The Last Disrespect, By Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú
At death, the verdict of Nigerians and history will be harsh on most Nigerian leaders. They will be described as reckless, wasteful and purposeless, without any redeeming quality… We have the right to pay our last disrespect to anyone who did not respect us while alive.
“De mortuis nihil nisi bonum and De mortuis nil nisi bene [dicendum] (“Of the dead, [say] nothing but good”). The oft repeated and socially encouraged dictum that, ‘do not speak ill of the dead’ often feels emasculating. The required politeness feels grating and stifling, especially when the dead lived longer than s/he deserved to. I advocate that we need a dose of brutal honesty when appraising the life and times of any complicated person who eroded our values, diminished humanity by his/her untoward character. We must not be coerced or embarrassed to say the truth about those whose times took a toll on us. Evil does die, but multiplies so easily, that it is impossible to celebrate the death of one evil. It is a shame that our cultural attitudes to death and mourning seek to muffle honest opinions about bad people who are dead. As a people, we encourage silence about the misdeeds and major character flaws of the deceased and discourage attempts at examining their legacies. With the expansive reach of public platforms like the social media, the tendency to mythologise and sugarcoat the life and times of dead people, especially those who held public office, has gained appeal. Those who deify dead public figures are not content at their own effort, they also want us to edit our speech and thoughts about the deceased. We won’t let this happen!
There is no virtue to be extolled when a criminal was never responsible nor held accountable for his past actions. The XYZ I know has become a deodorisation ritual, in which the man or woman often eulogised to the point of sainthood was so different from the woman or man we knew. If every dead mom was like an angel and every decedent dad was the best in the world, whose mom and dad brought Nigeria to where it is? It is okay to speak glowingly of good people who passed, be they our loved ones or those who served humanity. It is okay to celebrate them because we miss them and we want others to feel how much they meant to us. What is not okay is any attempt at rewriting memories, history and white-washing tainted legacies. It is okay to honestly highlight and remember their warts, character defects, and the bad things they did. It is not the responsibility of the living to repair the reputation of the dead. There is no spiritual guilt to having reflections on any dead person’s failures.
We cannot protect ourselves from history by ignoring it but by embracing it. How do we understand our lives and show consideration for the living if we sidestep the truth? What society are we building if in the name of not speaking ill of the dead, we pretend a lawmaker was all spice and candy, instead of the drug baron he was?
We can talk about dead people and tell the stories of their lives to gain perspective and derive understanding and meaning from our own histories, as they were and as it is happening. We need to talk about them to understand how their actions shaped us and our environment. Sigmund Freud said, “We assume a special attitude towards the dead, something almost like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult feat. We suspend criticism of him, overlooking whatever wrongs he may have done, and issue the command, De mortuis nil nisi bene: we act as if we were justified in singing his praises at the funeral oration, and inscribe only what is to his advantage on the tombstone. This consideration for the dead, which he really no longer needs, is more important to us than the truth, and, to most of us, certainly, it is more important than consideration for the living.” There is healing and catharsis in speaking truthfully about the kind of life a dead person led.
We cannot protect ourselves from history by ignoring it but by embracing it. How do we understand our lives and show consideration for the living if we sidestep the truth? What society are we building if in the name of not speaking ill of the dead, we pretend a lawmaker was all spice and candy, instead of the drug baron he was? How can our children make educated decisions about avoiding drugs and the trappings of illicit money, if we do not admit the rot in a society that elected a drug baron? The drugs sold by a senator who died last week must have destroyed many lives. Many lives must have gone through the nebulous motions of addiction, loss of jobs, fractured family, death and even criminality. We need an honest recall of these without regard to the Robinhood he became to a few hundreds. Yes, we don’t know if God has forgiven him because we know nothing about the machinations of the soul after death and certainly we have no access to the grand landscape of the afterlife.
Death has taken another “big man”. The finality of death should remind polluters of values, evil doers, traitors, conspirators, oppressors, dictators and their kin that their treachery cannot be whitewashed because they died nor can it be forgotten.
At the burial of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony said: “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred in their bones”. The Shakespearean plot of 1599 still resonates, as humans have learnt nothing from history. Death as the ultimate end of every mortal should in itself be a powerful reminder that nothing lasts forever. Death has taken another “big man”. The finality of death should remind polluters of values, evil doers, traitors, conspirators, oppressors, dictators and their kin that their treachery cannot be whitewashed because they died nor can it be forgotten.
At death, the verdict of Nigerians and history will be harsh on most Nigerian leaders. They will be described as reckless, wasteful and purposeless, without any redeeming quality. People will remember them for lowering the country’s life expectancy and facilitating the death of many through hunger, deprivation, low quality of life and lack of access to health care. Do we miss the dead who destroyed this country? Yes! We miss them for the good they did not do. We have the right to pay our last disrespect to anyone who did not respect us while alive.