Professor Niyi Osundare is a popular Nigerian poet known for his simplicity, apt imageries and powerful use of symbolisms in his poems. This particular poem, through the use of symbolisms, explores the topical issue of leadership. In “The Leader and the Led”, Osundare foregrounds the prerequisites for holding a leadership position.
Read the poem: THE LEADER AND THE LED by Niyi Osundare
With the forest as a symbol for the human society, Osundare assesses the leadership crises in countries of the world and the seemingly individual inadequacies and differences as causes. Animals, herbivores and carnivores, seek a leader among them to manage their affairs.
In a way characteristic of humans, those interested in the position of the leader express their interests before the pack. However, the gathering of animals is quick to pick out faults of each aspirant. When it seems no animal is perfect to lead the others, “the forest sage” intimates them about the kind of leader they need; one who is a “hybrid of habits”.
The sage proceeds on the qualities of a good leader. This poem subtly reveals qualities a sensible and compassionate leader should imbibe and on a general outlook, the things to look for in a leader. It also recommends that a leader should build a strong relationship with the led and in order to lead, he should be ready to serve his followers.
- Themes in Niyi Osundare’s “The Leader and the Led”
- Theme of Leadership in Niyi Osundare’s “The Leader and the Led”
The Leader and the Led is a poem of twenty-four lines arranged into twelve stanzas each with two lines; an overall of twelve couplets. A stanza of two lines is called a couplet, remember? I guess you wouldn’t forget that so easily.
Beyond its form, the poem theorises the necessary embodiments of a leader. The poem begins with the picture of an animal gathering in their quest for one who would be their leader. Some animals “stake their claim to the leadership” position; lion, hyena, giraffe, zebra, elephant, warthog, and rhino all said “it’s their right to lead”. But the colleagues (that they want to rule) only picked out their faults and flaws instead. When they could not see a flawless and perfect leader to pick, the Forest Sage calls their attention to what they need in a leader.
In Lines 1-2, the lion “stakes his claim” to the leadership position but the antelopes (lines 3-4) remember his “ferocious pounce” on them. A leader does not feed on his subjects; thus, the lion is ruled out.
In Lines 5-6, the hyena claims “the crown” is his to take but “the impalas shudder” at his brutality and “lethal appetite” only satiated by their kinds. A leader does not oppress his subjects; hence the hyena too is disqualified.
In Lines 7-8, the giraffe tries his luck. He “craves a place in the fault”. However, in his case, “his eyes” are said to be “too far from the ground”. A leader ought to be close to his subjects, see what they go through and share in their experience. An animal that would be distant to their everyday experiences would not do for a leader.
In Lines 9-10, the zebra comes next but “the pack points to the duplicity of his stripes” which suggests his crookedness and double-dealing. One who is not forthright cannot make a good leader.
In Lines 11-12, the elephant “trudges into the power tussle” but “his trampling feet” puts him at a disadvantage. Guess no animal wants to be crushed under those heavy feet.
In Lines 13-14, the warthog and the rhino run lose becoming favourites in the contention on the basis of their “ugliness” and “riotousness” respectively.
In Lines 15-24, the gathering of animals is unable to come to a conclusion on whom to choose as their leader. “The pack trashes around like a snake without a head” until the Forest Sage comes to its rescue. The Forest Sage declares that the leader they need should be “a hybrid of habits.” He should take a little of a lamb’s meekness and a little of a lion’s fierceness. He should be “tough like a tiger” and “compassionate like a doe”. He should be “transparent like a river” and “mysterious like a lake”. The Forest Sage finally concludes that they need a leader who knows how to secure legitimacy and trust and from his followers and also respect their opinions.
There are quite a number of figures of speech in the poem. I would only mention a handful here. You can add others in the comment section.
- Simile: There is simile in line 16, “like a snake without a head”, used to convey the directionless of the pack. It is also in lines 21 and 22, “tough like a tiger, compassionate like a doe/transparent like a river, mysterious like a lake” to suggest that a leader should be flexible and know when to yield and when not to yield to his people yearnings. He should be a blend of qualities.
- Metaphor: There is an evident use of metaphor in the poem; mostly in lines 19 and 20: “a little bit of a lion/a little bit of a lamb”. This bestows the fierceness/courage of lion and the meekness of a lamb on the ideal leader. Implied comparison! Is that not what metaphor is all about after all?
- Synecdoche: “Paws” (line 4) represent the lion’s predatory violence. “Eyes” (line 8) represent the accessibility of the giraffe to his subjects and the masses. “Stripes” (line 10) stands for the probable dishonesty of the zebra.
- Alliteration: “Pounce … paws” (line 4), “hyena … him” (line 5), “far from” (line 8),”pack points” (line 10), “rhino … riotous” (line 14), “hybrid … habits” (line 17), “little … lion” (line 19), “little … lamb” (line 20), and “tough … tiger” (line 21) are manifestations of alliteration in the poem.
- Parallelism: There is parallelism in lines 19 to 20: “A little of a Lion/A little of a lamb”; and lines 21 to 22: “tough like a tiger, compassionate like a doe/transparent like a river, mysterious like a lake”.
- Symbolism: The entire tale (its actors and the quest for a leader) represents human experiences in the contemporary world; the electioneering process – campaigns and elections. The lion and hyena represent oppressive forces; the antelopes and the impalas the oppressed etc. Zebra stands for crooked leaders while giraffe leaders who have distanced themselves from the masses.
- Paradox: There is interplay of two opposite ideas in line 21: “tough like a tiger, compassionate like a doe”; and in line 22: “transparent like a river, mysterious like a lake”. Even though these lines contain contradictory ideas, the whole idea is for a leader to be a blend of these qualities; perhaps, somewhere in the middle of these ideas.
▪️ The point of view used in Niyi Osundare’s The Leader and the Led is the third person narrative technique in which there is an exercise of unrestricted knowledge of the animals’ struggle to elect their leader. Thus, this category of third person narrative technique is omniscient. Niyi Osundare copiously makes use of third person pronouns such as “his”, “him”, “their” and their noun third person equivalents such as “lion”, “zebra”, “elephant”, “followers”, etc. He describes, in detail, the events in the narrative, drawing in the actions and reactions of the animals. Say for instance, the lion’s announcement and the antelope’s reaction, etc.