By Lasisi Olagunju
A month from now, it will be over for the year 2021; a new year will be born. The Bantu people say the road does not tell the traveller what lies ahead. Is that also true here? I do not think so. We have trodden this crooked road long enough to know its offerings. Politicians whose sweet tenures end in 2023 are already struggling with the hands of the clock. They think the days are no longer long as before. They feel Time is moving rather too fast; they ask the day to slow down a bit. Those in dawdling power want to ‘hold’ their privileges forever – even if birds no longer chirp like birds. Sit-tight stragglers are in charge. Deathly abductions may keep tainting everywhere; banditry on Kaduna-Abuja Road may be routine as we saw last week; petrol per litre may sell for a million naira; a bowl of garri may cost a bar of gold. Who cares? The only song in power circles now is about the next election, about 2023, and its allure of juicy autocracy. Who runs, who wins, who eats what, and to what extent? That is our elites’ understanding of democracy.
Thomas Jefferson, author of America’s Declaration of Independence, has a beautiful definition of the reason for government. He said, “the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.” Experience, he warned, “hath shown that even under the best forms of government, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” Now, what is life? What is happiness? At what point does democracy become tyranny, and why would air become so poisoned for the people? You heard them last week; the price of petrol may go up in 2022. In its place, 40 million poor people will be paid N5,000 monthly. Nothing more. That is the worth of each soul pigeon-holed as wretched. How about the remaining 60 million poor people? Or, has our president not repeatedly told us he would lift a hundred million Nigerians out of poverty? Why is it difficult for those ruling us to know that the ordinary man deserves life and happiness in their ordinary meanings? Or, rather, why would a band of politicians be the sole definer of what happiness means and the extent of that happiness the people should enjoy?
This year, like last year, has very wry smiles for the poor; next year may be drier. Even the poorly rich who thought they stood on solid ground are wobbling. Those who toil day and night are dying in misery as if indolence is all they breathe (Sisé sisé dàbí òle). And there is a regime in power drawing benefits. It is painful. How long should a bad government last? In a monarchy, it is long live the king; democracy sings the very opposite of Kabiyesi lyrics. Keeping thrones is the reason politicians wished our democracy were a monarchy which has no end of tenure. And they are working very hard at making and burning the effigy of freedom. They will fail. Our cross-road does not dread sacrifices. We will bolster the light and fight the darkness. We know that today’s ‘democrats’ see role models in untenured kings. They want to rule forever even if their reigns are a curse to their people. There are countless kings of that colour in history. One of them is Herod, King of Judea. Some historians have him as Herod the Great; all the Abrahamic religions recognize him as King Herod who lived between 74 and 4 BC. After struggling in vain to be king till eternity, Herod saw his reign, in its stark ugliness, coming to an end. He didn’t like what was coming but he was the king, he could always find a way around everything bad. He knew that the people loathed and despised him and would dance on his grave. It must not happen. He thought of imprisoning and killing all elites in all villages. He felt that would save him from the vile verdict of the people which was awaiting him at death. He gathered all men of stature everywhere in Judea and locked them up. Then he told his sister, Salome: “I know the Jews will greet my death with wild rejoicings; but I can be … sure of a magnificent funeral if you will do as I tell you. These men under guard — as soon as I die, kill them all….” The lady nodded. But at his death, his sister ditched him and his orders; she released the prisoners as her own positive contribution to history. First, the people rejoiced at the king’s death; then revolts and rebellions followed. That is the record of ancient historian, Josephus, who lived between A.D. 37 and 100.
