Exploring The Burden of Secrecy

Author: Patrick Nwosu
Title: Theory and Practice of Secrecy: Focus on Okonko and Ogboni Societies in Africa
Reviewer: Rowland Olonishuwa
In his epic work, Kurunmi, Prof. Ola Rotimi questioned that: “what is man without knowledge of himself? We have tradition, the scared laws of the people left by our fathers to guide our lives.”
Long before the influx of foreign religions and societies, Africans were guided and guarded by taboos and secrets which made up the tradition of the people. And these instruments of cohesion were administered by a select few, usually elders, and on very few occasions, the powerful.

However, with the advent of foreign religions these very instruments were attacked, ridiculed and abused and described as out-dated, outright evil and anti-social. To be relevant and accepted, foreign religions had to turn a blind eye to the good some societies were doing for their communities. Proponents of these foreign religions outrightly denounced every association, group or society perceived as ‘rivals’ to their messages.

It is this inaccuracy that the book, Theory and Practice of Secrecy: Focus on Okonko and Ogboni Societies in Africa by Patrick Nwosu seeks to right. According to Benson Igboin, who wrote the foreword, the author’s focus on Okonko and Ogboni societies gives the work “a cross-cultural imperative that bespeaks unity in a culturally diverse and ethnically contested space like Nigeria. That such similarities exist independently does not only call for intense interest in the project of humanization in Nigeria but also one that should functionally lead to social cohesion among the diverse people.”

More than that, the book sieves the good from the bad; the author, a Catholic priest, discuses the metamorphosis of the Church’s initial stance against secret societies and concludes that “discovering that ancestral secret societies are not enemies of religion, the Church now encourages dialogue with such societies with a view to removing any obstacle to people’s membership therein. Ancestral secret societies are mighty and powerful allies of religion.”

As the title indicates, this book also dwells on secrets as it affects secret societies and the author is of the view that “the maintenance of secrets by societies or any group would constantly elicit fear and concern in any free society…. From the view point of democratic and rational ethics, then, secrecy has the same moral suspicion that exercise of power attracts, due to the tendency to dominate and manipulate the majority thereby creating inequality among people.”                

According to Nwosu, secrets, depending on its depth and efficacy give an aura of awe and reverence to the possessor, however, secret societies which are inherently evil use the license of secrets to wreck evil and then cover their tracks successfully.

The author therefore posits that, “to safeguard souls from such evil societies, religious traditions caution people and raise alarm about their existence.” But unlike the foreign religion proponents, Nwosu reveals that “there are other ancestral secret societies which are chiefly concerned with initiation, ancestral cults, and guarding their secret rites. These are traditional associations that have secrets; they are found in almost every community in Africa. Their main purpose is to attain a closer link with the divinities for the ultimate well-being of the whole society.”

One great boon of this book is that the author, though a Christian, does not mince words in exploring the subject matter.  There is no ambiguous rhetoric, he lashes out against evil secret societies, exposing their ills and short comings but also commending ancestral societies where necessary.
For example on page 27 he says, “the intent of most ancestral societies in Africa is to ensure closer link with the gods and have greater power in dealing with them.” He goes a step further by defining ancestral secret societies as “associations, whose members agree to conform to rules which themselves, or their predecessors, have established in order to promote laws and order and guard the mysteries surrounding their existence.

In the event of a breach of these ways of life, they also agree to submit to sanctions which are well-defined and known to even the transgressor. Membership is by rigorous and prolonged rites of initiation including large payments.”
Nwosu is of the view that Okonko and Ogboni societies are different from secret societies in the typical context. He asserts that these two societies are “private, voluntary organizations formed to champion the well being of members and the community at large. They are essentially groups of adults inside a global society, who combine to apply rituals and pressures on others in order to attain the common goal of the community.”    

The book, Theory and Practice of Secrecy: Focus on Okonko and Ogboni Societies in Africa as the author affirms is an addition toward alleviating the paucity of literature on secret societies. However, the work seems to be meant for academic consumption only. There are no definitions of terms to help readers who are not familiar with the jargons of comparative religions.

But as earlier said the message of the book is clear and unambiguous. And to the best of my knowledge the author did a good job at convincing his readers that not all secret societies are evil and that “societies that insist on maintaining their secrets cannot be associated with criminally willed fraternities.”   

In conclusion therefore, Okonko and Ogboni societies, according to the author, practices secrecy for glamour, dignity and discipline while membership “remains a choice not a compulsion,” need we begrudge them then the burden of secrecy they chose to bear?

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