On September 24, 2013, I wrote a satiric piece titled: “Why there is no Ideology Under the Umbrella”. I noted that with “a casual look at the logo of the African National Congress (ANC), one is drawn to a reflection that makes one fully appreciative of the struggles; the weapons and the battles that liberated a people and birthed the rainbow nation”. ANC’s logo is a powerful image that tells a trans-generational story. On the umbrella, I noted: “No one, no matter how frugal, uses the umbrella for too long, let alone a country! A nation that is politically anchored on an umbrella reminds me of once an airline that was symbolized by an elephant! It has since been interred”. The umbrella is a hiding place of opportunists fleeing inclement infraction of the weather and can hardly represent or credible vision for a strong nation.
Today is the day of the broom. The broom is an immemorial instrument across civilizations for cleaning through the crevices and for open and indoor sanitization. Its work could include removal of all manner of dirt, industrial and domestic. It comes in different shapes and sizes. Some are hooked onto an elongating device to reach uncommon highlights for dusts and cobwebs and other unwholesome irritants. As with all other instruments, the broom has been transformed into very creative designs and devices in essentially synthetic forms. Globally, along with other paraphernalia of the janitor or custodian, broom production business; including its marketing and recycling must be a multi-million dollar industry I dare to suggest.
In our traditional setting, the broom has far more important symbolisms than its basic functional application as a cleaning instrument. For one, the prevalent broom in a specific geo-ecological region corresponds to the variety in species of trees especially the region’s endemic palm trees and other trees within the palm/bamboo family, (including variety of raffia and coconut trees) that are the raw material for brooms. In its natural, as opposed to synthetic version, the broom is a collective work of traditional art of some kind. At local level, broom making is an artisanal production enterprise in which rural children from the lowest income families and their parents are the real foot soldiers. In addition to eking out or supplementing their living from broom artisanship, some of these rural producers give brooms away to their middle class city-dwelling family members as tokens of their goodwill in a manner that re-enforces class subjugation, power relations and social cohesion all at the same time.
But perhaps the most symbolic use of the broom in many African and particularly Nigerian traditional setting is its typification of strength in unity. My father told me a folktale (I believe, it could well have been a real story) of a man who, while on his deathbed, summoned his children on his side and asked each of them to pick a single broomstick. When they did, he requested them one after the other to break the stick they held. And they all did. He then asked each to take turn and break the bunch of broom, and none was able to break a broom bunch. He then said to them, “if you stand alone, you can easily be broken, but if you remain united, no one can break you”. That is why each stick of the broom is only a fragile piece of a vulnerable material. But when they are all tied together they are very strong and unbreakable. The weakest is only so because it stands alone from the bunch.
Aside from strength in unity, the broom is also symbolically used to sweep off the feet of the undesirable guest. This is to ensure that after they have left, nothing about them shall dawdle in the house of the unwilling host. Such unwanted guests are considered ill omens and harbingers of misfortune. In some traditions, they are considered outcasts whose presence contaminates the land. Sweeping off their footpath and traces takes the form of cleansing and purging of the land, a kind of atonement and an expression of the desire that the path of the unholy or accursed visitor and the guest will not anymore cross.
Nigeria is now in a “silly season of politics”. In this season, unlike the last time we had a general election the broom was not part of various symbolisms that pervaded the political space. Now, the broom has an enthralling visibility in Nigeria’s political horizon. The road to the broom’s entry into contention is readily explained by the failure of the umbrella. Not many political watchers and actors can deny that. Symbolisms are hardly strangers to political movements. In not too recent past Canada and Ukraine have had some sense of co-incidence in what was dubbed “the orange revolution” in reference to populist surge in the patronage of two different political parties in the two countries that shared a common interest in colour orange.
But the rise of the broom in Nigeria’s political firmament has yet to rise to the level of symbolism and mature electioneering the symbol ought to command. In fact, the metaphor of the broom has been sold short. Rather, the broom has been used as instrument of nuisance, brigandage, and of reckless and mindless litter, as opposed to one that can be used to sanitize the political environment, i.e. literally and figuratively. Must everyone wield the broom in all political rallies? Now, some are using the broom as a weapon of attack. How could politics in South Africa look if the ANC and its followers were to hold onto all the weapons of the struggle depicted in its logo at every political rally? Symbols are not just instruments for flaunting. They are more relevant in the ideals they represent; otherwise they become tools of ridicule and mischief. Those broom-wielding folks portray an occult image. Someone should tell them so.
The broom-wielding politicians in Nigeria have under-exploited the symbolism of the broom. Hardly have they focused on the strength in unity that the broom represents. That is indeed a timely message in Nigeria now when the fundamentals of our national cohesion are under assault from left, right and centre. I have yet to be convinced that the broom politicians have used the broom to emphasize the much-needed connection between the rural peasantry and urban elite for national mobilization. Neither have they deployed the broom to deliver the message of national cohesion and unity. Again, I am not sure they recognize that the broom is an instrument of service in the hand of a janitor. It is a service and not oppressive instrument. Even on the matter so obvious as the symbolism of the broom for chasing out an unwanted omen, the champions of broom politics have not shown that such a sweeping revolution can be done in an orderly manner.
All through the country, the broom has now become a nuisance for street littering whenever the broom campaign visits any city or the nation’s nooks and crannies. The custodians of the broom appear to be on a mission of perverting the broom from all it stands. One had hoped that if there were no ideology under the umbrella, perhaps there would be a real symbolism in the broom, one that can be constructively deployed to elevate political conversation in Nigeria. The broom is indeed worth more than the public safety nuisance that it has become. Truly, whatever politicians touch they corrupt. Sadly, the broom has not been spared.
Chidi Oguamanam is a Professor of Law, University of Ottawa: Follow @chidi_oguamanam.