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The king, dearth of honour and the of rest us – Part 2

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Dignity does not consist in possessing honours, but in deserving them – Aristotle.

One of those traditional virtues largely missing in the contemporary period is the culture of owo. The English lexicon has it as: honour, humility, respect and reverence. As a concept, it was a predominant feature in the making of traditional social morality and order in many indigenous communities of yesteryears, and few rural settings of today. Let us deduce three senses of its application to underscore how much of the virtue has left modern times.

First, owo connotes a culture of humility and respect. It is a two-way street that accords respect and humility (iteriba) towards others without losing self-respect. The latter implies respecting humanity in oneself. It highlights self-belief, self-dignity, self-worth, being truthful to oneself and living life to the fullest as an individual.

It is that solo recognition that ‘nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind’. Thus, it is immoral to live in servitude, self-abnegation and exploitation. From this end, the golden rule principle of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is best appreciated. Ours is an existence of interdependence; we are not islands. We are therefore duty-bound to respect others – living and non-living things – with whom we share this space. It explains why the habit of respect is cultivated from families, homes, and from the cradle. It reflects in the manner of greeting our folks, expression of gratitude, loyalty to common good, hospitality towards others, and so on. Good conduct begins with greetings; the young acknowledging elders, and vice versa. Mutual reverence defines the mode of relation in all interpersonal affairs and a civic virtue observed by all.

The rationale is that the self and everything around us are forces in motion and essential parts of the whole deserving mutual respect. This forbids wayward conducts (abuku) like cheating, manipulation and indifference towards others. Telling lies and evil deeds erode confidence, trusts and goodwill. So otito, se rere; eni se otito ni Imale o gbe (Tell the truth and do good; the gods are behind the forthright). It implies due cognizance of the rights and place of others in the scheme of things, irrespective of age, class, status or station in life. We have to treat others as ends in themselves; respecting them as autonomous beings capable of reasoning and making choices. However, our humble mien does not mean loss of self-worth or reptilian obeisance; rather, an understanding that one would not always be right. Such is the attitude of the mind that recognizes life as a shared existence and there is no I without others, and no community without the individuals.

The second sense of owo, closely tied with the foregoing, is the culture of reverence for leaders and others by the virtue of their exalted roles in the society. These exceptional personalities are across the spheres of the society and accorded relevant titles. For instance, elected officeholders are today called Honourable (eni iyi); some are Reverends (eni-owo) in the religious space; in the general setting there are eni eye (respectable persons).

While it signifies utmost respect from the public, it places huge demands and trusts on their consistent forthrightness. That is where the traditional kings and elders of the land belong. A i f’agba f’enikan, ni ko je k’aye o gun. To look down on the king, leaders and elders, is tantamount to contempt for the gods. It is a thin line no subject is expected to cross for the sake of peace and tranquility in the community. It was not only the Alaafin that was scorned in the opening bathtub narrative; rather the entirety of the culture, tradition, people, gods and everything that the Kabiyesi represents.

On the flip side, the persons deserving of honour or Honourables are exceptional and moral shining light for the people. The holders are personalities of exceptional good deeds that earned them leadership positions and representatives of the gods. It is expected of them to be consistent and unwavering in good conducts. Back in the days when kings, like the true Commander-in-Chiefs, led their kingdoms to warfare, the kings would rather die in battle than be captured by aggressors. In most recent times, a good example is Col. Adekunle Fajuyi of blessed memory. He was a gallant soldier of rare courage and loyalty that sacrificed his life rather than compromised his principles and betrayed his boss, Aguiyi Ironsi. That is what it means to be a man of honour. But not too many men can wear that lapel of honour today.

The third sense of owo is spiritual reverence and immunity. A king or elder is said to have owo or imbued with one, when he is untouchable. No one touches the king without dire consequences. It connotes a certain myth in leadership that must never be demystified, if the society or a state must retain its fear factor and order. It is forbidden for the king or elder to be dragged into the mud or engage in a knock-down-drag-out battle. The king would rather join his ancestors than be disgraced. Back in those days of reverent fear, respect, and honour, the subjects keep their distance from the kings. The kings’ face is never for the public glare. Except at festivals or major events, an Oba rarely steps out in the open or daylight. Even his shadow could hurt the uninitiated that comes too close. Those were the days when monarchs were heard more than seen.

It is important to note that the concept of honour is not exclusive to the African culture or its ancient period. Honour, respect and humility have enjoyed a fair portion of the Western literatures, with examples of individuals that demonstrated rare nobility and deeds of eminence at various epochs. One of the pioneering figures of Western thought system, Aristotle, tailored the virtues along his Golden Mean theory. For him, self-respect is a virtue of which servility, arrogance and vanity are vices. Humility is a virtue, compared to vices of self-belittling and self-righteousness. Respect is also virtuous, while exploitation and excessive deference to others are vices. The virtues are not ideals expected among low grade minds.

Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, saw a rare example of honour and courage in the death of Socrates, who died unable to compromise his ideals of respecting authority. Though he was convicted on trumped-up charges of inciting the youths, Socrates refused his friends’ pleas to abscond from the authorities. Socrates’ argument was that he would be setting a bad example for the Athenian youths. Rather, he chose to set the example of holding on to one’s convictions and principles so strongly even to the point of death. That is what it means to be a person of honour or an honourable! Both the African and Western orientations reckoned with that.

Today, we can only agonise the dearth of such honourable deeds across the public space. It is not to imply that men and women of honour and of unflinching principles are completely absent. The point is that they are rarity where they matter the most. Indeed, the social settings and rules are significantly different in modern times compared to the days of the Old Oyo Empire or Athens of Socrates’ days. Monarchical system of government and divine rule have since yielded ground to democratic system of government and constitutionalism.

The close-knit family system and communalism have been replaced by multiculturalism and cosmopolitan life.  The informal system of learning by awareness of nature, to build character, native intelligence and be useful to the community, have given way to formal and certificated learning of theories, which imbued learners to be smart and loyal only to the self. With it is the loss of values and character. It is not far-fetched where monarchs are becoming political appointees of local council chairmen, so-called Honourables and public officeholders are stealing, telling lies and fainting to evade accountability, and religious leaders exploiting their poor congregations to get by. But where are the rest of us and what can we do in this tragic dizzying climate and its season of anomie?


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old Oyo EmpireThe king
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