By Onyemaechi Ogbunwezeh
- The Fires that ate Tyranny
On an arid desert morning, as the siroccos rose across dusty dunes of the Sahara to caress the Mediterranean, a frustrated guy struck a match.
He lit a fire!
The fire convoked a tragedy. It created a funeral pyre. It cremated a life. It erased the personal history of a man. It was a single matchstick. It lighted a bonfire that barbecued a man to a certain death. In obedience to its nature, it did what every match stick is destined to do.
It lit a fire!
If that fire ended there, we would be very busy right now dissecting the cadaver of other concerns. This fire overthrew a narrative.
But it did not end there!
Unbeknownst to all the comic Ali (s) and other jesters of the realm, it was no ordinary fire. This fire was neither seen by the prophets, nor perceived by soothsayers. The Jesters of the dictatorial courts adjoining the Mediterranean were busy aping the debaucheries of imperial Rome. They religiously fiddled, like Roman aristocrats of old, while their tyrannical empires burnt like Nero’s Rome.
They could afford that luxury because the advent of this fire was not announced to a fanfare. They have seen such fires before; many of which died before they could muster a flicker. Those that dared to glow were hurriedly put out with a ruthless heavy-handedness that has been the mark of a bestial tyranny.
To their minds, it was a simple uprising in the ghettos of poverty created by their rapacity. It was simply an indiscretion sometimes allowed the “stupid” masses, who should be gratefully bearing the burdens of their poverty. They should be grateful that their heads still sat atop their necks, thanks to the preoccupation of the elite with the orgiastic kleptomania they pass off as governance.
The hoi polloi should thank their non-execution or decapitation to the fact that the emperor’s constipation, prayerfully turned into diarrhea, or else some heads would have been singing their Nunc dimittis at the feet of imperial hangmen.
For these minds marinated in debauchery and political buffoonery, this fire is nothing to worry about. It is a speck in the vast timelessness of crushed rebellions, under the empire’s belt. A simple police action will do.
They were immunized against reality. Their only language is loot. They kept musing in their kleptocratic bacchanalia: “We would send in our goons, funded by their taxes. A few prominent heads will be broken, some recalcitrant skulls will be smashed, and the vociferous will be dispatched to eternal silence. And we will purchase some calm. And we will return to our normal business of looting the people. And the show goes on!
The cookbooks were consulted. The age long tactic was tried. Machiavelli was dusted off the shelves. All were thrown in, to quench this little matchstick glowing at the ruins of a man, who offered his carcass as the canvass upon which the obituary of tyranny would be written across North Africa.
But the fire refused to die. It refused to be put out. It seems to be fanned and egged on by the siroccos of bottled agony.
What started as a testament to frustration; a final gasp of death, as a man strangled by the state, gives up his ghost; became a raging inferno. No one foresaw the uniting power of agonizing poverty.
This fire was never intended to convoke the burning down of an empire of impunity. It was intended to create a personal tragedy. It was lighted to end it all. The young man was frustrated into that kind of hopelessness that has forever being the hallmark of hell.
The decision to cremate oneself is not a decision taken in a hurry. The guy felt hemmed in on all sides, by walls of infernal fire, created by a State that was supposed to offer him protection against the Hobbesian ravages of a raw State of nature. He was in hell while alive. The deal he got was one, where the State officials were not only stealing him and his posterity blind, but are very busy putting obstacles on his way, as he tries to escape the tyranny-induced poverty that has been his lot since birth.
As the remains of the man were reduced to cinders, a phoenix of popular anger was rising off the ashes. The poor of North Africa united. They shook off their fear. They had nothing else to lose save their chains. They saw for the first time that the keys to cancel their captivity lay in their hands all along. On this day they decided to use it. They were never ever going to go back to the status quo. This dictatorial empire of political greed must be burnt down. Ali Ben Ali and his goons have stolen enough. The thieves have had many years. Today is the day that the owners are going to claim their property.
Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, a grotesque thief of unimaginable proportions, who had been in power for 23 years, was thrown out of power by the Tunisian people; at the originating instance of an ordinary fruit-seller, who, tired of the extorting chicaneries of government official, used his body as the fuel that burned to consume an empire of tyrannical kleptocracy. As the thief of Tunisia was fleeing into exile, with as much loot as he could commandeer, the dictatorship of nepotistic corruption in Egypt started feeling the heat of the fires lighted in Tunisia. Tahir Square became the center of the universe; a universe of meaning that every human spirit desiring freedom will forever connect with. The time for the corrupt powers of Hosni Mubarak was over. The people at Tarhir Square brought another rickety conglomerate of thievery on its knees.
The fires of Tunisia kept burning. Ghaddafi was next. As Libyans rose to sing freedom songs, Libyan oil became what it has always been for other resource rich, but militarily weak nations; namely a curse. Gaddafi could have been kicked out by his own people save that the Libyan song was hijacked by Euro-American interests of dubious provenance.
- De Profundis!!!!
Being nightly immersed in the chants of solemn poetry, at the close of each day; as we sang out our young formative years in beautiful psalmodies; in praise of what that great saint of Hippo, Augustine Aurelius called “The Beauty most Ancient, yet so New”, I encountered one of the most beautiful verses of poetry ever written by man.
As Bigard Chapel reverberated in those days, with our young voices in choir, harmoniously caressing the fibers of our hearts, as it has continued to do since its inception; the compline and Sunday prayers, which were always sung, represented some of the most amazing parts of my catholic education.
It was an ancient text, belonging to one of the most ancient body of works in literary history. Even at that, those words possess a fresh vitality that never grows old. It has spoken, and will continue to speak to souls lost in meaninglessness. Though primitive in ontology, its evocative words stir an orgasmic melancholy in the souls searching for light, meaning, and significance in this valley of tears called life.
The opening exclamations of Psalm 129 represents one of most fascinating overflow of inspirational poetry ever to escape the hearts of man. It was impotence of weak finitude calling upon omnipotent infinity. It was the groans of weakness screaming for help! Those simple cries, issuing from a heart ripped asunder by cares and fear, was directed in faith to potent powers of the universe. He is screaming for help and salvation.
That was a prayer of the psalmist to his God earnestly asking for salvation. His soul was seeking a firm anchor as a Deer longs for running waters. It was a sign of dependence of God. He was screaming from the depths of rot; from the miry pits of decay; from the abyss of the hopeless; the isle of the dead so to say.
The culture that produced this beautiful piece of poetry was among the most persecuted of all nations. One can see centuries of persecution written into those pieces of poetry. They were tired of it all. They have sought help everywhere. Their enemies encircled them, and “compassed them all about”. But after many years of waiting for divine help, they have in history had occasions to take the bull by the horns and try to save themselves from their circumstance.
The Maccabean revolt was an instance of this. This is to show that this culture, which prayed as if everything depended on the Divine, have had occasions to act as if everything depended on their arms of flesh. They have in so many instances had reasons to see with Sophocles, a pagan philosopher that “heaven will never help those who will never act”. They have acted severally to save themselves from the extinction planned for them by those who have had cause to hate them. After many centuries of enduring persecution; which saw its apogee in Adolf Hitler’s industrial attempt to wipe off this race of men; they resolved that “Never Again”, would they walk as sheep to slaughter into any crematorium fashioned by the hands of men. They wrote it into their national anthem-Never Again!!!
Not only that; the catholic tradition, which has continued to celebrate this poetry in prayer, has as one of its cardinal articles, that “faith without good works is dead”. That means that any prayer not backed by action is as good as useless.
