All over Nigeria, we extend so much respect and adoration to titles and awards, from being ‘Your Excellency’ to ‘Distinguished’, not to forget the ‘Honourable’ or ‘Former- this or that,’ then, of course, the ‘Royal Highnesses.’ Every leader has a title that depicts his/her class and respect level.
For me, the title I adore that is peculiar to my ancestry is that of Diokpa, a title that is a sign of respect for one’s age and wisdom. Recently, I met one of my kinsmen who happened to be one the wealthiest men in our country in a restaurant full of people, and when he saw me, he greeted me by addressing me with the title Diokpa. I felt like I was a part of his wealth and his respect. The Diokpa greeting goes with one’s age, especially when you are above 18 and can only be extended to you by younger people. However, the older you are, particularly above the middle age of 50, the more weight the name carries for our people. It comes with so much respect and dignity because the life expectancy rate in Nigeria is between 50 and 60 years. So, living above that makes your kinsmen believe that you have a direct communication line with your ancestors, even more for those of us over 80 years in Nigeria, which, to be honest, is partly true, as we are closer to the grave and those that have gone before us.
Speaking about titles and leaders, two people that come to mind with the highest level of authority in a country both before and during its democratic era are His Excellency, Olusegun Obasanjo (Chief, Dr., Military General and Democratic President), and His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR. Both have been head of state once and President twice, which means, with my little knowledge of the Constitution, they have served thrice. President Obasanjo served from 1975 to 1979 as the military head of state and a democratic President from 1999 to 2007, while General Buhari served as military head of state from 1983 to 1985 and democratic leader from 2015 till date.
Another thing the two leaders have in common is that they are from the same generation, with just a six-year age gap between them. The former President being the oldest at 84 years old while the current comes close at 78. This is important to note as, flowing from my explanation about the ancestral title of my people, the two Presidents will both qualify to be referred to as Diokpas but may not refer to each other in that way.
One key thing that is expected from a Diokpa is wise words of wisdom. The years of experience and knowledge put one in the right position to advise, reprimand or rebuke people, even those with other titles.
It may have been in keeping with this responsibility that, in 2019, the former President published a letter addressed to President Buhari. Beautifully written snippets of the former President’s letter were heavily criticized by individuals and stakeholders of different political parties and citizens as well as but it also had a lot of support from individuals who assented to the points addressed in the letter. The letter, dated July 15, 2019, came after the first term of President Buhari’s position as democratic President of Nigeria. Beginning the letter with the notice that it was an open letter to both the Presidency and “to all those who can help in proffering effective solutions for the problem of insecurity in the land,” the former President addressed three major things, namely, insecurity and terrorism, illiteracy and unemployment, and mismanagement of cultural/ethnic diversity.
He further stated that he was worried about four calamities below:
“To be explicit and without equivocation, Mr. President and General, I am deeply worried about four avoidable calamities:
1. Abandoning Nigeria into the hands of criminals who are all being suspected, rightly or wrongly, as Fulanis and terrorists of Boko Haram type;
2. Spontaneous or planned reprisal attacks against Fulanis, which may inadvertently or advertently mushroom into pogrom or Rwanda-type genocide that we did not believe could happen and yet it happened.
3. Similar attacks against any other tribe or ethnic group anywhere in the country initiated by rumours, fears, intimidation and revenge capable of leading to pogrom.
4. Violent uprising beginning from one section of the country and spreading quickly to other areas and leading to the dismemberment of the country.
Citing instances where the United States presidency and Congress as the time had addressed the issue of crisis in Nigeria, former President Obasanjo pointed out the problem of “poor management and mismanagement of diversity,” which is at the centre of a lot of the nation’s arguments since the creation of Nigeria and further aggravations.
At the end of the letter, he suggested that open dialogue, debate and discussions among “traditional rulers, past heads of service (no matter how competent or incompetent they have been and how much they have contributed to the mess we are in), past heads of para-military organisations, private sector, civil society, community leaders, particularly in the most affected areas, present and past governors, present and past local government leaders, religious leaders, past heads of state, past intelligence chiefs, and relevant current and retired diplomats, members of opposition and any groups that may be deemed relevant” be made with hope that the dialogue would serve as consultation from different levels and information be used as input in solving the problems.
I must say that the letter, the tone of it, was respectful albeit a public critique. Disapproving voices say it should have been private as a show of respect and like the one he had written to another former President, Goodluck Jonathan. I disagree. I have always put forward the need for leaders to talk to each other and criticise each other from a place of wisdom and experience.
But like a scene in the Bible when people gathered around Jesus with an adulterous woman calling for her to be stoned to death for her sins, I state like Jesus did, let whoever is without sin cast the first stone. I predict a similar outcome as the crowd dispersed with the woman left standing unscathed.
Of course, there was a response by the Presidency to Obasanjo’s letter calling the claims in the document outlandish and outrageous. The President was clearly not impressed by it.
I read both letters with so much interest because the two Excellencies had seen it all and have been a part of the good, bad and the ugly of what is called Nigeria today, but I wonder if the letters did any more that point fingers without either taking responsibility for their roles in the decay of the nation.
They both participated in all the coups in search of changes that never came. They both fought in the civil war to keep Nigeria united but still un-united. They both also served three times in Nigeria and, if it was possible to amend the Constitution to allow for more terms, they both would grab the opportunity.
These beautifully written letters filled with claims of the other’s incompetencies and shortcomings by our leaders presented no solution for all to see. They also ignored the fact that both the former and present President once had and have the power to make the country better.
I want to commend both letters for bringing to light key issues that are plaguing the country but I am sure most Nigerians would agree with me when I say that all the problems articulated in the letters were with us during the former President’s era and are still with us today in the current President’s era. Of what use are wise words, if they fall on deaf ears? So, as a Diokpa myself, I would like to advise my fellow Nigerians to ignore the messengers but pick the message.
There is indeed a need for dialogue between different stakeholders in the country to lay out the issues and properly address them without sweeping any under the rug but, mind you, we may not be able to accomplish this with the crop of leaders we have at the moment. The ball is then in the court of the future leaders to do better at resolving the national issues without shifting or deflecting blames but by facing them squarely as a united body devoid of tribal or religious sentiments.