Saturday, July 14, 2007

An Outsider's Guide to Igbo Psychology

by Obi Nwakanma

FOR a professor of law, I plead to say, Akin Oyebode’s thinking presents itself as significantly as a surprise. I refer particularly to an interview in which he responded to questions by journalists from the Punch newspaper, published last Sunday. “The Igbo” the Law professor and former university chancellor said, “are their own worst enemy. They couldn’t get their acts together.

Two Igbo will give you three opinions.” Excuse me! I did not know that a variety of distinct opinions is a cardinal sin in a democracy. But one of course, understands from where Oyebode is coming. In the usual discourse of Nigeria, everyone tends to think in terms of what symbolic office goes to whom and where. The same old bread and butter politics of sharing the national cake, as we have learnt to call it.

From that logic, the Nigerian estate belongs to those who can “get their acts together.” But not the Igbo. They couldn’t be president in 2007 because they are their own worst enemy. But even then, the Igbo want something visible, Oyebode says, and have to be taken care of. Such presumption! I will not even bother to rehash all the conditions that led to the April farce that has been called elections; the demographic gerrymandering that is aimed at the Igbo, or all the battles the Igbo are fighting for an equitable federation, at the minimum. But I should just say that the Igbo do not want to be taken care of.

The Igbo want equity and justice for every Nigerian and for themselves as formidable participants in the affairs of the nation. The opposite of justice is injustice, and it is not an alternative, and it carries consequences that will emerge soon enough. The Igbo are no longer in the mood to beg anybody for their entitlements as Nigerians.

The Igbo are not looking for handouts. As events begin to shape, Oyebode and those like him who think that the Igbo have been worsted will only wake to realize that the Igbo are not, given the reality of their history and their location in the Nigerian commonwealth, in any weak or desperate position at all, and can assert their will as a people when the occasion demands, and when they are ready.

The Igbo have a right to the Nigerian commonwealth as much as other Nigerians, and consider Nigeria their inheritance, having been at the forefront of its nationalist liberation struggle from colonial oppression, and having shed an excess of blood in the war fought for its soul between 1967 and 1970; will no longer be driven out of Nigeria except on their own terms, and will not tolerate any more role as the whipping post of the Nigerian plantation. The fight for a new Nigeria is for individual rights and economic justice – not about some organized political Mafiosi distributing pork to themselves. That is what the Igbo say.

That is the mood of the new generation of the Igbo, scattered everywhere in the world as scientists, bankers, lawyers, professors, doctors, administrators, traders, nurses, thieves, scam artists, mercenary or buffalo soldiers, and so on. In the last forty years, the Igbo have mostly stood apart and minded their own businesses, while those who thought they conquered Nigeria have run it more like a pirate ship, than a nation, and into the ground.

Running a country like Nigeria is far more complicated than the talent for organizing coups and counter coups, massacres, pogroms, loots and other political and economic conspiracies. Without doubt, there are many other Nigerians with talents, but the state of Nigeria today is a reflection, forty years after the war, of the absence of significant Igbo talent for organization in the Nigerian public space. Professor Oyebode should speak to that, because he ought to know the truth.

But Professor Oyebode is not alone. Today, everybody is an expert on Igbo affairs. Perhaps its time to organize a national conference on “the fools guide to Igbo psychology,” and that should settle much of the prattle. A few weeks ago, David Mark, the current Senate president took his own turn to berate the Igbo for “pulling down” their prominent sons. Many of us chose to ignore the senator from Oturkpo. But perhaps its time to tell senator Mark that it is not within his mandate to tell the Igbo what to do with or to their leaders.

He should mind his own business. In any case, his grouse was on account of the controversial Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani’s personal decision to excuse himself from the mutual admiration carnival in Enugu tagged a reception for senator Ike Ekweremadu, whom David Mark has most cynically described as the current leader of the Igbo, who occupies “the highest public position” available to the Igbo in the country today. But excuse me, that description is way off mark (excuse the pun). Mr. Ekweremadu is no leader of the Igbo.

