“Of Owu, Balogun and Okija: The Anti-Democratic Dimension”, Nigeria World, Thursday September 9, 2004

Two subjects competed for my writing commitment in the last month. If you are a keen watcher of events in Nigeria, you could possibly offer a correct guess. But do not bother. Let me tell you what they were. The first relates to the complicity of Mr. President, the Balogun of Owu, on the Owu Obaship tussle. The other is the Okija horror.

Without completely abandoning the Balogun issue, it did not take me time to resolve to write more about Okija than about Owu and its Balogun. With amazing rapidity Ojika has become a synonym and a metaphor for national scandal. Yes, national scandal, not Igbo scandal as some would choose to characterize it. All over the nation, there are Okijas, if only we dare to admit and probe.

You may not like my argument for choosing Okija over the Balogun/Owu episode. But here it goes. Question is: what is there to talk about regarding the Balogun’s temper? Balogun’s rage is not a national secret like the Okija shrines. Do you recall how the Balogun’s temper was flared like natural gas after the Ikeja Cantonment bomb explosions? That was its closest public showing, at least in this present dispensation. There appears to be other episodes only known to privileged people in the corridors of power.

Not too long ago, Dr. Doyin Okupe, a man who should know, mentioned in an interview that the Balogun tore into shreds Doyin’s note to the former which conveyed a principled counsel that disagreed with Balogun’s position on a certain issue. This trend is not different from the account of Owu kingmakers who alleged that at the middle of what appeared to be a democratic process, the Balogun acted the IBB, “tore the result sheet” and annulled an election! Reason: he was “not happy with the emerging scenario” in which his candidate would have lost an election.

Unlike early and unguarded first shot at Ohanaeze Ndigbo on Okija by segments of the Nigerian press, I was not willing to jump into the fray without hearing the Balogun’s side of the story. And like Ohanaeze’s official reaction to Okija, Balogun’s official account was not long in coming. The Balogun’s version did not deny the allegation of annulment and tearing of result sheet. Rather, the vocal Owu kingmakers were accused of having compromised their position and of pursuing a selfish agenda. There was no detail to buttress these charges.

Shortly, we read of the arrest and detention of the kingmakers in which the Balogun had no hand. That reminds me of MKO’s Epetedo Declaration after June 12 and his subsequent incarceration. The rest is now history. Compared to MKO, the vocal Owu kingmakers and their “elect” are simply lucky and they have the Balogun to thank.

In my view, the Owu drama has nothing new to add to our polity that we do not know. Baloguns are warriors who do not have regard for the democratic process. They are unwilling participants in a democracy and cannot by virtue of their office preside over a democracy. As practitioners in the management of warfare, violence, and crisis they must have their way or there is no other way. The Owu saga is a miniature reflection of the greater Nigeria whose political firmament is bestrode like a colossus by retired generals, the professional Baloguns. The picture of the Balogun painted by some Owu kingmakers is not different from the role of retired generals in our national polity. It is not different from the current democratic process in Nigeria in which the Balogun is an all sovereign majesty. If you think we have had the last of June 12, Owu would make you to think again. I am worried because the Balogun would be presiding over a crucial election in 2007.

Enough of the Balogun. Now to Okija. What could be the most possible line of argument in defence of Okija chief priests, ritualists and their apparently powerful and affluent patrons? You can be sure there is no dearth of arguments for and against Okija. However, in his appeal to Igbo ethnic sentiment, poor Col. Achuzia chose the weakest, most vulnerable and perhaps the least tenable line of argument. The Igbos, including this writer, do not buy into the defence of the indefensible. Since Okija, they have said this loud and clear. Okija is not a representation of our tradition. To the extent it has a historical link with our people, Okija is a diversionary pervasion, an institutionalized corruption, a monumental psychological fraud on the psyche of both the gullible and the greedy by the most unconscionable spiritual brigands in the history of a noble and progressive people.

The Igbos know or ought to know better. We cannot buy the arguments from ethnic sentiments. One of the reasons national cohesion continues to elude Nigeria is how we readily play and buy into the ethnic card to the detriment of our larger national interests. I recall how Abacha and Babangida’s administrations ran nauseating hate propaganda after June 12. They penetrated the North and told them that June 12 was annulled in their best interest. Consequently, a nation that stood up and spoke with one voice on June 12 suddenly became divided in opposition to June 12 along ethnic lines. The Igbos were wiser and did not waiver. In the same stretch, Nigerians have been united in condemning Okija. Elsewhere in the country Col. Achuzie’s thesis that the police raid of the shrines was designed to ridicule the Igbos would have whipped up strong sentiments that would have made the demystification of Okija impossible. From that point of view, Okija is a welcome development and the Igbos should take a greater credit for that. They have risen above ethnic sentiment that would have reduced a serious matter to absurdity.

