We begin this article by stating that many African traditional societies are more democratically organized than what we have today in Nigeria and other sub-Saharan African modern nation states. While we may not delude ourselves that their structures are like those of modern democracies, however, one can affirm that the fundamental elements of the democratic social organization in Africa need only to be updated and modernized for the realization of a dynamic process of democratization in contemporary Africa.
This is the essence of the present calls by conscientious individuals and groups to Nigeria’s political leadership, to please, return to the ‘drawing board’, to our African cultural matrix, to our founding story as a nation state, and begin as a matter of urgency, the process of renegotiating the Nigerian state on our terms as Africans. That is, for a new political system that is African-oriented to emerge. Because the Nigerian state as we have it today, is a victim of ‘colonial dispossession of Africa’, which Chinua Achebe, the doyen of African literature, continuously reminded us in all his early novels, beginning with his Magnus opus, “Things Fall Apart.”
In Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, Obierika, one of the elders that visited Okonkwo in his place of exile in his mother’s town village Mbanta, had this to say:
“But apart from the church, the white man had also brought a government. They had built a court where the District Commissioner judged cases in ignorance. He had court messengers who brought men to him for trial. … Does the white man understand our custom? … How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad.” (NB. Emphasis mine).
Continuing, Obierika told Okonkwo:
“The white man is very clever. He came quietly with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart”, chapter 20).
Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, is a reminder that the first victim of the colonial dispossession of Africa is African culture; that is, after the colonial “human-dispossession” of African humanity – the permanent assaults and wounds inflicted on the human dignity of the African by the European and Arab Slave merchants!
The colonial dispossession of African culture affected the African worldview and philosophy of life so badly, that modern African nation states were not founded on African worldview and philosophy, but rather on the “colonial-imposed” Western ideology, exploitative philosophy and neo-colonial agenda for Africa. This is the problem.
The African traditional societal organization – African communitarian experience of societal organization, which used to be the bedrock, in fact, the substratum upon which traditional African society itself was, ab initio, founded, was erased and in its place, the Western colonial ideology and neo-colonial agenda was implanted. Colonial dispossession of African culture is this erosion of the African communitarian experience of societal organization. This is the root of the present-day political crisis and instability in many African states, especially, Nigeria.
One of the major reasons for which our ancestors bequeathed us the African communitarian experience of societal organization was to guarantee the continued existence of our African society, and to ensure peace, security and prosperity of African people. Thus, the default in the founding of modern African nation states through colonial fiat, is the problem with Nigeria. Until this problem is addressed and resolved amicably, we are not yet ready to tell ourselves the truth about the origins of our problem as a nation state in Nigeria.
Therefore, the aim of our present article is to highlight once more, the importance of political renegotiation of the Nigerian state – a new political order that will take seriously the modernization of our African ancestral cultural matrix of societal organization, which will serve as an alternative, to what is in place today in the country. The overall aim, however, is to highlight the need for a listening leadership in Nigeria – a leader with “large ears” that will listen to the yearnings of majority of the people in the country today, especially, the marginalized and the persecuted groups, and do the needful before it is too late.
This is because the so-called democratization process in the post- colonial African nation states does not represent a real experience of democracy. It is true that consultation with a people through the ballot box is an important element in the exercise of democratic rights; however, this does not necessarily represent the full or adequate expression of democratic life as experienced in African communitarianism.
In Nigeria today, therefore, there is an urgent need for leadership with “large ears” – model of a “listening leader” or the government “with large ears”, to be able to discern what the “spirit” of the people are telling the political leadership itself in the land. In this way, those in leadership position will be able to do the needful before it is too late. Because, as the Catholic Archbishop Cardinal Anthony Okogie of Lagos said few days ago, “Nigeria is a sinking ship being piloted by pirates.” This implies that there is an urgent need for rescue operation before we all sink into the ocean with that “sinking ship”, Nigeria.
Leadership from the perspective of the African communitarian experience of societal organization revolves around two major principals. a) The principle of consultation and negotiations among the components or rather federating units of the society. b) The principle of an image of a leader with “large ears” – a listening leader, fully attuned to the African communitarian spirit of leadership with “large ears.” The two principles are interrelated. They share the same source and have the same objective. They are like two-sides of the coin.
These fundamental elements of the democratic social organization that underpin traditional African society before the advent of modern Western liberal democracy in the continent, are yet to be given adequate attention in modern African political systems and rhetoric of our politicians.
For instance, sometimes, one is at pain to follow the political discourse of most African presidents and politicians today, especially, when they speak of an African country such as Nigeria as a ‘developing country’, and therefore, would use it as an excuse for their mediocrity and ineptitude leadership. These African politicians forgot that African traditional societies were practicing democracy ever before Europeans set their feet on the continent. And that traditional African societies were even more democratically organized than what we have today in modern sub-Saharan African nation states, and even in the West.
