The king as a heroic-Villain

The king as a heroic-Villain

Monday, September 28, 2020 12:05 am

Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha


By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha


In classical literature, both Asian and European, and oral African literature, we encounter the concept of a king who becomes a villain or a villain who becomes king through acts of destruction or war or pillage. A typical hero becomes king on account of his personal valour, strength, and courage. He fights and conquers huge challenges in an extraordinary manner. For this reason, he is like Oedipus or Odewale in The Gods are Not to Blame (by Ola Rotimi), made king over his people. Later, in the scheme of things, on account of his deeds or misdeeds, he is rejected by the people and cast away.

We refer to such characters as Ozidi in the eponymous play Ozidi by JP Clark, Macbeth by Shakespeare, or Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart. By virtue of their position, they are as destructive as they are constructive. In some societies, when the people get tired of the excesses of the heroic-villain, they get rid of him in a ritual manner. This narrative promotes the scapegoat motif, that is, the king or leader becomes the scapegoat that must bear away the ‘sins’ of the community.


After Oedipus was expelled from the kingdom he once ruled over, he ended up in the wilderness, so to speak. He lived in the mountains awaiting his fate. But he bore the punishment with equanimity knowing the gravity of the offence he had committed against the gods, against humanity. What worse fate can befall a man than to kill his father and marry his mother in ignorance? After plucking out his eyes, he remains blind until he apotheosized elevated to the pantheon of gods!

Thoughts of scapegoatism came to mind recently as I ruminated over the current situation in Mali. As we now know, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was ousted in a military putsch on 18th August 2020 after many months of mass protests by citizens. They were fed up with corruption, with insecurity and the fraudulent nature of governance. Neither sweet words nor threats could deter them from the goal – the resignation of President Keita. The military struck for the second time in ten years. He was promptly arrested by the coup plotters and kept in custody. ECOWAS and other international organizations stepped in. As we write, Keita has not only resigned, a new government has been put in place with the coup leader serving as Vice President to a titular civilian head of government.

As I reflected over the last governorship elections, I also saw an element of expulsion in the tragedy of former Governor of Edo State Adams Oshiomhole who rose from the lowest point on the ladder to become not only governor but also Chairman of the ruling party in Nigeria. That is no mean feat, considering the number of big egos we have in the party and all the other forces he surmounted to arrive at the top. But his very strength became his undoing. He did not know when to stop. He did not read the handwriting on the wall. He did not listen to the whispers in the dark. He has become another sacrificial lamb for the people to be liberated.

It was Chinua Achebe who wrote in Things Fall Apart about how the people of Aninta discarded their god because he was no longer useful to them. Can you beat that? Discard a god! The subtext is that if a god can be discarded, who can escape that same fate? Nobody. He was the one who also said that when a man comes to plead with us to allow worship our deity, we should not ask too many questions. A man who must enter his house through another man’s door has a terrible story that he does want anyone to know about.

What can a kingdom do if the king becomes taboo? To be tabooed means to be an outcast. In sacred societies, a king who sleeps with another man’s wife is taboo. A king who embarks on stealing the ancestral patrimony is taboo. A king who spills the blood of a human without any ritual reason is taboo. A king who commits incest is taboo. Taboo means being unfit to rule. That is, the equivalent of taboo in modern society is incompetence.   President Keita became taboo just as the late President Samuel Doe had become taboo in Liberia. An unfit king is more dangerous to the survival of the community, of the people than one thousand armed robbers or kidnappers. Whereas a kidnapper can only kidnap a few people at a time, a dangerous, incompetent king can lead the entire kingdom into perdition.

The ancient kingdoms which fell were casualties of incompetence or greed and sheer laziness combined with external factors. At a point, the incompetent leader became a common enemy inside whose head the hatchet should be buried. Burying the hatchet comes in different ways. It could mean expulsion. It could mean elimination. It could mean demotion. Traditional societies ensured that dangerous leaders did not remain for too long on the throne.

In a democracy, the dangerous ruler is removed through the power of the ballot box. We have witnessed the travesty of leadership that is going on in one of the most powerful countries in the world. Elections are a few weeks away. How things will go, we are not gods to tell. He has declared that he may not accept the results of the election if he loses as the polls are suggesting. That is another danger, unknown in the history of that country. Will he be expelled? Will he be led out of the chinaware shop like a raging bull?

There are many dangerous rulers and political leaders around the world. In Nigeria, we have a fair dose of bad leadership at different levels. Dangerous leaders are a threat to the survival of the polity. Of such men and women, we must beware. Such leaders never realize that the community is bigger than any individual. And any society which allows bad leadership to be perpetually entrenched is a danger to itself. When the bells of annihilation shall be rung in future, there will be nothing to gnash but infant gums in a befuddled manner.

-–-Professor Eghagha who writes from the University of Lagos can be reached on 0802 322 0393 or [email protected]

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