Ship of Fools is the title of a 1962 novel by Katherine Anne Porter. I see the story — plot and characterization — as speaking to where we are as a country. Imagine a ship of greedy, ambitious enemies, of “unsettled souls, angry lovers, lonely has-beens, ruined businessmen, rebellious children” and of persons who spend their lives “crossing the ocean back and forth” in search of a home they will never find. That is how a reviewer described the passenger list of Porter’s Ship of Fools. A mirror will be needed by Nigerians who may be interested in the setting of that story. As gory as that spectacle is, Porter’s eerie creation is just an amplification of an old analogy from Plato for rancorous, incompetent governments and the decadent governmental system we cuddle and worship: Democracy as we have it.
Two top officials of our democratic government went to insecure Katsina last week with cotton seeds for farmers. It did not occur to them that seeds watered with blood are cursed. They won’t germinate. Katsina reels in pains of banditry and kidnapping and horrendous killings and what our federal government could think of for that state and its people were “cotton seeds for the next planting season.” Do we take it that our government does not know that its primary responsibility is the security of lives and property? Did those big men not feel small and diminished when the Emir of Katsina, Abdulmumini Kabir Usman, sent them back to their principal in Aso Rock that what the people needed were not cotton seeds but security?
“Hon Minister, tell the president that we have to take very good care of our people, security first. All these programmes, as good as they are, cannot be without security. Security is first and fundamental. Every day I receive reports of kidnapping and killings from district and village heads,” the emir told them while alleging that big men within and outside government were behind the horror of killings and kidnappings wracking the nation. “What are you to gain by killing, kidnapping people? It is very unfortunate. I have not seen this kind of country; how do we live like animals? Three days ago, Magajin Gari (of Daura emirate council) was abducted. Nobody is safe now, whether in your house or road, wherever you are. What we want you to do for us is to stop the fight. Many people have deserted, abandoned their farms in fear of kidnapping and killings and other atrocities. It is very unfortunate,” the emir told the men of strange ideas ruling us.
Did Buhari approve that trip for his men or they were just their own bosses on a greasy cruise of sycophancy to the president’s home state? King Sunny Ade in one dark moment sang about not knowing where the captain was piloting the ship of state to: “Is he rowing forward or is the ship steaming backward?” He repeatedly sang that he didn’t know. That was under the military. But this is said to be a democracy — a system of unceasing questions, and of compulsory answers. So, we must know where we are headed and if the captain is the captain in words and deed. And we need to confirm too that the political system is truly what it is professed to be? That emir and his traumatized people are not likely to say democracy does not kill. This system of ignorant votes imperils all whenever it kits wrong persons for leadership.
Ancient Greece gave us this thing called democracy. The same Greece however, gave us philosophers — Socrates, Plato and Aristotle — who separately warned that ‘democracy’ may be better than dictatorship and the other extremes but it may not ultimately lead to peace and happiness. In fact, Plato, predicted the rise and “certain collapse of democracy and decline into tyranny” and a “total loss of freedom.” He proceeded to give his popular analogy of democracy as a Ship of Fools — an aimless voyage of decadence, of quackery in leadership; a drifting contraption where every passenger is in charge of the helm; where the leader abandons the control wheel to a cabal of lousy opportunists and schemers; where nothing matters outside the control of the levers of power and its enjoyment.
Hear Plato: “Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering — everyone is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learnt the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learnt, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces anyone who says the contrary…They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at anytime they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them…”
So, where is the tipsy ship headed? When a system goes on a lawless, “drunken pleasure cruise” as Plato’s Ship of Fools, it cannot end well. And it does not matter how well dressed the cancerous deck is. It is a promise of death.
The emir lamented that he had never seen the country this brutish. He was right. It wasn’t this bad yesterday, even days before yesterday. At least, in those seasons of want, someone was in charge, cooking something. Then this strong day broke and presented us its embarrassing helplessness at the hands of ragtag bandits. I am sure the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) Ile Ife professor who lost his liberty and N5 million to kidnappers last week is asking why he had to suffer that near-death experience in a democracy. It was a surprise that he had the guts to state who his abductors were. He said they were Fulani herdsmen who operated in the very heart of Yorubaland. Some other victims wouldn’t say who they were for fear of offending our democratic Fulani president. That is how far we have drifted in this ship. Democracy tricks us into embracing every new dawn as a new era. The new era soon gets us scarred. We howl in horror and in utter disappointment recoil and rummage for new saviours. We start again, cruising across oceans, fighting tides and tempests, in search of a cosy home we may never find. We embrace every new month with new songs forgetting that all changes happen only in the name and in sound bites. Did you hear our president’s latest song on federalism? Was it President Muhammadu Buhari’s idea or that of his speechwriter that Nigeria is due for true federalism? He told state governors who called themselves ‘progressives’ last Friday that ‘federalism’ in its true essence is needed “at this juncture of our political and democratic evolution.”
Beyond the syntactic correctness of the sentence where the word ‘federalism’ appeared in that address, could you resist the urge to interrogate where Buhari’s sudden, new idea came from, its destination and the motive? This is especially so when our president veered off immediately after that pronouncement to throw at us some staid, stiff, unitary words which asterisked the genuineness of his call. Our president spoke of “the indivisibility of one Nigeria” in the same paragraph with his “true federalism.” If I were the president, I would ensure that the coherence in that my speech straddles both syntax and meaning. I would ask what is ‘true federalism’ and what is it that is indivisible in a true federation? You would understand the meaning of irony when you note the event where Buhari made that ‘true federalism’ statement. State governors were giving him an award for excellence and exceptional leadership. Is institutional subservience, garnished with repulsive arse-licking, the new definition of federalism?
Would they say that traitorous award they gave Buhari mirrored the real opinion they hold privately of him and his leadership? Roman statesman, philosopher and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, warned long ago that “a nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within.”
It is treason to lull the captain to sleep with fair weather songs when tempests of death assail his sail. That those governors chose this moment of insecurity and anguish, north to south, to score a bumbling Buhari an ‘A’ could only mean that they are schemers against the captain and the ship. Treachery is the English word for all insider acts that endanger the state. It was Cicero’s argument that “an enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation. He works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city. He infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague.”
Sailors in this ship are of that ilk.