This was the same catholic ambient and education, which nursed and imbued me not only with a profound hunger for inquiry, but a habitual propensity to confront reality on its own terms; and not through the mediational prisms of any medium. This was the milieu, which though harboring a range of dogmas, stepped over that, to teach me a passionate dislike for prude conventionalism and unexamined acceptance of dogma. This was a tradition which cultivated in me an iconoclastic disrespect for those who pontificate over issues with the certainty, which only profound ignorance breeds. It did all religious education was meant to eschew. Though a body of faith; it stepped over its comfort zones to hand me the philosophical tools to kill faith and rush headlong into agnostic questioning of all things, both sacred and profane. Over and above its reverence for the divine, it taught me an irreverent loathing of postulations of conjectural import.
Over and above teaching me, to pray as if everything depends on the divine, and to work as if everything depends on me, it taught me to really beware of the man whose God is in the skies. To that end, “laborare est orare” became one of cardinal rules of operations that I have come to cherish.
This is to say that we can groan all we want from the pits of hell, if we do not lift a finger to cancel our captivity, our oppressors will never get their fangs off our bleeding flesh. We can pray all we want; nothing will happen if we don’t consolidate our prayerful aspirations with the productive works of our hands.
Today, the soul of every Nigerian is crying to be freed from these miry pits of hell that Nigeria has become. We have prayed. We have fasted. We have even attempted to bribe the various gods of our reverence with our earnest “sowing of seeds”. But the gods of our worship all seem to be in exile. They are no more within hearing distance of our earnest prayers. Our rot has refused to yield to our timid hopes.
We have been crying out of the depths of our pain and decadence. But the “Lord has refused to hear our voice”! His ear has refused to be attentive to our voices in supplication”! We as a people have lifted up our eyes to the mountains, and our help has refused to come from anywhere (Ps.121). We have failed to stand, not because the “Lord” has been marking our iniquities” (Ps.129)
Why then has Nigeria continued to be a dungeon of corruption-induced poverty?
Why haven’t Nigerians been able to rise against the tyranny of dysfunction that has laid the land lame, since its call into being? Why this infinite propensity to endure evil, which has coagulated into a culture in Nigeria? Why this sociopathology of apathy that has disemboweled our sense of outrage at the plunder of our commonweal by an aristocracy of elitist greed? Why this armored timidity on the part of the many, which underwrites the audacious impunity of the few in Nigeria? Why this dangerous silence, as a cabal of hyper-corrupt few rapes our land and chains the nation to the pillars of eternal poverty? Why are Nigerians keeping quiet, as we are led like sheep to the slaughter? My friend and mama Pikin, Pius Adesamni followed in Achebe’s footsteps in his last international outing, calling on the world to see Africa’s as a people before viewing them as a market. I wonder the pedestal upon which Pius would be canvassing that standpoint, when African elites are the ones auctioning off our humanity for mere pittance, before every charlatan who cares to buy it.
Men are at times the masters of the fate, intoned Shakespeare. The debate over the role of fate and the capacity of free will as the potent agent in the affairs of men have received quite a treatment in literature and philosophy as to abide a rehash here. In the Shakespearean rendition of this battle, Shakespeare made Cassius utter what I have come to consider a perfect truth borne out by experience, especially in the Nigerian context. Cassius, refusing to genuflect at a fatalistic acceptance of Caesar’s power, considered a belief in fate to be nothing but timid poltroonery. He wagered to tell Brutus that “men at some time were masters of their fates” and “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings”. He set it on the marble for all ages, that our inability to lift ourselves up from our rot is not as a result of the conspiracy of the gods, but in our failure to assert ourselves; put in Sophoclean terms, in our refusal to act.
Nigerian terrible situation, and continued sojourn in dysfunction is the result of a conspiracy in which neither faith nor the gods participated in. Our problems are predicated on a conspiracy of elitist greed underwritten by a conspiracy of our silence.
So, God will not solve our problems if we will never act. All the violence going on across our land was not initiated by the gods. They were the product of our hands and choices. Sophocles is forever right. Heaven will never help those who would never act.
Gwazia ndi yard unu!