The person you see as your class teacher is known as “husband” by another. His role as ‘class teacher’ does not exist with the person who calls him husband. The person you greet “Good morning Hon. Minister” every morning is seen as “mother” by another and called “Auntie” by others. Her school mates call her by one mischievous, and possibly suggestive, nickname; while a contractor who missed a contract he had hoped for in her ministry calls her “that wicked woman.” Does any of these titles, which are actually role-determined, tell us everything about anyone? In answering this question, we must bear in mind that the role-determined persona projected as we do one thing or the other in life does not always reflect, or even suggest, who we really are. They do not always show what moves us, our core values and the things we would get up to if we are sure that no one is watching. This explains the fact that an erudite professor of ethics, who has given world-acclaimed expositions on great ethical theories and practices, could be a terrible pervert. It also explains why the kindest parishioner, who is a doting father, loving husband and philanthropist, could also simultaneously be the leader of a murderous armed robbery gang.
It, therefore, follows that debates about peoples’ reputation and who they really are, especially after their demise, throws up such diverse perspectives as would make an inexperienced observer conclude that the commentators might as well be affiliated to Bedlam. And it has been so, with regard to the public comments about the late Chief-of-Staff (CoS) to the president, Mallam Abba Kyari. We have seen the encomiums from his genuine friends, associates and well-wishers who feel the loss of someone they knew in the best of ways. We have also seen the comments of political time servers, place hunters and many others who believe that their political and economic fortunes could, or would, still be affected by how they are seen to react after the demise of the gentleman. The few people who have had the courage, or effrontery perhaps, not to make negative comments about the man have been confronted with the ready admonition: “Do not speak ill of the dead.” An inventory of the positive comments about Kyari, after his demise, will most likely lead to the conclusion that the man was indeed a foremost Nigerian patriot whose goodness is robustly attested to by the outpourings in the media. Such an inventory of commentaries may end with: “The people have spoken” and possibly with this postscript: “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”
Concerning the admonition: “Do not speak ill of the dead,” the first recorded use of the statement was probably by Diogenes Laertius. His 300 AD work, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, attributed the statement to Chilon of Sparta, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. It was probably Abrogio Traverssari’s translation of Diogenes’ book into Latin in the 15th century that brought the saying forward. Early American settlers used it in the sense that one should not speak ill of people in the immediate aftermath of their death. All well and good. The understandable spiritual angle to the injunction not to speak ill of the dead, for me, is the possibility of further entanglement, including making the departed soul earthbound. That is why the demand that “absolute silence should reign in the chamber of death,’ with noisy mourners kept far away, is intended to benefit the departed one. But are we duty-bound to unleash an epidemic of hypocritical eulogies whenever someone goes to the great beyond? I think not.
A blanket statement “do not speak ill of the dead,” devoid of context and conscience, must be termed a most reprehensible act of existential irresponsibility. As human beings who are self-aware, aware of the world around us and who are often compelled by our experiences to draw certain conclusions, it is only natural that people must react differently even to the same experiences. I suggest that it is a mark of existential myopia, and ontological inauthenticity, to belittle this fact and pretend that what is, is not.
I first met Kyari as a member of THISDAY Newspapers Editorial Board. He was a well educated man, who reasoned with impeccable fluidity; and who possessed a pleasantly British, and actually hilarious sense of humour. This came out during our occasional, and rather prolonged, private discussions before each weekly meeting. We both always arrived a little too early, being averse to lateness, and ended up debating while waiting for other members of the board. He was a most intelligent, widely travelled Nigerian, and surprisingly familiar with the nooks and crannies of places you would never have imagined that he had even heard of. Kyari’s urbanity in judgments about various sections of the country was commendable and cosmopolitan. He was suave and smooth. I recall his call after my article “The Road to Arochukwu,” to confirm that he had travelled on the terrible road and that he was half-minded to write a back-up rejoinder to say that the road should be treated as a national emergency. But his perception that the “southern” government of the time was determined to practically “exterminate” the north and northerners always rang out a little more loudly than he was aware of in our general conversations.
It was from Kyari that I saw the largest, most detailed and highly classified, videos on several military operations in the North-east; especially regarding the security measures taken in connection with Mohammed Yusuf, his followers and other restive groups. He always carried it with him on a portable handheld device that contained just too many of such videos. Each of the videos and images had a narrative that he reeled off with impressive precision, ease and determined candour. His pain over what he called the resolute efforts of the Jonathan administration, aided by a Southern-led Nigerian army, to ‘finish’ his people was not well masked in these debates, despite his best efforts. He spoke of the wrong profiling of “insurgents” in the north. He averred that anyone who followed the physical attributes and general appearance of religious extremists, as given by the authorities, will wipe out not less than eighty per cent of the population of a place like Maiduguri. Kyari not only narrated how some families were allegedly summarily executed, on mere suspicion of insurgency by their general appearance, but showed me videos he said were related to such massacres.
In summary, my perception of Mallam Abba Kyari, based on these personal encounters, is that he was intelligent, urbane, the type of person who would have a good home and make a wonderful father. He was also a man a little too fixated on the danger Southern Nigeria posed to “his people,” their ways and their chances of continued survival. I believe that there are many things he could, and should, have handled better than he did. To that extent, he was less than patriotic in his reflexes while the menace of herdsmen lasted. The sustained humiliation of an ordinarily pathetic vice president, the lopsided federal appointments, the jaundiced allocation of national resources and much more make me not to share most of the “Afghanistanic” and sometimes really embarrassing, eulogies inflicted on our collective consciousness after the man’s demise.
But we must bear in mind that all the opinions expressed about Mallam Kyari since his demise, including mine, do not boil down to unassailable truths; or what his Maker thinks of him; or should think of him. None of us is competent to venture a view on that. A national consensus on the late Mallam Abba Kyari? Never! He has lived his life. Let us live ours – better, if possible.
Which brings us to the statement: “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” This claim is factually, experientially and historically untrue. To begin with, who is meant by “the people” in the saying? Reasonable people? Mad men and women? Barbers and butchers? The Elite, or the aristocracy? Was Socrates wrong when he said to Crito, in defiance of the popular view in Athens: “Crito, my friend, we should only worry about what reasonable people have to say.”
If we follow Herodotus and his idea of three methods of writing history, we must find out which (if any) of these can be called the voice of “the people.” Even then, we must still move from there to the further thesis that it is the Voice of Deity speaking through them. History is always a record of past events according to how the narrators (1) witnessed them, (2) rightly or wrongly remembered them, or (3) how partiality swayed them to write. So, which of the three can we say, in good conscience, is the Voice of Deity? A thousand misguided witnesses will give inexact reports. A thousand people who remember an event incorrectly will not lead to a correct account of things. A million people who do not give an objective report in their presentation will still be wrong. So, whence and where does the voice of the people become “The Voice of God?”
The voice of the ignorant mob that sentenced Socrates to death was the voice of folly, not wisdom or Deity. The voice of the fools who mocked John the Baptist for his “eccentric” dressing and who considered him mad for proclaiming a Messiah they had not seen was not the Voice of God. The blunder of the Koreish and their initial large following in Mecca did not remove the fact that the one true prophet sent to them by the Almighty was right in everything he said. It is, in my view, blasphemy to suggest that the opinions, consensus and decisions of men could in any way be considered the Voice of God. So, let the disputations end. Existential myopia is a fact of life.