It’s the sound of a new morning, heralded by the cock-crow. The day is in its pure youth and expectations were high for the ‘BullsEye radio programme’ anchored by its Archer Edmund Obilo. For the natives of Ibadan, Edmund’s programme has become like the morning sunlight streaming through our windows, illuminating our political landscapes as a voice of reason and highlighting dark areas of governance. Today’s edition promised to be sensational; a serving honourable of the house of representatives in response to a previous interview called the Alaafin (a revered traditional ruler) ‘a criminal’ with all confidence. I salivated to hear the background story of this tasty interview after several promo excerpts got my attention.
Alas, it was barred from airing! The town criers crushed my hope announcing (without vetting programme content,) that the interview was ‘disrespectful, and also condemnable to our traditional institution and value’. The Alaafin was sacred, revered and must not be tarnished even at the expense of justice and accountability. Our dear radio journalist became the scapegoat; under fire with the politics of trivialities. Like the journalist in Kongi’s harvest, he is a watchdog that should only bark at selected humans; he is either compliant or he is expelled from the kingdom.
I was hopeful that through that interview, I can indeed boast that we are progressing towards the exercise of social equality, respect of freedom of speech and human right which invariably serves as critical indicators of true democracy. My dashed hope, called for more reflection and questioning. In that politically motivated act, I am reminded that though our traditional rulers may be modelling costumes and customs and thriving outside of time, they are not just a museum piece. I am also left to consider the fabric of our political landscape with fragmented system of governance that recognises the conflicting values of traditional leadership and modern state governance. As we strive to establish enduring political system, how much room does the immunity shield we give to traditional monarch institutions allow for the true practice of rule of law? Just in the thick of my reflection, the rhythm of my thought reminds me that we are still in the season of Kongi’s harvest.
Written in 1965, Kongi’s harvest by our dear Wole Soyinka is a tough but sweet drama, reflecting Nigeria’s political trails, highlighting the fact that democracy may remain a pseudonym of the traditional system of governance, and at worse a phantom. The Nobelist was at his best here allowing room for readers to discover their own meaning engaging the spirit of this book. He presents a raillery of the engineering of our political system, sadly considering our political trajectories, we remain stung by this mockery.
Deposed Oba Dondola harasses the national sanctity of President Kongi’s democratic leadership which disbanded his conclave of elders and arrested him. Oba Dandola desecrates the national flag taken from a flagpole, making of it an under-wrapper worn beneath his Agbada. He is soon stripped of it, leaving him struggling to cover his semi-nudity. Oba Dondodola is projected as lacking respect for constituted authority. But where there are two relevant authorities (the traditional and the modern), how do we negotiate what power prevails at a time? The existence of this conflicting dualism that forms the kernel of our political structure, hampers good judgement.
This book of drama, presents a ridicule of the Western style of governance and the dilemmas of transition. Here, the old order changeth, there are more democratic princes with the intent of creating an image of a youthful elders of the state, a conclave of modern patriarch replacing the disbanded ones. We are given an impression of change in governance where there is none.
At the core of the conflict is President Kongi’s new vision to harmonize and replace the old institutionally structured festival with a state ceremony governed by the principle of enlightened ritualism. To achieve this, the traditional institution ruled by retrogressive autocrats will have to be more ceremonial and less relevant to power like a masquerade without spirit or substance. A public display of the final transition was necessary and crafted into the planned harvest festival of which President Kongi must preside as the spirit of the harvest in pursuance of his Five years development plan. President Kongi insists that Oba Dondola must bring to him the New Yam with his own hands as performance of customary spiritual functions. Oba Dondola the reactionary leader is resistant and difficult to break with all forms of appeasement. He was not willing to give up the last thread of relevance in that singular public act that will symbolize the supremacy of the state power over their traditional spaces and authority.
The drama Kongi’s harvest tells of the pathway that led democracy to become more vibrant, commanding greater legitimacy than the traditional autocratic systems. It cleverly advances that despite their waning powers, the relevance of the traditional rulers and their power is not to be shaken off as a man brushes off cobweb. The intrigues of politics were at its best in this book, portraying the dilemmas of change and power relations. This conflict and struggle for relevance continues even in modern governance.
Arguments on the role and relevance of traditional ruler remain in contest within the terrains of political discourses. Some people percieve them as symbols of natural governance, custodians of native customs, as spiritual fathers and an enduring part of a people’s heritage. Despite their waning influence of power, these perspectives of them had given them some constitutional relevance. Traditional rulers in African countries for example, still hold power over substantial economic and financial resources like land and forestry.
