I wonder what the British colonialists would say today. Better still, if I exhume the partisan bones of the Aba Women’s Riots of 1929, I would seek their opinions about the wave of imperialist Ezes. In the past few years, Ezes are cropping up outside Igboland.
It has raked up controversy around the country. In some parts, it has raised a mild dust. In others, the dust swirls have blinded some eyes like prejudice. At present, it is in Akure, where the locals or Yoruba are charging the Igbo of creating a parallel king. It makes Akure a two-kinged town. One crowns the son of the soil, the other an interloper royal.
During the last gubernatorial election in Lagos State, it proved to be such a pest that it provoked the top Lagos king to evoke a tempest in the lagoon.
This hubbub is out of sync with the long-held view that the king has no value for the Igbo. They run a republican milieu where individual enterprise trumps communitarian virtue. Hence when the white man came after “pacifying” the natives, he decided to introduce a peculiar and self-serving administrative style dubiously called “indirect rule.”
The sapience of Professor Tunji Oloruntimehin challenged our colonised historicism and demonstrated that it was not indirect rule. The use of the word “indirect” was a ploy by the British to decorate their primitive system of over-lordship with the halo of humane detachment. Our historians fell for the bait.
So, as they would have us believe, it was not the British who ruled but the existing institutions. They merely interacted with the heads of the kingdoms, extracted taxes and levies, vilified their customs, humiliated their gods, changed their ways of life, scorched rebellions, despatched the upstarts like Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart.
Of course, if they were ruling indirectly, did they defeat the kingdoms indirectly? They pummelled the kingdoms with superior firepower and with the furious servitude of local fighters called the West African Frontier Force and Senegalese Sharp Shooters. After defeating the kingdoms, they claimed to introduce an indirect rule? Professor Oloruntimehin’s thesis is vindicated by the resistance in Igbo land who had no kings.
The Igbo example exposed the hypocrisy of the British moral subterfuge. If they wanted the locals to take care of themselves, how come their appointment of warrant chiefs roiled the East? Buoyed with colonial power, the warrant chiefs puffed like kings and wrung their “subjects” with the will of a foreign kingdom and a foreign god.
That is the irony we see today with the Ezes. In the East, chiefs are mere ciphers. Outside, they are becoming not just kings but, in a way of speaking, shadows of imaginary emperors. They act as though conquering monarchs. They are misnomers of a vassal chief who represent an emperor in the capital. But there is no Igbo capital, and no Igbo king. They take a sliver of the physical swath of another king’s territory. They carve up, though informally, areas where many of them live, and appropriate it. But the more potent threat is psychological. The real Igbo know that they mean nothing in actual sense back home. But when they are factored into the politics outside, they become substantial. They are republicans at home. But abroad, they become royalists.
That was the story of Lagos State during the last election. Jimi Agbaje rode the crest of the royalist mimicry in a democracy in a cynical quest for power. It became so heated in the last election that those PDP fellows, who ran local elections, whether for the House of Representatives or the House of Assembly, saw themselves as ambassadors of ethnic virtue. They ignore their rudimentary mission as glorious errand men of the community with all the ethnic mix.
Even when Lord Bourdillon in the Constitution early in the 20th century enacted the House of Chiefs, it was to recognise the historical role of the institution as a buffer of democracy. Not in the sense in which a king is artificially concocted for insular gains. Even today, we recognise traditional institutions because we emote over it. It is not rational choice, but an emotional tug. As Oscar Wilde says, we are not rational beings but sentimental.
It is little paradox that when Nnamdi Kanu and his men are pursuing a xenophobic Biafra, the Ezes are pushing the other way. It was just like the Ojukwu contradiction of declaring independent Biafra and still pushing to take over Lagos. They portray the nation the way Poet Whitman called America: “Do I contradict myself; yes I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Or the presidential candidate George McGovern who framed his campaign in the 1960’s to caution American imperialist impulse: “Come Home, America.”
One big feature of this phenomenon is that we are finding it difficult to let monarchy cohabit with republicanism. Yes, we have chiefs everywhere. The vanity is palpable. Succeed as a politician, or businessman, even in the more rarefied area of intellectual pursuit, and your fulfilment rings hollow until you are called a chief, especially with a sonorous title.
The mimicry of chieftaincy’s glorious past was unveiled in the last election when former President Jonathan hopped from palace to palace in the Southwest for the ‘whip’ of anointing. The British have lived with democracy and royalty. No clash, but mutual embrace. We deceive ourselves that the royals are in decline. But more and more accomplished men bow out of their cathedral offices to the crown of an antiquated honour. Symbol here trumps substance. But it is not all symbol. Some of the kings are contractors and power brokers, or so they are made to be. Just like Jonathan did, and failed. Some said, they helped him to make the presidential election close. No statistics yet on that.
When royals rub shoulder with the icons of democracy, they ultimately fail. That explains why the English monarchy maintains its humble grandeur as a ceremonial upper room in spite of the higher realms of Downing Street and Houses of Commons and Lords in shaping the nation’s course.
Napoleon Bonaparte pitted republicans against fighting royalists when the Corsican rascal took over not only France but much of Europe. The royalists could not abide their age-old system of entitlement and official nobility falling to ordinary persons. In spite of his victory, the Corsican brute is believed by the latest test on his hairs and historical research that revanchist royalists poisoned him with arsenic in St. Helena at the age of 52.
But royalists and royals do not belong in today’s world of individual élan and capitalist zest. The best form of royalty is excellence, not entitlement. As Gianni Versace, the fashion mogul, once put it: “In the past, people were born royal. Nowadays, royalty comes from what you do.” Versace was fashion royalty. Let us not focus on royalty as though they tell us what matters. They are a grand relic, artefacts of amusement.
Let us be royal mathematicians, royal moralists, royal governors, royal writers, royal scientists, etc. Let us be adjectival royals and forget the nouns. Or let us embrace the nouns only as metaphors of excellence.
Let us see the Ezes as unwarranted chiefs. They are fads of fancy and opportunism and desecrators of the originals back home. The royals who cannot be royals at home are counterfeits. They walk red carpets outside but are carpet baggers.
On royalty, Shakespeare said in Richard II: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm from an anointed king.” We should modernise that quote and give the balm to the high flyers in the professions and public service.