He is a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, and its current deputy president. He represents a political constituency and answers to a political party, and not to any Igbo consensus. He is a leader in the Nigerian senate, and that does not make him a leader of the Igbo. And when it comes absolutely to a matter of definition, the position he occupies is a bag of wind, and does not have the authority even of a local government chairman in Igbo land or elsewhere.

It’s a jolly ride position, for himself, his family, and some of his friends. It’s not for the Igbo. Besides, Senator Ekweremadu himself will tell you that he does not consider himself a leader of the Igbo; his constituency is national and universal. He has never spoken for the Igbo in the senate. The Igbo know their spokesmen.

Meanwhile, it is not up to David Mark to advice the Igbo on unity. As the Igbo themselves are too well aware: when they act in “unity” they threaten many entrenched interests, and are accused of “clannishness,” and are slaughtered for it; and when they act, as they frequently do, from their highly democratic impulse, they are described as fractious and disunited- “their on worst enemy.”

The Igbo do not need anybody to tell them when to be united, or when to disagree and pursue individual perspectives. They rise to the occasion. A disunited people could not muster the will to stay at home when a political movement called MASSOB asked them. That was no sign of disunity. The Igbo also know their leaders: they are simple, ordinary, flawed folk. Not living deities or those who so presume. The Igbo also have a tradition of vertical and horizontal leadership. They keep their real leaders behind the scene, and send out the Egwugwu for the public act. It is all part of the Igbo idea: “ebe ihe kwu, ihe ozo akwudebe ya.” Where one thing stands, another stands next to it.

So you have the NCNC and Zik, and you have the Igbo state Union with ZC Obi, doing the groundwork. In times of crisis, the Igbo push out a section of their men and women as Greek gifts, to be “warrant chiefs” and be their ears and eyes. Anybody who imagines that what they see publicly at work is Igbo leadership either does not understand the Igbo, or deliberately misreads them. That’s also alright. But the plain fact is less ambiguous: the Igbo do not have a leader, and have no need for one.

They have leaders. Individuals from parts of Nigeria with a culture of feudalism and the monarchy, often see the Igbo from the prism of their own world. They want one central perspective; one organizing figure to associate with the Igbo. But that’s not the way the Igbo people do things.

The Igbo remain ahead of many Nigerian cultures in their highly developed democratic norms. Igbo norms of dissent often seem to those who do not understand it, to be fractious. But out of Igbo dissent comes toleration; comes a multiplicity of views that allows Igbo creative spirit to thrive, see alternatives, escape from the herdline, and engage the world without fear or ambiguity.

It is important to outline these habits of the culture, particularly for a younger generation who may be tempted to see in Igbo value for democracy and the sanctity of difference, something to be ashamed or afraid of.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

A Good Month for Nigerian (Igbo) Writers

Two Nigerian writers have garnered major prizes in literature within the past week.

Renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe won the 2007 Man Booker International Prize for fiction, which is awarded biannually for a body of work. If you are not familiar with his work here is a little summary from the AP article announcing the prize:

The author began work with the Nigerian Broadcasting Co. in Lagos in 1954 and studied broadcasting at the British Broadcasting Corp. in London.

During Nigeria’s 1967-1970 civil war, Achebe’s Ibo people of the eastern region tried to establish an independent Republic of Biafra, and Achebe tried publicize the plight of his people.

Achebe is currently professor of languages and literature at Bard College, New York, and has lectured in universities around the world.

In 2004, he refused to accept Nigeria’s second highest honor, the Commander of the Federal Republic, to protest the state of affairs in his native country. Nigeria held a presidential election in April that marked the first time one elected leader handed over power to another in a country plagued by military rule and dictators since gaining independence from Britain in 1960.

Achebe, who was paralyzed from the waist down after a 1990 car accident, is married with four children.

