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Originally published by The Guardian on the 9th of October 2018

In the second verse of the second chapter of the book of Habakkuk in the Old Testament, God is having a conversation with the prophet during which he tells him “write the vision and engrave it plainly on [clay] tablets” [AMP]. You don’t need to spend too much time in any Nigerian pentecostal church before you’re likely to hear this verse come up. It’s a multipurpose scripture that has many interpretations and uses.

This verse came to mind as I read Tunde Leye’s entertaining and well researched new work of historical fiction Afonja: The Rise. The familiar story begins with the ascension of Alaafin Aole Arogangan (‘the high handed one’) to the throne of his father (who fathered more than 600 children) in the second half of the 18th Century. He immediately needed to make some political appointments including the very important role of Aare Ona Kakanfo (‘Supreme Commander of the Yoruba Army’). Aole, who does not come across as being quite right in the head, appointed Toyeje of Ogbomosho as the 6th Kakanfo. All hell was let loose as Afonja, an Ilorin chap, did not take this lying down, feeling that the role belonged to him based on some ‘understanding’ he had reached with some Oyo Chiefs before Aole’s ascension.

It is amazing how much conflict in our (recent) history came down to people simply not writing things down. As you go through the book (remember this is historical fiction – the people and places are real but their conversations are fictionalised), you notice literacy missing from the culture. All tradition is transmitted orally via the memory of the people and is thus open to manipulation. Over time, this reduces trust between groups as the Afonja story painfully shows.

Fast forward 200 years and consider the example of zoning. Using Ogun state as an example; the current governor handpicked a successor from the Egbado/Yewa zone of the state claiming that this was the equitable thing to do given that the Yewas have never held the state’s governorship. But the matter is further complicated by the fact that the governorship supposedly rotates between two large zones in the state – Egba/Egbado and Ijebu/Remo. Alas, each zone has a sub-zone as you can see. Thus, there is a rotation inside each rotation. Those on the Ijebu/Remo side claim that since former governor Osoba is Egba and Amosun is also Egba, Amosun has used up the ‘slot’ of the Egbado sub-zone within the Egba/Egbado zone. As far as they are concerned, how the Egbas and Egbados choose to do their internal rotation does not concern them – all they know is that the thing should now rotate to them after 8 years of Amosun.

When you interrogate the ‘zoning arrangement’ in practically any part of Nigeria today, you see all sorts of things that rely on (selective) memory and most of all, where people choose to begin their counting. If there is perhaps one sign of progress we can be grateful for, it is that these things are no longer settled with violence and raw force as they used to be only a couple of centuries ago. When Afonja didn’t get his way, he didn’t wait for a panel of inquiry or head to court. He got as many men and horses as he could find and duked it out with Toyeje’s army until the point was made that he was the stronger general. Aole’s hand was forced and he promptly handed the Kakanfo title to Afonja. These days, mercifully, politicians simply defect (or threaten to) to a new party or throw a tantrum when they don’t get their way. Amosun has since lost the argument and the APC and PDP tickets have gone to the Ijebu/Remo zone of the state. He (Amosun) remains in APC, at least at the time of writing this.

The book of Habakkuk was written around 700 hundred before Christ was born. And yet, there was God telling his prophet to write down the vision ‘plainly’ and on clay tablets for that matter. Why? Because it was a post-dated vision. If God Himself was insuring His vision against the vagaries of human memory, the lesson to take away from this verse and from our history is about the importance of literacy in any culture. When we read our history, our task is not just to enjoy the stories but to look for things we can and should do better.

I really enjoyed Mr. Leye’s book and I think you will, too. My deeper reading of it is that our culture can do with a deliberate and strong infusion of literacy. This is beyond just what goes on in schools or teaching children how to read. It should happen outside of schools when children are sitting on the lap of their mothers and fathers. It should happen in churches and mosques because there might be no organised religion today if someone didn’t write things down thousands of years ago. We should write things down plainly where everyone can see them even thousands of years later.
Afonja: The Rise is available at a bookshop near you.