Opinion

Niger: Northern Nigeria’s Agidigbo Drum  

By Suyi Ayodele

“MY friends all, like the sonorous proverb do we drum the agidigbo; it is the wise who dance to it, and the learned who understand its language.” These are the opening words of the apologue, “The Forest of a Thousand Daemons”, by Wole Soyinka. The weird novel itself is the English adaptation of D.O. Fagunwa’s “Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole”, which was first published in 1950. Agidigbo drum is one of the Yoruba’s surrogate instruments for language. Among such instruments with tonal peculiarities that can be translated to speeches are the talking drum (Gangan), Iya Ilu (Mother of all drums, the male and female Omole and Agidigbo. The distinguishing factor of the Yoruba Agidigbo drum is the deep meanings attached to its tonality, which is believed can be interpreted by only those who are dexterous in the use of Yoruba language and proverbs. In the time past, Agidigbo was used to pass deep coded messages to those who could interpret them. If war is unleashed on Niger Republic, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu will be on his own. Oyo drummers, including those of his Iragbiji, have this warning: “Bo ba buru tan, iwo nikan ni o ku” (When the worst happens, you will be left alone). They resort to this when all counsel to leaders fails.

There is an Oke Ijebu (Agege) Ekiti, close to my native Odo Oro Ekiti. The town has a peculiar drumbeat that the Oke Ijebu people use to communicate during their festival. For an outsider, the beauty of the beats lies in the rhythmic percussion that comes out. However, an average Ijebu indigene, while dancing to the rhythm of the drum, knows that there is always a time when he or she is being called to turn and return home. When properly interpreted, the onomatopoeic meaning of the drum comes with the message: “Ijebu, sheyin pe” (Ijebu, turn your back – run, or leave the scene). So, for us the Oke Ijebu Ekiti neighbours, whenever we have any dealing with them, we are always conscious of when they listen to the inner message of their native drumbeat with its “Ijebu, sheyin pe” encoded message. Most often than not, we meet them up wherever they retreat to, and nobody complains. While in essence, the “Ijebu, sheyin pe” rhythm is a metaphor for betrayal, it equally serves as a deep warning to those who have the ears to hear.

There will be war in Niger Republic. Everything points to that. The military juntas that seized power in the poor country are not backing down. The new enforcers of African democracy, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), are also not blinking. It is a case of two rams which are set for combat. One must surely lose its horns. I don’t know why ECOWAS is bent on waging war in Niger Republic. I mean, I don’t see any justification for it. Beyond the monotonous cliché of ‘military rule is an anathema to democracy’, ECOWAS has no business going to war with Niger. It is a complete embarrassment that the member states of ECOWAS would contemplate enforcing democracy in Niger, when the same is lacking in their countries. As condemnable as the July 26, 2023, military putsch in Niger is, more condemnable is the fact that those at the forefront of the impending military option in Niger are pretenders to democracy. Not even one of them has any democratic credential to give them the headmaster’s role they have assigned to themselves in the Niger political crisis. And this includes our new husband in Nigeria, President Tinubu, who is the head of ECOWAS at the moment.

I told a friend some days ago that if eventually there is war in Niger, it is not ECOWAS that will be fighting. Nigeria will be doing so on behalf of other countries in the war-thirsty ECOWAS, and the Western trumpeters, America, and France. This is where my worry is. President Tinubu is an elderly Yoruba man. He should be wiser, by virtue of his age, in the interpretation of the Agidigbo drumbeat coming from the North over the war in Niger Republic. If, because he spent most of his life in Lagos, and as such, is not familiar with the interpretation of the Agidigbo language, he should ask his kith and kins in Osun to tell him what the North is saying. It is never too late. If I were to be his drummer, the only sound I would bring to his hearing is the Ijebu, sheyin pe drumbeat of my neighbours. He can retrace his steps before the ECOWAS “D-Day” for war. It is more than clear today that should there be war in Niger, Tinubu will be on his own. As the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, President Tinubu is constitutionally empowered to mobilise the nation’s Military for the Niger expedition. Our elementary Government tells us that as an Executive President, President Tinubu can declare war and mobilise the Military. But that is where it ends for him. The North has spoken on this war with Niger. The region’s message is without any ambiguity. Whoever is beating the Agidigbo drum in the north is a good percussionist. And you have got to love the North for its direct messages on any issue that affects the region. Seven northern states share boundaries with Niger Republic. We must understand their feelings over the matter.

The North will not go to war in Niger with President Tinubu. They have said so on several occasions. It was not for fun that they shut down the president’s request to deploy the Nigerian Military to Niger at the wake of the coup in Niamey. That resolution by the Nigerian senate is still standing. I may be wrong in my interpretation. I think if there is no counter resolution, President Tinubu will be breaching the constitution if he donates a single Nigerian soldier to the ECOWAS military gang for the Niger Republic misadventure. We can argue this to no end. But that is a lesser worry for the president. The current senate can easily be talked to change its stance; anything is possible in a senate, where the token of money sent to senators’ accounts suddenly turned to prayer points! The bigger issue is the configuration of our Military. How many are they, in the first instance? Which region has the highest distribution of military men? Who are those holding the command structures in the Military? Where are they from? What about the level of discipline of the officers and men? What is the level of preparedness in terms of morale and motivation? What roles do ethnicity and religion play when it comes to mobilisation for war? And most importantly, whose war are we fighting?

