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Esu: A metaphor for social justice and reform – Part 2

By Wole Oyebade
08 October 2020   |   3:59 am
Every human society, to be peaceful and progressive, must be just. Both Western and African ancient thoughts agree on this. The pioneer of Western thoughts, Socrates, once said that a society...

He that is possessed with a prejudice is possessed with a devil, and one of the worst kinds of devils, for it shuts out the truth, and often leads to ruinous error – Tryon Edwards

Every human society, to be peaceful and progressive, must be just. Both Western and African ancient thoughts agree on this. The pioneer of Western thoughts, Socrates, once said that a society is just when all individuals, in accordance with their natural abilities find their right places in the polity. Specifically in Plato’s Republic, Socrates reckoned that men who are led by reason should lead the state. Those led by the chest or the courageous should be soldiers and in charge of defence. The rest, driven by their appetite or stomach, should be artisans without interference in other roles.

Ifa as well provides for statecraft and sustainable social justice. Ifa hinges justice on cosmic equilibrium, especially between dominant good and evil forces. The supposition is that every entity is a force, and is alive in African reality. That is, human beings are not the only ones alive. Our deities, ancestors, animals, plants, sand, iron, air, and other seemingly inanimate objects are alive in African cosmos, where everything interpenetrates and mutually interdependent. Each force, depending on its ranking, carries a measure of power and influence with capacity for good and evil. Good is done when other forces are treated with respect and dignity. It is evil to exploit or be aggressive towards others for selfish advantage. Both are not without their consequences in African ontological settings conducts. It follows that it is the more of evil tendencies that upset the ontological balance, social harmony and plunder the entire society into chaos as was the case in the early days of Orunmila above.

Saddled with this all-important equilibrium is Esu. Among the 401 deities or ministers of God, Esu or Elegbara qualifies as the minister of justice – with extended powers of the chief judge, the police chief and benevolent god, all put together. He holds the powers of life and death, good fortune and misfortune, which are accorded to men based on the reports Esu presents before Olodumare. So, Esu is the fear factor and powerful arbiter against evil. To be an evildoer is to be a candidate of Esu’s antics and punishment. It is believed that the agency of Esu lives with evildoers, and without appeasement, Esu steadily stirs them to calamity and disastrous end. The system recognises that good things are destroyed where evils thrive (Bi ile ba n gbe os’ika, oun rere a maa baje). But the beauty of Esu, his method of operations, and the entire traditional justice system is that he not only punishes misdemeanors, he also rewards good and virtuous deeds, as an incentive for more good deeds. Lest we forget, he is a duality of malevolence and benevolence actions.

Agentive and supernatural justice system of old is largely different from the formal and legal protocols of the modern era. Today, we are familiar with the justice system that operates by the rules and punishes offenders in a judicial process. But a comprehensive justice system of old has the entire organisation of governance and its fair distribution of wealth and opportunities, toward making the society a just one. From evidence, our modern system is programmed to punish wrongdoings alone. The criminal justice system aims to put offenders to the sword. However, and by design, it takes noble citizenry and good works for granted. Whatever it is worth, the justice system in Nigeria punishes wrongdoings but not promotion of right and moral deeds, like we saw of the traditional system.

Flaws of the modern justice system are most obvious where criminals and other offenders, the primary targets, are going scot-free. Take the fight against corruption for instance; the system was designed to punish treasury looters severely, as deterrence for others. First, the most extreme of all penalties – capital punishment – has never worked as deterrence anywhere in the world. Second, the bigger the fraud in our clime, the better for the offenders to evade punishment. Remember the doctrine of plea bargain, and FG’s once appeal to looters to surrender the loot to get off the hook. Talk of negotiating with terrorists! These are incentives for all to be corrupt. Third, which complements the foregoing, is the nil provision for social benefits or reward systems for those that are not corrupt in our so-called modern justice system. A system that does not cumulatively punish evil severely and reward good deeds handsomely will not end corruption.

As earlier identified, the African traditional worldview rightly recognises that human beings are by nature imperfect, frail and prone to errors by omission or commission. Notwithstanding, it is the duty of the society to place a premium on good deeds, virtuous character, and jolt moral conscience with pragmatic motivations for good over evil. Therefore, the morally compliant get supernatural goodwill as reward. In modern terms, this would mean a secured environment, efficient system, job opportunities, quality and affordable care system, support for the elderly, and other social benefits that are commensurate with one’s station in life. From cradle to the grave, therefore, there would be no need for impatience, and desperation for wealth in a manner that circumvents general interest because everyone naturally finds his right place in the society.

The assumption is that if people’s life gets better, they have higher prospects of fulfilling dreams and potential, they are less incentivised to be bad eggs for Esu to punish. The foregoing may not always be the case as there will be few exceptions. There are people that are kleptomaniac by nature or ipin (lot). That is where the system has to be firm and formidable as that of Esu. Elegbara needs not be instigated to perform his roles. Esu deals with all decisively without compromises. Justice, like a carrot and stick approach, should be a totality that punishes offenders and rewards ideal character to instill confidence in the society.

As I conclude, the relevance of our indigenous orientation is unquestionable. It is gratifying that there are still custodians and worshipers of Esu among us, and they can tell us more about it. We have the Esubiyi (scion of Esu) and Esugbayi (one delivered by Esu), among other families with us. Ile Oluji in Ondo State still holds the annual Esu festival. Ojuelegba junction in Lagos (derived from Oju-ibo-Elegbara – the shrine of Elegbara) still has Esu shrine by the corner. They are all custodian of indigenous heritage and heartwarming to have them. But beyond primordial religious purposes, modern society needs more conceptual understanding and extrapolation of values of such notable deities for social reforms – as departure from borrowed Western concepts that we often don’t understand their backgrounds and cultural limitations. It is in this sense that the upcoming panel discussion on “Esu is not Satan” by Ake Arts and Book Festival is more like it and should be encouraged.

The confusion (rudurudu) in modern African society today is just as it was once in the early days of Orunmila. As Esu established, we all have a hand in the making of our society and can change the narrative through more good deeds. But we must also remember that a justice system that only punishes the bad and rewards not the good is prejudiced and just as culpable, if not wicked. It is just a matter of time before that system is visited by Esu, the god of equity, if Elegbara is not already meddling in its affairs towards perdition. Ire o!