The voice of Chi – In Touch, The Nation newspaper, 01/04/2019
No greater irony in the last round of polls than the victories of Simon Lalong of Plateau State and Samuel Ortom of Benue State. Fellow columnist and member of The Nation editorial board Femi Macaulay first pointed it out in one of our casual, if sometimes luminous, dialogues on the state of the nation. In his taciturn air and often deep, grave voice, Macaulay observed it in passing, his face looking down and away. My antenna quivered and I agreed, but we said no more.
It occurred to him that both governors stood on two antipodes. Lalong called for embrace among his tribes and faiths. Ortom dangled the spectre of fear and hate. But I have turned it over in my mind ever since. One called the herdsman a foe and interloper, a bloodthirsty carpetbagger, a hoodlum, a savage from the furnace of human treachery. He invoked Armageddon and enacted a law to banish his group.
The other set a template like his Lord, and called for love for your enemies, seek ways in the language of the Psalmist for all to dwell together in harmony. Hate he saw as corrosion, a demeaning virus in the affairs of men. Ortom was probably looking at Christianity and his state as practitioners of a cult, adhering to its purposes, codes, rituals and sense of exclusive community. While Lalong dreamed nirvana, Ortom said never.
Yet both pray to the same God. We can ignore their first names as icons of the Christian faith. One a prophet smothered in beard and solemn vows and the other a leper who hosted Christ and led to an opulence of oil anointing. We can also discount the meanings. Samuel points to petitions answered and Simon indicates a listening ear. No contrast in the biblical sphere, so that should not bother us.
But Benue and Plateau are neighbours. In some places, their borders meet without a joint. Not long ago, they were one state known as Benue Plateau, and they played politics as one unit. I hear they make pounded yam by day and make love at night. Yet they voted differently. Benue voted Ortom, which endorsed the rhetoric of division. Lalong was going to win all along. But it means Plateau endorsed unity.
We cannot forget that, in the high wire of the herdsman fury, President Buhari goofed into the conversation, asking the Benue elders to embrace their neighbours. So what do we make of this contradictory trends in the polls. We also saw some of that strain in the retention of Ishaku in Taraba and Bindow’s ouster in Adamawa. But nowhere is it more potent than the contiguous neighbours.
It indicated a binary war within the Nigerian soul, like the womb of Rebecca, the mother of Jacob and Esau, where the good book says they represented two worlds, antipodal nerves. So part of us loves the hate, part of us loves the love. We are like Walt Whitman’s line in Leaves of Grass. “Do I contradict myself? Yes I contradict myself… I am large, I contain multitudes.”
So, what voice do we listen to now? Is it the one that harries and yaps, or the lolling, mollifying rhythm of Lalong? Shall we just abide with the divided self, a thing Salman Rushdie implies as inevitable in his turbulent novel The Satanic Verses?
Nor is it a new thing in our society or others. From the beginning of time, ‘we versus them’ has been a strain in communities. We have those who close their minds to others and others who welcome. Ortom was accused in the high temper of the crisis of exploiting it for political gain. He used it to put down the herdsmen, even sometimes when it was them and sometimes when it was mere criminals. Some have argued that the mass burial day of coffins was less to mourn than a call to electoral arms. Even some members of his own security apparatus have been accused of stoking it. He never stopped to raise its spectre even when the state was quiescent. On the other hand, Lalong would not sign anti-grazing law, once proposed and eventually abandoned the idea of a ranch. He buried the Plateau dead in peace. But he had from the beginning pursued a template for all, including the Hausa-Fulani and Birom, to work together. It did not always work, but he did not faint, even when the state erupted with blood and tears.
Fear is easy to invoke in times of stress. But to appeal to our better angels is a risky place to tread, and it can be politically fatal. Ortom chose the cowardly and cynical path. Lalong walked the narrow path, what Shakespeare calls a walk in the night. He endured and won.
Trump rides human fear and hate, and he may ride it again to a second term, just like Ortom. To inspire fear needs a few and simple words. To allay fears compels circuitous explanations, often seen as boring. Trump says Mexicans are rapists, drug addicts and murderers. You have to write an essay to counter. Who would read that? And the voice of conciliation is not on the rooftop, but gentle and coaxing, what the Bible calls a “still small voice.” Hence Brexit passed, Duterte of the Philippines is popular, Orban of Hungary rouses nationalist passion, and Merkel is at the bottom of the polls in Germany. Ghandi may be the world’s darling but Indians grovel at Nehru’s feet because he chose tribe over humanity. Yet all these countries are at war in their souls. Those who want embrace rage against the racists. History has shown that fear wins when the society is already on the way down and it accelerates the fall.
The Greek orator Isocrates – not Socrates – tried in vain to work Athens to bind the Greek city states together as Athens declined. Persia was on the rise and threatened. But the parliament as if held hostage by some Greek goddess even voted out its own democracy. When they unite, societies grow. When they breed divisive ideologies, they splinter and fall. First they grow fat, and become self-important and hate others as if they own destiny. Paul Kennedy noted this in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Garibaldi held together the Italian States, with Cavour. Bismarck built the German State to its height of culture and even military prowess. But when Hitler came with his narrow, suffocating Nazi ideology, the Allies bombed Germany to its knees. Trump does not read, so he does not know that the great USA is in decline and he is helping it down.
The voices of unity and division are speaking simultaneously as reflected in Benue and Plateau. It is like the Chi in Igbo cosmology talking to his host as novelist Chigozie Obioma delineates in his new and masterly work, An Orchestra of Minorities. What is the Chi of wisdom? Is it Lalong or Ortom? Even many in Benue State are going through voter’s remorse. Ortom moved to PDP, beheaded his godfathers and rules the roost. But the voters now know that the man had no other item to run on in the last election than the fear of the herdsman. Now the people will face the demons: no salaries, bad roads, poor healthcare with perhaps the fewest number of doctors in the country.
What Ortom did is what maligns society. I would rather listen to a Simon Lalong, who personifies the Chi speaking to the host, Nigeria.