Ben Guriano of The Washington Post described them in 2018 as ‘taboo enforcers.’ These are trolls seeking to upend truth and subvert facts about the life and times of the dead. ‘Do not speak ill of the dead’ came originally from a Spartan philosopher, then it was latinated by the Romans to read De mortuis nihil nisi bonum – and got spread around the world like Chinese viruses. The black man, as in all cases, contracted the no-no and turned it into a religion, got drunk with it and won’t mind killing for it. A controversial former senator from Ogun State died last week. A former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, wrote and reminded the forgetful of the fugitive life lived by the dead and what lesson to learn from it. The enforcers said Obasanjo broke a taboo; their timid, closet collaborators hide behind Obasanjo’s own impurity of previous alliances to assail his position and protect the taboo. They have all been out since then, prowling the streets.
They say it is our culture to praise-sing every ghost, white or black – but that is not true! If our culture was against speaking ill of the dead, records waxed cursing Colonel Bukar Suka Dimka, who was caught, tied to the stake and publicly executed for killing General Murtala Muhammed in a coup in February 1976, would be perceived horrible. But the records were bestsellers. The same with those waxed on notorious armed robber, Dr. Ishola Oyenusi. Lawrence Anini was another robber famously generous with his loot. He was caught, shamed and shot with no redemption for his memory.
If you do not want to be given the burial rites of Bashorun Gaa, do not live your life as he did his. Gaa was a powerful public figure in old Oyo. He was second in command to the Alaafin, but he was a serial king-killer; his supposed lords were his delicacy. And he really enjoyed eating the heads of his kings. Then he stepped on ‘the eye of the earth’ and got his cup of ill full. He lost everything, including his life, his entire family and the privilege of a sweet memory. South-Westerners invoking the Graeco-Roman taboo today are aware of this Bashorun Gaa example. There are proverbs keeping the badness of Gaa’s memory alive as an eternal warning against evil in public and private lives.
Every community has had its Gaa and knows how it dealt with him. Afonja was killed by his Hausa-Fulani allies on the streets of Ilorin in about 1813. Yoruba politicians since then quickly christen their opponents ‘Afonja’ whenever they are short-changed in the rat race of power politics. What is that they think they are doing to the memory of the ancestor of some people in Ilorin – and Ibadan?
In a bad year as in 2020, when announcement of deaths has become a cliche, should comments on the dead be decreed a cliche too? Should ‘A good man is gone’ be found on every lip even as everyone knows that to be a lie? I salute ace columnist, Farooq Kperogi, when he looked at the tragedy of not speaking ill of the dead and took the route rarely taken. He wrote: “Nigerian politicians are the world’s most pampered and protected species. When they’re alive, you can’t criticize their misdeeds without contending with darts from their legions of daggers for hire on social media and in the news media. When they die, people who know them are also not allowed to speak unflattering, publicly available FACTS about them; the society blackmails them into feeling guilty for ‘speaking ill of the dead.’ This ensures that they get away with iniquities in life and in death… Of course, Nigerian ‘history’ is always kind to every dead politician.”
It is not only politicians who should lose their immunity from post-death dissection. All of us should. And I am happy controversial Obasanjo has challenged us to speak ill or well of him when he dies. We all should say it as he did. I am saying mine. Life is an examination; some pass very well, some fail woefully; some manage to be average on the scale of life markers. We can’t all get it completely right no matter how much we try. As noted by Guriano quoted above, when Senator John MacCain of the United States died a few years ago, there were those who saw him as a ‘hero’ and a ‘patriot.’ There were others who said he was a ‘backstabber’ and a ‘traitor.’ Both sides gave their verdicts freely based on their convictions about the life of the dead. Enough of dictatorship of taboos, of boring days of crocodile condolences and dreary nights of dubious tributes.
When you indulge power, it overwhelms you. You read at the weekend that security agents ‘invited’ a former speaker of the House of Representatives for criticizing the president. I read it too and prayed that it wasn’t the truth. It must be a lie because this is supposed to be a democracy, a nation of free men and free women. It is only in the jungle that stags can’t bleat in lion’s presence. Or has Nigeria been programmed finally to a muted nation of the dumb? Flesh and blood, they do this to us; when they die, their cadaver uses a third century taboo to ban us from speaking ill of their bad life. And their ballers roll out the tanks and dare us to speak the truth on the life of their patrons.
Failed leaders sit in judgement. They seek deification and are even coercing us to do so. There are now rogue laws against calling out leaders who dutifully abuse trust and privileges. Government men (and women) who ‘eat’ bridges and roads and salaries meant for their people scheme daily to die and be celebrated. Rich men who crash banks with pre-planned bad loans are everywhere buying love from their victims. They don’t want to die and be pronounced bad, so they give regular palliatives to the poor who lost their life savings to the banks’ bad debts. Big men who sell job slots to children of the poor also want to die and become heroes. These ones and their more audacious first cousins in the world of violent crimes would insist that we would be breaking ancestral taboos if any in their tribe dies and is declared evil.
The fair verdict should be that those who lived as private and public tormentors should face torment till eternity. Powerful, bad people do not share your hope in heaven and fear of hell. They believe that everything ends here on earth – the reason they fight to own the world and possess all in it and ask you and me to shut up. But if the drivers of our vehicle know there is a day of rebuke after death, they will be sober and stop rough-driving the Nigerian bus.
The taboo enforcers are everywhere; they won’t calm down; they should be stared down. Respecting satanic memories or cowering before their ubiquitous presence means we all are hostage to stupidity – and mendacity. And that would be sad, unfortunate and even suicidal because the dead can still hurt – especially since they were evil. The dead deserve justice from the living. It is justice if the evil that men do is made to live after them. That is one godly way to furl the mat of Satan and his evil ways.