The Persona of Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Buhari’s Burden of Trust By Ogbu, Blessing Ekpere
When Nigerians voted massively for General Muhammadu Buhari who against all odds was contesting against an incumbent in the 28th March Presidential Polls, they voted for change. The popular shibboleth then, as it has so remained till date, was Change. There was no doubt as to the sociological context of this political and ideological concept. It was Change against a culture of impunity which had assumed a monstrous proportion under the presidential watch of former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. It was Change against an unspoken anti-people economic policies which over the years have seen the creation of an infinitesimal number of persons who are stupendously wealthy and the aggressive impoverishment of the generality of the masses for whom Government is meant, and for whom Government supposedly is meant to exist and from whom Government supposedly derives its legitimacy. It was Change against a system that was comfortable as majority of the citizens continue to sink below the acceptable level of penury, deprivation and privation – if there is any such thing as the acceptable level of penury, deprivation and privation. It was Change against a culture of praetorian prebendalism, with nepotism displacing merit, and political expediency dislodging due process. It was Change against the unwritten code of state-sponsored politics of divisiveness, pitting one section of the country against the other, and the adherents of one religion against the other. It was Change against the legalization of criminality and the economic empowerment of criminals. It was Change in all ramifications; a sort of revolution apotheosised in its uniqueness by the coordinated response of the citizenry against its oppressors and the absence of ogreish bloodletting.
President Muhammadu Buhari having being sworn in on the epochal 29th May, the reality of the enormous task before the People’s General becomes all the more daunting. From the day former President Jonathan lost his re-election bid, Nigerians have been subject to such unmitigated hardship even the scum of the earth in other less-endowed climes would find most befuddling, utterly repulsive and ultimately provocative. From the unending fuel scarcity and the systemic collapse and economic paralysis it engenders in public and private sectors; to the unprecedented power outages lasting, in some quarters, seven to fourteen days at a stretch, Nigerians have been dealt a fiendish raw deal. It was as if the former President decided to express his spite for Nigerians by unleashing misery on Nigerians. It was a hardship that found no expression in hypocrisy, as the perpetrators did not deign to mitigate the hardship even on the day of inauguration of the new Government.
Yet the news got gloomier and the outlook got bleaker. Several days before the inauguration of this Government, the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo while addressing participants at the Policy Dialogue on the Implementation of the Agenda for Change revealed that the Jonathan Administration would be leaving a debt of $60 Billion for the incoming Administration. Before that, there had been threats from stakeholders that workers in Government employ in about nineteen States would be embarking on industrial action. The reason for this, according to the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), was the inability of the State Governments concerned to pay the salaries and pensions of the workers for several months. In fact, the Abia State Government was reported to owe its workers in the State Teaching Hospital nine months arrears of salaries. By what moral code, then, do the elected representatives of the people operate? The other day, the erstwhile Minister of Finance was reported to have announced that the Government of the Federation was compelled to borrow money, not to pay the civil servants whose salaries remained unpaid as at then, but to pay the allowances of the political office holders.
It comes down to the question of legitimacy. If the Government of former President Jonathan believed that it came into existence as a result of the popular expression of the people, his policies and style of administration would have reflected that belief. The entire gamut of the concept of political legitimacy finds substance in the concept that, as the German political philosopher Dolf Sternberger contends, governmental power can be exercised only with a consciousness on the government’s part that it has a right to govern, and with some recognition by the governed of that right. In other words, popular explicit and implicit consent of the governed is a major factor to determine the survivability of any government in a democracy. In a civil society, the people, as the repository of ultimate sovereignty, vest legitimacy on the government through general elections. On the 28th March, Nigerians came out to vest legitimacy on President Muhammadu Buhari to form a new Government on the 29th May, 2015. After all, as Bruce Gilley rightly observes in his work “The Meaning and Measure of State Legitimacy: Results for 72 Countries”, legitimacy is an endorsement of the State by the citizens at a moral or normative level. He goes on to suggest that one of the means of measuring legitimacy is through the concept of “performance legitimacy” which he defines as how citizens evaluate State performance from a public perspective and not from a personal view of goodness or benefits accruable to the individual. For instance, under this doctrine of performance of legitimacy, the endorsement of former President Jonathan by Nigerian thespians falls short of the meaning of legitimacy since the endorsement was obtained at the cost of three billion Naira.
