‘The Reign of Our Emperor’

The Reign of Our Emperor’

By Lasisi Olagunju

The Japanese national anthem is a one-stanza song known as Kimigayo; its English translation approximates ‘The Reign of Our Emperor’. The worth of the anthem is in its adulation of limitless power:

“May thy reign last long!

May it last for tens of thousands of years

Until tiny pebbles grow into massive boulders,

And moss covers them deep and thick.”

When I heard that our president has brought back a national anthem discarded 46 years ago, I told myself that if a peacock person would be a thief, he should steal an item of diamond’s worth (Bí oge ó bá j’alè, a gbé oun t’óye é). A president who wills a thing and it is done (be, and it is) deserves more than the tepid ‘Nigeria We Hail Thee’. If you and I had sung the Japanese anthem to our president last week, he probably would have grabbed it as his ‘priority’. He would have dropped the expired alien song he adopted.

 

If it takes Nigeria sixty-four years to run mad, how long will it take it to enter the market naked? In theme, notes and mood, the new Bola Ahmed Tinubu anthem expired a long time ago. And this is not just about the archaic “thee” in the opening line. Nor is it about the cliched insults embedded in “native” and “tribe” – racist words that string together the author’s ‘superiority’ thought. The anthem expired because it was composed for a season, and its reason is long gone. Take for instance the lines: “Our flag SHALL be a symbol/That truth and justice reign.” In syntax and semantics, that promise could be said to be appropriate at independence in 1960. But sixty-four years after using our Green-White-Green flag, is it not too late in the day for the flag to start promising something? We cannot have a ‘new’ anthem in 2024 that sings a pledge on behalf of a flag which went up in 1960.

 

With its lyrics and music made by aliens, the ‘Nigeria-We-Hail-Thee’ anthem came in 1960 with a stained banner. Its conception and birth sat to put on its forehead incisions of bastardy.

 

When it was announced as our national anthem days to independence, Nigerians roundly rejected it as an unwanted baby from two strange wombs. Ezekiel Mphahlele’s ‘Nigeria on the Eve of Independence’ published in 1960 speaks to the complaints and controversies: “A couple of musicians went out to prove that the (anthem’s) music was, in part, a plagiarism from an English church hymn; others thought the idiom was altogether foreign and the composition had captured little or nothing of the Nigerian atmosphere; still others blatantly said Nigerian music should, in the name of independence, have been chosen from the 500 entries that came from Nigerians themselves. Others again had argued that the music should have been composed first and then the lyrics fitted to it, instead of the other way round.”

 

Anthems have emotive, mobilisation reasons. They are battle cries; fanfares and flourishes of patriotism. They are songs of praise and of heroism. In their anthem, Russians sing daily about “our sacred country” and “our beloved country”. They tell their country “We are proud of you.” Like the Russians, Argentines sing “to the great people of Argentina”; Mexicans to “Oh Fatherland.” Every word of those anthems was homemade and, so, they resonate with all who sing them. We don’t have that here again with the imported, second-hand song imposed on us. Do the anthem dictators know that babies respond not to lullabies from strangers?

 

The old-new anthem of Nigeria is just a song. Where the president and I come from, our heads do not swell from chants made by strangers. We say an alien – an àjòjì – can sing rárà but he must not use it to serenade our mother. No one can sing our song better than we, just as no one can carry a baby better than its mother would do.

 

We have a president whose attention is away from Nigeria as the keystone of his decisions. We have a president who has just impulsively borrowed charity from abroad. In doing what he and his servile lawmakers did last week, Tinubu and our band of legislators have rendered in vain the labour of our heroes past. They brought down a national anthem composed by Nigerians for Nigeria; they proudly exhumed and re-foisted foreign-made ‘Nigeria We Hail Thee’ anthem on us. And they, without shame, celebrated it with flutes and bèmbé drums.

 

The Englishman’s charity begins at home. Britain’s ‘Rule Britannia’ was written by the Scotch poet, James Thomson. The music was composed by an Englishman, Thomas Arne. It is called Britain’s Patriotic Song, not its anthem. But its famous opening and closing line “Britons never, never, never will be slaves” speak to a people with enormous self-pride and self-respect. Their anthem, ‘God Save The King’, is not an importation, it couldn’t have been.

