By Tunde Leye
In his seminal book from which I derive this title, Wole Soyinka told the story of a king who died in Yorubaland. As was dictated by custom, the king’s horseman, Eleshin was billed to die along with his liege but the colonial authorities stopped this. To preserve the family’s honor, Eleshin’s European trained medical doctor son Olunde committed suicide in his father’s place.
Soyinka’s story is based on historical events and a cursory look into Yoruba history will acquaint the reader with how widespread this practice was in those days. Another thing that would jump out at the one studying the history was how much power these courtesans typified by the horseman in Soyinka’s narrative wielded. They behaved as they pleased and were often abrasive to the public. They took wives, grabbed slaves and were many times an unruly bunch. This was especially so in the latter days of the Oyo Empire when central authority was crumbling and in the chaotic days after its collapse.
But power they say is fleeting and it resides only where people agree it does. No matter how powerful the Eleshin thought he was, his power derived only from his principal. The moment his principal died, the power was gone and new stars rose in the horizon. Only one honorable end was acceptable for him – death along with his principal.
Today, our political office holders do not have to die physically to leave office as in the old days. The Constitution we have agreed to be governed by sets term limits for them and all attempts by incumbents so far to manipulate these limits have failed. But in Nigeria, many politicians go into another form of death once they are out of office; they die politically, and their relevance and power dies along with this political death. I have often heard of the lamentations of many of our political office holders about how emptied they feel when all their trappings of power and influence are taken away when their time in office is done. It is the reality that they all face, especially in a place like Nigeria where most do not know any other means of livelihood but what their political offices bring, informing their desperation to stay in and around power in any capacity that sometimes seems absurd to observers.
This brings me to the modern day Eleshins, the courtesans who mill around these politicians when they are in power. Many Eleshins in the old were of common birth or slaves who rose to prominence and forgot their lowly beginnings.
Many of their modern day counterparts are just like these. They forget where they were coming from, the things they had said and the ideals they represented before being called to become an Eleshin. They talk down at their former colleagues, curse the ideals they had trumpeted before, question the intelligence of the people they defended before their appointment, revel in the opulence they once questioned and threaten all those who point out the deficiencies in their appointers. Speak a word against their principal and they fly to threaten you with treason trials. Point out the poor performance of their principal and they come out, guns blazing, accusing you of crimes against humanity.
This is not a partisan thing; it cuts across every party and political association in Nigeria. It is the life of the modern Nigerian Eleshin. Waiting on the wings are aspiring Eleshin who ride on public opinion to relevance only to get audience with political officeholders. The people think they will say the fiery things they had said before facing the potential principals. But be not deceived; it the hustle to get into the Eleshin guild.
The news for them though is that their relevance is dependent on affiliation with politically powerful principals. The moment this is gone, they become pariah and their influence disappears like a wisp of smoke. But unlike the Eleshins of old who would die along with their principals, the modern ones have no qualms jumping ship once their principal experiences a political death. They don’t mind calling their former principals senile, insane, greedy and other uncomely names just to worm their way into the service of the newly politically powerful.
Where they are unable to achieve this, they constitute themselves into opposing camps and get into roforofo fights with the currently relevant Eleshins, as if to prove their usefulness for such purposes to the currently powerful principals.
It is a high stake game, and since they have burnt the bridges with the people, they cannot return to the people after their service, plus they cannot afford to die politically with their principal since their only means of livelihood is to be an Eleshin.
But like the eponymous Eleshin in Soyinka’s book, this death is inevitable. Just ask those from the days before us and in the not too distant past. The current Eleshins will do well to take Chuck Palahniuk’s quote to heart – we will all die someday. The goal isn’t to live forever, but to create something that will.
Tunde Leye @tundeleye is a fiction writer. He believes that the stories written form a priceless resource that is the basis of society, all the other arts (film, music, theatre, visual arts) and hence he is committed to telling stories out of Africa that show it as it was, is, and is going to be.