I can’t afford to die,” Thailand’s former King Bhumibol Adulyadej famously told his biographer, Bill Stevenson, who was peering into the frailty which age and ailments were imposing on the revolutionary king. The king’s people thought so too – he must not die. There must not be any talk about death and finality and succession in the palace. And indeed, under this king, the unofficial motto of his country was: ‘We love the king’. It was the famous phrase on all lips, on T-shirts, wristbands and Chinaware. But he died – finally, on October 13, 2016.
Ijebus of South-West Nigeria also love their present king, Oba Sikiru Adetona, the Awujale of Ijebuland. He earned the love, progressively, from his coronation on April 2, 1960 till date. And his people flaunt that love in flamboyant manners; many call him Orisa Ijebu – an attempt at deification which leaves outsiders to wonder what happens to the elevated stool after his reign. But the king is not leaving his townspeople to grapple with that question. He is answering it himself, his way.
Unlike the Thai king who “could not afford to die,” the Awujale said so much about death and succession at the 2019 edition of Ojude Oba, an annual sumptuous get-together of all nobles and commoners of his kingdom. He told them: “When I eventually go, please, go for a capable successor. Reject any candidate that will put Ijebuland into retrogression. Do not politicise the process of selecting my successor. Do not go for people that will draw Ijebu backwards. If the next ruling house does not present a viable candidate, please, reject him, and go for the next ruling house with capable candidate. Do not go for moneybags that will destroy the achievements Ijebuland has recorded so far.”
Can a king, really, be made without money spent? Some would insist that it is right there in Yoruba culture that thrones are meant to be purchased with kola nut. Or who is that Yoruba person who would say it is no longer true that omode ‘o j’obi, agba ‘o j’oye (if the youths are not fed with kola nut, the elderly cannot ascend the throne)? But it was not like that at the beginning when character was the sole currency that bought kingship. Decades of seismic value-shift have yanked off truth from palace and market diviners. The decision on who becomes the king now comes from shrines of crisp, crimson cash and from dark, rank politics.
Sometimes it works; the resultant king turns out ironically kingly in words, royal in acts and godly in conduct. Many times, however, we see the kola nut eaters over-chew so much that they not just lose the appealing innocence of their dentition, but they soil and sell the soul of their community to dark forces. They go for blood money and put mammon at the head of the table. Before the white man and his democracy, Yoruba towns had obas as next to divinity. They must rule well or leave, losing all. Then something snapped in the moral thread, and the weight of baskets of princely money started determining who ruled. So, if our democracy has become cash-and-carry today without any redeeming feature, it is because it is planted in the toxic soil of an off-the-counter monarchy.
We have seen this happen a repeatedly, and one is almost losing the hope that there will ever be a redeemed tomorrow of values. Which is why one was jolted and surprised to hear the Awujale tell his people to ‘shine their eyes’ – and minds, do what is right – and reject the moneyed devil when he is gone. His points are simple, clear and progressive. I wish we could make it our national mantra. The oba made those demands and his huge audience of townsmen and women, young and old, rich and poor, erupted in applause. But what could be going on in the minds of those whose duty it will be to do what Oba Adetona was demanding? Outward cheer, inner jeer or what? The oba spoke positive at a time of national decay; at this time when anything goes as long as cash – very cool cash – is involved. The oba’s six-point succession agenda sounded urgent and soul-searching. Unfortunately when the day arrives, the idealist won’t be around to implement his ideas.
It is deep when a king utters words about finality, ‘swansong’ of post-royalty. It can be ironic when a king waxes revolutionary. Revolutionaries are iconoclasts. They break icons and graven images – objects that exert worship from minions of power. An oba’s royalty is in the continuance of his and his clan’s advantage over their subjects – by all means. But the Awujale is here strongly recommending a future weaned of the negative usualnesses that ruin reigns and eras. The Awujale must have noticed, here and there, how an emergent pattern of desecration of thrones by moneyed pigs threatens a people’s history and future. Kingmakers routinely sell tomorrow on a platter of politics to the roundest swine; politicians pick and put drugged viceroys on thrones that do not belong to them. When the compound head preens his face with mucus of indignity, the people see and must not talk. It is called ari i gbodo wi. And because the people see and keep quiet, the nation goes rotten; becomes food fit only for vultures.
The Awujale was not talking to just his Ijebu people. He was speaking more to Nigeria and its traumatised existence. We run a democracy of what a cartoonist caricatured as ‘buy-partisan’ operatives and voters who sell posts to the highest bidder. We run in a system that dissembles ragged values beneath peacock feathers. The result of our dysfunctional democracy is the empowerment of the unworthy and the suffering of the hardworking. We have a huge population of the poor who work without getting paid; we have the powerful one per cent who get handsomely paid without working. We have lost a lot of grounds because we are in love with leaders who are in love with retrogression. We politicise everything, including our own happiness. We do not mind if leaders draw the land backwards as long as they drop something from their loot. We worship money and think it is enough to give good life.
A king does not ordinarily talk about his own permanent absence from the palace. We are told obas don’t really ever leave the sanctuary of power. They stay permanently in the palace rafters with other links to their relay race. When a monarch now speaks to his own impermanence and makes positive demands of his after-throne, he is subverting the potentate-ness of kingship, doing a step-down of the high tension cables of power to serve the people better. The choice of venue and event for Awujale’s pronouncement itself is worth examining. The Ojude Oba is a festival of communal togetherness of Ijebuland. It celebrates the ages and grades of a people famous in commerce, enterprise, affluence and, even, influence. For many years now, it has enjoyed the sponsorship of telecom giant, Globacom – owned by an Ijebu son, Otunba Mike Adenuga Jnr.
And I find this company’s confluence with Awujale’s thoughts quite intriguing. Millennials won’t likely know that GSM came king-size into Nigeria with the first live call placed on 6th June, 2001. Mobile telephoning came as expensive as wanting to be king. Payment was through the nose; mobile handsets of whatever grade were for the well fed. That SIM card you get for free today was N30,000 or more. Worse, it did not matter that you made a phone call for just a second; you must pay for 60 seconds. It was buy a second, pay for a minute –which was N50. Phone users cried and wailed but the early kingly operators dispensing telecom favours stressed that per second billing was not possible. Then the Ijebuman came with his Glo on 29 August, 2003 and, from that point, telecom kingmakers stopped playing god – a second’s call started attracting a second’s pay. So, we say with emphasis that democratization of telephoning in Nigeria is to Glo’s eternal credit. Other very positive additions here and there, home and abroad, soon flowed from it: annual sponsorship of Ijebuland’s Ojude Oba is one of them. And that is where the Awujale chose to degrade the corrosive influence of politics and money in the choice of his successor. He used that colourful concourse of the high and the low to make an open declaration of war on the key curses wrecking the country.
The John Evans Professor of Political Science, Richard Joseph, in 1987 described our politics as prebendal – politics of chop, I chop. Thirty-something years after, nothing has changed. Or rather, what has changed is that we have advanced the frontiers of prebendalism to the creeks of crass brigandage. Kingmakers search for and enthrone leaders with allegiance to graft, to misapplying public resources to serve their needs and those of their cronies, clans and concubines. Everywhere we turn, there are wars and fears of wars; there is inexplicable poverty, there is hopelessness – all because there must be consequences for misbehaviour, for enthroning wrong leaders, for selling birthrights. Maybe, if we listen to the Awujale and his strictures and stop hawking the destiny of our country to the highest bidder, to the biggest liar, one day, soon, like the once cheated per-second phone user in Nigeria, we may encounter the face of redemption.