The earlier we admit this to ourselves the better it is for us to make our so-called republic worth the while. Recently, a ranking of Yoruba monarchs stirred a little unease in some quarters. The Alake of Egbaland, Oba Adedotun Gbadebo, unveiled the hierarchy from his own point of view. He said the Ooni of Ife was numero uno, followed by the Alafin of Oyo and Oba of Benin respectively.
In a brilliant but characteristically unwieldy rebuttal, Odia Ofeimun harks back home and anoints the Oba of Benin on the prime spot. Ofeimun begins by disavowing any fidelity to kings, and apes the chic fashion of calling oneself a republican.
I am not interested in the hierarchy. But neither am I happy with the slaughter of kings. By the way, that phrase comes from the Bible where Abraham makes mincemeat of pagan kings.
Since the British slaughtered our kings metaphorically to make Nigeria a colony, we have pretended to have outgrown them. But the wise among us know better. So, they engage the royals. We can recall the recent spat between Oyo State Governor, Abiola Ajimobi and the Olubadan-in-council over the elevation of the irritant Ladoja and other chiefs without regards to due process.
It was billed as a standoff of two antipodal worlds. Modern versus ancient, republican versus royalist, bureaucratic versus traditional, the past versus the future, indigenous versus foreign.
But the cards lay in the governor’s hands. The law gives him the power. He held his grounds. But some elders pitched in and they both etched peace and ended the furore. That was principally because the governor understood the intricacy of traditional mores. The matter was resolved with the understanding that their elevations held as long as they provided documents of their medical and security screening.
Gov. Ajimobi showed a hand of cultural nuance and maturity rather than a modern radical in power. He did not act like President Kongi in Soyinka’s bleak play Kongi’s Harvest, who places the king under lock and key.
But not long after, Ibadan tells us another story. The Olubadan dies and a transition beckons. But not to worry. There will be no night of long knives dripping with intrigues and backstabbing. No dark horses emerging, no permutations, no politicking, no underhand manoeuvres. Forget the tale of bribery from a chief. The rules shun the stealth of filthy lucre.
Ibadan has a smooth transition. The successor is known and he will step right on the throne of the fathers once all rites are fulfilled. Yet Ibadan history is rooted in the republican principle. Founded on a highland, it gathered migrants from the wars bursting all over Yorubaland. The new citizens made themselves a new society with kings not based on the old ways. It was a town of generals. The men who rose were not of the royal blood line. They were swordsmen who shed blood for the new land. The Ogunmolas and Latosas earned their epaulets by gallantry.
But the society has not ended up a democracy, but a feudal redoubt. That’s the irony. It is like Igboland, where kings are nothing, but it blends republican ethos with social rules that invoke a feudal milieu. In Ibadan, it is a sort of gerontocracy, where the oldest becomes king. It works and our politicians have called for a politics where rules work, not chaos. Not the power of the strong man. In Ibadan, they teach us the supremacy of the rule of law.
Unlike our politics where a transition leads to fear and trembling, and where in some kingdoms heads roll, Ibadan is easy. The departed Olubadan embodied the full persona of Nigerian power, and Gov. Ajimobi serenaded him as a soldier, politician, bureaucrat, king.
All of that is in us. We may say we are no royalists. But we show it everyday. We bow to the elder. In Urhoboland, the younger says migwo, (I am on my knees) to the older person. The Onyisi syndrome is alive and well in Igboland. The Yoruba still gleefully prostrate. In weddings, a 30-year-old suitor prostrates to a two-year-old in-law, at least in theory. The baba gan refrain riffs through the culture.Ranka dede, a northern term of obsequious subordination, only became temporarily antiquated in the last election cycle when Buhari’s fans chanted Sai Baba.
The top of all obeisance lies in the throne. It is the apex court of genuflection. It is only the king that cannot bow, a taboo that Soyinka hints at with revulsion in Kongi’s Harvest.
In my first visit to the United Kingdom, a hotel hand was cross at me for ruffling a British currency note with the picture of the queen. Oliver Cromwell who presided over the killing of Charles 1 was not bold enough to decree a farewell to the monarchy. Part of the sanity of the British democracy comes from the stabilising awe of royalty.
For all his republican craving, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself king in Rome and his seductress and wife Josephine as queen. In the United States, we see the appetite of royalty. Once, the Kennedy family was their unofficial royalty. In their absence, we have all forms of royalty, high like the imperfect Bush family, or low like the Kardashians. It is probably the reason America is the celebrity capital. As men seek gods, societies seek kings and princes. In fact, some Americans wanted George Washington to be crowned king. Others wanted him to reign as president till death. It is not for nothing that this celebrity fascination has drowned the world. In his novel, The Prince and the Pauper, Mark Twain, an American, emphasised the integrity of royalty by showing that a prince could never act as a pauper, or vice versa.
In Yorubaland, a saying goes thus, “we cannot serve the father and also the son.” That has been used with the Awo clan. That is probably reinforced because the palaces in Yorubaland still retain a certain grandeur. We were all witnesses to President Jonathan’s peripatetic folly of begging about the palaces of the Southwest.
I know many who say bad things about royalty in a democracy. If, for instance, chieftaincy titles were stopped, they would be the first to cry foul.
Rather than disavow royalty, we should learn how to make it work. We already have it in the way we organise our families, villages, local government, politics, business, etc. Rather than deny, let us explore it and make something out of it as Governor Ajimobi did. We may devise a new society and ideology from it. Just maybe. We may call it royal democracy. As we have social democrats, Christian democrats, etc, we may have royal democrats. Rather than savage the kings, we could salvage a system.