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Three Yoruba Avatars

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By Tatalo Alamu

These are precarious times in Nigeria. Two weeks to the diamond jubilee celebration of independence, Nigeria has never appeared more vulnerable to centrifugal forces, or more prone to the dangers of disintegration.  The dissolution lobby is gathering force and gaining more recruits every minute even from the ranks of former die-hard nationalists and Nigerian patriots. But it is turning out that self-determination also has its grave contradictions.

For a nation which held out remarkable promise as the Mecca of Black people and the repository of hope for the most injured and abjured human race since the beginning of history, this is a terrible tragedy. But even if dissolution becomes inevitable, it is better to step back to see what lies beyond the abyss.

For those adept at reading rustling tea leaves, something significant is afoot on the Nigerian political chessboard. Like vultures adept at sniffing something other than burning grass in a smouldering savannah forest, Nigeria’s power blocs are on the move again.

As usual in these matters, there are pawns who think they know what they are doing when in reality they don’t .And there are powerbrokers who say one thing in public while working for a totally different outcome in private.

The past fortnight has not been particularly kind to the Nigerian authorities. The odour of death is regnant everywhere, what with unremitting clashes among ethnic groups, ritual killing, savage reprisals, banditry and the odd extra-judicial state execution. With the near universal outrage over the punitive hike in tariffs, the government appeared to have its back to the wall.

Enter our four-star general who is always lurking with implacable intent. A man with the legendary memory of an elephant, nothing escapes the Owu-born general, not even the slightest infraction. Obasanjo settles scores with the unhurried single-mindedness of his ethnic compatriots who conduct age-long hostilities with all flair and funfair.

A past master of political delegitimization and psychological intimidation, Nigeria’s former military ruler and two-term civilian president delivers his famous sucker punches when his opponents are at the weakest point, often walking majestically away in devilish relish. Occasionally, he pounces without warning while the adversary suffers a lapse of concentration as a result of clumsy entanglements or when they have been brought low in a nasty melee.

Biting your opponent is part of the armoury of fighting. This time around, Obasanjo has chosen the innocuous occasion of an equally innocuous interactive session among some major regional groups to deliver a devastating attack on the government at a time when the Buhari administration was having serious problems over its economic policies and its perceived indifference to the plight of the nation.

This is the second time Obasanjo has succeeded in putting the Buhari administration in acute discomfort. Earlier, he had hit the government with the rather inflammatory charge of pursuing a policy of Islamization and Fulanization of the nation. For telling effects, Obasanjo had chosen the neutral grounds of a church premises to detonate his atomic bomb.

This time around the old hell-raiser has charged the Buhari government with bringing a badly divided nation to the brink of state failure and national disintegration.  Not unexpectedly, the reaction of the government and its official mouth organs has been as dismissive as it is vitriolic when not downright rude. They upbraided Obasanjo as a spiteful old man filled with envy and resentment at the success of his former military subordinate.

This inflammatory and hysterical rhetoric is hardly helpful. Because of their ill-mannered tone, they shore up sympathies for Obasanjo even in some quarters that are not normally Obasanjo-friendly and they tend to open up the very ethnic fissures that Obasanjo is pointing at. The inability to separate message from messenger and treat the former with dispassionate objectivity has again compromised the integrity of the disclaimer.

As readers will attest, this column has never spared Obasanjo for his political transgressions. But as the Nigerian commander who took the Biafran surrender, former military ruler and two-term civilian president, Obasanjo deserves some respect and deferential treatment, no matter the provocation. The irony of it all is that in some other incarnation this column had warned the former president about the dangers of foisting a culture of rudeness and incivility on the nation way back in 2004.

But this is not about whether you personally like and admire the retired general or not. You must give something to the Otta farmer. Of all Nigeria’s former heads of state, both civilian and military, Obasanjo has been eerily and unerringly correct  in reading the mood of the nation and in accurately gauging the political barometer.

He can sense when the ship of state has reached uncharted waters or when it approaches an iceberg. His motives may not always be altruistic or politically ethical, but there can be no doubting the political courage he brings to bear on this and the passionate concern for the plight of the nation.

It is noteworthy that early support for Obasanjo came from most unexpected quarters and the other end of the ideological spectrum.  In a sharp intervention dripping with anger and indignation, Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, while maintaining that he was neither a friend nor a fan, not only endorsed Obasanjo’s position about the fissiparous forces that have virtually overwhelmed the nation but took time to take Obasanjo’s traducers to the cleaners.

This is a prime example of how incompetence and bigoted politics can bring mutual opponents together in a broader coalition of expanded interests. By the end of the week, there were more surprises in the political kitty. While the government was reeling from the combined assault of the two titans, some more ominous development was taking place outside the shores of the nation.

Last week, a number of Yoruba self-determination groups based in London took to the streets calling for an immediate declaration of an Oduduwa Republic. They came with a logo, a map, an anthem, cultural totems and a staff of the new republic amidst much dancing and pulsating drumming. They came to consign Nigeria to the trashcan of history.

What was whispered and put about in carefully coded intellectual riddles was now blown into the open. If one were to be unkind and uncharitable one could conclude that once again, the Yoruba political mob has taken over as it has always threatened in moments of acute stress and tension once the elite and leadership show signs of weakness, vacillation and indecision.

