Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen GCON, born December 22, 1950, has just been installed the Egungun of Okurike, Biase, Cross River State of Nigeria.
It was quite an elaborate ceremony and those who were unlucky to have missed the historic and epoch-making installation may have to lick their lips for a long time to come.
It was not known to many people, probably not known to Justice Onnoghen himself until Nigeria President spotted the dreaded Iroko god Oluwere in Onnoghen’s pouch and announced to the world that, nobody else in Africa, at this point in time, deserved the crown of Oluwere and thus chose a blessed Sunday, a very sacred day in the Christian calendar, to do the installation.
There is something the Ancients called Karma which fitted squarely into the revenge code of the Yoruba ancients. The Yoruba would caution a child who looks back on Oluwere after spitting on the dreaded spirit whether he would be struck instantly after committing an abomination: ‘Don’t panic boy, Oluwere doesn’t take vengeance the day he is accosted. Oluwere is never in a hurry to avenge injustice!’
Egungun, for those not familiar with Yoruba mythology is the shrouded-spirit erroneously called ‘masquerade’ by the British colonizers and those who wrongly believe that they must find a foreign word for words in their own language. Examples are legion: like calling ‘akara’ bean-cake or calling ‘ogi’ pap, or trying to find an English word for edikainkon. Shish-kebab is Shish-kebab, French-fries is French fries. Eba is eba.
The Japanese do not call their Noh or Kabuki English names, even though they both adorn masks. Noh remains an essential communication tool of Buddhist themes. And Japanese Kabuki retains the names of Jidaimono, Sewamono and Shosagoto in their undiluted originals.
Egungun is Egungun ‘aruku-aruku, oku a gbe r’oja t’a ‘o ta l’ada’so fun-un t’anpe l’eegun’ [Adedeji: Alarinjo Theatre 1967]. Egungun, in his guttural voice, is the voice of dead-living, and he is a heavenly spirit. He is celebrated by adherents and most Yoruba families have their Egungun.
There was the story of a king who foresaw strong possibility of his claim to the throne being challenged once again as it was done at his installation and decided that the chief priest who was not likely to do a cover-up for him was removed.
It was a hush-hush scheme and the king set his foot-soldiers to work and got the chief priest maligned, rubbished, humiliated and unceremoniously removed on trumped up charges.
Overnight, the chief priest was supplanted with a known sycophant and pliable kinsman who was ready to swallow the spittle of the king. As expected, he readily confirmed that the king must remain on the throne, in-spite of the mountain of evidence of the king’s crass incompetence.
The chief priest who was rigged into undeserved position knew in his heart that he was the least qualified, more so when he was floored on all the technicalities associated with his calling as priest. He was damned drab and dull with obvious lack of content, competence and character written all over his unimpressive scary and vacant face.
The chief priest wickedly removed from office uttered no word and kept his nobility, dignity and intellectual bent intact and unruffled. Many people across the land urged him to fight back, while others were ready to go into trenches on his behalf. No, he said.
Unknown to all his admirers, the innocent chief priest had read many books about the Iroko Tree and the dreaded god, Oluwere. He had also read many authorities on the Law of Karma.
With barely three years after the corrupt and corrupted chief priest danced to the devil’s drumbeat, an orchestra he was party to setting-up, all his clandestine cases of corruption, embezzlement and nepotism came into the open. Accusations flew in the air in all directions to the extent that the king who used him for his own selfish goal could no longer feign indifference; he had to bow to public outcry and forced the chief priest out of the grove.
Those who were familiar with Justice Onnoghen’s travails in the hands of the nepotistic government of President Buhari were pleasantly surprised last Sunday when they realized that it was the same Buhari who gleefully announced to the world that Karma had danced to the door of a man who usurped Onnoghen’s chair as Chief Justice of Nigeria. Not many would ever remember there was a Tanko on the revered chair of the Apex Court.
Of course, the shrouded spirit had a role to play in this epistle. The Yoruba believe in the spirit of the dead, hence their love for ancestral worship. The Yoruba would often appeal to the spirit-head of their deceased father or mother to fight their battle for them; to avenge injustice done to them. And because they believe, they have faith, their prayers in that score are usually answered.
Egungun, ‘ara orun ken-ken’, is a powerful force in Yoruba belief-system. It is almost of the same measure in their unalloyed belief and confidence in the potent efficacy of Oluwere in matters of vengeance-seeking and enforcement. With Oluwere though, vengeance is meted by Iroko at its own time and on its own terms.
Chinua Achebe warned us in his evergreen classic, Things Fall Apart, that we should fear, nay, dread, a man to him we award unprovoked dirty slaps and refused to slap us back.
Now we know that Justice Onnoghen, the newly-crowned Egungun of Okurike, is a man to be feared and even dreaded because, as we are now aware, he has the Iroko Tree in is his pouch, same way the immortal Fela, the man with death in his pouch, could not be toyed with. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti humiliated death and has continued to live a larger-than-life, larger-than-death-life, even after death showed its fangs.