The tendency to use the novelty of “colonial imposed democracy” – malfunctioning colonial inherited form of liberal democracy in Africa as an excuse for ineptitude leadership and neo-autocratic regime of African politicians, is very unfortunate. Recently in a statement accredited to him, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari fell into this trap. Speaking at a meeting in Abuja with north-east governors last Monday, August 10, 2020, President Buhari said, that his government wanted to show Nigerians, that, “We know we are a developing country but we respect our country, otherwise, with the use of Army, the police and the rest of them, we could have overrun you. We just wanted to show that we are humane and we are Nigerians. We will continue to do our best.” (See, TheCable.ng August 10, 2020).
What was obvious in that speech is that the President as it were, was sending a signal to those governors from the opposition party (PDP), who came to see him along with those of his ruling party (APC). In a typical way of an African ‘imperial leader’, his, was a polite way of reminding those governors from the opposition party that it is out of his magnanimity as “humane” and “benevolent” President that he has not yet ordered the military, police and the Supreme Court to remove them from office. That is, in spite of the fact these are themselves, duly elected governors in their own rights.
This type of mindset of a modern day African President – in the so-called democratic set-up, is very strange to a more democratically, organized traditional African societies. In fact, democracy in African traditional societies invalidates statements such as “Africa is not ripe for democracy.” Just as it invalidates equally, the statement, which says that ‘we must accept as our fate as a developing ‘country’, the political mess that Nigeria has become today.’ Nothing can be far from the truth than this type of deceptive diagnosis of Nigeria as an African society by our politicians.
A) Leadership based on Principles of Consultation and Negotiations
In many traditional African societies, any decision or order from the center, not previously discussed, deliberated and agreed upon at the grassroots levels – family, village or clan, etc., before implementation by the government at the center, is vehemently opposed and never obeyed or taken seriously by the people at the grassroots level. In this regard, Elochukwu E. Uzukwu, a Nigerian born African theologian, has this to say:
“Democracy, informed by the communitarian experience of Africa, is a situation where people who make up a society are aware of their common interests and objectives, determine the way to realize such interests and objectives, and participate in the execution or realization of such aims and objectives of their society either directly or through their representatives.” (E.E. Uzukwu, “A Listening Church: Autonomy and Communion in African Churches”, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 1996, 12).
This is the “African Palaver”, the community public discourse in popular assembly at the village square. Such a community discourse – African Palaver, privileges the power of that spoken ‘Word’ and community participation of every member, in a free and democratic atmosphere, in affairs that affect the community and all the members, living, dead, and those yet to be born. Again, in such a democratic-communitarian setting, orders which come from the top without prior discussion or negotiation are ignored. The following saying among the Igbo, captures it very well, “Igbo enweghi eze” (Igbo have no king). It simply means that Igbo do not tolerate autocracy.
This is because, in a typical traditional African communitarian experience, each village-group (or town), is an autonomous community. Some constitute themselves into mini-kingdoms – like the Igbo, or the Yoruba, or Bini, etc. In many communities, aristocratic associations (e.g. “ozo” titled men among the Igbo) may develop as a mark of success, with increasing political privilege and responsibility; also trade associations (medicine men, blacksmiths, etc.) and age-grades are developed.
It is a situation where laws or decisions affecting the society at various levels and in various shades and forms are discussed in meetings of the youth (age-grades), married women, daughters (married to other village-groups), titled men and women, elders (family, clan, or kindred heads), and so forth. Society is anchored on the sacred; and ritual is exercised on various levels by heads of families, kindreds, clans, and village-groups (ancestral-cult, common festivals at various levels, and related cults and by priests of divinities).
In such African traditional societies, e.g. among the Igbo, there is a priest-kingship in one village-group (Nri), and the collective ancestral temple of the entire Igbo race at the head village-group of the first son of the progenitor of Igbo people (Eri) – Obuga (Tempel) Shrine (at Enugwu Aguleri). Since there is no centralized authority among the Igbo, matters of litigation which are not resolved to the satisfaction of litigants may be referred to oracles, which are the last court of appeal.
Furthermore, leadership of consultation and negotiations also characterize not only traditional African societies with dispersal authority (authority at many hands as among the Igbo), but similar experience is common, though in a different form, in societies with centralized authority as found in ancient African kingdoms. These kingdoms are called “states” (according to the experience of the West) while the other types are classified as “stateless” societies. However, common elements undergird the formation of both types of traditional African society.