Blood is thicker than water. I believe President Tinubu knows this. The Saturday Tribune of August 19, 2023, had its lead story as: “We’ve picked D-Day for Niger War – ECOWAS defence chiefs”. In a more semiotic dramatisation, the paper cast another headline directly under its lead thus: “Every Sokoto person has relations in Niger, Dan Fodio was born there -PDP chieftain.” The headline has an instructive rider: “. Says our ties with Niger stronger than those with southern Nigeria.” What does this headline tell you? I read the interview as granted by Kabiru Aliyu, former Special Adviser to Governor Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto State. My only interpretation is that by contemplating war with Niger, Tinubu is frontally waging war against people who have the same blood running in their veins as our northern compatriots. Don’t trust my judgement on this; it is not compulsory. The North has a peculiar way of speaking; we need to get that. Aliyu, in the interview said that the North’s affinity with Niger Republic is stronger than that with southern Nigeria. That is a deep message. He went ahead to say that Sheik Uthman Dan Fodio was born in Niger. He emphasised that there is probably no single family in Sokoto “that has no relation in Niger Republic. Every prominent family in Sokoto has relationship in one way or the other with the people in different parts of Niger Republic. The truth is, we are related in so many ways. We share common religious background, common tribal background. Our cultural ties with Niger Republic are stronger than those with southern Nigeria. That is the truth.” The Sokoto politician talked about the impropriety of the sanctions the Nigerian imposed on Niger and he concluded that “it does not make sense”. In one single answer, he mentioned Dan Fodio, religion, tribe, and culture. What he did not say openly is that waging war against Niger Republic is as good as waging war against the descendants of Uthman Dan Fodio! Will the North allow that to happen?

I tried many of the linguistic theories of H.P Grice, M.A.K Halliday, Lekan Oyeleye, and the Geoffrey Leech’s seven types of meaning (conceptual, connotative, social, affective, reflected, collocative and thematic) on Aliyu’s interview. I juxtaposed them with the earlier statements by the Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF), especially where the convener, Professor Ango Abdulahi stressed that: “the use of force against Niger should be ruled out. It is unlikely to achieve the goals of restoring the constitutional order and improving the frontiers of democratic systems in West Africa. It will compound the security and humanitarian crises in the ECOWAS region. It is likely to weaken and further divide the ECOWAS and provide greater access of non-African interests into the lives of Africans, with negative consequences.” I came to one conclusion: the North will not go into war with Niger Republic under any guise. Nigeria is war-weary already. Just last week, a rag-tag army of bandits ambushed our soldiers and killed scores of them in Niger State. From the North to the South, bandits, kidnappers, murderous herdsmen, daring armed robbers and other felons are stretching our Military to their limits. Now, President Tinubu appears so bent on leading Nigeria into a proxy war in Niger Republic in a way that provokes any reasonable mind to wonder if there is more to this adamant stance than meets the eye. And while we are at that, a section of the country is saying that it has more ties with outsiders than it does with those of us down south of the country. This is danger round the corner.

A good student of history will readily decipher that the Agidigbo drumbeat from the north points to one direction. As events stand now, I foresee a situation where if asked to pack arms and ammunition for a possible war in Niger Republic, a typical private in the Nigerian Army from Sokoto or any of the states in the North can tell his Commanding Officer, a General from the south, that he is not going. It happened before here. Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe was the second-in-command and the first Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters to Aguiyi-Ironsi after the January 15, 1966, military takeover. When the northern military officers staged a counter coup in the night of July 29, 1966, it was said that Ogundipe backed an order at a corporal of northern extraction, to leave his post, to which the corporal responded that he would not leave until his Captain asked him to do so. It turned out that the corporal’s “Captain” referred to, was from the north. After the bloodletting subsided and it was apparent that General Aguiyi-Ironsi had been killed, Ogundipe as the most senior military officer could not take over. Many today still blame him for what they consider as his ‘cowardice’. I keep asking how ‘bold’ a Brigadier could be, whose order was flagrantly disobeyed by a corporal, and amidst wolves who staged the July 29, 1966, counter coup. A man who commanded no troops and was surrounded by soldiers and officers whose bayonets were dripping blood could possibly not be bold. That incident led to the death of over two million Nigerians by the time the 1967-1970 civil war ended. The questions we should ask are: How many Brigadier-General Ogundipe do we still have? Have we pondered over how many northern corporals will not obey a General’s order because their Captain, another northerner, told them to obey nobody’s order? Will President Tinubu send Nigerian contingent to Niger Republic without the North’s approval? My prayer is for President Tinubu to be one who is wise enough to dance to the guttural rhythms of the Agidigbo just as he rightly deciphers the message which the Northern region has ensconced in the taut strings of the ancient drum.

(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Tuesday, August 22, 2023)

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