For the Algerian journalist, editor and editorialist, playwright and director, novelist and author of short stories, political essayist and activist, Albert Camus, life is meaningless and absurd. To him, it is inexplicable why we live, struggle all through and die. The meaninglessness of life is explained in his book The Myth of Sisyphus where he captures the absurdity of the god, Sisyphus struggling to push a rock up the mountain. The rock is pushed uphill; the rock rolls back in an endless, fruitless fight of forces. It is what human life represents to the writer. You cannot have a full sky of happiness that will not be undermined by some clouds of unhappiness. Why? Camus says it is absurd for any man to seek meaning in life (and in the after-life) because there is none – and no one can get any.
So if we agree with Camus that life is truly absurd and without meaning, why do we spend the whole of our days perspiring to conquer the world? Why mourn those who have exited the absurdity of life like erstwhile Ondo State governor Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, Ghali Umar Na’Abba and the 200 people murdered in Plateau last week? Why do we build seemingly impressionable castles as if we will inherit the kingdom of this absurd earth? Why do we take delight in gloating about our existence and why do palace people flaunt fleeting fripperies?
The deaths on December 27, 2023 of former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Na’Abba and Akeredolu, erstwhile governor of Ondo State, have provoked epistemological questions on why the rich and powerful die. So also the killing, on the eve of Christmas, of 200 persons in Bokkos, Barkin Laddi and Mangu area of Plateau State. The latter gruesome deaths of those innocent, unarmed countrymen were prosecuted by animals donned in human skins. The two calibers of deaths have also further erupted questions on why human beings die at all. Why does God allow death? Is death the end of existence? Where does man go after the cessation of breath? Or does he just perish like vapour that is extinguished without trace? For ages, these questions have remained unanswered and unanswerable, in spite of religious, philosophical, psychological, cultural and clinical examinations of death and dying.
Na’Abba and Akeredolu’s deaths are very sobering. Both were staunch readers of this column and were acquainted with me. Na’Abba and I began as ferocious enemies. When he launched missiles against President Olusegun Obasanjo, he became the proverbial ripe orange on a tree, offspring of Mother Tree, which attracts pelting of stones on its mother. The impression Na’Abba created when he began that adversarial pelting of the presidency with cudgels was that he was an anvil in the hands of the northern establishment which was averse to relinquishing its presidential birthright. So Na’Abba began to receive a confetti of attacks and scrutiny of every of his actions. The attacks were so vehement that he sent his then Special Adviser on Media who later became Member of the House of Representatives, Eziuche Ubani, to the Tribune House to demand what his offence was and seek armistice. We told Ubani pointblank that we had no grouse against his boss but couldn’t stand what appeared to us as his ethnic antagonism against Obasanjo. And the flaks continued. Then one day, Na’Abba got my phone number and called. Unfortunately, I was in the thick of slumber and like one in a delirium, answered him incoherently. He promptly called Hon Babs Oduyoye who represented my constituency in Ibadan to get in touch with me as I sounded unwell. It was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship. I was overwhelmed by his humanity, his high office notwithstanding. We maintained that friendship until his passage last week.
Akeredolu, widely known as Aketi, was an “Ibadan boy.” He was famous for his unconventionality and stubbornness. He could look at an Ominran – giant – in the face and call his bluff. Apparently bolstered by his knowledge of law, he was like an avant-garde, an iconoclast if you like and feared no man. When he later joined politics, to us, he looked like a fish out of the water. People wondered how he would acquire the opaqueness of politicians and how his lacerating tongue would fit the bill of politics. When he sought reelection, I openly queued against him and he knew. My people of the state capital he administered felt he was not fair to them, especially their highly revered monarch, the Deji. So whenever he saw me, he tagged me with the sobriquet, Akure Lo Kan – It is Akure’s turn. Some months ago, I called him to commiserate with him on his mother’s demise and I thought I had afforded him an opportunity to invoke his infamous lacerating tongue on me. The Akure group I belong – Ooye Development Initiative – had issued a very unsparing riposte to his government’s decision to stop the ancient Aheregbe festival in Akure and we felt it was unjust. I signed the press release which gave him the back of our tongue, asking the governor if he would stop the Igogo festival of his people in Owo simply because of its unconventional nature. During that call, Aketi disappointed me. He carefully explained why his government stopped the festival in a way that mesmerized me. That was our last conversation.