The primary characteristic of African kingdoms is the existence of a kingship – which is either hereditary (such as the Ganda) or elective (such as the Oyo), Yoruba). Second, these monarchies are either autocratic or oligarchic. Under autocratic or absolute monarchy, the ruler directly appoints and removes his representatives as he likes. This was prevalent situation in those kingdoms, such as Mali and Songhai, which were under the influence of Arab-Muslim culture. The rulers (Mansa or Askia as they were called) appointed military commanders or slaves over provinces and districts, and these were directly responsible to the rulers. This kind of dictatorship is not characteristic of typical African kingdoms, though such a tendency remains a temptation to centralized authority.
As I wrote in one of my previous articles, the monarchies which are oligarchic are the more typical African pattern of kingship. There is a monarch, but the exercise of authority is collegial. It is a type of “constitutional monarchy.” The Bini, Oyo, Egba, Hausa, Ashanti, Abomy, Zulu, Kongo, Swazi, and Ganda kingdoms are examples of such oligarchic monarchies (though the Hausa kingdoms were later influenced by Islamic culture after the Dan Fodio jihad and became centralized and autocratic under Fulani emirs and the Sultan).
However, the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo is a typical example. The Alafin is the head of the empire. His person is sacred. He is in intimate relationship with God and the divinities. Peace, justice, and prosperity are mediated to the kingdom through his person. To administer the immense Oyo territory, there are heads of districts, tribunals, the army, and so on. But working very closely with him on a daily basis is his council of chiefs – the Oyo-mesi (seven very powerful chiefs who meet twice a day to deliberate on the affairs of the state.
Indeed, it is the Oyo-mesi which elects the Alafin. Each member advises the king on a key issue of state. The Bashorun (who is first among the seven) crosschecks the king’s actions and can call for his removal. Next in rank are the army chiefs (eso-seventy captains who direct the wars that have been declared by the Alafin). Then follow the clan chiefs and family heads. Since the Oyo empire was a confederation grouping together different units, heads of clans and families played an important role in the administration of the kingdom. There are also associations such as Ogboni (more characteristic of the Egba kingdom) and the age grades (which in modern times have been assimilated into the association of youths – egbe).
In fact, the Oyo empire is a system in which a “divine king” assures order, peace, and prosperity; his authority is respected – he is said to have right over life and death; but the authority he exercises is collegial, with established principles to neutralize the monarch.
B) A Listening Leader – Leadership “with large ears”
The second principle of societal organization in African traditional society revolves around the African communitarian experience and image of a leader as ‘dynamic personality’ – a ‘chief’ with a listening ear (“large ears”). A leader with “large ears” – a listening leader, fully attuned to the African communitarian image of leadership. Such a leader is seen as a person living under the gaze of God, ancestors, and spirits, a person living in attentive listening to the community in order to accomplish adequately the demands of leadership and of custodianship of that Word (African Palaver) which belongs to the community.
Have we ever asked ourselves why in many traditional African communities and societies, the totem for the chiefs, or rather traditional rulers is either the “leopard” or “rabbit”? The reason is simple! It is because these unobtrusive animals have “large ears” and “variety of beautiful colors.”
Unfortunately, because of series of wars and threats of wars encountered in some African communities, the image of an obtrusive animal such as leopard (e.g. the Yoruba Amotekum), is depicted nowadays as an image of a ‘warrior’. The same image of a leopard as a totem for chiefs or elders in Igbo culture, has also been turned into an image of a ‘lion’, which is not true as recent research by experts in Igbo culture have shown. The totem for the chiefs in traditional Igbo society is the image of the “leopard.” This is evidence from the variety of colors (of the leopard) skin (leather) of the Igbo totem for chiefs which some mistakenly call “Isi-agu” (lion’s head).
As Chinua Achebe would put it, “In the end, I realized what was the problem: the lion himself. The lion projects too strong an aura of strength to be entirely satisfactory to me as a messenger of truth. I discovered that I did not really want to see the score of narrative between me and my detractors settled by recourse to power, other than the innate power of stories themselves” [African Palaver]. (See, Chinua Achebe, “Home and Exile”, Anchor Books, 2000, 74).
Here, Achebe is using the metaphor of the innate power of stories – the custodianship of the Word, imaged in the “large ears” of the leader as the real temperament that determines traditional African communitarianism and leadership style. For instance, among the Manja of the Central African Republic, the totem for the chief is the rabbit. Again, this is because the unobtrusive animal has “large ears” and variety of colors. Like leopard, he is not monolithic but pluralistic, attentive-listener, accommodating, honest, inviting, and all-embracing.
