By Ikeogu Oke
Among the living the dead are welcome
To serve our nation, and drive her genius home.
– “Rhyme of Our Working Dead”, by the Author
Many Nigerians have reacted with criticism or ridicule to the recent inclusion of the names of seven dead people out of 209 appointed into various boards by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari.
The dead appointees are Francis Okpozo, appointed chairman of the Nigerian Press Council; Donald Ugbaja, appointed a board member of the Consumer Protection Council; Christopher Utov, appointed a board member of the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research; Garba Attahiru, Umar Dange, Nabbs Imegwu and Azuzu Okpalaibekwe, appointed into other positions and boards.
Of course, the target of these negative reactions is Mr. President or his government. The reactions, typically hasty and devoid of deep reflection, have tended to portray him and his government as inept and bumbling entities, so ridiculous that they would appoint into a public office even a man like Francis Okpozo, a former senator whose death in 2016 they had acknowledged through a publicised condolence message to his family.
But what should one expect from a populace hardly given to rigour in the analysis of issues, an aggregation of people most of whom would rather criticise before they apprehend, if they ever care to do the latter?
Even I – I must confess – had almost been successfully seduced by their alarm over these ground-breaking – nay, grave-breaking – appointments of the dead to join the living in serving our nation. Then I reflected deeply on them and realised that there were strong grounds to justify them. So I restrained myself from joining the bandwagon of their critics or mockers. For the same reason, I am even inclined not to judge those in the bandwagon harshly while defending the appointments for the following reasons.
First, as living people, we have showed a chronic incapacity to manage our country successfully. Imagine, for instance, that, 57 years after Independence, we still experience perennial fuel scarcity in a country practically floating on an ocean of easily refinable crude. Or that our government would enact such apparent incongruity as proposing to spend $1 billion to fight Boko Haram even after declaring it “technically defeated”, while rampaging herdsmen kill our citizens in their numbers unchecked. If our government has become so exasperated by our inability to find lasting solutions to such and even minor challenges facing us, that it now seeks support from the dead and their supernatural powers to do so, what can be wrong with that? Nothing, I think. We should commend the initiative without reservation.
Secondly, our tradition as Africans recognises the need for synergy between the living and the dead. In the part of our country where I come from, we regularly pour libation to the dead to come and partake with the living in various activities. Our government can be compared to a body of elders keen on upholding tradition by pouring through its leader, our President, a libation of appointments to these our dead and illustrious citizens to come re-join some of their living compatriots in the trenches of nation building. Such an exceptionally creative use of libation and the out-of-the-box thinking that must have led to their appointments deserves our unqualified praise. I praise both!
Then there is, for the Christians among us, a Biblical justification for the appointments in this prophecy about the resurrection of the bones and flesh of the dead: … “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves…’” (Ezekiel 37:11). For it would not be out of place if, acting on God’s behalf, the government of a country hooked on things foreign – including religions – like ours – chose to adopt this prophesy from one of those foreign religions as a basis for appointing the dead into public offices, with the positive expectation of effectively resolving some of our lingering challenges as a nation.
Also, there is the possibility that the appointments pre-empt – and circumvent – the morbidity of the dead rising to agitate for their quota of representation in our current government, as women and the youth have done with increasing vehemence in recent times. We should unreservedly praise such plausible foresight in our government.
Even our literature, through The Palm-wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola, can offer evidence that, through these appointments, our government may have wished to enact a special case of life imitating art. In the book, the activities of the living and the dead intermingle symbiotically – on the terrestrial realm – as they are meant to due to the appointments. They also intermingle in the epics: The Aeneid by Virgil, the Roman poet; and the Divine Comedy by Dante, the Italian poet – for those who may think the portrayal of such synergy between the living and the dead is restricted to our national literature. In fact, evidence from these books shows that fiction, folklore, myth and legend can all be summoned to justify these appointments. Even music. Recall the synergy between the dead and the living that produced that superlative dance in Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The arts may never be more unanimous in validating a government’s initiative than these appointments.
Then, for a country seeking ideas on how to end the scourge of ghost workers, I owe it to the perceptive genius of Daudu Abdul-Aziz, my friend and former colleague at the Presidential Task Force on Power, that the dead appointees, besides making invaluable contributions at their respective boards, can also serve as ghost-worker detectors, “because the dead person can easily identify who’s a ghost among the members,” which makes their appointment a masterstroke.
So it might even be in our national interest to appoint more dead people into all the government boards in our country and engage them across our civil service to help end the menace of ghost workers and save the billions they drain annually as salaries from our economy.
Also, the appointments can earn us respect among other great nations. Henceforth, when such nations or their citizens boast of their scientific discoveries, their astronauts having landed on the moon, their unmanned satellites to Mars and those orbiting space, their jumbo ships and aircraft, their technological wonders generally, we can also beat our chest and ask them, “Has any of your countries ever appointed dead people into public office?” Surprised to realise that the answer is no, they will have to respect our country, the Giant of Africa, for its genius in initiating such a contribution to the annals of the marvellous.
Oke, a poet, is the winner of the 2107 Nigeria Prize for Literature (the NLNG Prize).