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