A Brief Study of Niyi Osundare’s ‘The Leader and the Led’

Biodata of the Author: Niyi Osundare was born in 1947 in Ikere-Ekiti, in Western Nigeria. He is a well-known African writer who has many collections of poems and plays. He has taught at the University of Ibadan and at the University of New Orleans.

Background to the Poem: Niyi Osundare’s ‘Leader and the Led’ is written against the background of the subsisting leadership lacuna on the African continent.

Subject Matter, Structure and Organisation of the Poem: The subject matter of the poem is the failure of leadership in Africa and the search for ideal leadership in Africa. The poem is organised in 12 stanzas of 2 lines each. The poem is written in free verse and makes use of run-on-lines or enjambment.

Summary of the Poem: ‘The Leader and the Led’ is an allegorical poem. Hence, it can be understood at two levels of meaning. The poem makes use of animal characters to illustrate human conditions. The poem dramatises a situation where different animals vie for leadership positions, but are judged by other animals to be unqualified because of certain negative attributes that they possess. For instance, the Lion is seen to be ‘ferocious’ in his dealings with other animals. In other words, the Lion’s anger and oppressive tendencies disqualify him from being an ideal leader. Other animals who aspire to the leadership of the jungle are the Hyena, the Giraffe, the Zebra, the Elephant, the Warthog and the Rhino. Each of these aspirants is seen to have one or two negative attributes that disqualify them from being leaders.

 In other words, they have their excesses and these do not make for the ideal leadership that the animals are glamouring for. For instance, the Hyena’s ‘lethal appetite’ is what detracts from his leadership abilities. The Giraffe is seen to be high up there, which means that he might not be in tune with the real experiences of the masses. The Zebra is seen not to be an honest and straightforward person. The elephant is feared for its gigantic feet which could easily crush the lesser creatures. The Warthog has an ugly character while the Rhino is seen to be too violent to be a good leader.

In the ninth stanza, it is revealed that a good leader is one who has ‘a hybrid of habits’. This is further explained in the next stanza: ‘A little bit of a Lion/A little bit of a Lamb’. This means that leaders should have dynamic, unpredictable but virtuous qualities. Again, the poem implies that leaders should acknowledge the fact that they derive their value from the followers, as it is the followers that enthrone leaders.

A Stanza-by-stanza Analysis: It should be borne in mind that in this poem, each of the animal characters depicted represents human beings and their character attributes. These attributes are implicated in leadership qualities. The poet mostly presents the undesirable leadership traits of the animals at first before going on to state the ideal leadership attributes towards the end of the poem.

The first and the second stanzas of the poem read: ‘The Lion stakes his claim/To the leadership of the pack/. . . But the Antelopes remember/The ferocious pounce of his paws’. The Lion is culturally and naturally predisposed to lead. He is the King of the jungle, thus he sees himself as a born leader – ‘stakes his claim’. Indeed, the Lion has natural leadership qualities; strength, courage, speed and alertness, among many other qualities. However, there is something that detracts from the Lion’s sterling leadership attributes. This is noted by the Lion’s victims, the antelopes, who remember how the lion normally brutalises them.

In the Lion’s relationship with the antelopes, the Lion is the powerful, while the Antelopes are the followers and the weak. The Antelopes are the electorate while the Lion is the candidate presenting himself to be elected. What the quoted verse implies is that while the Lion has all the natural qualities of a leader, his oppression of the weak and the powerless disqualifies him, as this character flaw makes him a dictator. Note the alliteration in the expression ‘pounce of his paws’ found in the repetition of the voiceless bilabial plosive /p/.

Another animal that comes forward to be king is the Hyena, who also lays a natural claim to the throne. The Hyena is second only to the Lion in courage and strength. Unfortunately, he also has the same faults as the Lion. His victims are the impalas, who are used to the Hyena’s brutality. Both the Lion and the Hyena feed on their victims. In human terms, there exists a metaphoric cannibalism between the leaders and the followers in society. In the poem, it is reported that the impalas know the Hyena to have ‘lethal appetite’ – an expression that speaks of the way the Hyena devours his victims.  The word ‘shudder’ constitutes kinetic imagery as it dramatises the fear that the impalas have for the Hyena, their oppressor.

The fourth stanza reads: ‘The Giraffe craves a place in the front/But his eyes are too far from the ground’. In the stanza, it is seen that what disqualifies the Giraffe from being a leader is his extreme height, which is used to infer his not being in touch with the people and the realities of their lives. The Giraffe character is used to decry class stratification in leadership whereby the leaders see themselves as belonging to the upper class which predisposes them to look down on their subjects who mostly belong to the lower class. Once these leaders get into political offices, they do not know how to touch the lives of the common people because they do not even know the needs of these common people. There is an instance of synecdoche in the expression ‘. . . his eyes are too far from the ground’, whereby ‘eyes’ refers to the Giraffe and his selfish gaze and self-isolating character. The ground is where the common people live, but the Giraffe is too pompous to get down to the level of the followers to relate with them.