Globally, homogeneous and culturally diverse country’s model of governance still allows roles for traditional rulers designated with numerous nomenclatures. Considering the architecture of national population where more people are rural based, these traditional institution seem normative and this has further enhanced their resilience.
For contemporary thinkers, traditional rulers are but relics that don’t glitter any more as they belong to antiquity. With a closed and orchestrated model of leadership entrenched in patriarchy, a succession structure that happens by ascription in place of popular election, it promotes supremacy of one man lording over the affairs of all. Their shielded style of leadership has been noted to be an instrument of oppression and capitalism, aiding and abetting all sorts of crimes and corruption. In the past, their weak leaderships notably gave way to colonialism, slave trade and all forms of exploitation that continues to define the fabric of the black man, endowing us with turbulent history. Their dwindling prestige tells that they must exist outside of present times and operate outside the formal structures of modern state power.
To abolish or not; these arguments persist. But we must remember that bad leadership is bad leadership, whether it clads military uniform, traditional regalia or civilian attire. I have no problem with the existence of traditional political leaders who exercise political power at ethnic or sub-ethnic level. As long as customary laws exist and have relevance, traditional political leaders will thrive. But in seeking constitutional relevance and also interfering in democratic processes of state power as is the case in Nigeria, there is inherent complexities.
In a nation’s struggle to establish a strong democratic system, what conflicts does the values of autocracy underpinning the traditional institution present? How relevant are their undemocratic values to the exercise of accountability, transparency, free speech, public debates, partisanship and elections, all of which are critical to true democracy? How can this be recreated within the fabric of existing political systems?
The season of Kongi’s harvests that promotes fragmented governance and structures which privileges traditional political leaders with some sacredness to perpetuate injustice must now end. I contend that, whether within or outside the hinterlands, traditional leaders who seek or have constitutional relevance must not be endorsed to sacredly disobey rule of law or be insulated from justice. They have no right to interfere in democratic processes if they will not be governed by it. In the era of growing social change,we must all thrive within the framework of constitutional democracy. Against the backdrop of the suspension of democratic interventions like the ‘Bulls Eye Radio programme’, traditional institutions must learn to submit to known standards of scrutiny and accountability, understanding that in democracy, it is the people that decide. This is instructive in engineering true democracy.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye
Efua Sutherland’s ‘The Marriage of Anansewa’ is a well-crafted drama with hints of folk-tale, littered with amusing scenes that will make you reflect on traditions and their loopholes. Considering its thematic unity, this book could have been titled ‘The Bride Price’ as it projects the whole politics of the bride token.
Soaked up in the culture of consumerism, crafty Mr. George K. Ananse, uses emotional blackmail to initiate his daughter Anansewa into his plan of auctioning her by exploiting aspiring suitors. 20yrs old Anansewa has been out of school for lack of fees, she acknowledges that the burden of her need is on her father. Hence he identifies and capitalizes on her need for education to manipulate her. Anansewa is subtly pressured by her father to go behind the camera for a click. Ananse then goes on a tour, covering miles with different postured pictures of Anansewa to market her. Reluctant but helpless Anansewa speaks:
‘…Oh, my Father is selling me, he is selling me…I will not let you sell me like some parcel to a customer, I will select my lover myself, I will not take part in any photograph engagement’.
Secretarial education was the carrot Ananse dangled to Anansewa, symbolized in the overpriced typewriter he gives her. Yet beneath all these, Ananse aims to fulfil his ridiculous ambition, and Anansewa’s marriage was a means to his successful ending. The metrics of success for Ananse, was him resting his bones on a bouncy dunlopillo, attending burials in fine clothes, making open donations in church inside the gleaming collection plate, and finally being buried in a coffin drawn in a private hearse, and not the municipal.
Ananse has good knowledge of the traditions and the loopholes therein, hence he exploited it. Until a suitor’s bride price is accepted, and the head-drink ceremony is conducted, he cannot be given the privilege of a husband. Hence any appeasement suitors do is considered a gift with no emotional invoice; it is unaccounted for. He knows his daughter Anansewa can be married to only one man despite his enticing so many rich suitors, so he builds a net of competition for intending suitors to pay their way with gifts.
In an intricate way, Ananse exploited the laid down procedures for establishing a marriage, using it as a means of securing upkeep for himself. One is lured to read through the drama to understand how he extricates his self from the pending conflicts of his greed. With the help of Christie his girlfriend, Ananse eventually fakes his daughter’s death, using her resurrection as a selector of husband from the many chiefs he exploited.
