When Esu, god of construction and destruction, mapped own role in Nigeria

When Esu, god of construction and destruction, mapped own role in Nigeria

Sunday, November 3, 2019 8:03 am


Awolowo pacified the Agbekoya fighters


By Festus Adedayo

The Agbekoya war is indisputably one of the focal points of the most successive resistance to the Nigerian state. The peasant farmers union had gone berserk in the Western Region, in protestation against high taxation during the civil war. They held the government of the West literally hostage, hounding soldier administrators and civil servants, as well as royal fathers. In the process, Oba Olateru Olagbegi of Owo was hounded and eventually fled his throne, so also for the Odemo of Ishara, Oba Samuel Akisanya, while the Soun of Ogbomosho, the traditional ruler of Chief S.L. Akintola’s town, suffered the worst fate as he was beheaded by the protesting farmers. In the melee that occurred, the Military Governor, General Adeyinka Adebayo, had to call on Awolowo to help quell the uprising. Awo eventually toured the West and secured its manifold tranquility. It is said that this was one of the issues which shot Awolowo to the apogee of the people’s mind at the time.

Since that time, popular action against the state as protestation against insidious rule and errs of the Nigerian state has literally gone comatose. Save for the June 12 era when the state was similarly held to ransom, but which paid off at the end of the day, the state has literally been flowering in its own misunderstanding. A mere call for rebellion against the Muhammadu Buhari government – indeed there was any – earned the caller a term in the gulag and no further resistance came from either the civil society or any other parts of society. So what is the state of revolt and rebellion against the state at the moment?

Festus Adedayo

Not many people probably know that academic concerns about Nigeria and its slipslop polity are mounting all over the world. An array of scholars which gathered inside the conference room of the African Studies Centre (ASC) of the St. Anthony’s College of the University of Oxford last Thursday gave me that inkling. It was actually an evening to review the book of that Africanist scholar and student of Nigerian politics, Professor Gavin Williams. First published in 1980, Gavin’s very authoritative book entitled State and Society in Nigeria is a foremost scholarly work that students of state and society in Nigeria would gloss over at a very huge academic expense. Ageing Gavin – 76 years old – had sat in the midst of the gathering, apparently glad that his work was the locus of the attention of the rich repertoire of theoretic surgeons in the theatre of political studies, whose scalpels, though invisible, were tucked away, but apparently readied for the dissection of the 39-year old book.

Gavin was born in Pretoria, South Africa and graduated from the University of Stellenbosch, taught Sociology at Durham University from 1967 to 1970, was Associate Research Fellow at NISER in Ibadan from 1970-1972 and is currently Emeritus Fellow at Oxford.

For more than a generation, the book was a valuable resource for teaching politics in universities, as earlier said. In fact, it remained a major influence in teaching, research, policy and practice in state-society relations in Nigeria. However, a lot has gone into the padding since Gavin wrote the book. Nigeria had tumbled from the hopeful project of the immediate post-colonial experience, even the optimism of the 1980s, to the valley of destruction that it currently is. It sunk into the basement of corrupt politics of the Second Republic, came out almost totally sapped, into the barbs of military despotism and walked, with eyes wide open, into a successive bind of civilian rulers who have taken it to where it is now.

Current realities have however made Gavin to review the book. He has added a new chapter which he entitled State and Society in Nigeria Revisited. Scholars of Nigeria are confronted by surging realities that she is a baffling project that has resisted all the prognosis of her medics and manifested as a uniquely queer patient who would not die but keeps relapsing every time, from one throes of epileptic seizure to another. Very cynical about the politics of Nigeria, especially its variant of coercive democracy, the prevailing thesis in Oxford that day was that of a combination of skepticism and cynicism against the mild prospects of Nigeria emerging from her huge challenges.

Director, ASC, Professor Wale Adebanwi, introduced Gavin to the audience. After a short review of the new book, Gavin yielded the floor to Portia Roelofs who herself read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the Queen’s College, Oxford and graduated with a First Class and a doctoral from the London School of Economics just this May. In reviewing the book, Roelofs talked about the constant tension in Nigeria, the wealth of references in the book and the way “possibilities and frustrations run through Nigeria.”

What was predominant in the scholars’ run through Nigeria at the event is the fact that the issues that resonate in the book still have the same tone and tenor as they had, almost four decades after, with higher slants even. The mess of Nigeria engaged everyone present but, trust scholars, with euphemistic slants. The mess of insurgency, banditry, economic famish and leadership downturns, were shrouded in mild political terminologies. To anyone who could decipher the drive, it was obvious that Nigeria was sliding at an alarming rate and had virtually deferred every scholarly intervention.

The other amazing push out of the engagements was the practical inertia of the about 70 per cent Nigerian youth population which is said to be Under-30, which has no familiarity with its past and is not channeling its energy into any noticeable productive enterprise. On social media for example, there is a comedy of sorts at the ongoing tragedy in Nigeria by the half-educated mass of youth that gathered therein daily. Tragically, they lack the grasp of how horrible the situation is. The equation still remains that, the dream of Nigeria of yore had been badly corrupted and needed to be redefined and rechanneled.

Akin Osuntokun, Nigerian political strategist and writer and fellow of St. Anthony’s Oxford College, who also attended the event, apparently couldn’t put up with some of the claims about Nigeria which some Africanist scholars at the event were espousing. He frowned at the imposition of what he called a uniformity of ideas, a singular framework, on fragmented problems that is the Nigerian mess. He also talked about the need to localize the Nigerian experience, rather than talking about some ideological underpinning to the problem. He deflated the mindset that there was a connect between Boko Haram and he Niger Delta uprising earlier on, as well as Gavin and others’ submission that there was a nexus between Nigeria, her ugly experiences and any ideology. He ended by giving some very scathing submissions: Colonial powers owe a lot of responsibilities to Nigeria than they are ready to accept and as such, they cannot afford to show the detachment that they are showing at the moment to the Nigerian problem, the kind exhibited by David Cameron in his famous “fantastically corrupt” comment. What did the British colonial lords expect of a Nigeria that they had bastardized that callously, milked out of existence and left in the hands of their trusted serfs?

