Dramatising Traditional Rulers in the Cesspit of Treachery: Τhe Examples of Femi Osofisan’s Farewell to a Cannibal Rage and Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen

Oyewumi Olatoye Agunbiade* and Ayobami Kehinde**

Abstract

This study investigates the portrayal of the role of traditional rulers in contemporary Nigeria by examining how their one-time quasi-divine thrones have been soiled with seeds of treachery in selected plays of Femi Osofisan. It explores the historical reverence reposed in the traditional rulers from the pre-colonial period to the contemporary time, noting that the rulers are far from what they used to be. The revelations are appalling as Osofisan’s Farewell to a Cannibal Rage allegorises the rulers’ loss of heroism to treachery via pecuniary gains, while Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen presents Osofisan’s archetype of a responsive ruler. Osofisan deploys metaphor, satire and the folkloric tradition in the re-presentation and critique of the oddities of the traditional rulers. The plays point attention to the imperative of rethinking the roles of traditional rulers in contemporary Nigeria and, by extension, Africa in order for them to be responsive to the plight of their subjects.

Keywords: Nigerian traditional rulers, treachery in the palace, neo-colonialism, contemporary Nigeria, Femi Osofisan

Introduction: Trends in Traditional Rulership in Nigeria

Before the advent of the Europeans, societies in Africa had evolved political administration with executive, legislative and judicial powers in their different domains (Ojo). In Nigeria, traditional rulers, like Obi from Igboland, Emirs from Hausa land and Obas from Yorubaland were in control of the administration of their respective communities, providing the leadership on which the era survived (Kehinde). For instance, according to Oloko, the traditional ruler under the Benin Kingdom was at the head of a well-organized system of government. Though the system was not sophisticated, the machinery of government was organized enough to manage affairs, resolve tensions and administer justice in society. Traditional rulers, therefore, commanded respect and were very responsive to the plight and welfare of their subjects.

The executive powers the traditional rulers commanded during this period were in their entirety rooted in the sacredness of the cosmos (Mbembe, On the Postcolony). The traditional ruler, therefore, took on the function of a priest in his intermediary between the gods and his subjects because he also administers the rites of intercession and propitiation for his people (Mbembe, On the Postcolony). The advent of colonial rule, however, ushered in a transformation in the role of traditional rulers as the colonialists’ hegemony of traditional rulers usurped the rulers’ sovereign authority in order to exploit the natural resources of Nigeria and by extension that of Africa. This, according to Dennis Aidelokhai, is in the bid of the colonialists to meet the industrial needs of the capitalist metropoles. The traditional rulers, therefore, lost their heroic grandeur as they were used by the colonialists to perfect their exploitation. Chieftaincy institutions were, however, maintained albeit for colonialist interest (Crowder). The consequence of this was that the traditional rulers began to perform roles that were completely opposed to the wishes and aspirations of the colonized societies.

This trend continued during independence in 1960 as well as in contemporary Nigeria, as the traditional rulers took up multiple roles as assigned by the government of the day (Ukase and Abraham). In political administration, the traditional rulers have been given limited authority to serve as a link between rural people and the government. They, therefore, function as an instrument of state control at the local level (Axel). Marietu Tenuche maintains that “in an effort to entrench the position of the dominant elite groups through informal, social and political networks, the traditional rulers are being effectively incorporated into the Nigerian state power structure by the successive government” (319). Hence, special privileges are consistently accorded traditional rulers like appointing them as Chancellors of Federal Universities and chairmen of both foreign and national commercial ventures, among other favors.

Obviously, these privileges and favors are paradoxically cancerous to the sanctity of these rulers’ throne and have eroded the responsibility they owe the people they were crowned to oversee (Obuh; Onyerionwu). Jacob Yol, in a fuming rage, posits that “they have remained agents for the perpetution of neo-colonial status, thereby thwarting the process of development in the country” (8) The position of the paramount ruler in most societies, therefore, has become highly contentious among elites as it creates access to state power and wealth rather than for service (Tenuche). Patrick Ukase puts it this way:

Hitherto traditional rulership meant service to the people but unfortunately all that has changed. Traditional rulers currently enjoy wealth, influence, power and prestige, and like politics, it has become a do-or-die affair . . . regrettably too many traditional rulers have become partisan politicians.

