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IN SEARCH OF OGUN: SOYINKA, NIETZCHE AND THE EDO CENTURY


The 2003  Egharevba Memorial Lecture


Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

 I was given the freedom to choose the topic for this lecture. As a matter of self-will, I have chosen to speak on my search for Ogun, god of iron and war, roads and creativity. I have made the choice as a way of memorializing
  a discovery that may surprise many people: that there is a relationship, better to call it  a synchrony, between Ogun Ewuare, King of the Edo Kingdom  in the fifteenth century,(1440-1485) and Ogun, the god of iron who, in spite of Christianity and Islam, is still worshipped across much of Southern Nigeria, the West Coast of Africa, the African Diaspora - the West Indies and the Americas. My discovery was made more than twenty years ago.  It acquired a particularly poignant dimension in the anguish that I experienced when the Edo people in 1997 decided to commemorate the Benin Massacre which took place one hundred years before, in 1897. The Benin Massacre was a traumatic incident in the life of the Edo People. It was wreaked by nine war ships, and a tenth �fitted for a hospital� ,which  heaved the weight of the British Empire to the Bight of Benin to crush a people very deliberately provoked  to excuse looting, arson and the mayhem of British over-lordship. British soldiers overran and set Benin, the capital city, ablaze; looted centuries-old art treasures; sent the King, Ovonramwen, into exile at Calabar, and proceeded to mete out the justice of the strong over a city and people whose empire and reigning dynasty had existed for more than five hundred years. Not to forget: it was the second time in recorded history that the city was undergoing such a gory fare. The first time was in 1440, when Ogun Ewuare himself set his own city ablaze to punish the inhabitants for side-tracking him, their Crown Prince, and favouring his younger brother, much against the system of primogeniture which allowed only first sons to inherit the crowns of their fathers. Thereafter, Ogun Ewuare re-established the city on a  footing of absolute sovereignty which no near or distant neighbour could bring to an end. Well, the British brought it to an ending that was still in force one hundred years later. Its centenary commemoration was designed to achieve some self-apprehension. The Edo people made an attempt at national mourning, �sackcloth and charcoal�, as was due and appropriate. But the ceremony lacked truth-value. Because it went with a gush of fanfare. It was as if the Edo had found eventual British rule so much of an improvement on the past or maybe, time had dulled the wounds of defeat so much, or their incorporation into a larger nation called Nigeria had become so commodious an arrangement, that they were more eager to mark than to mourn what happened a hundred years before. A marking or a mourning: it was like a celebration of the British defeat of the Edo people. In an editorial for the defunct Tempo magazine of which I was Editorial Board Chairman at the time, I wondered what the Edo had done with their defeat in one hundred years of trying. What have we acquired of the knowledge with which we were conquered and ruled by the British such that if the enemies returned today, there would be no routing of the kind that was perpetrated in 1897. I ask the same question, today, as a form of self-mockery, especially as I have chosen to describe the period, 1897-1997 as the Edo Century. I have done this in the manner in which the history of the world is sometimes narrated in terms of  the European, the American or Asian Century. I ask: in what sense have the Edo people claimed the period for themselves, if not during the 63 years of British rule, then the 37 years of post-colonialism that pre-dated the centenary of the Massacre? Or how have the Edo recovered from the humiliation of their empire, an empire with a pedigree that went back more than a thousand years, but was overawed in a matter of days by the thugs of foreign trading companies backed by British state power? Or since the Edo have been incorporated into a larger confabulation of nationalities called Nigeria, how has the nation of which the Edo are now a part, met the challenges and  survived the vagaries, of the so-called Edo Century? Suppose some oil companies today backed by the power of the Group of Eight or ten decided to deploy their own police systems on-shore, as a means of ruling rather than merely protecting trade routes and oil pipes!

I dare say it makes no difference whether you are talking about the Edo People or the Nigerian People. The implications of the Edo century are the same on either side of the divide. The Edo are Nigerians or Nigerians are Edo, in terms of the logic of a defeated people who have not overcome their defeat. Irrespective of the pretensions to distinctiveness that have marked ethnic self-description in the Nigerian spoils system since the British overran our geographies, we have all failed, and woefully too, at putting up a sustainable, countervailing strategy for dealing with rampart imperialism, our own incapacities, and our need to map the future and to follow-through. Across Africa, whether we opted for a semblance of the old monarchical systems, scientific or African socialism, imported or home-grown capitalism, or just plain muddle as muddle, we have not managed to throw off the yoke of a defeated people.  Which is why I have chosen the current topic. It is not to pump pride in our indigenous culture. The Edo people proved their pride stubbornly enough, after the Massacre, by refusing to change their monarch under the most prepossessing  pressure from the British. Even after the exiled King Ovonramwen returned to his ancestors from behind the walls of a Prison in Calabar, the Edo were adamant at sticking by what they considered their unalterable heritage. Admirably, the people retained the old traditional order, especially around the institution of the Obaship; the people proved their self-respect. On closer inspection, however, it has become obvious that strategies of self-reflection and self-empowerment lurking deep in our history  have not been recouped either to make the past useable or to achieve a basis for genuine participation in the century that has confronted us since the Massacre. Although we are awfully dedicated to our own cause, it is apparent that we have kept only the mere fa�ade of the culture without plumbing to the deeper recesses, the creative core and force-field of self-mobilization and self-rejuvenation that had once given distinctiveness to Edo people. I cannot help asking  myself what  would happen when another century rolls by and we all decide to look back. What would we see? 

