By Sam Onimisi
It was the Afro-Caribbean diplomat, Edward Wilmot Blyden, who wrote in 1900 to one Mary Kingsley on what he called ‘the curse of an insatiable ambition.’ “Those who are instructed in the English language,” wrote E. W. Blyden, “are taught by those from whom they have received their training that all native institutions are, in their character, darkness and depravity, and in their effects only evil and evil continually… The Christianized Negro looks away from his Native heath. He is under the curse of an insatiable ambition for imitation of foreign ideas and foreign customs.”
When the British conquered Nigeria in the late 19th century, they encountered stiff resistance from highly organized and cohesive societies built through native wisdom and intelligence. They, through superior fire-power, overcame kingdoms and chiefdoms from whose leaders they took over power and control. Nigerians, or whatever they were called hitherto, were no savages or beasts roaming in the wild wilderness. No! They were sensible human beings living in structured communities with defined and indentifiable leaders and systems of leadership.
The Whiteman came and disoriented us with their own values and civilization, which was assumed superior to ours, and the result is what Edward W. Blyden wrote about over 100 years ago. Is the situation – I mean the average Nigerian’s perception of self – any different from what Blyden said a century ago? Yes, and No.
Yes, because our leadership institution, now christened traditional rulers were ignored, neglected and, in some cases, sidelined and replaced by the colonial masters who found some substitutes for them in the name of Warrant Chiefs. These substitutes created for administrative convenience and colonists’ interest of Britain, are today part and parcel of our traditional rulers’ institution. As an imitation, they exist side-by-side with some original de jure institutions created by the people. But because the white man created them, they are now de facto, placed higher and superior to the native Chiefs. Not that they could have remained there after the departure of the British colonialists, but those civil servants and political leaders trained by the colonialists, having imbibed foreign values and ideas, were incapable of restoring the native Chiefs as the de jure rulers of their people. In popular parlance, most of Nigeria’s post-independence leaders remain under the curse of colonial mentality, even up till today.
The curse of an insatiable appetite for imitation of foreign ideas and customs ensured that we abandon what worked and could still work for us, and embrace what didn’t work and may never work in our favour. And that is why our pitiable situation remains as depicted by Blyden in 1900!
Therefore, when you hear high sounding appellations and prefixes such as ‘His Royal Highness,’ ‘His Royal Majesty’ or, ‘His Eminence,’ you will do well to look beyond the sound, the shadows and seek for the substance behind them. For many of them are mere imitations of the real thing. Some are mere shadows of the old past, and yet, others are the product of an insatiable ambition of a few privileged public servants. Better still, don’t be carried away by the heavy, shapeless and most often, meaningless turbans and headgears worn by some of them. Many of them are putting on borrowed crowns-having abandoned or forgotten their native crowns – and so, could only look ghostly, and in fact, ghastly in their loaned garbs.
The royal crown of the African is not the same as the European crown or the Arabian turban. Africans can never imitate the Arabs or the Europeans and surpass them in their cultures. The Nigerian Chief is either a true native Chief or he is not. Meaning that, any traditional ruler who refuses his native royal dress code and headgear and cleaves to European or Arabic imitations is not fit to be a traditional ruler in Nigeria. Why? Because his insatiable ambition for foreign imitation is the root cause of the backwardness of the Nigerian civilization, industry and technological development.
No nation succeeds at improving or developing its civilization by embracing foreign values in a wholesale manner. If traditional rulership has lost its importance, the fault lies in its strange and foreign contents rather than in anything else. And the culprits are those public servants whose neocolonial mentality is dumb enough to look at anything African as primitive and evil.
Culled from Our VISION magazine, Vol.5 No.4, 2004