Rev. Fr. John Segun Odeyemi is a catholic priest, he writes from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.
I seem in recent times, to have had the misfortune, or fortune, depending on how you approach the matter; to have had an uncanny experience through social media that forced me into introspection and ultimately into a conundrum to which I have found no adequate response. I have encountered various instances where political authority goes into a headlong collision with traditional authority. This is an interesting phenomenon for the African political arrangements, which needs review and reevaluation. The premise is simple- all traditional authorities emerge from a cultural space supervised and managed by ethnic will, cultural norms and above all, under the tutelage of the ancestors and gods of the land. On the other hand, political arrangements, albeit such as democratic institutions, are supervised by the caveat of the citizens who elect and put into office, candidates of their own choosing. Within the same structure, two powers are in conflict over who ought to be superior to the other. Candidly speaking, it is more of a fundamentally based philosophical question of far-reaching epistemic proportions than many will want to engage or query. An attempt to phrase the question may go thus; in our contemporary societies in Africa or in Nigeria, does authority reside within the claims of culture, the ancestors and gods or within the circumspection of democracy, flag and constitution?
Naturally, those ‘born again’ by the social will of western education and civilization and who are adopted into the two principal religions which are now dominant on the continent may share no qualms on this question. However, for those of us who are philosophically restless and deranged by the myriad of issues making the future of people on the black continent look rather rudderless, we cannot but continue to question fundamental assumptions of ontological values. I cringe and shudder every single time I see a governor bestow a staff of office on a traditional ruler. Worse still, when I saw a video on social media when a state governor in Nigeria summoned traditional rulers in his state, and without fear, respect or any reservations, laced into them with invectives that should not be directed to men who occupy traditional chairs. I have also seen video clips of traditional masquerades bundled into the open back of police vans, under arrest. In a far more lugubrious manner, videos have surfaced on social media where masquerades, our heavenly visitors have been filmed participating in mundane things unbefitting of their cultural and supernatural status. I am particularly bewildered when I see two masquerades get in a fistfight, to the point of sacrilege when they unmask themselves! Taboo! Or, saving the best for last, a masquerade on break from masquerading; cooling off with a bottle of beer in public!
Contemporary societies have assumed that political office is superior to traditional crowns and thrones! It is clear that we have abandoned the gods of our ancestors or possibly, the gods, who are wise, saw into the future and became deus absconditus – the absconded gods. Whichever the case might be, the conglomeration of persons within a given territory that constitute a sovereign nation is naturally endowed with their own specific cultural identity. This is rooted in the belief system, the moral norms, traditions, cultural patterns, rituals, myths etc. Without this cultural consciousness, a nation is incapable of comprehending or understanding its identity. Historically, the destabilization or disconnection of a people from their cultural heritage has been employed as tools for the subjugation, oppression and overpowering of peoples both by colonialists and by enslavers. It can be stated that the woes of many an African nation rests on the lack of clear-cut cultural identity and worse still lack of attrition. Rather, what is all-pervasive is an uncritical acceptance and embrace of all things foreign and the total abandonment and abnegation of all that is traditionally cultural to us.
There is no doubt that in a globalized and postmodern context, cultures will interact and influence each other. The argument is to otherwise recognize and name the folly of abandoning who you are intrinsical with all the codes, intrinsic markers, cultural DNAs that lies at the core of one’s being-ness. To recognize this anomaly is to then go into an introspection of what possibly lies at the heart of the social disconnection in the body politic in colonized spaces. Did traditional people suffer a severing of their life cord from their earth, ancestors, cultures and gods by external persuasion or by personal inertia and lack of obscurantism? The answer is not farfetched for me; every single instance where missionaries have preached and introduced a new religion, they did not destroy shrines or existing places of worship. They simply stole carvings and figurines from the shrines, spirited them to their home countries, adorn their museums with them and re-named them as artefacts! Usually, it is his acolyte, a native and former adherent of that traditional religion who took a sledgehammer to these shrines, which are not ‘fetish’, ‘pagan’ and ‘idol’ worship. One is flummoxed when at the few traditional festivals, when offerings are made to the gods, they also have become psychedelic by accepting foreign whiskey and no longer drink palm wine or the local distil. How does one explain an institution like the traditional monarchies common among indigenous African empires, which today almost serves no known didactic function? I argue that they are institutions that siphon money from government coffers to maintain a history that we as a people have consigned to the dunghills of a once upon a time mimetic and dysfunctional history.
For indigenous peoples especially on the African continent, to be able to re-write their own history and create political systems that suites their own context; each nation must reconnect to its own cultural identity prior to the invasion. We must find intelligent ways to study western concepts and see the ideas we can merge with our preexisting traditional concepts even if it means creating something new for our times and experience. As long as we abandon our cultural identities, our nations will not find their souls. They will lack self-consciousness and direction. These nations will remain, only pariahs, crybabies forever clinging to the aprons of their surrogate western nannies.