A question put across by one of the participants that seemed to agitate the minds of those who gathered was Gavin’s discussion of the Ibadan farmers and the Agbekoya rebellion on the 1970s. While the author talked about its potency at that time in Nigeria, a question arose as to why popular action and popular resistance have run into a dead end in the country. Put differently, why has there been no popular rebellion against bad governance in Nigeria and if there were, how come they have been largely ineffective, unlike the Agbekoya revolt which was effective at that time in Nigeria? It was said by someone who intervened that yes, people have a sense that something was wrong with the country; they can see the failure of the Nigerian state but resistance as a response to the tragic Nigerian state has been very mild or non-existent. 

At the end of the day, we got the impression, as encapsulated by Adebanwi, of Esu, the Yoruba god of construction and destruction, at work in the Nigeria project. Esu, Trickster god, is said to be the closest divinity to Orunmila, as encapsulated by the Yoruba pantheon. However, the relationship between the Esu and Orunmila, the latter the most revered of the divinities, was not always cordial. Esu, the ubiquitous and universal policeman, was unpredictable and anyone who thought he could be their ally was fooling themselves. He was uncanny, very destructive but could also construct. While conflicts and resolution marked the relationship between the Esu and Orunmila, Esu had limitless capacity to do good and evil. He was said to be an author of confusion but in his confusion was a regenerative confusion, according to Yoruba cosmology.

As many scholars have theorized, confusion leads to a creative energy if properly utilized. It was this puzzle that Awolowo injected into the confusion he met when the Western Region project came on his laps; the Agbekoya and resistances against him.  What he taught and is teaching the current government is that, in the midst of latent contradictions of the state, you could bring out order. Every people have their positive and negative sets, but in midst of this, how do you unleash that creative energy? Some will use theirs for destruction but some for good of society and live above the negative. It was the lesson that I came out with at the review session.

After the review, we broke into group chats and discussions. The man who took fancy to me was a great scholar called Robin Cowen. He taught in the Department of Political Science, University of Ibadan, shortly before the Nigerian civil war. He had taught therein, specifically for two years, 1966-1968. His colleagues in the department were Billy Dudley, Ukpabi Asika and some others he couldn’t remember their names any longer. His research into labour relations made him a friend of Michael Imoudu. Cowen told me a lot about his friend, Ruth First, who was parcel-bombed by the Apartheid regime in South Africa He talked about one young man who had just taken a doctoral from an American university and was coming to resume in Ibadan who got killed on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway and that that road was the graveyard of so many Ibadan academics. What he found most instructive when he went for the man’s burial, Robin said, was that the wife actually jumped into the grave with the corpse. When he told me that he was later told that she did that so that the family would not continue their theory that he killed him, I told him I knew where the man hailed from!

As we walked out of the conference room, I wished Nigeria would act out the role of Esu by constructing order out of the mess that the country is at the moment.


Elegy to Johnson, congrats to Abolarin

The coincidence of the announcement of the passing on of General Mobolaji Johnson during the week, with a time I was having a good listen to a track in an album,ricks sang by my musical idol, Ayinla Omowura, occurred to me as striking. Johnson was the first military governor of Lagos State whose incorruptibility was tested when the next government that took over from the Yakubu Gowon administration he served – Murtala Muhammed’s – subjected his administration to an integral sieve and Johnson passed. Many others didn’t.

I also remembered that I missed an interview session with him in the late 1990s. I had booked the interview and we agreed to meet at his younger brother’s Broken House office in Dugbe, Ibadan but he had to call to postpone the interview. We never met thereafter.

Johnson’s administration was known for a lot of policy decisions that made up the foundation of present Lagos. One of such policies was his tenement rate policy, at a point when Nigerians and Lagosians especially, were emerging from the backward experiences of traditional society. The tenement rate policy, though seemingly harsh, was formulated as one of the first steps towards making Lagos a truly metropolitan city, in readiness for the implosion of modernity that came later.

Though it came with the rigidity of the military, governments like Johnson’s were lucky to have public-minded media that publicized their activities. One of such was Omowura. In fast-tempoed, danceable tune, Omowura carefully explained the process of the payment, asking the public to “e f’ara m’Omobolaji” – support Mobolaji’s policy.

May the soul of that huge-statured, huge-minded patriot, rest in perfect peace.

Again, a man after my heart, the monarch of Oke-Ila, Oba Adedokun Abolarin, would be conferred with an award of Doctor of Public Administration (Honoris Causa) by the Lead City University, Ibadan on Wednesday. Oba Abolarin is undoubtedly one of the most cerebral, forward-looking monarchs in Yorubaland. Clear-minded, positive and deep in his analysis and thoughts about the development of his people, when you listen to the monarch, you would wonder what a profound mind like him was doing in a monarchy which is fast becoming an emblem of the wrong corps of Yoruba who are climbing traditional stools whose lives contravene.

While on the editorial board of the Tribune newspapers, he once took me to Professor Akinjogbin, the renowned history scholar. Leading by example, Abolarin founded a school in his domain at Oke-Ila where he personally teaches the pupils. In company with his friend, Dele Momodu, Abolarin taught at the defunct OSCAS in Ile-Ife and his ex-students still remark, till today, about his teaching prowess and the profundity of his mind. I promise to, one of these days, visit this school and report his example to the world. Congratulations to a foremost Yoruba monarch, the Orangun, on this well-deserved award.   


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