When a King Dies
- Title: Obito
- Author: Sam Omatseye
- Publisher: Parrésia Publishers Ltd
- Number of pages: 100
- Year of publication: 2018
- Category: Drama
In his drama, Obito, Sam Omatseye recreates the past while commenting on the present and the corruption and hypocrisy in Nigeria through deftly applied satire. In the African sensibility, the cycle of life comprises three distinct planes: the dead, the living and the unborn, which together form the wheel around which life revolves. The play hinges on the death of a king and the lengths people within the corridors of power will go to distort the truth. The play examines the role of the media in erecting smokescreens of falsehood and the ways in which a sometimes unsuspecting populace is held captive. In such circumstances – as the late Dora Akunyili once observed, in the absence of concrete facts concerning the health of the then Nigerian president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua – rumours are bound to take over.
The play opens with Chief Nikoro, one of the king’s traditional aides, being admonished by a native doctor whom he consults about his childlessness. He is told never to lie to his soon-to-be-born son, Toritse. To do so will lead to the death of the child. He is later faced with a dilemma when Toritse, now a teenager, confronts him about the truth of the king’s death as part of his research for a school essay. To resolve it, Chief Nikoro enlists the aid of a reporter to help his son while retaining his allegiance to the throne and the traditions of the land, which he is duty bound to uphold. The cultural backdrop is that of the Bini people of Edo State, where the Oba is deified by his subjects, and which the playwright uses to interrogate the Nigerian state. However, to protect the cultural sensibilities of the Bini people, the dramatist creates the fictional town of Effi. The word obito, which translates as burial, is a deliberate play on obituary, which is, itself, a metaphor for the failure of democracy in Nigeria.
When a king dies, political sycophants become the true wielders of power. Paying tribute to the late Yar’Adua, the Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, wrote:
What passes for the Nigerian nation is nothing more than a tragic arena and Yar’Adua is only the latest tragic figure. The vampires, including those within his own family, turned him into a mere inert resource for their diabolical schemes. They have a reckoning with their conscience, assuming they know what the word means.
The death of the Oba becomes a symbol of the way political structures collapse when a privileged few conflate the state with their personal property. Obito paints a remarkable picture of how, time and again, governments the world over trample on the hopes of the citizenry. This sometimes shocks the disillusioned masses into taking action, culminating in bloodshed. The Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East readily comes to mind, echoing the much-quoted opening lines of W B Yeatss ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’.
Through the use of allegory, the dramatist draws parallels between his characters and those of notable people in contemporary Nigerian politics. For instance, judging from the tension that ripped through the country between late 2009 and early 2010 when Yar’Adua was receiving medical treatment abroad under a cloak of secrecy, one can safely say that the ailing president is the same as the Oba of Effi. In both cases, the cabals around them withhold information on their respective conditions, in the process foregrounding the duplicity of both political systems. The language and actions of the traditional custodians mirror the fevered manipulations of politicians during the electoral process, and are therefore a marker of the false assumptions on which the hopes of the masses are dashed.
Interestingly, the playwright creates a demarcation between the haves and have-nots – distinct spheres of existence striving side by side. The former control the agencies of the state; the plebeians must resort to grovelling and backstabbing in order to partake of the ever-elusive national moin-moin. These social classes also encompass those who see through the amoral system but choose not to question it and those who do question it but are met with resistance.
Another leitmotif is embodied in the figure of Mama Cassandra, a key player in Effi. She owes her elevated status to her cooking skills, with her restaurant being the centre for all manner of gossip, owing to her diverse clientele. She symbolises the role of women in politics as she bemoans the patriarchy of a society in which only male cooks can attend a royal burial. But, given the opportunity, will women make better administrators? Have they, in fact, performed better with the modicum of political power they have seized in their quest for gender equality?
Other symbolic elements in the play include the American teacher who personifies Western interest in Nigeria and, by extension, Africa. The voice of conscience is contained in the warnings of the native doctor in the play’s opening scene, and also the words of the palace clown who summarises the chiefs’ actions thus: ‘What is more treacherous? We have betrayed ourselves, so what is left but to betray the society?’ (p 77). Investigative journalism, with the aid of modern technology, sheds light on closely guarded secrets that are birthed in the darkness of politicking.
The maxim, ‘silence is golden’, does not suffice in justifying the censoring of information vital to a country’s progress, especially in a democratic system where the welfare of the masses trumps the personal inclinations of elected officials. The proper dissemination of nationally vital information can only be achieved through well-articulated policies. However, Chief Nikoro proves that not all political players wallow in putrefaction. Like Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, he seeks redemption in suicide. Both characters sacrifice their lives while protecting the people. Omatseye dramatises the corruption of political institutions by way of tradition and culture, which speaks of our cultural heritage as symbolic of the kind of systems – political, economic and traditional – that we hand down to our children.
Photograph: ‘Head of an oba (deceased king)’ by Richard Mortel
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Victor Udochi Iwueze-Elias is currently studying English and Literature at the University of Benin. He is a night crawler, cat lover, book hoarder and food enthusiast. His poems have been published on Words Are Work, Kitodiaries, African Writers and other literary journals. His twitter handle is @Elias_andrevn. He is a Wawa Book Review Young Literary Critics Fellow.
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