But, even with the highest measure of legitimacy and the implicit trust Nigerians have in the almost mystical ability of the General to revive Nigeria, an objective observer will not hesitate to note that General Buhari is not coming to a tea party. Fortunately, the General has never played the ostrich in recognising these harsh economic and structural realities bedevilling nation. How he treats these challenges will determine his place in history. It is my firm conviction that he had set out on the right path when he warned all the State Governors that they should ensure they meet all outstanding financial obligations before the 29th day of May. Specifically, he wondered what the second term Governors had been doing with the State resources at their disposal for the eight years they had held sway at the helm of affairs of their States. The admonition came when the APC Governors visited the General, seeking to obtain some form of financial concession from him. That move by the APC Governors is indicative of the mentality with which these politicians come to Governance in this part of the world. Government, as far as these politicians are concerned, is the platform for self-actualization. The veritable vehicle to this ultimate egoistic ambitiousness is the mouthing of the clichéd vulgarism of call for service. Further to this, he reportedly rejected the so-called ministerial nominee list from the APC Governors.
And therein lies the quality of a good leader: firmness and strong character. A leader does not get paid to be liked: he gets paid to lead. This same plea of financial concession was made to former President Jonathan by the Nigerian Governors Forum in 2010 and he fell for their carnivorous appetite. Either that, or that he possesses an innate streak for sleaze which finds comfortable accommodation in the company of corrupt fellows. It is a good thing that the President rebuffed the slimy solicitations of his party men. He has discharged that first call of duty; for it is the people, and not his party men, that should occupy his attention. If his party men cannot deploy the State resources at their disposal efficiently for the common good, he should call them to order. He should not be seen to be in cahoots with the enemies of the people. That is the burden of trust.
The nation is in dire straits. Having put the Governors in their place, he should turn his attention on the neo-imperial forces of economic regression which have held our economic development hostage, a situation Chambers Umezulike describes as “economic growth without economic development” in his novel “MALCOLM”. Cabals in virtually all sectors of the economy latch their vice-like grip on the jugulars of the nation, as they watch her convulse in spasmodic death throes. These are the modern day barons who have sworn a devilish oath that the nation’s economy must remain prostrate, since in the hopelessness of Nigeria lay their economic bliss. These people have ruined the nation’s textile industries. They have poured miasmic hemlock on the nation’s power sector and enshrouded the energy sector with the cerement of knavery. There is no need to mention their grip on the petroleum sector: it is self-evident. Exploiting their contacts in high places, they have subject Nigerians to a less than human existence; an existence that is animalistic in its nastiness, brutal in its brevity and nihilistic in its reality. Little wonder, then, that former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, speaking through his representative, Lord Mandelson, advised the People’s General to make far-reaching decisions in his first few days in office, as that would stamp his authority on the system.
