Itiju: When leaders have no shame and followers too shy
The farm animals once gathered on an idle afternoon. Though the sun was at peak, the animals were in high spirit, except for one – the tortoise. Tortoise was the witty one, with guile and theatrics to light up any gathering, but not on this afternoon. He was in a somber mood, as if bereaved and broken. It didn’t take too long to have him noticed. With persuasion from others, he broke the silence: “I feel like killing my wife,” tortoise said, and the gathering erupted with shock. Abomination! “She has completely gone wayward and I can’t think of any remedy than for someone to die,” tortoise said, as he lowered his head, reclining into the shell.
All the animals had formed a ring around Mr. Tortoise. He was pained and livid too. But not saying much leaves others confused. “Wait Tortie,” Pig snorted, “how bad can your wife be compared with mine that is unkempt and smelly?” “Worse,” Tortoise voiced from the deep. The animals grinned at each other. Bird chirped: “does she gossips and parrots like mine?” “Good for you,” said Tortoise. “Is she so bad a lazybones, sleeps all day and completely useless?” Snail inquired. They heard Tortoise hissed in disapproval.
Horse was the next to speak. “My wife snores and her wide mouth keeps the neighbourhood awake all night. How else can a husbandman be unfortunate?” “I will be glad to have yours,” came from Tortoise. Others were getting impatient when the cat purred, “does she steal, tell lies and break promises like mine?” Silence. Dog didn’t wait further: “tell us your wife is adulterous. I have been living with that all my life and didn’t kill anyone…” Tortoise emerged from the shell. “Mine is worse than that. My wife combines all vices because of one thing. She has no shame (itiju). Nothing more can be worse.”
Indeed, the concept of itiju (shame) is central among the Yoruba where the foregoing legend is popular. Itiju is a complex indigenous virtue. Traditionally, itiju among the Yoruba is tied to morality. It has parity with reason, conscience and the golden rule doctrine in Yoruba ethics. No one can claim to be moral or ethical without the sense of itiju. It implies that the concept is positive as well as negative in meaning. This is contrary to the Western lexicon that dubbed the concept in the negative form only. For instance, one of the pioneers of Western thoughts, Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics regarded ‘shame’ as one of those vices that have no corresponding virtue. Following in his lockstep, R.C. Abraham, in his iconic Dictionary of Modern Yoruba left the concept in its negative form and synonymous with immodesty or disgrace. It is far more than that for the Yoruba and underscores the complexity of the subject.
Going by Aristotle’s ethical framework, otherwise called The Golden Mean Theory, a virtue is often the middle course or mean between two extremes (vices).
That is, the excess or deficiency of a good conduct leads to its corresponding vice(s). For instance, courage is a virtue. Its excess is foolhardiness and deficiency is cowardice; both of which are vices. Ditto for the virtue of respect, whose excess and deficiency are deference and exploitation, in that order. But, unknown to the West, itiju (shame) aligns with that framework too. Oladimeji Ajikobi observed that Itiju (shame) is a virtue, implying moderation, caution, self-regard and self-respect in conduct. Its excess (a vice) is tiju/onitiju, that is, shyness, ashamed, leading to docility and timidity to dangerous extent. The deficiency of the concept is alainitiju, that is, shamelessness, an immodest or shameless fellow. While the middle course (itiju) and its excess (tiju) are morally tolerable, the deficiency (alainitiju) is completely immoral and condemnable by all cultures, including the farm animals.
Shamelessness is the harbinger of all other vices. And anyone that has no sense of modesty or restraint is a loose cannon. Among the Yoruba where itiju represents the peoples mores, cultural orthopraxy and liken to a celestial gift, it is often said that eni ti ko ni itiju, apa Olorun o ka (a shameless fellow is beyond God’s control). How much more that of men or the community? And that explains the pains of Mr. Tortoise, the significance of the opening myth and similar conversations some grumpy husbandmen do have about their wives at beer joints. In fairness, some committees of wives also do complain and compare notes of vices of their men too, just as many Nigerians complain about the undoing of our leaders. Across the board, everyone can tell that shamelessness is a grand vice that has wrecked all manner of havocs in contemporary society.
Unfortunately, the concept and the sense of shame have lost their psycho-social relevance that erstwhile hewn our being and modulated daily transactions as a people. A couple of shocking revelations in the polity, in most recent times, will give credence to the claim that we have lost the culture and value of shame. Many Nigerians were still racking their brains around the Hushpuppy and Woodbery fraudulent phenomenon when the allegations of fraud against the former EFCC Czar, Ibrahim Magu, began to unfurl. These had barely settled when the Niger Delta Development Commission’s (NDDC) dramatists and clowns took to the stage, shaming the country to the world. If those ones are high profile, across government offices too are acts of mindless pilfering and looting that it is almost a mystery that the country, whatever it is worth, still exists.
Shamelessness has many colours and hardly discriminates among the shameless. With elections coming up in some states, politicians have started apologising for misleading the electorates, wasting the time and resources of their State for years. The Peoples’ Democratic Party once apologised for looting the country dry! Shamelessly, they still expect the people to trust them and get reelected. Recall that the Federal Fire Service, Abuja, once hurriedly repackaged old fire trucks and ambulances, and invited the FCT Minister to commission them as new equipment! In Lagos State, the flagship ‘state-of-the-art’ Cardiac and Renal Centre, Gbagada, built with N5.6 billion during Babatunde Fashola’s administration parades obsolete equipment and has never worked for a day. The House of Assembly started probe in 2016 and has still not made headway. Like the NDDC’s forensic audit, and the FCT debacle, nothing will come out of the Lagos medical fraud. It is mind-boggling that all hopes of the corruption war have vanished or now in tatters. Someone already called it ‘The Buhari Meltdown!’ It is regrettable that man’s inhumanity to man is freely expressing itself. It is a bigger shame that governments across all levels have become accomplices, and would not care a hoot, even if the whole country crumbles under the weight of ‘loyal’ yet shameless corrupt officials.
The reason such shamelessness thrives is because the larger society allows it. As a people, we are accessories too, because we are excessively shy, ashamed and docile to look our thieving public officeholders in the eye. We would rather not call spade what it is, but address it as ‘farming implement’ just to feed from the crumbs of corruption. Though the shameless public officeholders often hide under the cloak of “the government” the dramatis personae have names. They are our family members, friends, kinsmen, parishioners, and members of our political parties. As it is often said: ‘Oju ti oremi, ko kan mi’; onitohun ni ko l’ojuti (‘I can’t be bothered if my friend is put to shame’; Whoever said that is the shameless one). We cannot just be bothered as a people. We condone all manner of vices because we too are shameless or too shy and timid.
It is unlike the past when individual’s misdemeanors were regarded as affronts to the family name, clan and the community at large. Stealing was a grave sin to warrant banishment. Because, agba t’o ni itiju, kii f’ole sere (an elder that has shame will not condone stealing). That was in the past. Today, with all the mindless lootings, no family or ethnic group, religion, constituency or political party has ever publicly condemned their thieving representatives even in the face of overwhelming evidence and jail term. Rather, we settle for excuses in their defense and even stage sponsored rallies, saying ‘other people are doing it, more so, it is the national cake!’
In the final analysis, there seems to be very little to choose between the excess and deficiency of shame in the Nigerian polity. Nigerians in the beleaguered Niger Delta region and its war-torn North-East counterpart are not morally better than their representatives that are doing them in and putting up a show on international TV. Neither are Lagos and Abuja residents better than their fraudulent public officials squandering funds meant for lifesaving projects that cannot save anyone. The point is that we have all put up with shamelessness for too long. And nothing will change except we change it. As Tortoise demonstrated at the beginning, we have to kill our shyness and timidity, before its opposite extreme – shamelessness – finally kills us all. Ire o!
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