 

The lyrics of America’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ belong to the muse of poet Francis Scott Key, an American. Germany’s ‘Deutschlandlied’ was written by a German, August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1841. Credit for the words and music of France’s ‘La Marseillaise’ goes to Rouget de Lisle, a Frenchman. Our tiny West African neighbour, Togo’s anthem is ‘Terre de nos aïeux’ (Land of our forefathers). Its words and music were authored by Alex Casimir Dosseh-Anyron, a prominent Togolese musician. Our regional rival, Ghana, does not have our self-hate, self-disdain malaise. It preens in its pride as the star of black Africa. Ghana’s anthem is ‘God Bless Our Homeland Ghana’. It was written by a Ghanaian, Michael Kwame Gbordzoe.

 

Tinubu’s anthem is a mis-adornment, an old tapestry on a false wall, a bale of velvet from an alien loom. It is an adoption without modification; an anachronism and a classic in reverse patriotism. My people say a real man’s adornments (oso) must follow him from home to the street; it should not be the other way round. But it is the other way round with this àlòkù (second-hand) anthem. Our readopted anthem was written by Lillian Jean Williams, a British expatriate working in a federal ministry in Lagos in the late 1950s. The music of the anthem belongs to Frances Benda (real name Charles Kernot), said to be a professional pianist and private music teacher at the Carol Hill School of Classical Ballet, London.

 

National anthems are totems of identification; they are signs by which nations reaffirm their identity boundaries. That is what Karen Cerulo, author of ‘Symbols and the World System: National Anthems and Flags’ said. If we agree with this author and with others who have knowledge and sense, then whatever we adopt as our national anthem must necessarily be homegrown. That was the spirit that changed the anthem in 1978 to ‘Arise O Compatriots’, a brew from five Nigerian poets and a music genius from the Nigeria Police.

 

Nigerians are appalled by what their president and his lawmakers have done. Online and offline, they puff and reject the stale insult from the past. But our president is not remorseful. He told a group of northern leaders on Thursday that going back to the nationally rejected anthem was his priority. He said he did it with the relish of fulfillment. That is the stuff emperors are made of. Their crush must be their people’s love. It is compulsory.

 

Even Tinubu’s ardent backers are embarrassed. The few who mumble support excuse the misadventure with the claim that he did it to demilitarise our lives. They say the homegrown anthem was a product of the military in government. I told a former university vice chancellor on Friday night that here, no one is allowed to be half lame. If you would lose limbs, you lose both; if you would be blind, you do completely in both eyes. The one-eyed is a potential wrecker of peace. I told the ex-VC that the president should have gone further back to hoist the British flag – the Union Jack – inside Aso Rock and on the dome of his National Assembly complex. He should henceforth make us sing his master’s ‘God Save the King.’

 

The professor added to the list. He said since Tinubu wanted to cancel every national symbol the military gave us, he should get rid of the naira and go back to the Nigerian pound. He said the president should decree that driving on the right lane should be abolished and left-hand-drive cars outlawed. Even the Villa, the Dome and the whole of the Three-Arms Zone in Abuja should be demolished and rebuilt. They are all products of the unwanted military.

 

“Some people say, okay…say what? Is that your priority? It’s my priority. I agree with the National Assembly…”, the president told Arewa leaders on Thursday. I feel him. He apparently loves the song of his youth. I agree with Distinguished Professor Ali Mazrui that “patronage for the arts can be nostalgic.” Yes, we all like oldies. But a president or king is not allowed to have an elephantine affection and a morbid longing for symbols of his people’s slavery. Besides, it is perilous for a nation to have drivers glued to the rearview mirror. They will crash the vehicle.

 

The president (and his lawmakers) will be begged, going forward, to embrace the present and the future and drop unnecessary nostalgia. We will implore them to pick knowledge and reason and drop prejudice. We will beg Tinubu to talk to his habitual blind impulse and go hug deep reflection. It is only then that we will be safe from ghastly mishaps such as this alien anthem and its predecessor, “subsidy is gone.”