39

From the foregoing, it follows that some traditional rulers are nothing but ceremonial figures in contemporary Nigeria where much is expected from them. This is so because they cannot take a firm political decision over their domain without government approval. Therefore, describing such as followers in the garb of rulers or toothless bulldogs is not far from the truth, although some of them are trying but are limited by government hegemony. Some traditional rulers have also committed several atrocities.

Femi Osofisan. Photo: Web

Concerning this status, the current study pitches the traditional rulers in post-independence Nigeria far away from the rulers they claim to be. It investigates their anomalies as represented in the selected plays of Femi Osofisan. This study, therefore, not only nauseates us to feel the filth that now pervades the palaces while also suggesting the way forward; it also strives to look into how well they have performed in their supposed role as traditional rulers. An incisive but constructive criticism of the role of the traditional rulers in post-independence Nigeria is thus engaged in Farewell to a Cannibal Rage and Aringindin and the Night Watchmen.

Femi Osofisan and the Plays: Farewell to a Cannibal Rage and Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen

Femi Osofisan is revered as the African icon of relatable literature and the only African to have received the prestigious World Literary Prize in Drama, “The Thalia Laurel” from the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC), in 2016. He bagged the award based on his contribution to theatre through critical writing. He is of the generation that followed Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian dramatist Wole Soyinka and the anti-apartheid activist Athol Fugard. His footprint is almost as large as theirs on the continent of Africa and other parts of the world as well (Rubin). Osofisan, thus, ranks as the third of the most influential African playwrights of the twentieth and twenty-first century. He is a theatre director, playwright, essayist, actor, critic, poet, novelist, editor and newspaper columnist.

Osofisan has written and produced more than seventy plays, five volumes of poetry, four novels and several collections of essays. His most popular detective play Once Upon Four Robbers (1980), where he alleges and attacks repressive governments as responsible for Africa’s backwardness, is already taught in numerous universities around the world and revered as his most vociferous play on Marxism. His play The Chattering and the Song (1977), and his African adaptations of Greek and Elizabethan plays, such as Antigone and Hamlet, have also won national and international awards.

It is noteworthy that most of the research on Osofisan’s drama has focused on his Marxian ideology and how this has played out in his twin indebtedness to the Brechtian tradition of the epic and the alienation technique, on the one hand, and the African performance modes, on the other hand (Oloruntoba-Oju). Osofisan has, however, rejected the Marxist label while pointing to his objective reflection of the idiosyncrasies and virtues of the idealized followers and common people as well as that of the leaders in his plays (Agunbiade). Two such plays from which the first author is presently investigating Osofisan’s objective dramaturgy are Farewell to a Cannibal rage and Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen, selected for analysis in the current study (2019).

Cover image: Farewell to a Cannibal Rage

In Farewell to a Cannibal Rage, Osofisan demystifies the traditional African ruler’s throne with an incident that historically unravels the rulers’ loss of their heroic grandeur. It tells the story of the traditional ruler (Baale) who betrays his subjects because of pecuniary gain from the government. The government has sent a representative to search the land for a suitable place for modern farming and to reward the traditional head bountifully, especially as a sole distributor of fertilizers. The choice area belongs to Atanda and Folabi, who decline to release the land as it was inherited from their ancestors. In the bid to forcefully take the land, the government representative suggested strange and demeaning means of taking the land from the duo of Atanda and Afolabi. Below we discuss his suggestions, how did Baale go about it, what theatrical devices does Osofisan deploy, what are the consequences of Baale’s action on an erstwhile peaceful society, and what does this foretell about contemporary, traditional system and governance in Africa?

Moreover, in Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen Osofisan delves into history to combine social and socialist realism by bringing on stage and significantly modernizing what used to be traditional rulership in Africa. The play opens with a recurring robbery that has been a concern for the kingdom and the traditional ruler. The Baale in the play is proactive as he explores both secular and traditional devices to end robbery in the land. Unknown to the people, the leading voice among them, the eponymous character Aringindin who is also advocating for a vigilante group, is the head of the robbers terrorizing the domain. Aringindin with the help of his accomplice, the elected Kansillor (Counsellor) succeeds in swaying the people’s minds against their loving ruler. Baale gets to know this by consulting the gods (Orunmila), unlike the Baale in Farewell. He, thus, rejects Aringindin’s proposal and faces humiliation from among his people, who are oblivious to the devices of their acclaimed warlord—Aringindin, who has vicious agenda for the land. Will Baale be able to persuade his subject to see from the perspective of the gods? Can the contemporary traditional African rulers look up to the archetype Osofisan depicts in this play? These and others are critically explored in the discussion of this study.’

Theoretical Consideration

This study employs Achille Mbembe’s (1992 and 2001) model of the postcolonial theory of literature with an interpretive design to argue alongside Osofisan the need for critical examination of the role of traditional rulers who are supposed to oversee and protect their subject but are seen to have shirked this responsibility. According to Mbembe’s line of thought, the current role, and relationship the rulers now share with the authorities against their subject, is nothing but “intimacy of tyranny”; therefore, the “[p]ostcolonial mode of domination is a regime that involves not just control but conviviality, even connivance—as shown by the constant compromises” (“Provisional Notes” 24–25). This position is undoubtedly borne out of Mbembe’s assessment of the African society where those who ought to be in the vanguard to alleviate the plight of their people have compromised that loyalty by becoming sell-outs to the colonialists and neo-colonials. They have, therefore, not only prioritized the magnificence of their throne and the desire to shine, but they are also seen involved in obscenities and treachery for pecuniary purposes.

The connivance with authorities by these rulers after being awarded ceremonious functions in the state is rife in Nigeria, hence the critique of this exalted traditional seat. Postcolonial literary theory is further adopted because it deals with art and literature produced in countries that were once colonized by European powers (Mongia 12). However, rather than contributing to the corpus of literary investigation on the neo-colonials, the study distinguishes itself by “responding with greater urgency to the shifting priorities . . . and complexity of everyday life in the African Postcolony” (Syrotinski 413). The traditional rulers are, therefore, examined through this framework in Femi Osofisan’s Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen and Farewell to a Cannibal Rage to expose the oddities of the rulers.

The socio-artistic approach espoused by Shadrach Ambanasom is engaged to afford a better apprehension of the ideology and the aesthetic realization of the imaginative text. By this, the plays are examined and interpreted given their wider social context and the effectiveness of the dramatic techniques deployed by the playwright to arrive at the sordid revelations.  

Traditional Rulers in the Cesspit of Treachery

The traditional rulers referred to as Oba, Obi and Emirs in the three major ethnic groups of Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa land of Nigeria are highly revered and quasi-divine beings who head different domains since time memorial in traditional Africa. Even with the loss of their heroic grandeur during the colonial era, they still command a high level of respect as they now serve as links between the democratic rulers and the people. They can, therefore, influence and be influenced. However, their roles and functions in contemporary nation-building are being questioned in post-independence Nigeria. For instance, Ayo Kehinde rhetorically asks: “What is their worth in the governance of post-independence Nigerian societies?” and concludes they are political failures and another frustrated hope in terms of the expectation of their people from them (351). Similarly, Ezechi Onyerionwu observes that “the lack of leadership credibility which now haunts our traditional societies has made sure that a once quasi-divine institution now lies in tatters, losing all claims to dignity and integrity and becoming the exclusive preserve of charlatans and pretenders” (48). Osofisan, however, examines these positions in Farewell to a Cannibal Rage (Farewell)and Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen (Aringindin), against the backdrop of Yoruba society which demands the traditional ruler, known as Baale—the symbol of power and authority—to protect his people (Obuh).

