Friday, April 9, 2021 10:40 am
By Chris Anyokwu
The concept of ‘nation’ did not exist from the dawn of time, that’s for sure. Although we had in Biblical and classical times places like Babylon, Assyria, Greece and Rome as well as India. There were also groups of ethnic nationalities as the Chaldeans, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Hittites and the Israelites, among others. These socio-cultural formations were more of agglomerations of people bound by kinship ties, common ancestries, cognate belief-systems or they followed the same flag and were subjects of a king. Thus these places were, for want of a better description, kingdoms, fiefdoms, moieties, regions and, in some cases, empires. Nations are a fairly recent development, attesting in the main to history’s remorseless march towards a greater degree of social organisation, a growing dissatisfaction with the logic of heliocentrism and a corresponding burgeoning faith in humankind’s self-ordering, a geocentric bias or, if you please, an anthropocentric weltershauung.
This Enlightenment ethos of humanistic self-sufficiency, birthed during the Reformation culminated in the staking-out of territorial spheres of influence sanctified by international legal instruments, treaties and conventions. We may thus talk of the Westphalia model of the nation-state or what is referred to as the Peace of Westphalia (1648). As always, the West had led the way in this regard such that even before the Renaissance, you had European countries such as Italy, France, England, Spain and so forth.
For instance, in 1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer and navigator was said to have ‘discovered’ the New World, which later became what is known today as the United States of America. It is, furthermore, argued that Columbus and his fellow travellers had embarked upon the expedition sponsored by the Catholic monarchs of Spain. As far as the African continent goes, we understand that European powers – England, France, Germany, Spain, Holland and Belgium-got together in Berlin, Germany in 1884/85 to parcel out swathes of territories among themselves, thereby creating colonial parcel out swathes of territories among themselves, thereby creating colonial administrative blocs demarcated by language.
Thus we have up until today Francophone countries, Anglophone and Lusophone nation-states. It is, indeed, instructive to stress that the whole colonial conquest of Africa, in particular, was considered ‘a civilising mission’ to a swarthy race enchained by ignorance, disease and poverty; a people enthralled by nature red in tooth and claw; a people lost in occult Night. Therefore, rather than rue their gunboat diplomacy which had ensured their rapacious rape of Africa a la Walter Rodney and Frantz Fanon, the European colonisers dubbed their forcible occupation of Africa ‘a missionary journey’; a Christianising labour of love, deserving of unalloyed gratitude from the pacified subject-races.
Interestingly enough, Phyllis Wheatley, a precocious black slave-girl, equipped with literacy when it was a crime for a black slave to read and write, had extolled in her poetry the joys of slavery! For her, the accursed institution of chattel slavery was a divine masterstroke. This rank illogicality is what French Marxist theoretician, Louis Althusser calls ‘ideological interpellation’.
This, in brief, is the subtle and insidious programme of mass brainwashing cusping at the frightening edges of zombieism. World-renowned English cultural theorist, Terry Eagleton, clinches the matter when he remarks: ‘Oppressed groups in society may rationalise just as thoroughly as their rulers. They may perceive that their conditions leave a lot to be desired, but rationalise this fact on the grounds that they deserve to suffer, or that everyone else does too, or that it is somehow inevitable, or that the alternative might be a good deal worse. Since these attitudes will generally benefit the rulers, it might be claimed that ruling classes sometimes allow those they subjugate to do much of their rationalising for them. Dominated groups or classes can also rationalise their situation to the point of self-deception.’ Going through this statement made by Eagleton, you seem to have this sneaking feeling that the man had Nigerians in mind when he was writing. How can a writer be so uncanny in his apt description of a captive collectivity such as present-day Nigerians, the stoical nation? Now, what is a nation? According to Ernest Renan: ‘A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle…’; it is ‘a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. [Nation] presupposes a past; it is summarised, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite….’ Given the inevitable irruptions of out-size egos, like those of Musollini, Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Saddam Hussein, Moumman Ghadaffi, Pieter Botha, Paul Biya, Mobutu Sese Seko, Idi Amin Dada, Sani Abacha, Vladimir Putin and Donald J. Trump, the collective fate of a nation is sometimes reduced to the irrational and petulant whimsy of the ruler. This is the final triumph of personality cult over the disinterested and impersonal yet deeply conscientious exertions for the common good.