So, why did Aketi and Na’Abba die? Why do people die? Is the death of the body, particularly the stoppage of the working of the brain, an absolute end of any form of conscious activity? The truth is that death is universal and a biological given that no one can escape. I will die my death and you will die youts. We will all die. The only thing that is not given is how we will die and where we will die.
As I said earlier, so many scholarly works have been conducted on death-bed moments by scholars, physicians and nurses. One locus classicus study was conducted by Karlis Osis in 1961. Osis, who was born in 1917 and died in 1997, was a Latvian parapsychologist whose area of specialization was exploration of deathbed phenomenon and life after death. His maiden research, which began in the 1940s, got its inspiration from English physicist and parapsychologist, William Barrett’s work, Death Bed Visions. This led Karlis to attempt building on Barrett’s research and subsequently a four-year study he did focusing on doctors and nurses in the US and northern India. He wanted to know what these medics observed about their dying patients.
While religionists say that life ends with death and the soul takes over, resurrecting on Judgment Day, pre-industrial societies like Africa disagree. In Africa’s cosmologies, philosophies, mythologies, spiritual and ritual life, we give out clear messages that death cannot be the absolute and irrevocable end of life. Attached to this is our belief that life or existence continues in some other forms even after biological demise. We believe that death is an integral part of life. In death, the soul of a deceased travels, undergoing complex adventures and the dead is conscious of this posthumous journey of the soul. So, for us, death is not the ultimate defeat of the body nor is it an end of existence but an important transition.
This is perhaps why in Africa, our lives are woven round cultures of spending time around dying people and venerating their corpses. In First world countries, the dying are given impersonal treatments that do not reflect belief that they are merely transiting into a higher life. I recently engaged a friend in a conversation on why the Igbo lay so much emphasis on the dead, so much that, if a relative dies even in a far-flung place like Australia, their corpses would be brought home at huge financial expense and intricate cultural rites of passage and elaborate rituals conducted for their transitions. So, while biological death is seen as representing the final end and cessation of existence, as well as an end to any conscious activity of any kind, we believe that death is a natural transition from the visible to the invisible.
Africans have their own indigenous ways of dealing with death and a unique way they conceive and understand the world. To them, life is in three discrete stages which begins at conception and ends with death. For the first stage of this tripod, death is a marker of the end of that stage of life. At this stage, Africans believe that the dead literally cease to exist but its flipside is that death is perceived as an integrated and continuous developmental life process that cannot be separated from life. When people die, with the extinguishing of their physicality, Africans believe that they transcend to the spiritual world. There, in the words of philosophers like Kenyan John Mbiti, such living dead live in an unseen community that is reserved mainly for a people called the living dead. Such dead persons merely transcend mortality for immortality, the latter being a state of collective existence where the living dead mingle in company with other spirit beings.
This probably is why Africans revere their dead. The advent of religions seems to erode and abridge such relationship between the living and the dead. Before these religions, Africans believed that their living dead, with whom they still communicate through rituals by their graves, constitute an inseparable and influential part of their existence. There is a consistent and potent communication between the living and the living dead. I have a highly educated friend who believes that no one can hurt him because his late mother always intervenes for him. This has remained a potent corpus of his belief in spiritual shield from evil doers. Some other people commune with their living dead who they claim to see in dreams and who instruct them on what to do. They also claim to be in constant touch with the spirit of their dead father or mother as a clear illustration of the amity between them.