“Things Fall Apart” has sold more than 10 million copies around the world and has been translated into 50 languages, making Achebe the most translated African writer of all time.
Achebe was not the only Nigeria write to make news in recent weeks. A writer, much his junior, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won the Organe Prize, which is given annually for the best full-length novel by a woman author written in English and published in the UK. Here’s a excerpt from a interview with Adichie:

Adichie resists stereotypical views of Africa. “We have a long history of Africa being seen in ways that are not very complimentary, and in America [where she has been studying for the past 10 years] being seen as an African writer comes with baggage that we don’t necessarily care for. Americans think African writers will write about the exotic, about wildlife, poverty, maybe Aids. They come to Africa and African books with certain expectations. I was told by a professor at Johns Hopkins University that he didn’t believe my first book [Purple Hibiscus, published in 2003] because it was too familiar to him. In other words, I was writing about middle-class Africans who had cars and who weren’t starving to death, and therefore to him it wasn’t authentically African.”
Adichie makes several other important points in the interview about race, media coverage of Africa, collective memory, and the middle class in African countries. It’s well worth the read.

I also found it particularly interesting this has been framed as a great success for “African” writers, and it is. But is shouldn’t be lost on people that both writers are Nigerian; they are both from the same ethnic group–Igbos, and they both have similar subject matter in their work.

If anyone has read the works of either of these authors and would like to add any reviews or discussion of the works in the comments section, feel free.

This entry was posted by Rachel S. and is filed under Popular (and unpopular) culture, Race, racism and related issues, Media criticism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

16 Responses to “A Good Month for Nigerian (Igbo) Writers”
Rachel S. Writes:

June 13th, 2007 at 7:25 pm
I knew nobody would comment on this. I get exasperated sometimes.

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Sally Writes:

June 13th, 2007 at 8:04 pm
Well, I read Things Fall Apart in high school, and I’m not sure that I have anything very exciting to say about it. It’s been a long time, and I was not that sophisticated a reader in high school! And I’ve got Purple Hibiscus sitting on my shelf at home, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m not reading much that isn’t work-related or total trash right now.

It’s interesting that both Achebe and Adichie live in the U.S. and are affiliated with American universities. Are there any writers living and working in Africa who are well-known in the U.S.? I can think of a couple of South Africans, but nobody else. I wonder what to make of that.

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Laura Writes:

June 13th, 2007 at 8:36 pm
I actually just read Purple Hibiscus for a literature class–that’s great that Adichie won the award.

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Kelly Writes:

June 13th, 2007 at 9:30 pm
I too read Things Fall Apart in high school. I absolutely loved the book but hadn’t really thought much about it until now. I do agree with those who thought it worth pointing out that both writers honored were Igbo or South American; we need to hear from more writers from Africa.

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Rachel S. Writes:

June 13th, 2007 at 9:35 pm
They are both Nigerian in their origins…I think South American is a typo.

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Sewere Writes:

June 14th, 2007 at 1:23 pm
Rachel said,

I knew nobody would comment on this. I get exasperated sometimes.
My sista, make you no worry, you know say I get you back. You for put am on for your side make we yarn for there. :)

Achebe has always been a hero of mine simply because of his take on the Nigeria’s Civil War (aka Biafra War) doesn’t tow the party/dominant line of historical revisionism (Although I haven’t read her work yet, I believe Adichie shares the same perspective). The thing is that for most folks who are not Igbo or from the South Eastern part of Nigeria, the war does not register as a historical event and part of their personal history.

I remember a friend in secondary school telling me how his father and uncle, had to cook food in hiding so that planes wouldn’t hone in on the fire from the wood burning. A bunch of my uncle’s colleaguesm (most of whom were Igbo) who moved to the US as refugees recounted how many of their families were on the verge of starving to death when the Nigerian military prevented aid and support to civilians. How can anyone ever forget that? There are still folks who have pictures of Odumegwu Ojukwu in uniform on their walls (even though I think of him as a spoilt brat, but that’s another story for another day).

The other aspect of Achebe’s (and from what I can tell from the excerpt, Adichie’s) writing is that they write from a comprehensive view of post-colonial Nigeria (and in a few cases, other Sub-Saharan African countries) i.e. national identity, racialized/ethnicized/classist structures, the experiences of folks from his (my parent’s) generation who went to parochial/colonial schools in Nigeria and/or England (racism, classism, sexism etc) as well as theirs and our experiences of being of trying to juggle multiple identities as citizens of two or more countries.

