Orature in traditional Bakossi like any other African society served as an instrument for examination of individual experience in relation to the normative order of society. Thus, orature was used, and is still being used in several parts of Bakossi to comment on how the individual adheres to or deviates from the community’s norms of behaviour. Seen in this light, orature though a creation of the imagination, ultimately derives its material from the realities of society. As a result, it can be said to be a good mirror of the society. It is also used by the community to teach, to entertain, and to explore the ambiguities of life. The substance of human experience out of which orature is created is that which has made sufficient impact in the community to excite the imagination of the people to literary creativity. One of these experiences is political leadership.
Characters in Bakossi orature are usually classified into three categories-heroes, antiheroes and villains. Leadership is usually entrusted in the hands of a heroic character. That is. One who finds personal satisfaction in the service of his community or one who has performed invaluable services to the community. Of course, traditional Africa had its Kingdoms, monarchies and dynasties with their autocrats, dictators and despots. But these were exceptions rather than the rule. Generally, the leader, where there was one, was somebody who had submerged his private interests in the pursuit of national ideals which were also in harmony with universal morality.
In this paper therefore, we intend to examine two tales collected from Bakossi tribe of the Kupe Muanenguba Division of Cameroon which reflect the traditional African concepts of leadership, freedom and democracy. We have been constrained by space to limit ourselves to Bakossi but what is true of the tales of Bakossis is also true to a large extent of the tales of other Cameroonian communities and Africa as a whole. The point we intend to make is that the concepts of good leadership, freedom and democracy are fundamental to the concerns of African orature.
In the first tale collected from Nyasosso-Bakossi, tortoise the rogue and double-dealer accepts the authority of the lion. On day, lion, goat and tortoise go on a hunting expedition at the end of which they kill a deer. The meat is brought to the home of the lion for sharing. Lion calls on the goat to share the meat. Goat, on its part, decides to share the meat into three equal parts. Lion is angry that goat has treated him as an ordinary citizen rather than a king and therefore strikes goat with such force that he dies. Lion then turns to tortoise and asks him to proceed with the sharing of the meat. Tortoise divides the meat into two parts-one very large and the other very small. He gives the large part to the lion and keeps the small one for himself. Lion is happy with the “wisdom” of tortoise and asks him where he learnt how to share meat so well. Tortoise points at the dead goat and replies, “by looking at my dead companion”.
Thus, lion, in the above tale represents the benevolent despot who will do everything to ensure that his personal interest is served first and his authority is enforced very strongly. It is obvious that the lion will want to see the status quo maintained and entrenched so that he can continue to exploit and oppress the masses unchallenged. While the lion’s aversion to change is motivated by greed, tortoise’s conservation is caused by fear. Tortoise here represents the majority of Africans who are disgusted with their self-seeking leaders but at the same time will do nothing concrete to remove them from power for fear of the attendant consequences. It is common for this group of socio-passive Africans to point at social stability by focusing upon peace, order, continuity and regularity as basis for their being conformist. They also argue that since the outcome of political innovation cannot be predicted with absolute certainty, it follows, logically that the known ways should be preferred to the unknown. Put differently, “Whatever is, good, however imperfect it may be”. Nevertheless, such resistance to political change based on the refusal to share, contradicts the fundamental principle of collective responsibility in traditional African society.
Opposed to the first group discussed above is another group of Africans who encourage political change provided it is brought about peacefully. This is reflected in the second tale entitled “Tortoise Rides the Elephant”. It is collected from Nkikkoh-Elung , Bangem Subdivision.
Elephant boasted of being the biggest animal and, therefore, the king of the forest. Tortoise, on his part, countered by saying that kingship depended not on size but on wisdom and since he was reputed to be the wisest animal, it followed, naturally that he should be the King of all animals.
Elephant could not understand why his authority should be challenged by such a nonentity as tortoise so he put the case before the other animals. A date was fixed for the hearing and the elephant waited anxiously for the day so that the question of his authority would be resolved once and for all.
On the day of the hearing, all the animals assembled at the market place. Elephant was parading majestically waiting for the decision to be taken. But the hearing could not begin because tortoise was absent. Enquiries were made about his whereabouts but no animal seemed to know anything. At last, lizard ventured to say that on his way to the market place that morning, he passed through tortoise’s house and found him to be in bed writing with pain. When he was asked what was happening, tortoise told him that he felt down a palm-tree that morning and broke a leg. As a result he was unable to attend the hearing. When elephant heard that, he was sorry and offered to go personally to bring tortoise. When tortoise saw elephant coming towards his hut he knew immediately that his trick had worked, that elephant had fallen into his trap.
Elephant told tortoise that he heard of the accident, and offered to come and carry him to market place. Tortoise thanked him and advised him to be gentle as he was in great pains. Elephant agreed. He carried tortoise and moved gently. But, as soon as they got near the market place, tortoise started behaving like royalty and made as if he was giving orders to the elephant. The elephant reached the market place, knelt down and tortoise descended majestically. He was hailed by all as king. Elephant realised what has happened and became furious. But it was too late. Tortoise and the other animals had sought cover from the fury of the elephant. That is how tortoise became king of the animal kingdom.
By allowing a small and insignificant animal like the Tortoise to climb on its back. Elephant has unwittingly subjugated itself to the Tortoise. It is to be noted here that Tortoise has used his intelligence and not brute force to carry out the most successful bloodless coup d’Etat in African orature. The emphasis here is on the universality of intelligence which is the basis of equality among men and the justification for democracy as a political system.