For the Ndebele people of Matabo in Zimbabwe who are part of the Nguni people of Southern Africa, with their strong Zulu cultural links, like many other parts of Africa, death marks a transition from the world of the living to the world of the living dead. The Ndebele concept of life and death also looms large in the way they ritualize and medicalize the two concepts of death and dying, as well as life after death. The Ndebele believe that death is not a medical phenomenon. They see it as a response to a home call by their ancestors who need company in the spiritual world. This is especially so when the dead fellow is perceived to have fulfilled their time on earth as determined by the abaphansi or amadlozi, the ancestor.
This is responsible for why ancestor worship is very potent among the Zulu. They believe that those ancestors, who were once like us, live in the spirit world with Unkulunkulu – the highest god – and there is a connection between them and the living. There are many ways in which the Zulu ancestors are believed to appear to their people. These are by dreams, sicknesses or even as animals like snakes. Diviners such as the sangomas invoke the spirits of the dead ancestors to come to the aid of the living.
Another school of thought says that our lives and existence are just dreams. The idea that life is like a dream is a philosophical concept that has been explored by thinkers and writers throughout history. Some people use this metaphor to describe the fleeting and impermanent nature of life, while others use it to emphasize the mysterious and sometimes unreal quality of existence. Even the Psalmist in the 90th chapter amplified same thought. Now, if life is just a dream as it is assumed, then, all mortals who still draw the breath of life must take time to peruse their lives to determine if they are a nightmare or a sweet dream. What exactly is our lives worth? Is it in the number of mansions and exotic cars that we flaunt?
Some other African societies, through their cultures, believe that after death, the departed individual begins to live in a spirit world and receives a new body that has identical features with the earthly body they hitherto donned. There, however, they have transited into an ancestor with the power to look after the living. There is a qualification nevertheless for this: the dead individual must have lived a meaningful life while on earth and must not have had their lives cut short in unnatural ways like accident.
Life may not have meaning but man will forever seek to conquer it, even with inanities. Take for instance a video that is trending in virtual virality. It is that of the Nigerian president, the local boy made good, who had arrived his home city for the yuletide. On Friday, 29th December, 2023, the president drove through a very dirty street of famished Lagosians in Lagos Island. The serpentine, long-winding convoy of exotic cars was like an elephant in a marketplace – it got a sea of spectators. Don’t mind me; I am quite aware that the socially unhealthy optics of a huge number of cars is a presidential pestilence that predates this presidency. It didn’t start with the incumbent; it was a security necessity that created that culture of obscenity post-February 1976 when an unarmed, lone-car-driven Murtala Muhammed was assassinated. But, must mortal man continue that veneration of Camus’ life absurdity in such needless form? At some point in time, both Na’Abba and Akeredolu also helped in deifying this absurdity. As the president’s convoy snaked to wherever it was headed, snide comments followed it. “Ebi npa wa o!” We are hungry; the people hollered. This same people who Frantz Fanon called wretched of the earth had, days earlier, gathered in an embarrassing queue at the president’s Bourdillon Road to demand food to put on the table for Christmas. The unspoken words were that, while perishable man was gloating in his behemoth of affluence, his people were roasting in abject poverty. It is an oxymoron to think that the cost of fuelling that interminable queue of SUVs slithering through the dirt of the Island could wean some of these wretched Nigerians of their poverty.
The homily not to venerate the flesh that will someday become food for maggots as ours is however never heeded by man. The reason why it will always fall on deaf ears is that many believe that, against Camus, life is a highly addictive drug. The longer one lives, the more dependent on this drug of living one is.
As I commiserate with the families of our recent ancestors – Na’Abba and Akeredolu – who have suddenly become our seniors in this dying existential affliction, let me also congratulate us all for the new year we are about to enter. One sure thing is that the new year will mark a year less in our engagement with this ceaseless and absurd rock-pushing called life. When we transit eventually, perhaps we may find out that death might not be a bad thing after all?