‘The Marriage of Anansewa’ is another work of fiction that focuses on the marriage market framework, expressing marriage as a strong polarizer. Ananse showcases for us the politics and economics of the bride price, an extensive phenomenon that has continued to be executed in an organised way in many societies.
In social development, the concept of payment between families at wedding is sensational especially amongst activists who explore the practices and its impact. Be it is the groom price (dowry) paid to the groom’s family or the bride price token paid to the bride’s family, or the dower, all of these have over the years become an integral part of marriages. Steeped in the traditions of most African and Asian culture, these traditional rituals have been explained with different understanding. Some consider the price as the purchase cost of a wife; paying for her nurturing from birth, her mother’s breast milk, her education among others. Others consider the bride token of jewellery, furniture, and livestock among others received as a proof that a bride will be well catered for by the groom. Another group finds it a deterrent for divorce or desiring polygamy, while others find it as an element of marriage entertainmentas expressed in the new app at www.brideprice.com.ng
Many hypothesis hover over this seemingly sexist practice. People advocate for it because it gives economic value to a woman as payment is made in exchange for her family’s loss of her labour and fertility among her kin. Others claim that the dowry paid to the groom is a way of supporting the newly wed to establish their household. But the arguments many put up against the dowry system is; why should a woman’s family give money and gifts to a husband’s family when they are already giving their daughter?
Advocates argue that these transfer of valued gifts and payment between families at the time of marriage contributes to the subjugation and objectification of women. The prices are weighed to appreciate the woman’s agricultural labour value, educational qualifications, and family pedigree, amongst others. Be it as it may, this payment phenomenon has become a major factor triggering marriage anomalies; rather than strengthen marriages, it has caused an increase in violence against women. Often conceptualized as ‘Dowry Violence’, this act is perpetrated by husbands or in-laws intending to extort a bride’s family of more dowry price when the years of marriage has nibbled away the significance of the paid price. Fuelled by the rising culture of consumerism, their greed is expressed in sexual, physical and mental violence against the woman.
When Efua Sutherland published the ‘Marriage of Anansewa’ in 1975, it may have reflected another form of violence or abuse; emotional abuse. But bride price oriented violence has indeed grown. Female infanticide and Bride burning now exists; many women are driven to suicide, discouraged to seek divorce, suffer marriage squeeze and most of them become victim of dowry death. Dowry harassment remains a visible phenomenon in India, despite its being outlawed since 1961; it’s quite under-reported as the laws are not enforced. India’s government National Crime Bureau reports approximately 6,000 dowry deaths annually.
While the dowry and bride price may not be converse, their impacts are related. Stephanie Sinclair’s photo video ‘The Bride Price: Consequences of Child Marriage Worldwide’ includes compelling images of child brides in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and India. Most of them are married off to settle inter-family financial dispute. In Africa, a disturbing but prevailing attitude remains that when you have paid a price for a wife, she becomes your property.
The fact that some culture practices the two blurs distinctions between bride-price and dowry. Arguments persist on whether a bride price or dowry should exist or not, and should it be a refundable gift? The MIFUMI Project has worked extensively in African country, Uganda especially, seeking litigations to rule that the practice of bride price is un-constitutional. In Thailand it is called Sin Sod, southern Africa is lobolo, in my culture it is called Ego nwanyi.
All of these appreciations in different languages go to say how widespread and deeply entrenched this practice is in cultural processes of establishing marriages. Banning such practices may be to some people as being anti-cultural and against valued cultural practices which may represent a way of promoting friendly courtesy, hospitality and alliance between kinship groups.
Considering welfare impacts of marriage payments, women are disadvantaged. While the arguments persist on the abolishment of payment during marriage, perhaps we may consider a value shift also that will help such cultural exchanges become a stronger deterrent, and more so, a source of security for many women who walk in and also out of marriages with nothing. My argument is; can people begin to consider structuring a price or agreement that will protect all partners during and maybe after the marriage? Can we consider something in line with the Islamic bride gift of Mahr that should be given to a bride not at the consummation of their marriage, but at the end of a marriage partnership? Considering persistent economic disadvantages women suffer as a result of unpaid labour, can we focus more on divorce settlement where the woman is compensated when the marriage being her major form of social security fails? This I believe will have implication in securing marriages and also give more social security benefits to women especially in developing countries where wedding payments prevail as deterrents but yet its speedily failing to hold power.
Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye