If there is anyone who can help us locate the whereabouts of our President, I think the person would be doing Nigerians a world of good if he can send to him Tunde Kelani's latest film, Agogo Eewo (the gong of taboo), a sequel to the 1999 classic, Saworoide.
While the film may not make President Olusegun Obasanjo come back home and stay with us, it would at least show him the hardship we are going through in Nigeria today. And it may yet teach him some lessons about committed leadership which is founded on personal example, dedication to duty, ability to make the requisite sacrifice, and spartan discipline. But any leader who is more comfortable abroad than WITH his own people at home, someone who likes to hear only his own voice, a leader who has scant regards for public opinion, cannot understand, much less imbibe, these virtues.
It is an understatement to say we are living in very harsh times in Nigeria today and nothing depicts the state of the nation more than the time it took me to watch ‘Agogo Eewo’. I could not watch the home video until last week because for 15 days, our estate was in total darkness, notwithstanding the billions of dollars sunk into NEPA and all the empty promises of the last three years. But our President, who hardly stays at home, cannot understand this problem since he is so far removed from reality, the reason why he can deceive himself into believing things are getting better when we are already at the edge of a precipice.
While we, however, go through agony at home, our President gallivants across the globe at our collective expense, collecting imaginary keys to some foreign cities, forgetting the conventional wisdom in Yoruba idiom that says "Ile lati nk'eso rode" (charity begins at home). And because they know our President has little time for us at home, some gangsters have hijacked power, fixing not only the electoral process in their party but also that of the opposition. And they are adept at procuring touts to obtain spurious injunctions from the ever thriving Judicial black market in Abuja.
But let us go back to Agogo Eewo.
What is particularly interesting about the film is that it is not only a parody of the Nigerian condition, it was probably written with Obasanjo in mind. But even the highly imaginative writer, a world acclaimed authority on Yoruba tradition and culture and National Merit Award Winner, Professor Akinwumi Isola, might now begin to wonder whether he did not exaggerate the virtues of our President, if indeed he had him in mind when writing the script. What is more perplexing now is that some ignorant people at the National Films and Censors Board would consider the film not good enough for television because of what they consider "rituals" basically because they can neither comprehend Yoruba culture nor appreciate its nuances.
I am a Christian who believes in the Bible and imbibes the tenet that one should not serve any other god (besides Jesus Christ who is Lord). Yet I know there is something about Ifa divination that particularly tasks the intellect and I have been told by those who should know that it is nothing but common algebraic permutations. While I may not agree with this simplistic view, I have also seen, while growing up in the village, the good to which it is most often employed. In any case, even when our present belief runs against such practices, one cannot in anyway deny what our culture at some points represented. I agree with Professor Wole Soyinka that in the world of Yoruba, all gods are manifestations of universal phenomena of which humanity is a part. And in explaining Yoruba deities, the Nobel Laureate who traced the history of Islam and Christianity to less than two centuries in our clime argued that "the accomodative spirit of Yoruba gods remains the eternal bequest to a world that is rivet by the spirit of intolerance, xenophobia and suspicion".
While I also can no longer subscribe to such teachings of the deities, I fail to see why we should deny them their right of existence, especially in the form of arts like films, provided they are done in such manner as to teach morals. But what is the grouse of the Censors Board concerning Agogo Eewo? Some of the parts they query have to do with when Madam Kofo was carrying her rituals which eventually failed to work and where Professor Akinwunmi Isola, as the herbalist, was consulting the Ifa oracle. The verses they find objectionable are: Af'ipa lowo won kii kadun (Seekers of wealth by forceful means do not last); Afi warawara lowo bi ologun kii dola...(Seekers of wealth employing brute force of soldiers lack longevity)
These are not empty incantations, these are verses teaching morals but how would these people whose minds are already closed know all these when they do not understand what arts mean? Fortunately, my friend, Akin Adesokan, a doctoral student at Cornell University, United States, who incidentally is doing his research on Nigerian home video industry has sufficiently dealt with that.
Personally, I rarely watch Nigerian films and the ones I find most irritating are the Yoruba movies most of which tend to glorify the supernatural. Yet, I would pay any amount to watch films from Tunde Kelani's Mainframe (Opomulero) because they are works of art with social relevance, completely different from what you see in the crowd. Take the new one which is now the subject of controversy. The cast includes Professor Akinwunmi Isola who wrote the play. Dejumo Lewis, (Kabiyesi of Village Head master) played the king. Then you have the inimitable Adebayo Faleti with his deep words of knowledge; and of course Dr. Larinde Akinleye, Antar Laniyan, Lere Paimo as well as several other people from the university system who manage to speak flawless, undiluted Oyo Yoruba though the flick is subtitled in English. It is a film rooted in Yoruba culture and it is based on the society of the past where evil was always punished and good rewarded. To enjoy the story, however, you must have watched Saworoide which was sponsored by the inauguration committee of Bola Tinubu in 1999 and only God knows how much lessons from the film the Governor has imbibed in the last three years. We will come to this someday.
Agogo Eewo is the story of a village called Jogbo which, like Nigeria, has enough for the needs of the people in terms of resources but not enough to satisfy the greed of the leaders as represented by the succeeding kings and the chiefs who are more or less rolling stones, advisers to every king on the throne. And unfortunately for the villagers, the greed of the chiefs happens to outweigh the collective need. In ancient Jogbo, the ruler and the ruled had made a pact, a sort of binding social contract that engendered prosperity for all but with dire consequences for deviants. But the corrupt chiefs and the kings had conspired to ensure the requisite rituals are not performed so they could continue to loot the resources from timber, which was being tapped by foreign companies whose management refused to plough back anything by way of investment or by planting new trees to replace the felled ones simply because that would impact negatively on their turnover. This was, however, made possible because the succeeding kings and the chiefs had a deal with these companies to the detriment of their pauperized people while their kickbacks were at their demand kept for them in accounts opened abroad.
Not unexpectedly, the foreign companies prospered at the expense of the people who in their attempts to resist were murdered in cold blood with the support of the corrupt leadership. The system, however, became so entrenched that even when there was a change of government through a military coup, the material condition of the people did not change because the foreign companies were quick to pocket the new leaders with their own loot. Even among the fighting youth, some were actually agents of the foreign companies which had formed a cartel to divide and subjugate the people with money and force, if necessary. By the end of Saworoide, the military usurper Lagata had died.
The person who was supposed to succeed him was a young man but the corrupt chiefs who had their plans wanted somebody they thought they would put in their pocket, a retired police officer.
That was how they hijacked the process after having told the priest the man they wanted, thinking the man so chosen would not rock the boat. Against his wish, they cajoled Adebosipo to accept the kingship, saying he was the only man who could change the situation of things in the town. He said he had no money, they said he should not worry. He virtually got to the throne free-of-charge. Can you see some similarities? But that is where it ends. The moment Adebosipo got to the throne, he said it would no longer be business as usual and he meant it.
The first sign that he was out for a serious business came when he succeeded in curtailing the excesses of his wife who wanted to play First Lady with all the attendant abuse of power. She also wanted to use her position to acquire wealth. The king said No in clear terms because he meant what he said and he enforced it. We know what happened elsewhere. Having won on the home front, the new king began to deal with the situation in town. The level of his commitment was visible. He did not resort to escapism by travelling around. He realised the enormity of the problems at hand and tackled them head-on. He consulted the right advisers because he realised he did not know it all, and through consultations, he was able to come up with the solution in Agogo Eewo which restored sanity. But he himself was above board: he played no pranks with the peoples' trust, his friends or family of his wife did not cut deals, the reason why he could survive Saworoide even when Ayanganlu sounded the drum.
There are several lessons in the film depicted through differing metaphors and allegories: that of the shoe, the dancer and the lenders; the antics of children hunters in the bush and several others, the folklores from Oya (Biodun Duro-ladipo), baba Opalaba (Faleti) etc. I recommend Agogo Eewo for our itinerant President because he is a Yoruba elder who should be able to decipher the underlining meanings therein since the film takes events and ideas which on the face value might be considered mere abstractions and makes them understandable and entertaining with a powerful message about power and its use.
We see in the film also that even when the people are quiet it does not in any way suggest that they do not know what is going on because at the fullness of time they will reveal who is serving them and who is serving himself as the people of Jogbo did at the Palace on the day new chiefs were being introduced. I hope it does not end like that for our President and I also hope he can understand the conventional wisdom in the tongue twisting poem of the three children which says "t'oba tete gb'obo bogbe, obo o gbe o bogbe…"
With three years and three months gone in a tenure of four years, I think it is already too late to remedy that situation now. And it is sad. But will someone please tell our President to come back home?
• First published in THISDAY in August 2002