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Saturday, January 28, 2023

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New Year Thoughts: What Really is the Awka Kingship Tussle About?

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Speculative thoughts on the implications of the kingship tussle in Awka: an attempt to explain – beyond the usual theories of the case – why the crisis has proved intractable.

 By Chudi Okoye

I should start with a bit of clarification. This column is a piece of pontification, an opinion piece, not a feature or hard news story. We’ve already done news reporting on the matter at hand. We at Awka Times, unlike other media houses, had decided to make a very big deal about the competitive events that took place simultaneously in Awka on December 28, 2019. One of these events was the 10th edition of the Egwu Uzu festival hosted by the government-recognized traditional ruler of Awka, Eze Uzu II Dr. Gibson Nwosu. The other was the third edition of the Otochal Awka Day celebration hoisted onto the cultural calendar by the challenger in the Awka kingship tussle, Eze Uzu III Dr. Austin Ndigwe, as he is acknowledged in segments of Awka society. Whereas most media houses offered a perfunctory or possibly remunerated coverage of these events, Awka Times – being a local grind with a global mind, a local hand with an aspirational brand – decided to go hog on the issue.

We reported the news of these events hot on the heels of their occurrence. We followed up with feature stories providing more details on the contours and the colors of the two events. And we even produced galleried pictures and video documentaries about the events. Perhaps it was over the top. But kindly forgive our over-indulgent exertions – they reveal the exuberance of a young and hopeful magazine!

The factful part of our coverage was tactful: we were careful not to be artful but to stick to actuals. So, with those reporting credentials – having hopefully satisfied those who would regulate – we can now speculate!

We have all heard about the angst on either side of the kingship contention. Each side denies the legitimacy of the opposing side. One side claims that the incumbent monarch was duly deposed due to constitutional breach. The other mocks the insurgent’s overreach, insisting that there is no vacancy. One side decries the malaise of a purportedly fizzled incumbent, the other berates the overweening ambition of a sizzled insurgent. The spectacle of mutual devaluation persists. But while we cannot resist its titillating allure, I want, just for the purpose of this column, to transcend those arguments.

Assuming, without arguing, that both factions have a significant claim on popular imagination among Awka people, the question then arises: what is the meaning of each side’s claim? What is their essence? Is there a different philosophy of Awka societal life animating each faction, and is this perhaps why the kingship crisis seems intractable – because it is not just a struggle for power, prestige and possessions but also a clash of visions about the future of Awka society?

Let’s look at the – big word alert! – Weltanschauung (worldview) intuitively suggested by either camp’s behavior. Let’s do this to see if there’s a fundamental difference in outlook between the two sides.

One area of apparent difference between the two elite factions is their global outlook and ambition for Awka. One side seems more outward-looking, more venturous, nationally connected and seemingly wishing to integrate Awka into a cosmopolitan network of monied aristocracy with federal connections. The other, arguably less economically mobile, appears more insular with a vision of Awka that is perhaps more restrained, even constricted.

We saw this in the palette of each faction’s presentation on December 28. On that day, one side laid out an event of great pomp and pageantry, an event of stupendous grandiosity mimicking the spectacles of European monarchy – down to the use of a horse-drawn carriage, with accoutered footmen and coachman to boot, and a stretch limousine of uncommon length. This side too boasted a parade of prelate and potentates, advertising at this occasion its aristocratic connections just as it had done in previous excursions to domains outside of Igboland. This side seemed very confident of itself, and wanted to tell the world so.

The other event – either due to funding constraint or its founding restraint – was more austere, more measured, less exhibitive. It appeared even somewhat tentative.

