Bello’s Kogi where ‘spirits’ drive
January 1st this fresh year of our Lord 2018 afforded serious minded national papers to announce the winner of their person of the preceding year and one of the best newspapers that money can buy in Nigeria known as the flagship was at its best when it named the Nigerian commoner as the winner of the PERSON OF THE YEAR 2017.
In doing this, The Guardian heralded the announcement with a romantic piece in which the author graphically presented the typical Nigerian as a created human being gifted with self-inflicted behavioural contradictions such as extreme endurance of mis-governance and that typically, an average contemporary Nigerian is a person imbued with inexplicable expansive level of tolerance of the maladministration that has come to define the political leadership that Nigeria has had since it gained the so-called flag independence from the British colonial overlords in 1960.
Few hours after these well-crafted writeups appeared in The Guardian on the characteristics of the typical Nigerian commoner, a well-known controversial governor in one of the North central States, the Kogi State governor Alhaji Bello did what ordinarily is the unthinkable in a typical Nigerian traditional and orthodox settings.
It is not as if this neophyte of a governor is strange to needless controversy given that of all the current 36 state governors, that of Imo state and himself in Kogi have assumed the irritating notoriety of perpetually owing civil servants huge amounts of accumulated wages even after benefiting from the ‘Father Christmas’ Naira Rain known as Paris Club Refund running into billions.
Indeed, in Kogi State many top-level civil servants have committed suicide after being owed for over a year by this rookie of a politician known as Yahaya Bello. But this time around, the Kogi State governor, a maverick politician surpassed all his irritating controversies when he left the arena of physicality to symbolically ‘pollute’ the sacred.
This monumental profanity is not unrelated to the reported presentation of not one but six brand new cars to six masquerades who entertained him and his praise singing guests in Okene, Kogi State just days into the Christmas festivities and indeed few weeks after he inaugurated his massive state-of-the-art housing assets located in his rusty home town of Okenne which is a rocky community deep inside the Confluence State.
As someone from a very traditional Igbo community whereby masquerades are well regarded and seen as spirits, the story of the governor making a donation of cars to masquerades was scandalous and indeed amounted to an unprecedented desecration and profanity of the sacred since spirits in the representation of masquerades are not known to have the human attributes of driving cars.
At best, the masquerades through proxies in human form accept some libations and monetary gifts as a reward for displaying artistic dance steps that would have thrilled the onlookers.
There are communities that masquerades are so revered and dreaded at the same time to a near- ridiculous extent that women aren’t allowed to watch them. In some other communities, certain rituals must be done to appease the ancestors should a woman accidentally touches the masquerades.
The masquerade per say is not known to be the one accepting these cash gifts since there are persons initiated into the cult of masquerades that are assigned with such mundane tasks.
The masquerade is like a ghost that communes with the higher spirits and our forefathers who have transited far ahead of us to cohabit with the Uncreated Creator and Unmoved Mover.
A researcher on African culture and tradition by name E.O. Akubor seems to have provided academic backing to my aforementioned affirmations on the cultural cum spiritual essence of masquerades when he wrote : “In every culture there are certain ideas explicit in the interaction of different elements which in turn sometimes act as an instrument of social control with which different cultural segments are held together.”
The scholar argued that prior to the spread of Islamic and Christian influences, most societies in Africa believed in a complex structure of spirits and ancestors who influenced the living.
To him the above understanding was contained in the traditional belief systems which reflect the wholeness of the universe, that is the various elements of which constituted not only the living, but also the dead and spirits.
Hear the author: “Thus among the Esan, the Erinni (Elimin masquerades) are organic to their myth of creation. In this way, they function as the major stabiliser of the people’s destiny. As far as the people are concerned, they are ancestral spirits who periodically visit their living forebears in masquerade forms. Their visits are regarded as spiritual interventions to the world of the living and as a result are highly venerated.”
Akubor affirmed further that Masquerades are a symbolic resurrection of the ancestors.
Citing the Ifeku-Ibaji, Egwu (masquerade), he narrated that they symbolised both the ancestral shrine as well as represented the resurrected spirits of a dead elder, whose appearance and performance played a protective and regulatory role in the affairs of the living.
“Specifically, it governed the laws which were irrevocable and punishable by death. In the Ejagham society of Cross River, the task of detecting witches and wizards rested with the Echi-Obasi-njom (the masquerade), it usually carried out this function in a wheeling, gliding dance organised by the society.”
According to him, Echi-Obasi-njom was usually accompanied by attendants as it swiftly moved round the settlement in search of witches and wizards in their hideouts.
Delving deeper into his repository of cultural knowledge, the writer then drove the readers to the South West whereby he observed that all over Yorubaland, the Egungun represents the spirit of the ancestors who have descended from heaven/ mountains.
“It celebrates a period when the dead interact with the living, as it is their responsibility to compel the living to uphold the ethical standards of past generations.”
The researcher said that data obtained from primary and secondary sources were deployed to carry out the study in an analytical and narrative historical method and findings indicate that the neglect of this practice has led to an alarming rise in crime, especially owing to the fact that the present agents of crime control in society have really failed.
In the area of crime prevention, the writer asserted that the masquerades were pivotal in protecting the traditional African communities from criminal deviants just as he submitted that modern-day policing institutions in most cases, where they acted as reconciliatory agencies, have ended up creating more conflicts among the people unlike the situation under the traditional masquerade system.
With this rich background knowledge, it is then left to imagination on the extent of desecration of the sacred that took place in Kogi State as alleged by the deputy governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the 2015 gubernatorial election in Kogi State, Mr. James Abiodun Faleke, who has criticised the donation of six Toyota Venza Cars as well as cash gifts of N2 million each by the state Governor, Yahaya Bello, to masquerades in his hometown in Okene.
Thus, his wide-ranging allegations on this scandal that occurred in his state were worrying enough to merit generous coverage in almost the entire mainstream newspapers. It must be borne in mind that both men belong to the All Progressives Congress.
The donations made to the Kogi masquerades, which reportedly took place during the last Ekwechi (masquerade) festival in December have been described as the height of absurdity by Faleke.
The Federal legislator said it was indeed absurd that the same governor who had not been able to pay workers salaries for several months and promised to clear all outstanding salaries and pensions last December without fulfilling it could go ahead to spend money buying car gifts for masquerades.
According to him, “I honestly don’t know what is happening in our state. We thought the governor would heed popular call to settle all outstanding salaries and pensions in the state last December as he promised after receiving the Paris Club refunds of close to N12 billion only for him to pay 60 per cent of two months.
Onwubiko is head of the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA)