By Professor Mark Nwagwu
Obetiti, Nguru, Imo State
Where do words come from? I sometimes ask myself. My memory houses a lot but there are words lying deep inside that do not ordinarily come to the surface. They make their appearance in times unknown to me. ‘Perfidy’ is one such word. To assure myself that I know what I am doing I went to my dictionaries to tell me what is so terrible about perfidy that it escapes my usual usage. The Oxford English Dictionary, eleventh edition gives its meaning as ‘deceitfulness; unworthiness’. The Webster’s New World Dictionary tells me perfidy means, the deliberate breaking of faith; betrayal of trust; treachery. My saviour in times of literary trial, Rodale’s The Synonym Finder, finds other meanings though closely related: faithlessness, unfaithfulness, disloyalty, duplicity, scheming, hypocritical and other similar words. I use all these words but cannot remember when last, if ever, I used the word perfidy.
Perfidy leads to broken homes, broken hopes; it causes foreclosures; it leads to ruin. It is an unforgivable social sin. Who will save us from the polluting perfidy in our lives – horrifying horrors of hunger; putrefying parlours of poverty; decaying dunghills of disease, a life worse than death itself? I look around me and I trace our helplessness and hopelessness to repeated broken promises beginning as far back as the sixties, leading to the first coup in 1966, and running to now, in 2020, when we say and keep saying, never again a military government. Perfidy thrives on fertile lands, and in the desert sand. Its commanding presence rules history. I value companionship, friendship, togetherness which all make conversations bubble and give us laughter and joy. That was the story of our society. In the olden days of University College, Ibadan, in the fifties and early sixties, we would mix and chat and converse and agree and disagree, and shout and smile and laugh. Never did the banter degenerate into fisticuffs or use of abusive expressions. You won your argument purely on reason or you would be branded a barbarian. And when you gave your word, it was your honour you put out, a knight in armour defending your name. Trust ruled the day. This was our Nigeria, even during colonial times, perhaps because of colonialism, we had to show the imperialists we were as good as they were, if not better in any aspect of human conduct, and not just in bookwork.
When we speak of honour, do we speak of the past? When we speak of truth do we speak of the past? When we present ourselves with dignity, decorum, diligence and distinction, are we walking back to an abandoned age? Today, truth is a stranger in our discourse and honour has taken a backseat on our national bus. I have searched my mind to come up with what I would regard as a first case of treachery in my early life, especially in my days at University College, Ibadan and I cannot find one. I would have to come later, perhaps, to the first coup of 1966 to find a classic case of treachery, the betrayal of trust. That was when heavy rain started beating us, to answer Achebe’s question, in our post-colonial times. Of course there were antecedents and several precipitating causes for this gutting of our stern resolve. Nigerians welcomed the coup at its birth; unfortunately another coup was to come fast on its heels. More than a coup, there were pogroms of citizens of particular tribes and a civil war ensued not long after. Nigeria was in shreds. Can my country, your country, resurrect from such a bedgralled life?
It riles me that we do not trust one another with the truth of our life as citizens of one country because we do not believe we all belong to this country and that Nigeria is one in fact. Perhaps, Nigeria is fake news awaiting a reconciliation. The first chance we get we want to escape. The sad truth is that many Nigerians proudly returned to their country to serve with honour and distinction. If you take a calendar of the University of Ibadan today you will find that most of the staff earned their master’s and doctorate degrees from Ibadan or from one other Nigerian university. Some departments in our universities do not have staff with doctorate degrees: their case is dismal, and yet they call themselves universities turning out degree holders. Perfidy increases and stimulates mediocrity. A different kind of rain has started beating us, one soiled in our unquenchable lust.
I came to University College, Ibadan, in September 1957. Later that year, we broke iron netted fences erected on the ground floor of all halls of residence. The iron nets were erected by the management of the College, with the clear purpose to prevent students from gaining entry into the Halls without duly signing the visitors register if one was a male visiting the only female Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, or vice versa. We saw this as a clear affront on our integrity, freedom and prestige. We expressed our dissonance to the College authorities but redress was nowhere in sight…
The fence-breaking episode was a landmark event in my life at College. All I remember about it was that I was awakened in my sleep by a fellow student who said, ‘wake up wake up, we are going to cut down the fence’. I got out of bed and was given two large prices of metal, sharp at one end. With these, we joined a large number of students and went from hall to hall, and in less than an hour the fences were all cut down lying morbid on the grass. I quickly went back to sleep, a broad smile all over my face, sweat pouring down. Who were the ring leaders, I did not know: I was a freshman, new to university life. We later learnt that a meeting of The Students Union had been called, moving speeches were made, then one of the leaders shouted, ‘Down with the cages.’ This act to me compares with Mark Anthony’s speech after Caesar’s assassination: ‘Now let it work. Mischief thou art afoot, take thou what course thou wilt.’ And the citizens ran out to deal a blow to the miscreants, seeking Brutus and Cassius.
As no one came forward to own up to the offence, as required by College, the university was closed, and all the students rusticated. With all its sophistication and style, the college was intimidating, issuing challenge after challenge, the like of which mere mortals could not meet. I wondered why the stalwart ringleaders, the indefatigable firebrand radicals caused the fence-breaking debacle and led students to their rustication with much enthusiasm did not come forward to own up to their noble acts. Why did they not come forward?
I had expected that one would be sufficiently bold and, armed with fortitude, own up to whatever it was one did rather than have innocent people victimised on account of one’s action. Most students did not participate in the fence-breaking episode. I wondered; would we, members of the Students’ Union, not have opted to be rusticated rather than have whoever our leaders sent out of the college? I would vote that we all suffer rather our leaders for an act we would have approved of and in which a good number of us participated… Yes, I would have voted for the fences to be torn down if there was a referendum on this question.
I now wonder: can this be considered the first act of treachery in Nigeria? Of course not: the students acted against the Matriculation Code that required us to obey all College regulations and disobeying the regulations cannot be regarded as treachery or perfidy. If you consider the Matriculation Code as analogous to the Nigerian Constitution, would a military coup be treated as perfidy? A military coup is an act of treason punishable by death. Disobeying college rules was not an act of treason and the punishment awarded was rustication, not death by the firing squad.
Our Constitution has been violated and butchered over and over again, in one coup after another, with complete abandon. The season of perfidy arrived a long time ago and seems to have metamorphosed into a word we use heedlessly; corruption. Corruption is a break with faith, a break with the truth, it is treason, it drives us against one another in a war where poverty is pummelled and avarice exulted. Corruption must die. The revelations we are reading about the Niger Delta Development Commission tell us that perfidy is charging to the front, drawing all of us with it. The legislative arm is controlling the chariots reining in the horses when they dispute the journey being undertaken; where the windfall is small. We learn that a man said he took 1.35 billion naira (not 1.5 billion, as was alleged) as palliative in the COVID-19 pandemic. I shudder to think what he would take as treatment and cure for the viral attack, when he gets one. Perfidy survives in our lust, and has been given a new life in our diversity, in our ethnicity. It must die. It must face the firing squad.