By Reuben Abati
This is about Stephen Nyitse, the young man who on the day of the coronation of the new Tor Tiv managed to beat security and went straight to where the king’s coronation seat, stool, throne had been placed and sat on it. We are told this caused a stir, and not a few in the crowd must have shouted: “abomination!”, Even the President of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, Benue branch, Bishop Mike Angou considered Nyitse’s action sacrilegious. He went to the seat, to anoint and rededicate it. Bishop Angou’s intervention obviously was meant to cast out whatever demons Nyitse must have inflicted on the already consecrated kingship throne. It is possible also that the ordinary people in attendance and the chiefs of Tivland interpreted it as a bad omen. Africans including the educated live in a world of spirits, demons and magic. Every act or gesture among them, is considered spiritual or religious.
The other side of it has to do with social hierarchy and customs. Our social life is heavily stratified. People are expected to know their place. Young persons are not supposed to disrespect or question elders. Wisdom is necessarily attached to old age, even if that is definitely untrue. Women are expected to submit to men, and that remains the case for all women in many of our communities. The poor are expected to worship the rich. Employees are expected to be loyal obedient servants.
This is the content of our socialization in traditional communities, during the colonial period and even long after colonialism. When we were growing up, there were many things that were taken as normal that would today look absolutely ridiculous to our children. Children were not expected to talk back to their parents: if you did that, you could earn many strokes of the cane. In many families, whenever the father of the house was at home, nobody would try to be assertive, and any news that Daddy was returning from work would send both the children and their mother scampering in all directions.
Thus, in every home, there were boundaries. You were told never to start a meal by eating meat. That had to be the last routine. Children nowadays eat the meat or fish and just pick at the main dish. Parents even take their children to eateries and buy them roasted chickens. In those days, there was Daddy’s cup: you would never be caught drinking out of that cup. Daddy’s chair: you were not allowed to sit on it! Daddy’s Radio: Ha, of course, you would not go near that miserable transistor radio. In those families where they had television sets, a rarity in those days, with the most popular being the black and white Grundig, usually securely locked, nobody was expected to touch that screaming evidence of family wealth!
It was black and white TV of course, but it only came alive whenever the father of the house, special custodian of the key to that box, opened it for viewing. If this was the custom in ordinary homes, imagine what crisis would have erupted in the larger community if a commoner were to sit on a king’s throne!
The times may be changing, but our communities are still governed by many codes and rules into which every family is expected to socialize their children and members. There is also something called protocol. In formal situations, it is considered rude to go and occupy a seat that has been reserved either for elders or special guests not to talk of the king. This can be seen even in the arrangement of official protocol in government. This is why the Vice President, for example would refuse to sit on the President’s seat, even when the President is on leave and he, the Deputy is acting as President.
In many states, nobody would dare sit physically on any seat reserved for the Governor. At the VIP lounge at our various airports, I have seen ordinary VIPs, occupying seats reserved for the President or for a special official of high rank. I have had to ask one or two persons to vacate that seat. How do you know a seat meant for the President? Usually, there would be a flag behind it, usually two flags: the Nigerian flag and the flag of the Commander-in-Chief. Can you imagine a civil servant sitting in front of those two flags? If he is caught, he would be chased out of that seat as if he had committed an abomination.
So, on all fronts, Stephen Nyitse behaved badly. His excuse that he wanted to “anoint” the King’s seat is stupid, because nobody gave him that assignment. Who is he?: A pastor or a demonic agent, driven by the spirits? In these days of Boko Haram and suicide bombing, the security agents did well by arresting him and whisking him away for interrogation. But that is where it should end, more so as the police seem to have confirmed that he is not mentally ill, even if he is, that would be the more reason he should be helped and not punished. Stephen Nyitse has also not committed any offence known to law. He sat on the seat that would become a throne. He did not kill anybody. He did not disrupt the ceremony. Nobody was injured as a result of his action. He did not resist arrest. He could probably have said he acted out of love like that other man who named his dog Buhari!
This is one case that we should all probably have laughed off as a comic relief from Benue State. But it is nothing titillating, because of the final decision taken by the Tiv Traditional Council to banish Stephen Nyitse from Tivland, with strict instructions that no Tiv son or daughter must ever relate with him or help him. He is thus now, officially an outcast among his people. There is no evidence that Nyitse was invited and interrogated by the Traditional Council. For sitting on the King’s chair, the traditional rulers of Tivland have taken away in one fell swoop, Stephen Nyitse’s right to fair hearing and human dignity, and his freedoms of movement, belief, choice, association and assembly. If this was 1840, perhaps the Traditional Council would have ordered his execution. But this is 2017, and under the Nigerian Constitution, no man can be punished except in accordance with the laws of the country. The new Tor Tiv who is a Professor should know that.