 

If what we were singing was not sweet and meaningful enough, could we not write and sing another? A country of 200 million people, with world class poets and musicians, has just completed a cycle of shame importing an expired national anthem. Our panting lawmakers with their uncharacteristic speed in bringing back the dead had no time for reflections. They and their principal in the Villa had no thought for our pride as a people and the history of our freedom as a nation. ‘Independence’, to them, is just a word. The dead are too dead to know how much it costs to dig the grave and buy a coffin.

 

If we had known that this president and his National Assembly boys were dead serious about traveling back to 1960 – and to the cemetery of colonialism – to exhume the skeletons of an anthem for our children to learn and sing, we would have begged them to protect our pride and honour as inheritors of a goodly heritage of resistance to servitude. We would have told them that yes, you don’t kill vulture and you don’t eat vulture. Our fathers say it is taboo to do either and both. But they also say you can kill vulture and you can eat vulture and survive doing so if you listen to your inner self.

 

There is a method to every madness. If you must dance to an alien beat and get sprayed with crisp dollar and naira bills, you must step the song down on your street and let your transformer work on its tension. Paul Nettl (1889-1972), German-American musicologist, was a pioneer in national song scholarship. In 1967, he published his classic work with the title: ‘National Anthems.’ Its English translation was by Alexander Gode. In that seminal work, Nettl enthused that nations can borrow songs and melodies from wherever but must do it with sense and competence. He writes that “one people will not adopt the melodies of another without letting them undergo certain alterations commensurate with its (the people’s) own character.”

 

If we must go back to the colonial past, why couldn’t we review, update and make fresh the old? But, just as our leaders have no time for self-improvement, they had no patience to read through, update and detoxify the rustic anthem. With all the racial prejudices in the song, they hoisted it in our heads. They can still redeem their image by editing and amending what they have done. ‘Shall’ is a modal verb that predicts the future, expresses intent and shows determination. The line about the flag promising to be a symbol of something can be tinkered with by replacing the ‘shall be’ there with (the to be verb) ‘is’. Having “Our flag IS a symbol/ That truth and justice reign” – although a white lie – would still have sounded well and better than the embarrassingly forever promise we have there today. How about taking out the problematic ‘tribe’ and let ‘faith’ come in for peace to reign? Our old-new anthem may then read “Though faith and tongue may differ…” The offensive “native land” can also yield the space it currently occupies for, maybe, “homeland.” Countries review the lyrics and melodies of their anthems. Our neighbour, Ghana, did it a couple of times.

 

Why are we even discussing this? Some wise persons have pinned the whole anthem exercise to a carefully laid out scheme of distraction. They say this regime rules by distraction; that the government overloads the attention of Nigerians by deliberately taking unnecessary disruptive steps. They may be right. Eunuchs do that; they needle their bride and display her pain as proof of their virility. The government was one year old last week; it had little gains, much pains as dividends for all of us, excluding its core directors. The regime brought the anthem controversy and got the hungry talking about something else apart from their hunger. I have read Thomas Cottle’s ‘The Art of Distraction’. I note his discussion of ‘distraction’ in the context of “life led with conflict and confusion”. I have also read James Williams’ ‘Democracy Distracted’. I note his claim that man has an “almost infinite appetite for distraction.” I hold that this government has demonstrated that it has a limitless, boundless capacity to satiate that appetite.

 

Those who allowed themselves to be distracted slept last night as free people; they woke up this morning in slavery. So, please refuse to be distracted. As you discuss the president’s strange choice of anthem over people’s hunger, pay due attention to everything his government is doing. Pay more than ordinary attention to the local government autonomy case at the Supreme Court. That is a case with a potential to determine (or undermine) your freedom, the health of our country and the safety of our democracy. Why is fox suing hawk in defence of chickens? Autocracy incubates itself in populist confusion. The case is about that. We need vibrant states to checkmate the behemoth in Abuja. We need the local governments to drive development at the grassroots. The rapacious Federal is the elephant unsettling the room.

 

Think of an imperial president with very rich 774 ‘liaison officers’ sitting as council chairmen across the country. Think of a federal government with limitless powers engaging a disparate set of 36 weakened, impotent states. Think of Nigeria as a unitary state. The court case that continues this month has the potential to achieve that. The deft moves of today have replicas in history. Think of Napoleon Bonaparte and France of 1799. Think of Germany of 1933 and the rise of the strongman. Think of the aftermath. Think.

 

(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 3 June, 2024)

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