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Rachel S. Writes:

June 14th, 2007 at 2:19 pm
Thanks for commenting folks. I really debated about the title of this post. I was going to put “black authors” and considered “African authors,” because I thought more people would read the post. But they are Nigerian and Igbo, and that is central to their body of work. To characterize them as African or Black would be accurate, but it misses the centrality of thei nationality and ethnicity in their work.

I don’t know what the deal with Igbo writers is, but Uzodinma Iweala is another person getting a lot of attention.

The younger writers are transnational folks, but the writing is about west Africa. I’m waiting for the story that is written about the transnational experience.

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Rachel S. Writes:

June 14th, 2007 at 2:31 pm
I haven’t even read the books myself just reviews. I have to read Things Fall Apart because that’s really part of the contemporary canon of English literature, but what I find fascinating is how these writers discuss their identities.

Sewere said, “The thing is that for most folks who are not Igbo or from the South Eastern part of Nigeria, the war does not register as a historical event and part of their personal history….I remember a friend in secondary school telling me how his father and uncle, had to cook food in hiding so that planes wouldn’t hone in on the fire from the wood burning. A bunch of my uncle’s colleaguesm (most of whom were Igbo) who moved to the US as refugees recounted how many of their families were on the verge of starving to death when the Nigerian military prevented aid and support to civilians. How can anyone ever forget that?”

There is definitely a historical element to these stories. For Achebe, who is probably the most famous Nigerian outside of Nigeria, it is about his generation. For the younger writers, it may be paying homage to their parents and grandparents, many of whom didn’t survive. I’m curious how these younger writers will describe their generations experiences in their writing.

Sewere said, “…the experiences of folks from his (my parent’s) generation who went to parochial/colonial schools in Nigeria and/or England (racism, classism, sexism etc) as well as theirs and our experiences of being of trying to juggle
multiple identities as citizens of two or more countries.”

Yeah that is complicated.

I think there are many Igbo kids growing up in the US who are going to have really interesting stories to tell. For them the added layer of identity–being American and African American could make for some really interesting analysis. (I don’t know many Nigerian Americans who are not Igbos; I guess the refugee factor could play into that.)

I knew you would come out of the wood work to comment. :)

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Richard Jeffrey Newman Writes:

June 14th, 2007 at 6:14 pm
Another Nigerian writer worth reading, though I don’t know his native language, is Chris Abani. I have his first book of poems–the title escapes me now–written after his imprisonment and torture. It is a remarkable book in its (in my opinion not always successful) attempt to render the realities of torture, a true literature of witness.

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debbie Writes:

June 14th, 2007 at 6:53 pm
Both books are fantastic, and I’m glad these authors are getting the recognition they deserve.

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Rich B. Writes:

June 15th, 2007 at 7:50 am
“Things Fall Apart” ruined my life.

There. I admitted it.

Maybe I can move on now.

When I was a kid, I was an unthinking Conservative, because that’s what everyone around me was. When I went to college, I became an unthinking liberal, because that’s what everyone around me was, except for the Young Republicans, who were all losers.

Then, after college, I picked up “Things Fall Apart,” for no good reason that I can think of now. I think I was just looking for a good book, and started on the first shelf at Borders, and “Achebe” is on the first shelf alphabetically.

And I started reading about how the Christian missionaries imposed themselves on the natives (”Boo!! Imperialists!!”) And the got a foothold by bringing in people from the lower castes and treating them as equals (”Yey!! Equality!!”) and then taking over and prohibiting things like leaving baby twins out in the woods to die (”Yey!! Forced imposition of Western values that I agree with!!”) and then they started taking other powers away from the native rulers (”Boo!! Abuse of power!!”) and the book was over and I sat there and though, “Who were the good guys?” “Who were the bad guys?” “Was this a ‘liberal’ book or a ‘conservative’ book?” Well, it was ‘just’ a book about stuff the way the author saw it.

