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Bello’s Okene, where ‘spirits’ drive cars

By News Express on 06/01/2018

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January 1, this fresh Year of our Lord, 2018, afforded some national papers an opportunity to announce their winner of the ‘Person’ of the preceding year. And one of the best newspapers that money can buy in Nigeria, known as The Guardian, “the flagship”, was at its best when it named the Nigerian commoner as the winner of the Person of The Year 2017. 

In doing this, The Guardian heralded the announcement with a romantic piece in which the authors graphically presented the typical Nigerian as a created human being gifted with self-inflicted behavioural contradictions, such as extreme endurance of mis-governance and that typically, an average contemporary Nigerian is a person imbued with inexplicable expansive level of tolerance of the maladministration that has come to define the political leadership that Nigeria has had since it gained flag independence from the British colonial overlords in 1960. 

Few hours after these series of well-crafted write-ups appeared in The Guardian on the characteristics of the typical Nigerian commoner, a well-known controversial governor in one of the North-central states, the Kogi State Governor, Alhaji Bello did what ordinarily is the unthinkable in a typical Nigerian traditional and orthodox settings.

It is not as if this neophyte of a governor is strange to needless controversy, given that of all the current 36 state governors, he and Imo State governor have assumed the irritating notoriety of perpetually owing civil servants huge amounts of accumulated wages, even after benefiting from the 'Father Christmas' Naira Rain known as Paris Club Refund, running into billions. Indeed, in Kogi State, many top level civil servants have committed suicide after being owed for over a year by this rookie of a politician, known as Yahaya Bello. But this time around, the Kogi State governor, a maverick politician, surpassed all his irritating controversies when he left the arena of physicality to symbolically 'pollute' the sacred. 

This monumental profanity is not unrelated to the reported presentation of, not one but, six brand new cars to six masquerades who entertained him and his praise-singing guests in Okene, Kogi State, just days into the Christmas festivities and, indeed, few weeks after he inaugurated his massive ‘state-of-the-art housing assets’ located in his rusty home town of Okenne, which is a rocky community deep inside the Confluence State. 

As someone from a very traditional Igbo community, whereby masquerades are well regarded and seen as spirits, the story of the governor making a donation of cars to masquerades was scandalous and, indeed, amounted to an unprecedented desecration and profanity of the sacred, since spirits in the representation of masquerades are not known to have the human attributes of driving cars. 

At best, the masquerades through proxies in human form accepts some libations and monetary gifts as a reward for displaying artistic dance steps that would have thrilled the onlookers. 

There are communities that masquerades are so revered and dreaded at the same time to the near-ridiculous extent that women aren't allowed to watch them. In some other communities, certain rituals must be done to appease the ancestors should a woman accidentally touch the masquerade.

The masquerade, per se, is not known to be the one accepting these cash gifts, since there are persons initiated into the cult of masquerades that are assigned with such mundane tasks. The masquerade is like a ghost that commune with the higher spirits, and our forefathers who had transited far ahead of us to cohabit with the uncreated creator and unmoved mover.

A researcher on African culture and tradition, by name E O Akubor, seems to have provided academic backing to aforementioned affirmations on the cultural cum spiritual essence of masquerades, when he wrote:   “In every culture, there are certain ideas explicit in the interaction of different elements, which in turn sometimes act as an instrument of social control with which different cultural segments are held together.” 

The scholar argued that prior to the spread of Islamic and Christian influences, most societies in Africa believed in a complex structure of spirits and ancestors, who influenced the living. To him the above understanding was contained in the traditional belief systems which reflects the wholeness of the universe; that is, the various elements which constituted not only the living, but also the dead and spirits. 

His words: “Thus, among the Esan, the Erinni (Elimin masquerades) are organic to their myth of creation. In this way, they function as the major stabiliser of the people’s destiny. As far as the people are concerned, they are ancestral spirits who periodically visit their living forebears in masquerade forms. Their visits are regarded as spiritual interventions to the world of the living, and as a result are highly venerated.” 

Akubor affirmed further that masquerades are a symbolic resurrection of the ancestors. Citing the Ifeku-Ibaji, Egwu (masquerade), he narrated that they symbolised both the ancestral shrine as well as the resurrected spirits of a dead elder, whose appearance and performance played a protective and regulatory role in the affairs of the living. 

He noted: “Specifically, it governed the laws which were irrevocable and punishable by death. In the Ejagham Society of Cross River, the task of detecting witches and wizards rested with the Echi-Obasi-njom (masquerade), it usually carried out this function in a wheeling, gliding dance organised by the society.” 

According to him, Echi-Obasi-njom was usually accompanied by attendants, as it swiftly moved round the settlement in search of witches and wizards in their hide-outs.