The pronouncement that no Tiv indigene should ever relate with Nyitse obviously includes his wife, if he is married to a Tiv, and of course his children, if he has. So, he loses his family, and his property if he has any in Tivland, his identity is taken away from him, he is declared a non-person, just because he sat on someone else’s chair? If at the coronation ceremony in question, one of the Tor Tiv’s grandchildren had been the person who walked across to that chair and sat on it, the crowd would have cheered. They would have proclaimed that kingship runs in the veins of the new Tor Tiv’s sons. This same Tiv Traditional Council would have said with delight that while coronating one Tor Tiv, the gods showed them a future one! What is called African tradition can oftentimes be that hypocritical. The poor are the victims of the world; oppressed by the rich, the privileged and the local gods of our various villages, and the other gods that sit on thrones.
If that seat was so important, there should have been someone guarding it. In some traditional communities in this country, such a special seat would have some local chiefs and cult members protecting it, long before the new king is brought to sit on it. If that is not so, a policeman standing behind that seat would have been enough. For the Tiv Traditional Council to react so harshly, they must have concluded that Stephen Nyitse offended the gods of their land. That was the context in which persons were banished from communities in the past. But I refer the new Tor Tiv, who is a Christian, to Judges 6: 28-31. “If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.”
The Tor Tiv, who is obviously the chair of the Tiv Traditional Council should free Stephen Nyitse. If the traditional gods are angry, let them collect goats, kolanuts, and bottles of palm oil. On his coronation day, the Tor Tiv promised to fight injustice, and defend the interest of all sons and daughters of Tivland. He should not begin his reign on a note of harshness and highhanded-ness. He should begin his reign as a king who forgives…
Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo (1960-2017)
Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, thespian, journalist, playwright, administrator, politician and our friend and colleague died on Sunday on one of Nigeria’s impossibly treacherous roads, fleeing from armed robbers. If armed robbers knew who he was, may be they would have spared him.
He was a true man of talent, a gifted professional and a man who will always be remembered for the quality of his art and person.
He was not your ordinary journalist. He was an intellectual. He had gravitas and he deployed his polyvalent understanding with ease without going out of his way to intimidate less gifted persons.
There is so much cant in this country and so much emptiness. But I never caught Onukaba flogging people with his brilliance. He was a very friendly, accommodating and understanding fellow who made many friends because he easily masked his superiority. This was the secret of his success as Managing Director of the Daily Times. In better-organized countries, a man like him will still be alive and not be chased to death by armed robbers. But here we are: another sad story. Nigeria easily kills off its best. Onukaba is probably the best airport correspondent Nigeria ever produced. He made his mark at the airport, hunting for stories, interviewing the prominent and the influential, and it was at the airport that he met General Olusegun Obasanjo who changed his life for good.
When I arrived at the University of Ibadan for graduate studies in Theatre Arts, I found myself in a class that had been carefully selected including smart persons from virtually every part of the country: UNN, ABU, Jos, Calabar, Ibadan, Ilorin, Benin, Port Harcourt. Shuaibu Ojo, as he then was, was one of the three persons from the home department, Ibadan. We all knew each other more or less, because theatre students in Nigeria usually meet at an annual festival called NUTAF. The Ibadan students wouldn’t allow me rest: they told me they had Shuaibu in my class and he would show me that Ibadan’s Second Class Upper was superior to my Calabar First Class. I had my head in the clouds in those days. I told them I was waiting for their Shuaibu and that I would not only beat him, but I would also make history in the entire university.
Shuaibu didn’t take up the Ibadan offer. He later went to the United States, where he did a Masters in Journalism and a Ph.D in Performance Studies. I admired him. He is the only Nigerian I knew for a long time with a Ph.D in Performance Studies, the conjunction point of theatre studies, and under Richard Schechner, the scholar who developed that field into a defining medley of theatre, art and politics. Onukaba and I shared many paths over the years- through UI, The Guardian, Africa Leadership Forum, OBJ, Baba or Obas as we call him, journalism, spokesmanship, writing… His death diminishes us. The flag should fly at half-mast at all Departments of Theatre, Dramatic, Media and Creative Arts in Nigeria because he was one of the best advertisements of the multi-disciplinary quality of their curriculum. Choo-bo-i, my brother!