In Farewell to a Cannibal Rage, the future of a promising union between Olabisi and Akanbi is threatened by the seed of deceit and intrigue sown some years back by the Baale (Traditional ruler) of Iloto for pecuniary reasons, which now creates enmity between both families of the intending couple. Unknown to the lovebirds, Atanda, Olabisi’s father, killed Folabi, the father of Akanbi. The untold story becomes known when both meet their families. Olabisi’s mother, Titi, recalls the incident:

It is a sad story. Your father and Akanbi’s had long been friends. It became even proverbial, their intimacy. Then one day a stranger came to the village…everybody trooped out to meet him. But as soon as I saw him and the gleaming teeth of his escort, I knew trouble was afoot.

147

Osofisan’s depiction of the stranger in this play is striking, highly exciting and intense, as he explores both the loric and the literary in a dramatic matrix that establishes the inevitable interface between creativity, myth and history to show how the traditional rulers were enticed and deprived of their glory. Hence, Osofisan concurrently runs two scripts: one literary and the other loric, a folktale, with the single aim of exposing and ridiculing the actions and inactions of the traditional ruler who betrays his allegiance to his subjects by stimulating and causing the tragic death of two friends. The stranger’s request as sent by the government is a vast area of land for farming. According to the stranger, the government is to develop new model farms that will turn every member of the community to a millionaire. In Titi’s revelation, the stranger “undertook a tour of the land to pick a suitable place for his projects” (Farewell 148). The stranger finds Atanda and Folabi’s land most suitable and fertile for cultivation, but the duo will not give up their land, the land of their ancestors. The trouble, therefore, begins with the stranger’s soft but poisonous remark to the Baale that:

I shall not force you, even though I have the authorization from the government. All I say is this: this is a huge project. Many of your people will become very rich. You especially, Baale, who have been chosen to be the sole agent of the fertilizers. Will you allow this two terrorists and agitators to halt your people’s progress?

148

Baale’s desperation grows as he is ready to do anything to get the land for the stranger because of the peanuts that await him from such act. So, he gives no thought to the stranger’s suggestion to use women as a tool to get rid of the two friends. Baale’s plan is well hatched as his agents lie to Folabi and Atanda separately that their wives have become infidels. Osofisan, thus, exposes Baale for accepting to be the sole agent of fertilizer distribution in the domain and the one who employs the twin evils of money and women to ensnare and ruin his subjects.

This representation of traditional rulers is a pointer to some contemporary traditional rulers who have shirked their responsibility of service, protection of human rights and duties they owe the people for financial gain. The play portrays some traditional rulers in post-independent Africa as selfish, only wanting to nourish their pockets instead of the lives and property they are expected to oversee. Osofisan depicts the linking role between government and the people which the traditional rulers now occupy in postcolonial Nigeria as more hazardous to the people if it brings no good to the immediate poor and common men in their domain. The result of this treachery not only manifests in the death of Folabi and Atanda,but it goes as far as the next generation to affect their children as both Olabisi and Akanbi’s love affair reaches a stalemate.

Osofisan’s blend of the loric tradition in Farewell confirms him as a restless researcher aiming at certain effects (Awodiya 1995). His deployment of the folklore of Simbi and the legendary handsome man (god) has often been treated by many of his critics as only a warning by Baba Soye to Olabisi over her indiscriminate love for Akanbi (Obuh). This study, however, departs from such strings of un-sustained commentary, as the play’s denouement shows Olabisi eventually marries Akanbi, while both wrestle with their past, defeat it and clinch with a new dawn. The folklore, however, is an allegory for what Mbembe (“Provisional Notes”) calls “the intimacy of tyranny” in terms of the transaction between the traditional rulers and the (neo) colonialists. It is, thus, observed that the god (the legendary handsome man) whom Simbi elopes with in the folktale and who eventually kills Simbi despite all caution is the personification of the stranger sent by the government to the village of Iloto. Simbi, thus, personifies Baale and the age-long reverence the traditional rulers share with their subjects until they lost it as she was taken away and killed by the stranger. According to Baba Soye:

