confirming the Biblical injunction that whatever every man sows, so shall he reap.

Does Obasanjo share similar character traits with Hardy’s hero in The Mayor…? It may be intellectually mischievous to submit that the President is an African reincarnation of a fictitious European tragic hero, but a comparison between the two may not be far-fetched. From the onset, it has to be established that there is no evidence as of today, to prove that the President once violated any moral code with any of his women in his heydays as a young, bubbling, active military officer, despite the latter-day tantrums of the Remis and the Mojis of this world, following their estrangement with him. But whatever Obasanjo could have done, it probably would peter into insignificance when compared with Henchard’s treatment of his own women, namely his wife, and two others – Lucetta and Elizabeth – all of whom he humiliated one way or the other. However, it is obvious to all and sundry that Nigeria has a president who is very stubborn and almost impervious to any advice that does not agree with his mindset. He recently confessed to being an Owu man with the characteristic trait of communal stubbornness and, not quite long ago, he said publicly he was not bound to take the advice of his self-appointed special advisers.

This may not necessarily be a weakness. Some would see it as a sign of sure-footedness. Obasanjo knows his onions and he is proud of his ability and capability. The only problem is that the President may so easily be carried away, like any other mortal being, in the euphoria of his overwhelming, pervasive personal conquest of real and imagined enemies, that he might not know when he crosses the boundary of pride into the twilight zone of arrogance. Paradoxically, Nigeria may be gaining something from this unseeming attribute. For once, we have a leader who can roll up his agbada and walk with a swagger at 10 Downing Street or the Kremlin or the White House and match fellow world leaders wit for wit and grit for grit, without anybody asking, who’s that Johnbull?

In Obasanjo’s world, officialdom is anachronistic while protocol is dated. This, perhaps, explains why he can personally seize the koboko and beat the daylight out of an erring security agent at a public function. Henchard did a similar thing. He marched one of his farm workers, Abel Whittle, off to work without his breeches on, thereby both exposing him to public humiliation and whittling down his self-esteem.

When the heat was turned on Henchard, he fought back with every available means to sustain himself in power. He went for the supernatural by visiting the seer who predicted good weather and bumper wheat harvest. It was a prediction that went awry. Obasanjo, back from prison, showed to the world that he is not given to the supernatural but to the Holy Spirit through the newly recrudescent trend of “Born-Againsm”. The Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, in turn rallied round him as a grand patron but, as students of Aristotelian tragedy would say, character is fate. Sometime in the year, Obasanjo, in a fit of anger, mortally wounded the bond existing between him and his Christian supporters with his now ‘famous’ “CAN my foot!” verbal explosion during the religious uprising in Plateau State.

That’s not unusual, though. The President is often given to a 250 KmPH racy temper that is virtually difficult for any antilock-braking system, ABS, to hold. His appetite for the trite, the ridiculous and the ungentlemanly belies his high office and his intellectual attributes. He does the right thing at the wrong time and says the wrong thing when the entire world expects a sublime, if not erudite, espousal of his government policies. Are there some internal harpies directing his ways and making sure he puts forward the wrong foot most of the time? Or is it what the Yoruba call asasi, evil spell, that is worrying him? For instance, why does the President always take it upon himself to write to every ‘offending’ Dike and Haruna and expose himself to vitriolic attacks from all and sundry?

He has written letters apparently to cut literary icons and political juggernauts to size because they refuse to look at a national issue from the same prism of partisanship and parochialism. Among others, he has exchanged epistolary blows with Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate, and recently, Audu Ogbeh, PDP chairman. Their offence? They wrote to advise him on burning national issues. If we may ask, is it really an offence for the captain of a drifting ship to be advised on how to avoid a wreck and how the passengers could be rescued in the case of an accident? “The trouble with Nigeria”, says Chinua Achebe, “is simply and squarely a failure of leadership… The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership,” affirms Achebe in a political treatise on Nigeria.

Has President Obasanjo risen to the challenge of responsibility? In fairness, to some extent, yes. Like his alter hero in The Mayor…, the society that Obasanjo came to preside over had had a history of corruption and violent crimes. On his part, Henchard meant well but both his past and character were his Archilles’ heels. Obasanjo, too, wanted to make a difference as he started very well trying to demolish all the entrenched obstacles to progress. In the process, he stepped on erstwhile sacred, untouchable toes and fumigated the establishment to get rid of parasites who feed fat on the nation’s oil wealth. For him, it was no longer business as usual. But no matter how well you prepare ebolo soup, as the Yoruba proverb goes, its aroma will still give it away. The character of the man, Obasanjo, seems to be catching up with him just as Henchard’s did.

Today, Obasanjo has become the proverbial ill-fated man who drinks water and it gets stuck to his teeth. Whatever he says or does now brings public ridicule and odium even when he means well. Yet, here is a man who was hailed as a ‘messiah’ after the exit of the bandits who stole the people’s mandate. The military, the civilian power bloc, CAN and Southerners thought a new lease of life was in the offing. Now, it appears many have given up hope on him. To them, the sleep that lasts from one market day to another has become death. Obasanjo needs to be told to wake up to the reality of his exalted position as the president of the world’s largest black democracy. But who will bell the cat? Who will look Baba in the face and tell him to soft-pedal on his 67-year-old temper that blows fuses so easily like an overloaded NEPA transformer?

Like the tragic hero in the book, Obasanjo seems being propped up by some unseen forces for a catastrophic denouement. In Henchard’s case, his original offence against the normal order of nature, his tempestuous character and his over-reliance on the supernatural were responsible for his tragic fall from the chair of mayor. Obasanjo’s fate seems to have a ring of self-inflicted injuries and, perhaps, a little bit of the supernatural, too. The theme of character is fate has been extensively treated but the supernatural factor is beyond any empirical or scientific proof. It is only germane to ask: why does the President always have the tendency to do the wrong thing at the wrong time? Why does he do things that contradict his avowed beliefs and principles? For example, why did he admit, albeit inadvertently, in his letter to Audu Ogbeh that he knew that Chris Ngige, the embattled governor of Anambra State, did not win the 2003 governorship election? Is Obasanjo not really being haunted by some unseen powers bent on seeing him off from the pinnacle of honour and dignity, like Henchard? Could the President have done something against moral order when he was a young man? He may not know it but as the Igbo would say, the thing that beats the drum for ngwesi is inside the ground. The President may want to open his ears to listen to the loud grumblings in the land over his penchant for always stirring the hornet’s nest and heating up the polity for no just cause. In lambasting His Excellency, however, care must be taken lest we turn him into the lonely bat in the proverb who said he knew his ugliness and chose to be flying by night so as to hide his shame. The President’s persona may not be as pretty as we all want it to be but his vision of a new Nigeria is, no doubt, beautiful. It’s too early in the day to be flying in the night because this president has a lot to offer Nigeria, if only he could change his style and listen to better counsel. He cannot afford to fail like the mayor of Casterbridge. The repercussions would be too devastating for the cause of democracy, not only in Nigeria, but also in the entire continent.

TELL, January 3, 2005