The first day of the year is never a good day to write about death and dying. Rotimi Akeredolu spent the last three or four years hard-headed on the frontline. As planted in his name, Akeredolu, he was a small man who nurtured himself to bigness on life’s battlefield. He was not my friend. Apart from one media engagement where I asked him two or three questions -one of which he answered with a frown, there was no direct meeting of our streams. But I later became his fan because he played his role well as an Ogboju Ode in this forest of heartless demons.
The aim of all life is death (Sigmund Freud). Medical science has repeatedly told us that a diagnosis of cancer is not in all cases death soon to strike. Akeredolu, I gathered very reliably, confirmed he had prostate cancer sometime in 2016. He had surgery in Germany in 2019. He was to go for a mandatory follow-up procedure in 2020. But he couldn’t go for that; COVID blocked him as it blocked all of the world for a whole year.
That gap in treatment was the twist at the hand of fate. He lost the battle to cancer long before his final breath last week. Could he have helped it? No. That was why he was born; it was his exit path. King Sunny Ade sang in the ’70s: Gbogbo wa l’òpè nípa àkúnlèyàn (we are all novices in matters of fate).
Death is bad – especially for the living. But every death has a beneficiary – they could be the grave digger or the coffin maker. If you were a governor like Akeredolu, the beneficiaries of your departure would be many – your deputy would be the first. When a governor dies, he goes down with so many who wear his badge; and the deputy goes up with his own crowd of new men and women. I am tempted to say this: One of the risks of the American presidential democracy is the sword of deputies dangling every second over the principal.
Under our laws, a deputy governor or vice president is number one in waiting. They may not admit this, but it is true that it demands superhuman efforts for a deputy governor not to imagine himself taking the place of the boss. And it takes just one death to achieve that without paying for votes. Almost exactly like the vulture in Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize photo, they wait (im)patiently for their victims’ expiry date. It is in some kingship system too.
In Ibadan, when the funeral bell tolls in the palace, the gong of joy sounds in the homestead of the next in line. Agbótikúyò is the oríkì the city gave that streak of sadistic desire. It means “people who hear news of death and rejoice.”
It is an eternal cause of tension and friction in power circles. No governor asks his deputy to watch over his drinks. But, is it strictly about structures or individual character make-up of persons involved? In J.D.Y. Peel’s ‘Ijeshas and Nigerians’ (1983, page 107), we encounter an Owá (king) of Ilesa who rebuked a messenger that announced with sorrow the death of the king’s deputy (Chief Ogedengbe). The messenger uttered “aiyé ti bàjé (the world is spoilt)”. The oba disagreed with his courtier. Instead of the world being “spoilt” by his deputy’s death, the king responded with affirmative joy: “mo j’Owá l’ónìí (I become Owa today).” Ogedengbe was a blustery, thundery number two in whose presence the number one quaked. Then he died one wet day in July 1910. To that king, the death of the overbearing Ogedengbe meant freedom from the deputy’s lethal shadow; it marked the king’s real enthronement as the owa and the actual beginning of an unfettered reign.
A potential widow inheritor must never be seen rejoicing at the husband’s death. I wish Governor Akeredolu’s successor, Lucky Aiyedatiwa, a successful tenure. A death has moved him from a potential known to an actual known; a shadow transformed to the real thing. I commiserate with him too on the death of Akeredolu, his destiny helper. But has Aiyedatiwa watched the television report of his very first public engagement and communication with the world as governor on the day his boss died? Is he satisfied with his conduct, comportment and choice of words immediately before and after his inauguration as governor? Has someone told the new governor that “A kú oríire” (congratulations) uttered at a mentor’s death is a slur on character (ìwà) and that it casts a pall on all of humanity? Was it a mistake or a Freudian slip? I do not know if it is acceptable in Ondo State to say “A kú oríire” (congratulations) in a time of mourning.
Where I come from, that phrase belongs in joyous moments; it is especially said with uncontrollable joy in maternity wards when both mother and child are well and stable and their voices heard loud and clear. It is not a greeting for relations and friends of a man fresh in the morgue. Saying “A kú oríire” where it was said degrades all of us in the language group called Yoruba. It shames the people of the beginning who coined that phrase of joyous exultation.
Every human occasion has its currency of verbal engagement. Dirge, the vocalisation of pain; and elegy, written words of loss, are never songs of joy. They are time-honoured teary lines of loss; catharsis of anguish. To start commenting on death on the first day of a new year is a very heavy, foreboding thing to do. But what shall we do when all around us are fresh mounds of departure?