Simbi was her name and she stood in her stall like a queen of noon. Simbi the maiden who will fall for no man! Even now, ringed round her stall a circle of suitors sing her praises. But Simbi with her head in the air, Simbi will look at no mortal man! I ask of you, what kind of woman is this, who scorns high princes and the richest men? . . . The bravest and the handsomest came courting, but always to each and everyone, Simbi cried: I am not in love. . . . Then suddenly one day, a god walked into the market . . . wore the richest damask. His sandals gleamed with flash pearls. A startled hush fell upon the women. Never was a man so handsome . . . then in a flash Simbi was after him, imploring, pleading sobbing! Simbi the once-proud queen of noon.

140–41

Simbi’s story obviously is a metaphor for the Baale’s treacherous act as it reinforces Osofisan’s argument that the traditional rulers have fallen from their erstwhile quasi-divine estate, not only by romancing the colonial and postcolonial authorities but also by being greedy– as Simbi does by rejecting other amiable suitors. This is evident in the play as the Baale betrays Folabi and Atanda, his kinsmen, over their lands but embraced the government for selfish interest.

The situation, however, is not the same in Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen (Aringindin . . .) where Osofisan presents an alter ego to the Baale in Farewell. As a satirist, Osofisan’s conscience is not beclouded; hence, his criticism is constructive, targeting the two sides of the coin of every situation. Osofisan in Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen re-examines the traditional rulers with a prescription of how an ideal traditional ruler should relate, especially in handling delicate matters.

Cover image: Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen

In Aringindin, the traditional ruler is faced with recurring robbery attacks on his subjects. Baale is disillusioned as all efforts to protect the lives and property of the people are daily being thwarted by the armed and dangerous robbers similar to those witnessed in contemporary Nigeria. It is, however, disheartening that he who is supposed to be the most powerful security resource in the community, Aringindin, the eponymous character, is the one behind and responsible for the robberies. This is all because he wants to take over the leadership of the community. Consultation with Orunmila (the divining god) through Ifa divination reveals this, but Aringindin, with his prescription of Vigilantism which Orunmila opposes, grows wings and popularity even more than the traditional ruler—Baale. Aringindin further gathers tough human currents against the Baale by taking Kansilor along with him. The Baale, however, insists that Aringindin’s request for arms and vigilantes is not for the benefit of the town; hence, he refuses to sanction Aringindin’s proposal. In a rage with Kansilor, Baale laments:

BAALE: This town is getting tired of you and your kind! I repeat as before that this is a town and not a battlefield: we are civilised here! As long as this cap rides on my head, and as long as these feet wear the beaded sandals of our ancestors, no bullet will be allowed to fly about recklessly here. Crime will be investigated and punished according to the law.

137

The Baale, therefore, understands he occupies a vital position in the town, which makes him responsible to the people, so he tries his best to fulfil this purpose. He knows the intrigues and secret plots of Aringindin, as revealed by Orunmila, but contends that:

We cannot flee from our responsibility to speak the truth and stand by it. The oracle was clear yesterday—Increase the night guards, give them arms, as Aringindin requests, and you grant the power of arbitrary death. And who knows a long journey may then begin for us into a season of darkness. Our task is to be the beacon of light and yet to suffer to be singed by it.

139

The Baale in Aringindin, thus, contrasts that of Farewell to a great extent regarding doing what is expected of the ruler, especially in a very difficult situation. Both traditional rulers are faced with a dilemma, but instead of betrayal, we see loyalty, selflessness and commitment from the Baale in Aringindin. When one considers such heroic acts of the Baale in Aringindin and that of traditional rulers in contemporary Nigeria, it is evident that most of them are wanting on the scale of responsibility, especially in the face of banditry that has become a quotidian reality.