Nonetheless, I see little persuasive basis upon which Okija could stand scrutiny. Religion, culture and/or tradition, law and history are within their ambit to either severally or jointly compete in defence of Okija. But what requires a close examination is the extent to which these could be truly deployed to justify Okija. Yes, freedom of worship and association, as well as right to culture, cultural expression and practices are constitutionally guaranteed. With regard to religious freedom, traditional religious practices and worship are protected under this head. This needs restating because we proceed as if the only religions protected under the law are Christianity and Islam. Some in Zamfara, Kano and elsewhere have a narrower view of what religion is protected. Religious freedom covers both traditional worshippers and some lesser known religious in the land. But the truth is that no freedom under the law or morality is absolute. Any religious practices and worship rituals that infracts the laws of the land, especially the constitution, compromises its freedom. The revelations in Okija warrant law’s curious interest through the agency of the police. For instance, it is a crime to be in possession of human body parts in Nigeria. No religion or culture will exculpate those complicit in this crime! Have you wondered why we need police clearance and death certificates in order to convey corpses from one point to the other?

On culture, our constitution gives guarantee and protection to the cultural life and expressions of Nigeria’s diverse peoples. This again is not absolute. In virtually all cultures and traditions, sanctity is attached to the human body even in its deceased state. Even in cultures and religions that practice cremation elsewhere in the world, that process in itself is considered a sacred and solemn honour to the dead. Thus, cremation is conducted in a respectful and somber manner akin to a burial ceremony under the watchful eye of the law. What would be the cultural basis for not allowing the dead to rest in peace in Okija? What would be the cultural basis for littering the so called evil forest with sculls and other dismembered human body parts in Okija? The Igbos and indeed other Nigerian nationalities do not subscribe to the horror scene exposed at the Okija shrines. Those complicit in these are no cultural flag bearers of the Igbos or any decent people in the 21st century.

Even if it be argued that Okija is a cultural practice. Cultures are dynamic and responsive to contemporary ethos. Once there was the practice of twin killing in most of South Eastern Nigeria. Twins were considered bad omen. Their mothers risked being ostracized unless they gave up one of the twins for human sacrifice! I plead Achebe’s Things Fall Apart on this point. From a retrospective perspective, imagine how ignorant our ancestors were then. Who knows how many twins were killed in the name of culture? Contrast a radically different treatment of the twin phenomenon in the South West. Today, infanticide or “twincide”, if you like, is a crime in Nigeria; so is murder. And they have always been treated as reprehensible in all the cultural groups in Nigeria.

The colonial administration in responding to some objectionable cultural practices decreed that socio-cultural or religious practices that are contrary to natural justice, equity and good conscience would not stand. Our quarrel with this was that English judges or their Nigerian counterparts trained in England were not competent to sit in judgment over our cultural practices using English socio-cultural worldview. Today, with most judges being indigenous and home-trained Nigerians, we have no difficulty upholding a form of common or cross-national morality on the basis of which certain cultural practices stand condemned. Even our constitution and statute books frown at occult practices, human rituals and membership of so-called secret societies. Forget that the jurisprudence on what is a secret society remains inchoate. However, on the foregoing counts, there is a radically limited extent to which religion, culture, history or law could really come in aid of Okija so long as the police do not bungle up the investigations by compromising due process in regard to the “accused persons”.

But that is not then end of the matter. There are those who would want to seek the defence of Okija by other means, especially by fighting for the gods. Ideally we would prefer that the gods fight for themselves, if they be gods true and true. But as it turns out some people have vested interest in the gods than the gods themselves. That reminds me of one classic home movie, Ikuku (the Hurricane). In that movie, the Ikuku deity required a professor of nuclear physics to leave the Ivory Tower and return to his ancestral village and serve as the deity’s chief priest. The professor’s initial defiance infuriated segments of the community who stage-managed all forms of physical and psychological attack on the professor culminating in his eventual subjugation.

Now that Okija has been demystified, let the gods fight for themselves. The police, the entire good and peace loving people of Okija community and Igboland should be vigilant and watch out for those who would elect to fight for the gods. These are people who operate in the dark, those who have benefited from keeping the people under bondage, those who would loose their means of livelihood and relevance because of the collapsed shrines should the gods not “fight” back. Such people would defend their livelihood by hook or crook. The next stage of Okija after the shrines would be more of a psychological warfare on the people than the physical process of pulling down the shrines by the police. Stories would told, myths would be made of Okija, and plots would be hatched and stage-managed in defence of Okija and the gods. Night travelers will be scared of crossing the Urasi River and accidents would be associated with the gods of Okija. I am not being prophetic. I am only deploying commonsense.

But have you considered that the defence of Okija may not necessarily be an exclusive Okija affair. It is can be championed from all other Okijas across the land. They will raise a network of collective defence for in the demystification of one Okija all other Okijas stand demystified and threatened. These unconscionable chief priests and suspected cannibals whose greed feed on the gullibility, desperation and monumental corruption in our fatherland would prefer that Nigeria remains one large irredeemable evil forest. In whatever way they chose to fight, my fear is that the helpless and the innocent would be their natural targets.

Okija is certainly a metaphor for, and a symbol of an endemic national malaise very much underreported and little explored in comparison to the antidemocratic undercurrents in the polity enacted at a miniature level in the Owu Obaship tussle recently. Somehow in their worlds of difference, Okija, Owu and Balogun have something in common. They have been thrown up as anti-democratic features of our polity. Intimidation, whether psychological as in Okija or otherwise as in Owu is antithetical to a democratic polity.


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