And, well, ever since then I have been unable to NOT see both sides of the situation. I became interested in politics, but never really had a favorite candidate because I saw the arguments for and against everyone’s positions. Then, I started reading blogs, and felt forced to comment when people were all saying the same thing without considering the other side. So, then, pretty soon, I had a whole list of liberal blogs where I had been called a right-wing-fascist troll, and a whole list of conservative blogs where I had been call a loony-leftist-liberal troll, and I ended up with no internet friends, forcing me to only deal with “real” people, with whom I try hard not to discuss politics, because I am sure I would disagree with everything they said, not because they were wrong, but because they believed it too strongly and without qualification.

And, yes, I blame it all on “Things Fall Apart.”

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Sewere Writes:

June 15th, 2007 at 3:24 pm
Rachel said,

For Achebe, who is probably the most famous Nigerian outside of Nigeria, it is about his generation.
Make you no say am like that o. Yoruba people go claim say Wole Soyinka pass Chinay Achebe because him get Nobel Prize…. :-0

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Rachel S. Writes:

June 15th, 2007 at 5:11 pm
LOL!! I guess we’ll have to do surveys to see.

I have a little Igbo bias since I’m married to one :)….Nobel Prize is big, but it doesn’t necessarily make a person a household name.

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lurker Writes:

June 15th, 2007 at 9:31 pm
“Nobel Prize is big, but it doesn’t necessarily make a person a household name.”

Not to mention all the back-of-scene politics,

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Anu Writes:

June 18th, 2007 at 12:10 am
lol being Yoruba I have to say I’m partial to Wole Soyinka as well.

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Remy Ilona Writes:

June 28th, 2007 at 6:17 am
It suffixes, and important to note that both writers are ‘Igbo’. Anything beyond that is misleading.
I consider Achebe an inspiring figure, and the Igbos sharpest mind today.

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BOOK REVIEW: Broken Lives and Other Stories

By Anthonia C. Kalu (2003)

"Storytelling at its best, full of subtlety and a nuanced exploration of the core issues of the Biafran tragedy."

Emmanuel Obiechina — Visiting Lecturer of Afro-American Studies, Harvard University
In her startling collection of short stories, Broken Lives and Other Stories, Anthonia C. Kalu creates a series of memorable characters who struggle to hold displaced but dynamic communities together in a country that is at war with itself.

Broken Lives and Other Stories presents a portrait of the ordinary women, children, and men whose lives have been battered by war in their homeland. Written in response to the Nigerian Civil War, known on the Igbo side as Ogu Biafra--the Biafran War--this collection focuses on the everyday conditions of the local people and how their personal situations became entangled in national crises. The stories capture a diversity of issues, from the implications of self-rule and the presence of soldiers among civilians, to masquerades, air raids, and rape.

Through her riveting narratives, Kalu draws the reader into the depths of some of Africa's most troubling issues, such as the concern for safety during the frequent outbreaks of hostilities, which can range from civil unrest to armed combat. How do young people, women, and the elderly cope during those crises? Are the struggles for national political power greater than the everyday struggle for decent living by the person on the street?

While conveying the vitality and joy of Africa's women and youth, Broken Lives and Other Stories also examines the impact of the brain drain caused by wars and instability within the continent itself. Both the war against women and women¿s constant war to survive in contemporary Africa are brought into sharp focus throughout these stories.

For readers interested in the last thirty-five years of unrest across Africa, this collection is essential reading.
Chris Abani's Virgin of Flames

by Obi Nwakanma

CHRIS Abani writes with blinding power. His first novel, Graceland (Alfred Knopf, 2003) established his bona fides as an important voice of contemporary fiction, and his latest offering, The Virgin of the Flames (Penguin 2007) confirms without doubt that his talent is no fluke; it is the work of considerable imaginative authority. The Virgin of the Flames takes us between Afikpo and East Los Angeles, and beyond to the territories of the imagination, where dark and unbound emotions collide and re-ignite, and create shimmering shards of meaning.