Today’s graveyard has no grace; its wardrobe of skulls is stocked with frightening regularity: Governor Akeredolu, Speaker Ghali Na’Abba, over 200 nameless victims of terrorism in Plateau, hundreds of others north and south. How many songs of grief shall one then compose? W. H. Auden (1907 –1973), arguably the greatest English poet of the 20th century, shares my feeling in his poem ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’: “When there are so many we shall have to mourn, when grief has been made so public, and exposed to the critique of a whole epoch, the frailty of our conscience and anguish; of whom shall we speak? For every day they die among us, those who were doing us some good, who knew it was never enough but hoped to improve a little by living…”
The death of Governor Akeredolu is a button of revelation pressed. First, I can see that one’s weakness in life can become one’s strength at death. My initial encounters with the departed Governor Akeredolu told me he was a brash, arrogant fellow. Nothing was too gross for him to say and I once watched him abuse a judge in open court. Then he became governor and Nigeria happened to his people and I saw that brash, raw, unbending courage becoming ready weapons of defence of the land. He did so well as a field commander that at his death last week at age 67, it was as if he had lived 100 years.
His death birthed another revelation: the colour of people’s commitment to humanness and humanity. We now see that there is no unanimity of judgement on what death and grief mean. At this death, people cried and people rejoiced. Those who cried had personal reasons for doing so; the happy party also had personal reasons for thanking their stars. Both sides take no heed of a lesson of life: the happy-at-death people will die; the sad ones will die too – and the living will continue the odious cycle of retributive reactions.
It is natural to react to death with emotions – some calm and sad; some wailing with what John Ruskin describes as “the extraordinary, or false appearances.” I read President Bola Tinubu’s eulogy of Akeredolu more than once. I read it and shouted God is great! The words of Tinubu on Akeredolu’s character, policy choices and political decisions should excite every student of human metamorphosis. People change – like Saul becoming Paul.
Read this: “In a challenging moment of our statehood when marauding agents of darkness spread their tentacles across our country, Rotimi was a strong voice in the wilderness calling us to rethink our security architecture so we can have a more secure nation. His unrelenting advocacy led to the birth of the local police in the South-West… During the dark hours when marauding agents of darkness visited the state and killed defenceless citizens where 40 worshippers of the Catholic Church of Owo were killed on June 5, 2022, Rotimi’s leadership qualities as a true statesman and compassionate leader radiated brightly to the world. He was a mourner-in-chief who guided his people through an agonising period. Today, I mourn a fighter and fearless defender of truth and the masses.” That was Tinubu. Who would have ever thought the hitherto absent warrior would roar that tribute to valour? It is never too late to arrive. Al-Hariri, an 11th century Arab grammarian, would look at this turn-around and say: “What we cannot reach flying we must reach limping”.
In life, every new dawn breaks with a surprise. God is great is the appropriate exclamation to shout after reading the president’s emotional piece. It was more than a salute to valour; it was a surrender to a road despised and spurned. Akeredolu’s death simply brought back home to us the political forager tricked by ambition into the woods of Nigeria. The Yoruba man in the Villa finally spoke, endorsing actions his people unsuccessfully begged him to take when red-hot terrorism charred their forests. But every Saul has their Road to Damascus experience. If that is the case in this case, then the hem of Akeredolu’s death has raised Lazarus. It means Akeredolu has not died in vain. It also means we should ensure that the president’s patriotic words do not transit with Akeredolu’s transition.
Now that the president appreciates the place of a decentralized police system, he should now encourage his protégé in Lagos to embrace “the local police in the South-West”. Let the president do that and also set in motion the ways and means of making Nigeria a true federation where the parts are free and encouraged to compete in excellence.
Big men, small men sometimes cuddle yes when no is what their hearts desire. They say one thing and do another. Public figures among them dub their choice of behaviour political correctness. We didn’t see that in Akeredolu and that is why, warts and all, he is going home in a blaze of glory. Even his enemies acknowledge his forthrightness. When terrorists attacked Owo, Ondo State, in June 2022, Akeredolu did not speak tongue-in-cheek. He shot straight for good and bad people to hear. He called for self-help: “We have called on our traditional rulers that we must all be ready to rise up to defend our land and defend our people…you can’t fold your arms and say people (attackers) are coming and you are running away. No. If they bring a fight to you, fight them back. There is no room to run away from it…We are not lazy; we are an indomitable people – in spirit and everything and nobody can dominate us…Fight these people back. If they come, push them (back) into the forest and leave. Whosoever has the (stronger) arm will survive.” That sounds like Julius Caeser addressing his commanders at the bank of Rubicon.
