By Wole Oyebade
One of the odds of the digital age is that even private event readily assumes a global dimension. All it takes is a camera-phone to telecast to the waiting world. And round the clock each day, a deluge of unsolicited messages freely shows up on mobile devices, cutting across narratives, gossips, prayers, corporate begging, preaching and even prophesies of charlatans!
So it was on that laid-back afternoon when this video of concern was shared. Except for the person of the sender, it would had gone unopened as one of those stray junks. Not this one, and what unfolded in the clip was as shocking as it was disturbing.
In the video was the Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, at the podium addressing an audience of traditional rulers in the State. It was a quarterly meeting of the monarchs and His Excellency was to declare the meeting open. But his prelude to the written speech showed how far down the society has gone in the gross disrespect for culture and tradition, and a very dangerous precedent for the younger generation.
In a manner known of the headmasters of old, Wike ordered the traditional rulers to stand with their staff of office, to identify the majority that had attended the session with a walking stick instead of staff! Apparently confirming his doubts, he gave a stern warning to the majority who left the staff at the palace. Hear Wike.
“I cannot be addressing you (traditional rulers) when some of you are using an ordinary walking stick to come here. Since you don’t want to use your staff in the office, I will give it to other people. You don’t know the authority it carries… Sometimes you just want something without knowing the implication of it.”
Not done, he picked on one of the monarchs. The fellow’s sin was nodding in agreement to Wike’s decision to check the proliferation of ‘Royal Highnesses’ that has assumed a nuisance dimension in the State.
With an accusing finger, he said: “You …I mean You, stop shaking your head. You are one of those causing problems. They gave you chieftaincy title, a young boy, you don’t even know what to do with it, and when I’m speaking you are shaking your head like this. All fake! Fake, causing problems everywhere. You just go and wear something bigger than you, people will think he is an elderly person; a very small young man, this one. I know him when I was in school, he was running about on errands. Now, he is wearing Uthman Dan Fodio and be using it to breach protocol. He thinks that when he is shaking his head, I will be happy. That is fake!”
There is a lot to unpack in these spiteful remarks. Clearly, vintage Wike has an axe to grind with some of the monarchs and he is known not to suffer fools gladly. But those of us that are not used to watching our monarchs or their surrogates being taken to the cleaners publicly will find the four-minute clip shocking and highly condemnable. Second, the governor, like some others, has escalated the hire and fire power to even depose and replace royal fathers at will. That is possible because there are many bidding contenders for the throne these days. Put together, we now have a growing culture of disrespect and grand abuse of traditional institutions and stool in modern socio-political settings. Sadly, some of the monarchs have a hand in the misfortune that has befallen our pristine foundation.
Let’s put things in context. Before the coming of colonial interlopers and the advent of modern democracy, the traditional rulers were the heads of government in primordial settings. Most significant was the spiritual role they played as representatives of deities, ancestors, higher-good and evil forces that interpenetrate and makeup our existence. Call them gods in human flesh, and you would not be wrong. They had the ritual controls and were extremely powerful on the revered ancient stools. Centuries of slavery, slave trade, colonialism, and modern democracy did infringe the majesty of the stools, largely pushing the occupants to the back seat in a contemporary setting.
But this is not unique to us in Africa. Recall that the revival of the humanism of old, secularism and government by the people, beginning from 1500 Europe, also toppled the dominance of the Catholic Church and divine rule that had lasted 1000 years in European history. Though the political powers were lost, the traditional stools in Africa remain the custodian of culture and traditional heritage in modern societies just as the Catholic Church retains religious significance to date.
It is important to add that the traditional rulers, as the representatives of dominant forces, have the general well-being of their domains as the primary function. The stool stands tall as the custodian of indigenous values and defender of the general will. It is the rallying point of everything the community represents, in so far as it does not negate the well-being and progress of the people. Therefore, it is uncharacteristic of the monarch to be partisan or sectarian.
Unfortunately, that is not the story in many parts of our society today. One of the reasons is that the royal lineage, pyramidal and divination systems of old now hardly produced the kings and chiefs, but the governor and party in power do. In place of the goodwill of subjects and ancestors of old, many monarchs or pretenders to the throne are now on the salary scale and earn allowances from the government. And since he who pays the piper dictates the tune, it is not uncommon for state governors to whittle down the powers of an emir or elevate chiefs to monarch status just to rival the first-class Oba in a pervading divide-and-rule game.
Back in the days of reverent fear, respect, honour, and order, we maintained our distance from our kings. The kings’ face is never for the public glare. Except at festivals or major events, an Oba rarely steps out in the open. Even his shadow could hurt the uninitiated. The monarchs were heard than seen. Today, the majesty of the throne has become less popular, such that kings are now abducted for ransom. After all, they have become regulars at revelries, parties, political rallies, and Church conventions. Some even claimed to be born-again, demonising the ancestry of their legitimacy. Indeed, the stool has stooped too low that the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III, had to declare that monarchs who club, smoke and drink do not deserve honours and should not be accorded any respect. Alaafin apparently missed those days when kings were regal, prince and princesses noble, and men and women relished deeds of honour.
Wike’s tirade said as much too. But quite unfortunate was his further demystification of traditional institutions via rambling remarks and outright abuse. Indeed, Wike is his self-styled Napoleonic mien who has a reputation of controversy and unkind comments about institutions. But the common malaise among his kinds is the inability to distinguish the royal stool from its occupant. And traditionally, it is never about the person – young or old, heir or errant of politicians’ creation – but the ancient stool, which is the sacred symbolism of a peoples’ ancestry, history, culture, and tradition. To ridicule the stool like Wike is doing with the traditional rulers is to look down on the ancestors, institution and the reference point of indigenous development and identity.
The main worry, indeed, is the values and heritage that are eroded in the process. The question to ask is: how do we develop indigenously and sustainably without the cultural values via the institutions that preserve them? Thankfully, Wike in his diatribe did recognised the traditional council as an institution. More advanced countries of today built on such institutions and keep refining traditions to assimilate heterogenous systems and values as necessary. Examples are replete in countries like Japan, India, China, Indonesia, and even the United Kingdom. Because their foundation is indigenous, their modernity has been described as a culture with its own tradition. And to this end traditional institutions, in their refined forms, will continue to find relevance in modern civilisation.
As a leader in today’s Rivers State, what sort of example is Wike to his followers? It is safe to assume that anyone that has cut teeth in law, politics, and administration, to become a local government chairman, State’s Chief to Staff, Nigeria’s minister of education and now governor, should exude a sense of propriety, self-censorship, restraint, and statesmanship. Why is Wike different? What sort of legacy is he leaving behind? Is he one to be remembered for holistic developmental initiatives or one that destroys ancient landmarks and reduces traditional institutions to a laughingstock? Some did it in the past and already have their lots in the dustbin of history.
Most important is the need for our monarchs to go on the route of self-appraisal to reassert their stools. They are most germane at this time of collective leadership failure with attendant widespread disorder and unease in the land. Our Emirs, Obas and Obis cannot continue to cheapen the stools by being led by their appetites, self-serving, beggarly or even exploitative and expect higher regards or relevance. They can earn it by playing very significant foundational roles in restoration of good values and stimulate sustainable development. It is theirs to keep refining the cultural heritage in line with contemporary needs. Instead of rather denigrating appendage to politicians, the monarchs are better off as checks and balances of political authorities and abuses. The onus is theirs to keep elected officeholders on their toes, to serve the people, or the victims of bad leadership, conscientiously. A modern king who achieves prosperity for his domain in this lifetime will not be forgotten. He shall earn a place among his ancestors and his traducers never go unpunished.