I do not think that what there is today gives much room for grand expectations about what would be handed over to those who will look back after another hundred years. Of course, I am aware that, today, a brand of Edo nationalism exists which excuses the evident backwardness around us by blaming current disabilities on the centuries of devastation by slave-catching wars as well as colonialism and the eventual, forced-draft  barracking of the Edo kingdom in a new contraption called Nigeria. Beyond excuses, the issue remains that there are obstacles to genuine development among the Edo as among all Nigerians which centre on the lack of will to confront �crying� problems. They are well-known problems: the disunity amongst the people, the poverty of our indigenous languages and cultures, the absence of a concerted defense of the livelihood of the whole populaCe, and the general ignorance that empowers brigands to overtake the civic competence of the whole population! Besides, although Edo state is one of the most developed and ethnically homogenous of Nigeria�s 36 states, and with a longer memory than most, it is just as rudderless, as any. The quality of the quarrels in the state is an embarrassment to good sense; as may be gleaned from the recent howler in the newspapers about Bini people rejecting an Anglican Bishop because he is not an indigene of Benin but an Ora, of  a different tEdo  dialect.  It has opened sesame for churches in Etsako to reject Esan clerics, and for Esan to reject Benin and so on and so forth. And to think that the same Anglican Church once enabled Yoruba, Igbo and Efik prelates, more distant cousins, to officiate with a certain imperturbable mien! It may be asked: if we cannot accept kinsfolk in the house of God, how would we treat strangers? It tells the story of a people fighting, open-eyedly, for decline. The symptoms are in the misuse of religion, the abuse of  knowledge, indifference to serious moral issues -  the mark of a people neither going out for their own nor looking out for others. It puts to question the famed liberalism and gregariousness of the Edo people; indicating how  we are contributing to the weakness of the country of which we are a part by the manner in which we take care of our own, including our internal differences. The short of it is that, as with other ethnic groups in the country, we have abandoned any sense of holistic planning for our people. Rather than put the whole population, not just a fragment of it, on a war-footing for a sustained confrontation with national problems, what we have is a form of negative segmentation which actively promotes cultural prejudice: one group against another. Education, once the biggest industry in this state, is flat on its face. The more the colleges and Universities that are built, the more obvious it is that we are merely cannibalizing the right hand to make the left look good. At any rate,  the majority of the educated are unemployed or unemployable and therefore give comfort to those who never answered the school bells. Hence, the most buoyant industry in the state is the promotion of mediocrity. This is evidenced by the ritualized maltreatment of teachers and farmers; the bruising of pensioners and the assault on civil servants who are obliged to rip off the rest of us in the maw of governments that are run on the principle that it is not the business of government to be programmatic. As such, it does not surprise anyone anymore that after so much money has been spent to educate a younger generation, they must expatriate to avoid wasting the rest of their lives in the immiserized conditions created by Federal myopia and native insipidity. Such that: when the prostitution menace in Edo State is tabled in terms of the dastardly roads that lead to Italy, you wonder why no one talks about what happens to hard-working and creative people who are blocked from making good. Look at Benin city. The scab of underdevelopment that you see is about governments that are not repositories of the self-knowledge of the people; and of a people who have forgotten that there was once a century in which their leaders cared about city-planning and constructed the great streets that today are clogged by the garbage of misbegotten modernization. If those visiting Portuguese adventurers who once compared Benin to Amsterdam were to return today, one wonders what they would make of the city that Ogun Ewuare built.

I must say, to put everybody�s mind at rest, that what interests me, in this lecture, is not history or politics but cultural philosophy: I am interested in what the Edo have lost or abandoned but Nigeria has not gained. Or better to say I am intrigued by what Nigeria could not have gained because no nation gains what any of its nationalities have lost. What I want to do is to interrogate the history, not for the sake of history, or  what we might know about who did what, but to grasp the rationale, the logic of the history. I want to challenge the scholars of the Institute of Benin Studies, and beyond, to an interdisciplinary excursion into myth and history, not as a voyage into nostalgia - far from it � but to show how our self-knowledge and general development as a people have been compromised by the inadequate responses to the challenges of Western Civilization. My purpose is to show how certain blocked arteries in our understanding of our own history and culture have crippled our capacity to learn from our past and from the history of other people. I think Ogun, as a theme, is particularly fortuitous in this regard because it brings together core issues that have plagued African societies since the first European landed on our shores: issues concerning the displacement of native gnosis by alien epistemologies, the role of leaders, not just politicians but also writers and artists and other professionals, in re-mobilizing or failing to mobilize a defeated people; the shabbiness of mind and the impunity that haunts the construction of social projects and of course the necessity to turn thinking about the future, educating a younger generation, into a primary motivation of social responsibility. For that matter, I have taken Wole Soyinka�s creativity as the appropriate counterpane from which to survey the ground, not just because he has aided and abetted my search for Ogun, although it  is a good part of it, but because more than any other writer, he has plumbed deepest to the core issue of wrenching an African world-view from the defeat of yesterday and extracting strategies of self-management from it which belong to our traditional past and may well belong to our future. Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I crave more than your indulgence to move from territories that are familiar to  others that may not be so familiar. Bear with me if, at the end of the day, I make ancestors and gods look like next door neighbours.

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