In the year 1170, the king of England, Henry II, was getting some flak from one Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop had been very upset that the king had blindsided him at a political event and, in retaliation, the bishop set out to diligently excommunicate political associates of the king. In those days, excommunication was a fate worse than jail, and so you can understand that the king was pretty miffed about all this. Miffed enough, in fact, to blurt out to his court: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” or words to that effect.
Four of the king’s knights decided to treat this rant as some sort of royal decree and, without much ado, quickly despatched the Archbishop (thereby unintentionally generating inspiration for plenty of English literature to come). However, a number of important folks were upset by this bloody business and the king himself became rather sorry about the mess he caused. He had not intended to have the priest killed; it was just a rant on a hot day. And so, the meddlesome knights were sent to do penance and the king came to understand the finer aspects of the law of unintended consequences.
Now, in the year 2015, another king, less influential but equally careless, made a similarly controversial statement: in this case, the king—Oba of the Lagos islands and the neighbouring lagoon—threatened a watery death to opponents of his political favourite. Now, if the English history lesson painstakingly summarised in the paragraphs above teaches us anything, it is that kings should learn to STFU a whole lot of the time.
And so, without much ado, the Oba of Lagos was dreadfully wrong.
But it gets complicated: first, the subject matter was a political issue in a republican democracy; and second: the threat was made to an ethnic group that had been victims of a pogrom tacitly supported by the then federal government.
These complications have tempted some commentators (including myself) to attempt a defence against the political blunder, or a deflection of the ethnic prejudice. So we have seen a myriad of justifiable explanations: the king doesn’t represent all Yorubas, the king doesn’t represent any political party, the king has no real influence; the words were mere Yoruba grandstanding, the direct audience of the king understood that it was extreme metaphor; the king was a hologram being projected by the rival party—and so on.
But, look, the king was wrong—let’s just agree on that and skip the further analysis.
He was wrong, and he ought to offer an apology and a retraction or restatement of intent. An apology may not reassure those Igbos who have decided to leave Lagos during the election for their safety, but it is necessary all the same.
And this brings us to the silver lining of this affair: we are gradually shifting into the time where the African myth on the might of Kings and Gods is beginning to take a rest. Twenty years ago, Oba Akiolu’s talk would have passed without any reservations. In fact, his audience would have genuflected and the public would have applauded. But these things have to change—and they are changing.
Culture is a traditional system, but it is also a dynamic one—and a lot of us are still struggling to understand this latter aspect. We struggle to get beyond the grip of our religious and cultural conditioning, and like Oba Akiolu—we snap when we feel that our religious or cultural esteem has been threatened by others. The Yoruba man is accommodating until he realises that “his land” has been taken up by Igbo neighbours. The Igbo is ready to transact business until a Yoruba man asks for a contract of marriage. These may seem trivial comparisons, but they all contribute to an ideology that can erupt into genocide.
But these fault lines do not manifest suddenly: they grow, invisibly, from years of childhood and adolescent conditioning. They grow from decades of a resolved but unexplored civil war and preceding genocide. They grow from generations of prejudice and tribal generalisations.
But every component of a heterogeneous society has to make sacrifices at the altar of tolerance. Our worldview has to expand. Our republican constitution has to redefine traditional roles. Our cultural nuances have to recognise cosmopolitan ideals. If we are to sustain the tempo of this generation, Kings and Gods have to take a backseat and give humanity a chance to drive itself.
But where is that humanity going to come from?
Especially if you consider that there is an Akiolu-type monster lurking somewhere in most of us. In its mildest form, it manifests as a form of ethnic primacy: “I am a Yoruba man first and foremost. I fight for my people and my people’s control of their resources”. In its worst form, it is the cruelty of the Nazis: “Drown everyone in this town who is not a Yoruba”.
Yes, I am black Yoruba by genetic lineage, Nigerian by geo-political affiliation, and human by biological specie. But I understand that, just like ancient ethnicities and nations, both the Yorubas and Nigeria that I now identify with will eventually be swallowed by the process of time—it is the human race as a whole that has the chance of lasting.
Therefore, if we aim to intermingle in this geographical space peacefully, then we (particularly those of us who share political systems) have to reach out for our most common attribute—our humanity—and, to paraphrase Henry II, rid ourselves of this turbulent ethnicity. That’s the moral of this affair, but maybe we are all too busy taking sides to hold on to that.