Like Herod, politicians who build infrastructure of violence and suffering for their people have a date with history. Today’s men of power maim, jail and even kill ‘enemies’ and go on air to say no one died. They have so much to learn from Herod and his after-power. I quoted Thomas Jefferson above. The people’s welfare and wellbeing are the reason why governments exist. Building gold castles and elephantine fancies while bandits reign and the people die of hunger cannot be good governance. Nigerian politicians plunge the nation into debts to build temples for their temptations; they borrow and spend tomorrow’s money on today’s madness. They build fanciful hills and mountains of nothing in crave of the people’s applause. But it doesn’t work like that. As king of Judea, Herod also invested heavily in building and rebuilding the cities under him. History says he built very many great things but neglected the human content of politics and policies. He erected buildings while his people bled. Geza Vermes, late professor emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, wrote in his ‘The True Herod’ that “without a doubt Herod was the greatest builder in the Holy Land, planning and overseeing the execution of palaces, fortresses, theatres, amphitheatres, harbours and the entire city of Caesarea, and to crown them all, he organized the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem…” If he were the king of today’s Nigeria, liars would celebrate Herod online and offline as the Architect of Modern Nigeria. But history has its own standards, and they are pro-life and pro-people. And so, Herod is recorded as a villain; he was a murderer who violently put down dissent, ordered and supervised the killing of many, including his own wife and children – all because he had power and wanted to permanently keep his throne of privilege.
Democracy kills, especially the Kabiyesi model that we practise. A beauty contest for monkeys is an insult to elegance. That is what liars do to us for this regime of ugliness. They tell us this ugly incumbent monkey is more beautiful than the others. There is so much suffering in town but the Herods in government say they’ve done well and we should be proud of their feat. They are Kabiyesi, they are above query; they listen only to the lies and liars in their lives. They are lost; the wisdom in the voice of the people’s silence makes no meaning to them. If the world is deceiving you, never deceive yourself. There is a King Canute in English folklore whose story teaches today’s powerful to ‘repent in dust and ashes’ and embrace truth. In a copy-and-paste manner, I am reproducing the story here as told by the folklorist, James Baldwin, in his ‘Fifty Famous Stories Retold’. It was first published in 1896. The compelling story of that king is here:
The great men and officers who were around King Canute were always praising him.
“You are the greatest man that ever lived,” one would say.
Then another would say, “O king! there can never be another man so mighty as you.”
And another would say, “Great Canute, there is nothing in the world that dares to disobey you.”
The king was a man of sense, and he grew very tired of hearing such foolish speeches.
One day he was by the seashore, and his officers were with him. They were praising him, as they were in the habit of doing. He thought that now he would teach them a lesson, and so he bade them set his chair on the beach close by the edge of the water.
“Am I the greatest man in the world?” he asked.
“O king!” they cried, “there is no one so mighty as you.”
“Do all things obey me?” he asked.
“There is nothing that dares to disobey you, O king!” they said. “The world bows before you, and gives you honor.”
“Will the sea obey me?” he asked; and he looked down at the little waves which were lapping the sand at his feet.
The foolish officers were puzzled, but they did not dare to say “No.”
“Command it, O king! and it will obey,” said one.
“Sea,” cried Canute, “I command you to come no farther! Waves, stop your rolling, and do not dare to touch my feet!”
But the tide came in, just as it always did. The water rose higher and higher. It came up around the king’s chair, and wet not only his feet, but also his robe. His officers stood about him, alarmed, and wondering whether he was not mad.
Then Canute took off his crown, and threw it down upon the sand.
“I shall never wear it again,” he said. “And do you, my men, learn a lesson from what you have seen. There is only one King who is all-powerful; and it is he who rules the sea, and holds the ocean in the hollow of his hand. It is he whom you ought to praise and serve above all others.” End of story.
Herod worked hard but he was not a Canute who knew he was not God. That is the reason for Herod’s debit entry in the balance sheet of history. The wisdom in the above tale is missing too in Nigeria. The people are hungry, they are angry, they are sad and tired of everything. Those who have the wings to fly are jumping out of Nigeria; those who can’t run are weighing all sorts of desperate options. But dark-hearted, drunk courtiers are everywhere declaring our president, our governors and governments and the parties in power as the very best since 1914. The lie-tellers know the truth but they must eat. They know that truth never gives food in the court of the Nigerian king. Liars clothe naked sovereigns with velvet of lies. Sometimes, they win; always, the king loses.
A book of MONDAY LINES, the first in a series of ten books of essays, should be ready this week. It is to mark the first ten years of this column. My publishers are working hard to beat the November 30 deadline we agreed on. There will be updates on this. I thank you all for the encouragement and love.