It happened during the Wetie crisis, the Agbekoya imbroglio, the June 12 palaver, the OPC uprising and in the last days of the Jonathan administration when it attempted to frighten off  the dominant political tendency in Yoruba land with an awesome display of thuggery and sheer political brinkmanship.

But the London rally for swift political autonomy for the Yoruba people cannot be dismissed as mob action. It is a new phenomenon which has to be factored into analysis and subsequent plan of action; a reflection of the growing impatience of the Yoruba Diaspora with the stalemate and stasis at home.

The Yoruba are not natural secessionists. The fact that a sizeable proportion of the Yoruba political elite are beginning to harbour the thought and entertain the possibility openly should be of concern to those who think they can delay any further the immediate structural reconfiguration of Nigeria. In all its trials and tribulations in modern Nigeria, the Yoruba dominant consciousness has never contemplated secession.

The Yoruba have endured the murder and maiming of their most illustrious children; the imprisonment, harassment, exiling, torture and summary political liquidation of their star products without ever contemplating leaving Nigeria. As empire builder themselves and great statists, it has been burnt into their genes that it takes great patience, discipline and forbearance to get nations going.

It is only those who have never built an empire and those who find it easy to destroy other people’s empire without being able to put anything tangible or memorable in its place that find it easy to walk away from a nation-project. Yet the ruthless truth is that a lack of emotional, intellectual and psychical investment makes divestment and severance easier when the nation-project becomes a burden on humanity and a fascist terror machine.

It is this emotional and intellectual investment in a failing project which has consumed much capital that is the background to the existential and ontological dilemma of the Yoruba elite in contemporary Nigeria. In a profound irony, the dilemma also explains why the intervention of General Alani Akinrinade, the third leg of the Yoruba heroic triad, is particularly illustrative and point-device.

While Obasanjo is a gruff old soldier-statesman who does not take hostages and Soyinka a grand literary tiger who does not suffer fools gladly, Akinrinade is the soldiers’ soldier, an officers’ officer and the classic example of a Yoruba patriot and Nigerian nationalist. Essentially, the Yakoyo-born retired general remains a professional soldier without any palate for partisan controversies.

Four weeks ago, yours sincerely watched his visage glower in immense personal satisfaction while the general played host at his country home to a new generation of top military officers. It was at the final funeral outing of his stepmother and mother of Rear Admiral Akinjide Akinrinade.  It was obvious that the military was, and still is, his principal constituency.

But it doesn’t mean that the military kingpin does not know his political onions. Anybody confusing the outward civility of Akinrinade with an innate weakness of character will find himself up against native toughness camouflaged as placidity. It was this toughness that saw him through the gruelling, thirty-month civil war from which he emerged a national hero widely lionized for his bravery and outstanding brilliance as a military strategist.

In post-military Nigeria even the most astute military general can be blindsided by the ever shifting tempo of self-determination and its contradictions.  General Akinrinade has himself drawn the flak from younger Yoruba agitators who find his caution and tact on the matter not very appealing or appetizing for that matter.

In private Akinrinade has been particularly irked by this development which he believes to be informed by a certain political obtuseness and lack of maturity. Loquacity has its limits until real bullets start flying. Balkanization does not come easily to people of professional military background.  Having fought with troops and without troops, Akinrinade is not about to be railroaded into a third campaign in old age by ethnic zealots.

This is what makes his intervention particularly intriguing. Like an astute general, he has chosen the occasion and location very well indeed.  Typically and in a gambit that makes logic and symbolism to mesh seamlessly, Akinrinade chose the occasion of a bridge-building in an ancient community in his native Osun state by army engineers to act as a ventilator of public grievances.

He was neither bitter in tone nor caustic in tenor. Having praised the military for this exemplary display of patriotism and civic responsibility, the former chief of army staff went ahead to unburden his heart and reiterate the charges of bigotry, religious fundamentalism, ethnic one-upmanship and arrant nepotism often laid at the doorsteps of President Mohammadu Buhari.

Without being patronising or hurtful, Akinrinade urged his former subordinate to shape up and accept the fact that rather than balkanize the country as some people allege, “restructuring is what is required to move our country out of the doldrums into modernity”.

What should interest close observers of these remarkable interventions by three illustrious Yoruba sons is the elective affinity and complementarity of their thinking despite the well-known differences of personality and perspective among them. Not for once did any of them advocate for secession or a precipitate dissolution of the country.

Akinrinade would not even hear of the word. While aggressively probing the soft underbelly of the Buhari administration, Obasanjo canvassed for a structural reorganization based on “mutuality and reciprocity”. Soyinka laments the fact that Nigeria has become “a suppurating slaughterhouse “and urged that the “militarized centralized contraption” should be discarded with.

Secession and balkanization are lazy and uncreative catchwords that have had their time and have never sat well with the Yoruba psyche for reasons earlier adduced. We can be more original and creative in our thinking.

The current universal crisis of the nation-state affords Nigerians an opportunity to come up with original and creative ideas about how to surmount or creatively bypass the affliction in multi-ethnic and multi-religious conglomerations.  This is going to be the true test of the Black person’s liberation from colonial intellectual slavery.

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