The image of Sunday Igboho (the Yoruba self-determination activist), and the salvaging role he played protecting the Yorubas in 2020–21 in southwest Nigeria, is seen in the character of Ayinde, who was vociferous against the antics of Aringindin (Agunbiade 2022). However, the traditional rulers in southwest Nigeria fall short of their expectations with the lackadaisical attitude they showed Igboho amid the unjust slaughtering of their subjects. Although the Baale in Aringindin eventually shifts ground for Aringindin’s scheme as the situation turns dismal and life for him becomes miserable, we soon see the negative impact, as Aringindin suddenly turns the market to detention centers while Ayinde foils his other intentions. Baale’s eventual abdication and death, though painful, is a metaphor for our traditional rulers to be courageous enough to quit the scene if they reach the point of irrelevance.

It is, thus, noteworthy that his abdication paves the way for the process and actions that lead to the end of Aringindin’s evil scheme and machinations. Baale in Aringindin is such an epitome of the ideal traditional ruler needed in contemporary Nigeria and in Africa, who is selfless and always ready to take steps towards alleviating the plight of the ordinary people. Osofisan in Farewell to a Cannibal Rage has shown that only a few of such rulers exist, while many in their pretentious effort are exposed and condemned in a swipe to awaken them to their responsibility.

Conclusion

Osofisan, in the plays under study, demonstrates his revolutionary ideals which, according to him, are without fairness or favor to both the leaders and the people. In doing this, we see his dramatic lancet at work as he desperately gets close to the traditional rulers, “to each and everyone he has trapped in the darkness or half-light, to penetrate very close and intimate, like a knife in their ribs” (Awodiya, Excursions 18). He further makes the traditional ruler uncomfortable, turns him open, guts and all, spices him and cooks him in the filthy, stinking broil of history (18).  In his words:

I want him washed inside out, in the naked truth, and then I sew him back again a different man. I believe that, if we wound ourselves often and painfully enough with reality, with the reality all around us, if we refuse to bandage our sensitive spots away from the hurt of truth, that we can attain a new and positive awareness.

Awodiya 1993, Excursions 18

In revealing the cesspit of treachery in the palace, Osofisan has shown that the onetime quasi-divine throne of the traditional rulers is far from what it used to be. However, he is careful in his portrayal by showing that not all the rulers are embroiled in this anomaly by still giving us an archetype that contemporary traditional rulers could emulate. By inviting us to feel the filth in the palace, Osofisan believes these revelations will not only cause the traditional rulers to right their wrongs but will also cause a revolution that will result in the rebirth of the heroic grandeur of the traditional rulers, restore their cosmic role and make them responsive to the plight of their subjects in Nigeria and Africa.


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*Oyewumi Olatoye Agunbiade holds a PhD in African Literature from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He is a Postdoctoral Research fellow at the Department of Arts (English), Walter Sisulu University, South Africa, where he conducts research and teaches courses in postcolonial, world, and comparative literature. He has over ten years of experience as a Journalist with Radio Nigeria. As an inter/multi-disciplinary scholar, he has combined the praxis of the News media and his scholarship in literature to advocate literary journalism in Nigeria. His theoretical contribution to literary criticism, “Inverted Disillusionment,” an alternative engagement paradigm in reading African literature of the postcolonial era, has appeared in Imbizo: International Journal of African Literary and Comparative Studies. 

**Ayobami Kehinde earned his PhD from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, where he currently teaches African literature, literary theories, criticism, and postcolonial literature. He was a principal participant at the 2008 Institute on Contemporary American Literature, hosted by the International Center, University of Louisville, Kentucky. He is on the editorial board of many reputable peer-reviewed journals, including the Indian Journal of Postcolonial Literatures and the International Journal of Distance Education. He has been the Chair/Head of the Department of English, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He is also the Secretary of the Nigerian Academy of Letters.

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