The fifth stanza reads: ‘When the Zebra says it’s his right to lead/The pack points to the duplicity of his stripes’. Every citizen has a right to vie for election into political offices, and this is what the Zebra claims. However, the Zebra has a character problem following from his natural stripes which is seen as deceptive and deceitful in nature, whereas leadership demands such qualities as transparency, honesty and fair dealing. There is alliteration in the expression ‘pack points’, where ‘pack’ refers to a group of animals.

The sixth stanza reads: ‘The Elephant trudges into the power tussle/But its colleagues dread his tramping feet’. The Elephant relies on his might and mighty body to qualify him for the leadership position in the political contest. Thus, the Elephant is among those who believe that it is mostly the appearance that makes a leader, and that leaders are supposed to look a certain way in order to be considered for their role. Apart from this faulty assumption, the Elephant also has another problem; those he works with know his oppressive tendencies; he tramples on his subordinates.

The seventh and eighth stanzas read: ‘The Warthog is too ugly/The Rhino too riotous. . . And the pack thrashes around/Like a snake without a head’. The ugliness of the Warthog is not only literal, but most importantly, it is also figurative, as it speaks of character or moral ugliness, which is the bane of good leadership. Note the alliteration in the line ‘The Rhino too riotous’. The line speaks of the troublesome nature of the Rhino, which is what detracts from his leadership attributes. A leader should be a man of peace though not a coward.

It is sad that all the candidates are disqualified because of the weakness in their moral constitution. Left without a good leader, the animal kingdom cannot make any meaningful progress as animals ‘thrash around/Like a snake without a head’. The imagery deployed here is striking because it emphaises the importance of sound leadership to the development of any society. Another thing worth noting about Osundare’s ‘The Leader and the Led’ is that it is a didactic poem that teaches us that leadership is nothing but character.

In the ninth stanza, the Forest Sage, possibly an intellectual, discerns the leadership needs of the people in the following words: ‘Our need calls for a hybrid of habits’. This statement, which is rich in alliteration, accentuates the importance of having personalities with dynamic attributes as leaders, not the ones earlier described who are mostly stock characters with unidirectional and predictable character traits. The Sage goes on to describe the nature of the dynamic traits required for an African leader in stanza ten: ‘A little bit of a Lion/A little bit of a Lamb’. Lion and Lamb signify ferociousness and gentleness, respectively, which should be found in a leader. The ferocious trait is used to attack the external enemies while the gentleness is deployed when dealing with the weak and defenceless members of society.

In the penultimate stanza, these dynamic leadership qualities are poetically explained thus: ‘Tough like a tiger, compassionate like a doe/Transparent like a river, mysterious like a lake’. These lines are antithetical in structure and are used to exemplify how a leader could and should manage polar qualities to drive society forward. A leader should at once be tough and compassionate, meaning that he should know when to be tough and when to be gentle. A leader should be truthful, honest and transparent without necessarily being stupid and predictable, especially where the security and other sensitive matters of State are involved. The dominant tropes in this stanza are caesura, antithesis and simile. Caesura, for instance, is seen in the pause in the form of a comma after ‘tiger’ and ‘river’ in the first and second lines of the stanza, respectively.

The final stanza reads: ‘A leader who knows how to follow/Followers mindful of their right to lead’. This stanza sums up the leadership requirements for the Africa of the 21st century. It clearly justifies the need for servant-leadership, as well as active and proactive followership. There is need for leaders to be well-acquainted with the lives of the followers and it is also important for the followers to take the effective leadership of their communities into their hands.

Themes, Language and Style: Among the themes raised in the work are poor leadership, leadership qualities and the search for the ideal leadership in Africa. The poem is rich in imagery and symbolism. The expression ‘crown’ is a symbol for leadership. Kinesthetic imagery is conveyed in words like ‘pounce’, ‘shudder’, and ‘trudges’. The use of allegory is a dominant device in the poem. Another important device deployed in the poem is dialogue. The poem is written in couplets such that one line or stanza makes a proposition and the other line or stanza counters it. The poem makes use of other devices like simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration, repetition, caesura and antithesis. Simile is seen in expressions such as ‘Tough like a tiger’ and ‘Like a snake without a head’. Most of the animals mentioned in the poem are personified through the use of the third person pronoun ‘his’, initial capitalisation of their names and through the use of human actions to describe their deeds. The poem is rich in repetends like the repetition of the word ‘lead’ in stanzas 5 and 12.

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