 Delving deeper into his repository of cultural knowledge, the writer then drove the readers to the South-west, whereby he observed that all over Yoruba land, the Egungun represent the spirit of the ancestors who have descended from heaven/ mountains.

“It celebrates a period when the dead interact with the living, as it is their responsibility to compel the living to uphold the ethical standards of past generations.”

In the exact words of this researcher, data obtained from primary and secondary sources were deployed to carry out the study in an analytical and narrative historical method by this researcher being cited; findings indicate that unlike the neglect of this practice in most societies (especially while the advent of Christianity and Islam), has led to an alarming rise in crime, especially owing to the fact that the present agents of crime control in society have failed. 

In the area of crime prevention, the writer asserted that the masquerades were pivotal in protecting the traditional African communities from criminal deviants, just as he submitted that modern policing institutions in most cases, where they acted as reconciliatory agencies, they have ended up creating more conflicts among the people, unlike the situation under the traditional masquerade system.

With this rich background knowledge, it is then left to imagination on the extent of desecration of the sacred that took place in Kogi State, as alleged by the deputy governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the 2015 gubernatorial election, Mr James Abiodun Faleke, who had criticised the donation of six Toyota Venza cars, as well as cash gifts of N2 million each by Governor Yahaya Bello, to masquerades in his hometown, Okene. 

Thus, his wide-ranging allegations of this scandal that occurred in his state was worrying enough to merit generous coverage in almost the entire mainstream newspapers. It must be borne in mind that both men belong to the All Progressives Congress. 

The donations made to the Kogi masquerades, which reportedly took place during the lastEkwechi (masquerade) festival in December had been described as the height of absurdity, by Faleke.

The federal legislator said it was indeed absurd that the same governor, who had not been able to pay workers salaries for several months and promised to clear all outstanding salaries and pensions last December without fulfilling it, could go ahead to spend money buying car gifts for masquerades.

According to Faleke, “I, honestly, don’t know what is happening in our state. We thought the governor would heed popular call to settle all outstanding salaries and pensions in the state last December, as he promised after receiving the Paris Club refunds of close to N12 billion only for him to pay 60 per cent of two months.

“So, where did the rest of the money go? Next we heard was the news of the six Venza cars he bought and presented to masquerades in Okene, along with N2 million cash to each of the masquerades. How else can one be so insensitive to the welfare, yearning and aspirations of his people?”

He added: “The state government that had denied all along it had no outstanding (obligations), just released a fresh list of ‘cleared staff.’ What this means is that those staff whose names were just released had been without pay for the past two years, when the screening exercise began. So who is fooling who?”

The lawmaker bemoaned a situation where instead of providing succour for the citizenry across the state, what obtains is intimidation and harassment of hapless and harmless citizens all over the place.

But a settled controversy is that masquerades as spirits shouldn't and must not drive. If as spirits they can't drive, why then did the Kogi State governor proceed to desecrate the tradition of the African people by donating cars to masquerades? Will ‘spirits’ start driving cars in Kogi, even as civil servants are owed accumulated wage bills? Did he commit this sacrilege of donating cars to masquerades  in a bid to appease the ghosts of the many civil servants who have died due to the extreme hardships brought upon them by the failure of the governor to fulfill his obligations to the state’s workforce?  

“That is the reality of our dear state at the moment,” said Mr Faleke in a statement in which he called on Bello to “turn a new leaf this year by re-ordering his government’s priorities away from childish, wasteful, unproductive extravaganza to meaningful statecraft aimed at ameliorating the current unacceptable level of pains being witnessed by the citizens.”

Fast forward to another kind of masquerade-related scandal was the shocking story that a masquerade was knocked down and killed by a hit-and-run vehicle. This immediately triggered another question of how it was possible that a spirit, which the masquerade represented, could be killed by a mere mortal. Was it a fake masquerade or a politically polluted masquerade like the type that bagged car gifts from the Kogi State governor? 

As reported in the media, it was a happy moment turned sour at Nkpor, Idemili area of Anambra State, when a commercial bus crushed a masquerade that was providing entertainment for children on New Year day.

According to an eyewitness, the masquerade was operating with four youths on Enugu-Onitsha Expressway before the incident occurred. It was gathered that the bus was among the commuter vehicles that ply the expressway daily.

The eyewitness explained that the masquerade with his members was attempting to cross the expressway when the bus crushed it. Some of those at the scene of the incident tried to render help, while others distanced themselves from intervening in order to avoid being accused of committing sacrilege. It was not until a police team from Ogidi arrived before the body could be taken off the road.

These times are indeed ominous!

•RIGHTSVIEW appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays, in addition to special appearances. The Columnist, a popular activist, is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA). He can be reached via 08033327672 (sms only) or via 

Source News Express

Posted 06/01/2018 7:42:45 PM


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