In these presentations we may perhaps glean their visions about Awka. One side seems to consider Awka a premier regional power which should dramatize its heritage and its importance, and should confidently engage external powers. A telling imagery from this side’s event was a picture showing the renowned Prince Arthur Eze, who was invited to the event as a special guest, bowing to the host on arrival at the venue! It was probably a faux obeisance. But the petite, swashbuckling oil magnate who turned up at the event in his trademark sneakers and his sleek 2019 Rolls-Royce Phantom 8 (price tag: upwards of N200m), later in his address said that Awka was “the capital of all Igboland.” That statement perhaps reveals his understanding (and perhaps endorsement) of the imperious dreams of his host. It is a dream of a “large” Awka which contrasts with the seeming “smallness” of the opposing side’s concept of Awka.

Prince Arthur Eze paying obeisance at the Otochal Awka Day event

The contrast is even more evident in how each side views the power of the state government. One side seems to consider the state governor as some kind of hegemon and it clings on fervently and reverently to the protections of the state government. In an earlier interview with Awka Times the monarch on this side said that if the state government says something, “only a mad person will take it lightly.” By contrast, the other side cultivates the protections of federal power, with apparent access to the presidency and to federal security apparatuses, and has a slightly disguised disdain for local state power. (As a sidebar, this may be one reason the present administration will most likely never certify the insurgent at the expense of an amenable incumbent.) 

Related to the above is the contrasting interpretations of the Awka Traditional Ruler Constitution. One side has an originalist view (a narrow, strictly “constructionist” view) interpreting the constitution within the strict confines of the Anambra State Traditional Ruler Law. The other side upholds a more liberal, more expansively interpretive reading of the document, suggesting that the constitution derives from Awka people and does not owe its validity to an external power.

Thus, it seems that one side has an arguably more realistic concept of an Awka under the sovereignty of the local governor. The other, it seems, envisions an Awka that is autonomous and can punch at the federal level. It is quite a contrast.

This same difference in attitudes towards foreign powers plays out even at the theological level. One side seems to uphold the superiority of ecclesiastical rites over Awka tradition, willing for Awka to be integrated more deeply into a global order dominated by the Catholic hierarchs in Rome. The other, either out of authentic belief or sheer expediency, asserts the autonomy of traditional Awka belief. That’s why, for instance, one side adheres to the dust-to-dust burial injunction of the Catholic Church whereas the other side upholds Awka abhorrence of such practice. Similarly, one side rejects Egwu Imoka, the annual religio-cultural festival for which Awka is known, while the other side puts itself at the fulcrum of the festival despite a claimed affinity to the Catholic faith.

Still other differences are evident. One other for instance is in each side’s understanding of the role of monarchy in Awka development. One side has an activist view, believing that it can mobilize investment and philanthropic resources through its network of non-state associates to drive Awka development. The other sees a less engaged role for the monarchy, appearing to believe in the benefaction of the state government as the primary resource for Awka development.

It is really a study in ideological and attitudinal differences. It is true that personal ambition plays a huge role in the roiling drama of Awka kingship crisis. You can see the evidence of that everywhere. In the ostentation of personal presentation. In the artifacts of regnant decoration. Even in the very title that is adopted, with an imperial claim that is nowhere supported in Awka Traditional Ruler Constitution.

Yes, the cogency of personal ambition is granted. And the urgency of confronting it is accepted. But, in my humble opinion, explaining Awka kingship crisis merely as a matter of personal ambition is reductive. It does not account for the rousing impact of the insurgency, the willingness of important segments of Awka society to countenance its claims. Often, when the question is raised about the seeming appeal of the insurgency in some circles, the easy response is to attribute it to material inducement. There is no doubt about material motivation in some cases, but analytic rigor and intellectual honesty demand that we look deeper into the matter.

I have only sketched out the beginnings (a prolegomena, if you like) of a deeper probe. Hopefully we will opt to dig deeper. But I know that it is an uphill task to ask that people sack their simplicities in favor of deeper investigation. People have put on their partisan masks, and they would rather stick with comfortable explanations that justify their partisan grievances.

But whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, the kingship and associated crises in Awka are driven as much by inordinate ambition as by a clash of worldviews held by the elite factions engaged in these tussles. It will reward our effort to try to understand these worldviews, and maybe find a way to meld their best elements into a coherent ideology of governance and development for Awka.

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