Whether we are talking about the rise and fall of empires, the ascension and the deposition of rulers, the outbreak of wars and their resolution, the unseen hand of the ‘Greater-than-man’ is usually the final arbiter. So, as it is in Greek theatre, so it is in the affairs of nations. It is called Deus ex machina
Under an anomalous situation whereby the nation rises or falls at the behest of Big Brother, it is sometimes threatened with disintegration, war, social strife, civil disobedience, violent uprising and outright revolution leading to regime change. There are a plethora of literature discussing this phenomenon: the capture and retention of power even in the teeth of certain immolation. The proven psychology of power is such that even on pains of death, holders or occupants of power are desperately loath to relinquish it. Not to their children or wives or friends. No, not to anybody. We are hereby reminded of Alcestis, a Greek play by Euripides, which tells a moving story of Admentus, the King, who clings to power even when the Oracle of Apollo had foretold his impending demise, a development that could only be averted if someone else dies in his place. Nobody in his kingdom agrees to die for him. Not his aged parents already waiting at Death’s door. Not the ever-fawning courtiers. But his loyal and loving wife, Alcestis agrees to die for him. She thus gives her life for her husband, Admentus. George Orwell in his dystopian allegorical novel, 1984 famously muses that ‘the ultimate aim of power is power’.
By the same token, Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince lays out the time-tested elaborate gambits, ruses, stratagems and subterfuges deployed by iron-men of power to seize power and thereafter coerce and corral the people to his whims and caprices. Small wonder, Terry Eagleton tells us that ideology is ‘an imaginary resolution of real contradictions’. In their desperate bid to browbeat and hoodwink the herd through the instrumentality of ideology a la Althusser, rulers and other state actors reach for all kinds of tricks such as those enshrined in The Art of War by Sun Tzu. John Milton in Paradise Lost enthuses through the figure of Lucifer that ‘it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven’. This Luciferan obsession with temporal power is memorably dramatised by Dr. Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s play of the same title. All told, it is believed that, according to Marlowe, the Devil himself gives power to the highest bidder. In a word, give the Devil your life and he will give you the world. It is called the Devil’s bargain. Thus, sacrifice is the price of power. How, you may ask? How can one who has offered his ‘Isaac’, ‘his red heifer’, be persuaded to relinquish power to another person even at the expiration of his term? Given Pascal’s wager over the probable existence of the hereafter, their Lords temporal are content to savour and sate the aphrodisiac of power. It matters little that temporal power is temporary. Man’s innate selfishness is most in evidence when it comes to the exercise or the wielding of power. Nothing is sweeter; it is the ultimate orgasm. Therefore, those who refuse to toe the constitutional line; those who elect to wangle the grundnorm just to perpetuate themselves in the saddle usually have metaphysical forces to contend with. As in everything else, the divine factor bulks large in human affairs. History is replete with stories of how, against the run to play, against man’s well-laid plans and his shrewdest strategies, the unexpected happens. Whether we are talking about the rise and fall of empires, the ascension and the deposition of rulers, the outbreak of wars and their resolution, the unseen hand of the ‘Greater-than-man’ is usually the final arbiter. So, as it is in Greek theatre, so it is in the affairs of nations. It is called Deus ex machina.
Thus, if you are an attentive student of world history and global affairs, or even if you are a sophomoric dabbler in Nigeria’s political roulette, you would have realised that God is a Nigerian. This conviction is hinged upon the fact that, each time the nation lurches dangerously towards a sorry pass and things come to a confounding head, something always gives.
Simply put, Deus ex machina is ‘an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel’ (Google). Literally, it means a ‘god from the machine’. In ancient theatre, an actor playing a god or goddess would be lowered on stage by a ‘machane’ which was the name of the crane device used’ (Ibid).
Accordingly, when the dramatist appears to have run out of options in his effort to bring the dramatic agon to a denouement and has failed, he reaches for the god-from-the-machine solution. It never fails. However perplexing and labyrinthine the layers of tension might be, this mechanistic device for histrionic resolution always comes in handy.
Thus, if you are an attentive student of world history and global affairs, or even if you are a sophomoric dabbler in Nigeria’s political roulette, you would have realised that God is a Nigerian. This conviction is hinged upon the fact that, each time the nation lurches dangerously towards a sorry pass and things come to a confounding head, something always gives. And the people are always given a last-minute reprieve. Is this just another irrational effusion of a desperate patriot? Or, the passionate cry of the believer? Or is it the flailing of a disoriented citizen? Well … ours is a desperate fate on which scoffers, agnostics, unbelievers and true believers in the Nigerian Dream should collectively chorus: ‘And it shall come to pass…!’
Chris Anyokwu, PhD.
Associate Professor of English,
University of Lagos