We arrive at the end of the story breathless. The subject of Abani’s new novel is identity - the ambiguities that frame the subject of individual location and translocation, and the subtle varieties inherent in the various bis: bi-raciality, bi-culturality, bi-genderity, bi-nativism, bi-nationalism, bi-sexuality - and we sense that there is no resolution to the question about this apparent struggle for fixity; to become and be wholly something; easily, discernibly, essentially, something. Black, bi-racial child of an Igbo NASA scientist father and a Salvadorian mother, tries to obscure what fundamentally is the central dilemma of the novel - his movement towards self realization.

He conceives of himself fundamentally as a mesh of identities, a texture of “silence, sound, color and image” - an embodiment of the multiplicity or the diversity of East LA. He belongs, not to a single identity, he claims, even though he remembers his father, the Igbo scientist saying to him in their last time together before he ships off to war, “echefulam” - never forget me - remember who you are. But Black had grown to see himself as belonging to shifting or transmuting identities with no particular or specific ethnic or national affiliation - just like his graffiti. Bomboy the Rwandan butcher however demands and sees a neat and pure category, and says to him, “Your father was an African, so therefore you are African.” A thorough postmodern conundrum - this struggle between bare essentialism and complex identities. It is impossible indeed to be one thing any more, Abani suggests, because we have consistently and radically moved the questions beyond their fixed places to the idea of the human subject morphing through encounters, absorbing every encounter, possessing it, and encrypting into these encounters, the formalities of our many lives as we shift and dismantle various meanings or ideas of the self and the boundaries that once enclosed the self.

But it is also possible to see in Abani’s story, the pathology of the restless ambiguous subject or self; the quest to fully identify and locate himself within a stable sense of place and time, in spite of the difficulty, given his own personal history, to fully, in the end, enclose himself into a single clean idea of the clan. He embodies that sense of the crossroads and its tense and potent neutrality: son of the marriage of two cultures - African and European - Abani’s Edda, Igbo father met his English mother as a student in Oxford in the 1950s, at the height of the transformations in the relationship between the empire and its margin. Chris Abani grew up in both worlds, first in Nigeria, his parents marriage having survived the civil war.

He attended schools in Nigeria, and went to the Imo State University, where he read English, wrote a juvenilia, and dabbled into theatre under the playwright Tess Onwueme, and then forced by circumstance to relocate to England, and subsequently to the United States, where he currently teaches Creative Writing, at the University of California, Riverside. He comes to us, thus representing the multiple stories he too embodies in his various locations and dislocations, and in the end, he expresses through a powerfully searing look at his contemporary world, the difficulties present in that question that Chinua Achebe himself once proposed, about whether the writer and his audience still live in the same place.

Chris Abani’s style is cosmopolitan: he engages cultures and absorbs elements from various encounters with his metropolitan gaze; he writes principally about the marginalized - those who are outsiders to society: thieves, murderers, and trans-sexuals - the damned - but he asks us to look beyond the categories we impose on them and see their human struggles and dilemmas behind the pale veil of the tattoo artist Iggy, the figure of Cassandra, and the courtesan of the Hollywood elite, and the mask of Sweet girl, the Mexican trans-sexual striper, the snide, laconic ironies of Bomboy Dickens, the Rwandan butcher, with a murderous past, with blood in his hands but who had learned possibly from his genocidal experience, to carve cadavers neatly, without blood in his hands, nor should we see only the habits of living above the “Ugly Store.” Such characters populate Abani’s novel.

The Virgin of the Flames is a story about intersections: the setting is in East LA but it moves back and forth, and we glimpse its center: that decadent beauty of a crumbling landscape, its stone towers in ruins marking the ruins of a city in which lives mesh and fragment; the collision is often like a lunatic high; a kinetic force of creation, of transgressive moments and conversations; of resplendent visual renditions of the human drama; brush strokes of lives of lives existing in the intersection of marginal cultures with all the tension of outsiderhood.

The intersection of East and West, of African-American and Latino lives, and the ocular festivals of their conflicts, in that place “iridescent in its concrete sleeve.” All these provide the imaginative canvas for the complicated mural artist, Black, whose true muse is the virgin, mother of God, reified into the living embodiment of that duality, Sweet Girl, the transgendered dancer, who becomes his nemesis. The virgin mother is everywhere - and one may even put it down to Abani’s obsessive Catholicism, having grown up a Catholic, an altar boy, a n ex-seminarian.

