By Dr. Ugoji Egujo
Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana lived in the 1950s Lagos. Jagwa woman, as she called herself to summon her spell, was an ageing but enchanting prostitute who longed to marry an innocent, ambitious young boy. Handsome Freddie, aware that his future didn’t belong to the cougar, yet couldn’t resist her offerings.
Jagua professed undying love to the boy but did nothing to hide her lecherousness from him. She didn’t see the hollowness of her apologies. After frolicking the entire Lagos, she would settle down with him. That was her plan. From the proceeds of prostitution, she picked up the bills of his proposed foreign education. A down payment for her love.
When she noticed his interest in a younger girl, she unleashed her fury and tore up his travel papers. The wrath of a jilted prostitute. That was the extent she went to prevent him from having other liaisons despite her naked career. Whenever the boy protested her overbearingness and promiscuity by pulling away from her, Jagua would find him and test his fortitude. He never could resist her spell. The spell of ageing but a predatory and voluptuous woman.
The domination of the Nigerian political scene by a certain group of politicians in more ways than one seems a replay of the incongruous cringeworthy relationship between Jagua and Freddie. Ageing and illicitly wealthy politicians, against all odds, dominate a space overwhelmingly peopled by loud, vibrant youths.
The sagging politicians always make fresh promises to turn new leaves but remain irredeemably dissolute. The infatuation of the youths with the old politicians is inexplicable because they are fed up and ashamed of their dissipated leaders. Just as Freddie feared that Jagua would sully his reputation. But Freddy, like the Nigerian youths, did nothing to save themselves.
Like Jagua, the politicians look at themselves in the mirror, notice their moral wrinkles and deficiencies and fear the youths, like Freddie, could be on the brink of a rebellion. Jagua thought herself a Jagwa Woman, a conqueror of menfolk. Politicians lionize themselves as thinkers and visionaries, emancipators of the poor. The names are effective because the youths parrot them and come under a spell.
Like Jagua, the old layers hold the youths enraptured through propaganda and mere tokenisms. Bits of the proceeds of theft and immorality are thrown back at them with a promise to make those who remain subservient better than their peers. Any attempt by the youths to go into a natural political romance with promising youthful prospects is dissidence and is met with fury.
Like Jagua, most of the Nigerian politicians came from rural poverty. Peel off the first layer of their ancestry, and the next is a palm wine-tapping generation. Once they arrive in Lagos or Abuja, the political scene, they fall for the lights and cash and a vicious cycle of decadence ensues. Money lies, deceit, subterfuge, thuggery, rigging, prebendalism.
Perhaps Freddie is best represented by some Nigerian professionals who embrace seeking to rise through godfatherism. Because that is the finicky cohort that suffers Freddie’s fate to the fullest. Freddie had to show up at the police station to take the prostitute on bail. It was beneath him, but he craved her flesh.
The professionals launder the image of stinking politicians so they can drink from the sweet cesspool. Once the professional gains a foothold on the ladder and regathers his conscience, he becomes an ingrate or a Judas. And the political godfather can, in a rage, bring out his protege’s cupboards in the open and shred all his belongings, and set aflame his future political career with damaging revelations.
Like Freddie, even after the professionals break free and move to greater heights, they still remain attracted to the rotten political nectar.
Ekwensi’s main characters would later get involved in politics and present a slightly different perspective of Nigerian politics of the 50s and 60s to the picture their relationship was used to depict in this article. Freddie returned from London as a lawyer, married with children, to run for election under a new party. Jagua ran into an old politician and found herself mobilizing the womenfolk for the man who had picked up her upkeep and rent bills.
New heady opposition parties, always more idealistic, always more structureless, always more vulnerable to the vultures and hyenas. Freddie died in the hands of thugs, leaving his wife and children to bear the consequences of his singleminded patriotism. Jagua wasn’t soulless.
She had warned Freddie and the other men that politics and its violence could consume them. Once the ruling party overreached themselves by killing Freddie and fell, Jagua found herself prey. That could be the fate of all cronies of politicians during a rebellion. Jagua was fortunate. When the heat became unbearable, she left Lagos for her village with the loot left in her custody.
The luckiest of our old Jagua Nanas will be those who retire quickly and in peace, with some loot. Time will tell.