The total emasculation of the cabals that have subject Nigerians to a gruelling existence and have made nonsense of the essence of Statehood must be accorded top priority by President Buhari. Harold Laski, prominent Professor of Political Economy and one time Leader of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom who defines the State as an organisation to enable the mass of men to realise social good on the largest possible scale. Earlier on, Aristotle had posited that the State came into being to provide for the bare needs of life, but that it continues in being for the sake of a good life. No political scientist worth his name will contend that Nigeria is run like a State. No. It is more accurate to describe Nigeria as a huge conglomerate where the political class is the board of directors and its subalterns the shareholders. Extending this analogy, therefore, Nigerians become consumers whose interests are not taken into account, but who are made, nonetheless, to applaud the policies of these power brokers, policies which, in both the short and the long run, do not improve the lives of the masses; policies which are ultimately beneficial to the cabal and their elitist collaborators; policies which have turned the Nigerian State to a baron’s fealty. These cabals have ensured, over the years, the grounding of the nation’s rail system so that their haulage business could thrive. These cabals have sabotaged all efforts at revamping the power sector so that the electricity generating plants which they import will have a ready market. These cabals have thoroughly messed up the blessings that ought to accrue to Nigeria as an oil-producing nation simply on account of the petrodollars that accrue to them. That the nation’s refineries are not functional, or functioning below its installed capacity is an eloquent testimonial of the desperation of these cabals and their elitist collaborators who do not see the grievous irony of their greed. President Muhammadu Buhari must of necessity dismantled these anti-people structures. He must of necessity protect the people on whose goodwill he rode to power. He must of necessity protect their interests. He must of necessity stand with them against the avaricious appetite of these cabals. That was the mistake the shoeless one made. Having rode to power on the wings of popular acclamation, he turned his back on the very vehicle of his political progression and aligned himself with the oppressive cliques whose existence is associative with the nation’s decimation. He forgot that legitimacy, though vested by the people on the extant authority, can be divested, following Bruce Gilley’s principle of Performance Legitimacy.
With the cabals out of the way, the good General must perforce look inwards to deal with that bunch of overfed ‘Most Distinguisheds’ and ‘Honourables’ whose remunerations have been shrouded in secrecy since the beginning of time. The inequitable wages that the political class, especially the legislators, earn for doing virtually nothing must be addressed. When viewed against the backdrop of the peanuts the hardworking civil servants earn, the stark contrast becomes alarming and a ready recipe for civil insurrection. The unjust and inequitable reward system does not make for a stable society. For as Aristotle posited, “Inequality is generally at the bottom of internal warfare in States. For it is in their striving for what is fair and equal that man becomes divided. For those who are bent on equality start a revolution, if they believe that their having less are yet the equals of those who have more.”
Granted, there may be some truth in these words from Lewis Thomas when he wrote thusly: “When you are confronted by any complex social system, such as an urban center or a hamster, with things about it that you are dissatisfied with and anxious to fix, you cannot just step in and set about fixing with much hope of helping. This realization is one of the sore discouragements of our century. . . You cannot meddle with one part of a complex system from the outside without the almost certain risk of setting off disastrous events that you hadn’t counted on in other, remote parts. If you want to fix something you are first obliged to understand . . . the whole system. Intervening is a way of causing trouble.” That, perhaps, is the trouble with the established order whose death-knell Nigerians sounded on the 28th March. It is no secret that members of the established order never wanted a Buhari presidency. A Buhari presidency having being made possible by the avowed wishes of Nigerians operating on Victor Hugo’s historic quote that “An idea whose time has come can never be stopped by anybody”, it is incumbent on the People’s General that he runs a people-oriented Government.
In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, the tragic hero, is a strong character who plays prominent roles in the socio-cultural life of Umuofia. At a climactic time in the life of that community when Ikemefuna is to be sacrificed, Okonkwo receives a grave visitor: Ogbuefi Ezeudu, the oldest man in Umuofia. Though Ezeudu is a member of the Council of Elders which sit to decide the fate of Ikemefuna, he visits Okonkwo a day before the decision of the Elders will be carried into effect to warn him not to participate in the killing of the lad. In the words which have assumed a very significant position in literary lore, Ezeudu cautions him thus: “The boy calls you ‘father’: do not bear a hand in his death.”
It is instructive to note that Okonkwo, driven by his hubris and innate fear of being thought weak, pulls out his machete and kills Ikemefuna. In his characteristically terse manner, Chinua Achebe captures the moment thusly: “As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry “My father, they have killed me” as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.” That marks a turning-point in the life of Okonkwo.
Similarly, the President should note that Nigerians, like Ikemefuna, call him father, or, in the popular parlance, ‘Baba’. The campaign catchphrase had been “Sai Baba”. It will be morally reprehensible and ultimately the first step towards his popular alienation should President Muhammadu Buhari, the General of the Talakawas, turn his back on the masses and choose rather to dine with the oppressors of the people.
Ogbu, Blessing Ekpere Esq., a Legal Practitioner, writes from Abuja.