As is common all over Africa, the chief is considered to be very close to God, to the ancestors, and to the protective spirits of the community. The chief, as it were, does not replace the ancestors. But along with other elders, he makes them present (represents them) in his person and behavior. This is why Africans of the traditional society underline listening as the most dominant characteristic of the leader (chief). His “ears” bring him close to God, ancestors, and divinities and close to the conversations taking place in the community. He has the last word because he speaks after having assimilated and digested the Word in the community. As Uzukwu puts it: “He is the guardian of the dynamic, life-giving Word which creates and re-creates the community. “Word” means truthfulness, fairness, honesty, communication.” (See, E.E. Uzukwu, “A Listening Church”, p. 127).
In other words, for the leader (chief) to be fair, he must be a patient listener. And this listening takes plenty of time. This is what is generally referred to as African “palaver”: the liberation of the speech at all levels of community in order to come close to that Word which is too large for an individual mouth, the Word which saves and heals. African Palaver, in other words, should not be confused with interminable, time-consuming, endless, aimless, useless discussion.
This is because African palaver is about the legitimate custodianship of the Word, imaged in the “large ears” of the chief. A typical example of it is found among the Bambara people of Mali – their philosophy of the “immensity of the Word”. The Word embraces the whole community. When uttered, it heals and provides humane living. Such a sacred Word is “too large” for the mouth. For the Bambara of Mali, this Word is almost personalized phenomenon. No speaker ever totally masters or appropriates it; rather it belongs to the human community. Thus, each sacred speech (of the community leader or of the representative of the community) appropriates this Word.
However, the sharing of the Word in Africa and the levels and patterns of listening and communicating vary depending on whether the system of social organization prefers authority in many hands or centralized authority. As Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” shows, many missionaries and colonial officials, who labored under superiority complex, found it difficult to appreciate the kind of free speech practiced in Africa, which allows the creative Word to generate humane living in the community. This is especially the case in their encounter with communities which prefer authority in many hands, like the Igbo of South Eastern Nigeria, the setting context of Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”
It must be repeated over and over again, that the present political imbroglio in Nigeria is first and foremost, a cultural crisis. As a cultural crisis, the solution to it is a return to the African Palaver model of a leader – a listening leader “with large ears”. A leader who speaks only after having recorded the discussions going on in the community (nation), so that his speech and action will release the healing Word of which he is the principal custodian, a Word which makes community or nation stand erect. That is, a “Word” that respects, integrates and that has transcended ethnic, cultural and religious bigotry and exaggerated ethnocentrism.
Anybody in a position of leadership be it civil (political), religious, cultural or traditional, in a pluralistic community or rather in heterogeneous nation state like Nigeria, must be open to pluralism. He must be a listening leader – a leader “with large ears.” Such a leader does not seek to dominate or impose, but to converse, to dialogue and to search for consensus. Such a leader must know that the liberation of the “Word” is the best antidote against autocracy.
‘The experience of dictatorships, lopsided administrations, and the control of the mass media by government, where speech no longer is a means of communication but a tool for propaganda and lying, are far removed from the experience of communication, fairness, and truthfulness, which is the aim of speech and palaver in traditional African communities.’
Sometimes, in the name of African culture, those who like to hold the Word captive make the claim that as “chiefs” they have the last word. We have seen it in the likes of Mobutu of Ex-Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), who propagated the slogan “one father, one mother, one country, one chief.” His aim was to seduce Congolese (Zairians) into believing he was the best thing that ever happened to Zaire.
Many African dictators normally suppress the free press in their attempt to hold the Word captive, an ugly experience Nigeria is once again sliding into today under a regime that is supposed to be democracy. African leaders who behave in this way forget that by so doing they are telling the world that they are nothing but charlatans and terrorists. Because instead of being leaders with “large ears”, they have decided to turn themselves into hirelings and robbers who are there to steal and destroy. Communication, fairness, and truthfulness elude them because they have failed to live the first test of leadership in Africa: listening to conversations going on at the grassroots level of the community and nation.
Recent happenings in Nigeria are clear indications that those at the helm of affairs of the nation – political leaders have very “short ears”, instead of the leaders’ “large ears.” As one author puts it: “they are hard of hearing. Indeed, they are deafened by the noise of their propaganda.” They have failed to live under the gaze of the ancestors and God, in order to qualify to draw from the pool of that creative and healing Word which is “too large” for the mouth of one individual, but which is so crucial for up-building the community.
Only a government “with large ears”, a government that listens and dialogues with its people of different ethnic-nationalities without discrimination or favoritism, a government that meets and talks amicably with political opponents, movements or notable activists, including dissenting voices, will be in a position to tackle, in honesty, truthfulness and justice, the political impasse in Nigeria today.
Fr. Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest, is Professor Ordinarius of contextual theology at the Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome
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