By Tatalo Alamu
The king is dead, long live the king! This paradoxical formulation all but summarizes the acute existential dilemma of all people with kings. For such people, the death of kings is not a funny matter at all. It is a terrible disaster. It portends chaos and millennial disorder. It is a radical disruption of the sacred order of being; the reign of anarchy. Things fall apart indeed and the centre can no longer hold.
So therefore for these people, the king cannot and in fact must not die. As the sacred and supreme law-giver of the tribe, the king cannot die just like that. As the father and protector of the tribe, the death of the king provokes a sense of panic and a feeling of acute helplessness and vulnerability. The people feel naked.
Who will now defend them against the cruel marauders from across the great rivers and the mighty mountains? Who will shield them from the fiery swords of sworn enemies and the outrageous arrows and slings of fortune? Who will take their propitiatory offerings to angry ancestors? And who will save them from themselves?
Far away from home, and in bitter captivity, the ancient people of Israel remembered their king:
By the Rivers of Babylon, where we sat down
And then we wailed, when we remember Zion
For the wicked carried us away in captivity
And required from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?
For people of kings, the mystery-shrouded disappearance of a particular king after the end of his golden tenure this side of the abyss of transition is but a minor coitus interruptus in a long and intense copulation between the ruled and their ruler. It is romance. It is a labour of love and affection. In the absence of pressing contenders, death itself is magically transformed into a stout ally of the ruling class; the principal Praetorian guard of the sacred order of divination and secular divinity.
The king does not die. He can only magically transit to the other side in a world of continuity and contiguous reality between the living and the dead. When this great ritual of royal disappearance is managed very well by the crack custodians of the commonwealth, the great sages and savants of the traditional society, it is a seamless and painless transition. But when it is not, it is Anubis resurgence. The world shakes with stress and distress.
Time, however, has proved the greatest enemy of the old order and its ruling classes. In Africa after they have failed to shake off a particularly vicious post-colonial sovereign, they often leave things to inevitable death, better known as a biological coup d’etat. For example, in Zimbabwe they are all reconciled to the fact that the old Wizard of Harare might be around for quite some time. Human agency is eventually put in the shade by human ageing.
It is obvious that the ancient framers of the Yoruba constitution and its kingly passage never reckoned with the passage of Time itself and the colonial irruption which abridged the power of traditional authority. Neither could they have bargained for globalization and its dire consequences, particularly the virtual abolition of time and space and the eruption of global means of communication which subvert and undermine the power of modern states not to talk of traditional kingdoms.
This past week, the Yoruba people of Nigeria experienced what is it like to be caught in the whizzing whirlpool of the unequal contest between tradition and modernity and the ceaseless surveillance which often leaves the state better surveiled than it is capable of surveilling its own citizens and better electronically patrolled than it is capable of electronically patrolling its determined denizens. It is an epic confrontation on the scale of Things Fall Apart and Death and the King’s Horseman.
But this time around, it was not canons and maxim guns booming but computers bleeping and sophisticated phones flashing. Satanic twitters and tweets abound. The pressing and ever present conflict between modernity and unsecured tradition always leave the latter holding the wrong end of the stick. This is even more so in an inchoate multi-national nation like Nigeria without an overriding national ethos.
On Monday evening, snooper began picking some unusual vibes and signals from the international tell-tale circuits. The global electronic eavesdropping commune began converging like virtual vultures. The heavy hints all led towards one conclusion: something unusual was happening or about to happen in the principal House of Oodua. A caller asked yours sincerely to investigate from local sources, but the columnist quickly met a brick wall or got gnomic evasions for answer.
A few days earlier, snooper had stumbled on the information that the Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade, had been flown abroad in an air ambulance following serious medical developments which could not be readily accommodated in any Nigerian hospital. This information was considered to be too politically sensitive to be inflicted on the public. In any case, it is believed that among Yoruba royalty, deliberate orchestration of death or its brutal proximity is part of an elaborate ritual of life enlongation. Buyers beware.
When snooper reported back to the person who had initiated the original inquiry, he was told to forget it because the great Iroko fell a few minutes earlier. After a brief silence only punctuated by pained sighs, the person requested for an immediate adjournment of conversation. Yours sincerely spent the next hour listlessly roaming around the house. Then at about 11.30pm, a phone call came through which all but confirmed developments. If he was still in doubt, snooper was admonished by the caller, the news was already on the facebook. That did it.
Thirty six years earlier when the last Ooni, Sir Adesoji Tadeniawo Aderemi, joined his ancestors, the forces of globalization were yet to take firm roots. There was no viable internet, no gsm, no bb, not to talk of facebook, twitter,hashtag and all what not. The royal transition was superbly choreographed, with early warning signals and coded palace-speak.
The world has since become one vast cyber Kibbutz. One pin drop from one end of the globe instantly registers in another part thousands of miles away. The first sign of defeat for tradition was the very moment the Ooni was taken out of his palace for medical rehabilitation in a land thousands of miles away from home. That sealed the route for a quiet return to the palace in whatever form and turns the royal translation into the first publicly enacted departure of a major sovereign .
The following day after most national dailies had broken the news of the passing, Ife palace chiefs rallied valiantly by insisting that it was all a rumour, drawing attention to and sustenance from similar mischief in the past. But a few hours later, Saharareporters, the impish and irreverent on-line news service, swiftly countermanded this by insisting that the king had truly departed. A day after, a major daily reported the Nigerian High Commissioner in England paying a condolence visit to the family of the monarch.
There are important lessons to be learnt from this remarkable encounter between the old order and rampart forces of the new world. You cannot argue with an earthquake or remonstrate with its scalding and molten lava. In the unending and ceaseless confrontation between globalizing modernity and the forces of tradition, wise societies and sober nations negotiate their own terms of entry and accommodation.
This is what Singapore, Japan, India and the Asian Tigers did and is what China is doing. This what Russia did politically and militarily but not economically. This is what the heroic Cubans did after a tense half a century face off. You must never allow yourself to be frog-marched and dragooned to modernity. The failure of Nigeria to live up to its billing often shows up in dramatic and expected ways. The irresponsibility of our ruling class haunts us and hunts them in a way and manner we can never foresee.
When you shortchange others, you also shortchange yourself. Had we used a fraction of the money stolen to build good roads, many lives, including our traditional rulers often slaughtered like propitiatory rams on our high ways, could have been saved. Had we built world class hospitals, there would have been no need to airlift our revered monarch abroad in the first instance and the notable Yoruba culture and tradition might have been spared a humiliating encounter with the rampaging forces of unrelenting modernity.
So, did our great father, the Alase ikeji orisa and Arole Oodua die on Monday? No, no, the king did not die and the king cannot die. But when we allow modernity to trump tradition through our careless greed and gluttony, the kingship institution suffers a near fatal wound. May the throne of Oduduwa survive for many more epochs.
- This Best Outside Opinion was written by Tatalo Alamu/The Nation