But the flaming virgin of the novel is also a mystic force of apocalyptic proportions: Black’s vision of her, floating in the wind and the curtain, reminds us of the passion of a suffering, on whom ritual pain is inflicted by the visions of the female force -
represented in the mother. The virgin figure is such a power that can make an immigration lawyer to become less sanguine, and accept fees in kind, “even goats, chickens and fish;” identities collapse and can be bought with hard cash in the Passport market, much like the one in Lagos. These transformations of identities at the core of the novel, makes The Virgin of the Flames continuously slippery, and so much more.

It is the story about race and segregation in American cities, about smoking mirrors of the self, about immigration and assimilation, about devotion and piety, the sort that deals with faith irreverently. And we can see this in the description of the figure of Jesus with an erect phallus, a sense of both the comic and the outrageous.

The Virgin of the Flames is a violent story with scenes of rape and torture, and the perverse; but they are scenes finely and forcefully wrought. They remain memorable and almost indelible. It is the story of ghosts, for as Iggy puts it, “ghosts are the things…we make with memory.” The Virgin of the Flames is therefore an incomparable act to compose a novel of pure quixotic elegance, a mysterious excursus into the depths of the human psyche, for Abani’s story is layered with too many meanings: what you read is often not what you see; you are forced to look deeper, and deeper still. It is an unforgettable imaginative performance. A great contribution to the emerging canon of new world literature generally, and Nigerian fiction specifically.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Cooking the old-fashion way

Free Ralph Uwazuruike

by Obi Nwaknma

THIS week, on July 6, it would be exactly forty years since the Federal forces launched a two-pronged military attack on the peoples of the old Eastern Nigeria, from Nsukka and Garkem, which effectively began the civil war in 1967.

The Eastern Region had seceded from the old federation of Nigeria, and declared itself a new country, the Peoples Republic of Biafra. This was a remarkable development, especially for a people, who had led the anti-colonial nationalist liberation movement, invested much of their energy to create a united Nigeria, and a modern nation state, basically coined the term, “unity in diversity” as the guiding principle of their Nigerian vision, and made remarkable political and economic compromises to ensure the emergence of a free, liberated, Nigerian state.

But the tide had turned from the January 15 putsch led by Emmanuel Ifeajuna, and mostly Igbo officers, like Chukwuma Nzeogwu operating from the Kaduna end, and the northern counter-coup of July 29, led by Murtala Muhammed and officers like T.Y. Danjuma. The death toll from January to September 1966 was horrendous. But its most remarkable outcome was the character of what has been described as the northern “revenge coup.”

It not only initiated a massacre of southern Nigerians, particularly Igbo officers and men, in the barracks, but the killing spilled into the streets, and into the private homes of easterners, living across the North, and parts of western Nigeria. The organized killings of easterners in relentless waves of the pogrom from May 1966 to September 1966, has been fully documented, and presented, first at the Onyuike Atrocities Commission in Enugu in 1967, and years later at the Justice Oputa Commission in Abuja in 2002.

It was in the backdrop of these waves of killings and great waves of return to the East, that it became quite clear to the Igbo particularly, that the very concept of Nigeria needs to be fundamentally renegotiated. But while Odumegwu-Ojukwu, and other leaders of the East were examining their alternatives in 1966, positions were equally hardening in Lagos, then the epicentre of Nigeria’s political power. But a slight possibility of reconciliation occurred when the Ghanaian General Akufo brokered a meeting in Aburi, which brought together, the key players, and the various factions in the Nigerian crisis early in January 1967.

The Aburi conference paved way to a number of keystone resolutions, the agreements upon which was framed, a sense of the new national realities, and the spirit of which still haunts Nigeria, for the Aburi accord truly still holds the true future and survival of Nigeria as both a federation and a country. The current clamour for constitutional review, and of restructuring, stems from the fall outs and distortions occasioned by the illegalities of 1966/67, that subverted the foundational frameworks of the Independence constitution of 1960, and the Republican charter of 1963, upon which a free Nigeria was founded and consecrated.