It was not the first time Akeredolu would speak so forcefully loud. When Amotekun was denied the use of adequate weapons by the Federal Government and President Muhammadu Buhari’s Katsina State got approval for same, Akeredolu took on the president; he spoke as a leader of his people: “The video making the rounds showing the equivalent of the Western Nigeria Security Network (Amotekun Corps) in Katsina, obtaining the approval of the Federal Government to bear arms is fraught with great dangers. Denying Amotekun the urgently needed right to legitimately bear arms is a repudiation of the basis of true federalism which we have been clamouring for. That Katsina was able to arm its state security force with the display of AK-47 means we are pursuing one country, two systems.” Akeredolu declared that the Katsina situation conferred advantages on some “in the face of commonly faced existential threats” He added that “it means that our unitary policing system, which has failed, is a deliberate method of subjugation which must be challenged.” He went beyond the superficial and dug deep into the foundational unfairness of our troubled union. “The Independence agreement was based on a democratic arrangement to have a federal state with devolved internal security mechanics. We must go back to that agreement. We want to reiterate that what is sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander…We will defend our people.”
Believers in a truly federal Nigeria will miss Akeredolu’s ingenious interventions. But they will not miss him and his courageous essence if President Tinubu honours the memory of the dead by doing that which protects the people. The president has this new year to restructure Nigeria along some of the lines in his Akeredolu tribute. If he does otherwise, those words of his will be assumed to be opportunistic pods without seeds, a hollow homily composed to deceive. And when you deceive and you are caught, you lose all entry keys into circles of respect. You will be called a hypocrite.
Bob Marley sang many iconic songs; ‘Hypocrites’ is one. That is one soulful creation of the evergreen that has not stopped inviting us to question man, his ways and his motives. Bob Marley’s central themes in ‘Hypocrites’ cover the pervasive deception and false appearances around us; they cover life and the injustice that rules it. Above all, ‘Hypocrites’ stresses the need for man to shine his eyes, question authority and ‘drag’ its moral claims.
I am not sure anyone, no matter how depraved, would enjoy being labelled a hypocrite. Joseph Conrad has a synonym for that word in his ‘Heart of Darkness’. He calls it ‘whited sepulchre” – a beautifully painted white tomb that houses rotten skeletons. There are other synonyms of hypocrite. In a dictionary, I saw trickster; I also saw cheater, cheat, plaster saint, humbug, pretender, deceiver, dissembler, impostor, phoney. Each of those words is a poisoned spear; it should not be directed at any human of value. But, we will use it for the entire Yoruba elite (including me) if Nigeria remains unrestructured on May 29, 2027. President Bola Tinubu himself will not smell of roses if he ends his presidency and the 37 Local Council Development Areas (LCDAs) in his Lagos State remain illegal entities. He will be reminded that the entire political relevance of his was built on the German floor of agitation for true federalism. Claims and accusations that the Olusegun Obasanjo Federal Government was actively against allowing Lagos to have its required number of local governments were the concrete that cemented Lagos to its owner. Now, the freedom fighter has become what he wanted to become, he should not wait one day longer before setting in motion the process to do that which he accused Obasanjo and all others of not doing. He must recreate Nigeria along the lines of its beginning. If he fails to do and achieve this, all hypocrisy synonyms will apply and Bob Marley will be invited to sing for the Nigerian leader.
The last emperor of the Pax Romana and philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius (26 April, 121 – 17 March, 180 AD) in his ‘Meditations’ has a sermon, not for the dead, but for the living. He asks you to “think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature.” He asks you to “love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own…” He asks all of humanity to pass through this life – “this patch of time” in perfect harmony with nature. He asks us to go to our final resting place like a ripened olive that drops “praying the earth that nourished it and grateful to the tree that gave it life.” I think Aketi read Aurelius; his passing is a rendition of John Donne’s ‘Death, Be not Proud’ – particularly the line: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally…” He died in his sleep.
May the soul of the departed rest in peace. I wish all of us a happy, safe and prosperous 2024.