The Eastern Regional authorities went home from Aburi, and prepared for operationalizing the Aburi agreements, but what was seen to amount to a perfidious repudiation of the key elements of the agreement kicked the can down the road of an epic conflict. In the event, seeing that the leadership of the eastern region had dug in on its position, the Nigerian end peremptorily announced the creation of twelve states without consultation or plebiscitory authority, thus setting the tone for Odumegwu-Ojukwu, having been thus mandated by the Eastern Consultative
Assembly, declared the Eastern Region, the Republic of Biafra, with its sign of the Rising Sun.

The grim battles were fought, and the end came in 1970, and the peace settled on a “No Victor, No Vanquished” resolution. This in sum is the story of the most emblematic moment of Nigeria’s postcolonial history, and the event that continues to reproduce and haunt its meaning of nation, because the ghosts are not yet buried.

The Igbo, and much of the minority peoples of Eastern Nigeria, and the old Midwest, have since complained, and have variously, frequently raised objection to a sense of their lands as still occupied territories, where oil production activities have made many wealthy Nigerians, but left those on whose lands the resource is found, mostly impoverished.

It is quite remarkable that most of these areas in the former Eastern and Midwestern regions, which were the theatres of the last civil war, remain the most economically and infrastructurally underdeveloped areas in contemporary Nigeria, and mostly by deliberate federal government policy since the end of the war in 1970. As for the Igbo, much ink has been expended on their sense of oppression and deliberate alienation from the Nigerian polity, and the official methods that have been perfected to reduce Igbo significance and contribution, and the benefits of citizenship in the Nigeria to which they returned freely in 1970.

This sense of alienation was precisely what has inspired the agitations in the Niger Delta, and in the Igbo areas, where pro-Biafra sentiments have recently arisen, and whose more public face is a lawyer called Ralph Uwazurike, who has led the group called MASSOB.

The unique thing about MASSOB is its methods of non-violence, a means by which it has conducted, and indeed organized Igbo public opinion, to register their desire for either equality or justice in Nigeria, or peaceful separation. In my view, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the MASSOB position. It is a legitimate and democratic stance, and it is within the rights fundamentally enshrined in the UN charter in 1945.

The demonization of MASSOB cannot obscure this very fact, because, frankly, there is nothing absolutely sacrosanct about Nigeria. The only thing that is sacrosanct is the life in it, and the dignity accorded to that life. As part of its sweeping operations against various radical nationalist movements within Nigeria, the Obasanjo government arrested and detained Uwazurike, and Dr. Fasehun, Gani Adams, and Asari Dokubo, leaders of the Yoruba OPC movement and the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force, respectively. The last two are not pacifist movements. The Obasanjo government nevertheless, released the OPC leaders, and only recently, as part of his gestures to the Niger Delta, the Yar Ardua government released Asari Dokubo.

One commends all that. But the question is: what about Ralph Uwazurike? Last week Senator Uche Chukwumerije introduced the question of his release to the Senate, and it was shot down. Ralph Uwazurike’s case again re-emphasizes the case that the Igbo make about discrimination. The Nigerian authorities often act, it seems, with deliberate intentions to insult the Igbo, although many well-meaning Igbo have never failed to point out that the silence of the Igbo people is not from an inability to act with ferocity.

It is that most Igbo are willing to thread the path of peace and reason, until it becomes clear that such options are exhausted. But the Ralph Uwazurike case, his continued detention is unacceptable in the light of the federal government’s general gestures.

He not only has a right to his beliefs, and to his freedoms, but given the non-violent nature of his movement, he cannot be said to advocate violence against the authorities. But it seems that Uwazurike is wrong, only in the sense that the federal government hearkens first to those who present their arms with their colours, against those who merely use their mouths and their wit in political agitation. All well meaning Nigerians must demand the release of Ralph Uwazurike, because it is right and proper that he returns home to his family and people.