The literature of Nigeria can be linked to the historical events that form the corpus of experience that Africa and its people encountered. Africa has witnessed many events which form her perspectives and the way she views things. These events also serve as sources for the content of its literature. It is noteworthy that literature copies the image of the society. It is a creative work of imagination that portrays human experiences, events, and sociological situations by refracting the society.
Literature from Nigeria reflects the economic and socio-political experiences of the African and specifically the Nigerian people who own it. These issues cut across slavery, industrial revolution with its effect on imperialism; colonialism, apartheid, bad leadership, corruption, social and moral decadence, all in an attempt to portray the living condition of the people of the society.
The first issue to be considered is the issue of colonialism. Nigerians were subjugated by the British politically and economically. The British came with advanced weapons to fight the Africans who had little or no advanced weaponry. Therefore, they were conquered one after the other. Asides this was the post-colonial issue of civil war. Shortly after the departure of the British colonialists, Nigeria started its civil war which lasted from 1967 to 1970; a three-year war between Nigeria and the breakaway Igbo-dominated region of Biafra. The civil war created a dichotomy in the Nigerian states adding fuel to the issue of tribal sentimentalism and favouritism. As was to be expected, bribery and corruption waned stronger in the most populous African state. As a result of this, literary writers, especially those of Igbo origin, usually advocate for the Biafran struggle in their works. Examples of such literary writers include Chinua Achebe (There was a Country), Chukwuemeka Ike (Sunset at Dawn), Isidore Okpewho (The Last Duty), Festus Iyayi (Heroes), Elechi Amadi (Sunset in Biafra), Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe (The Biafra War), Alexander Madiebo (The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War), and later on, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun).
Another major issue that plagued and yet plagues Nigeria is the leadership question. Nigeria has seen its fair share of grossly incompetent leaders and dictators. Most African countries are plagued by this problem, too. We have the likes of Idi Amin of Uganda, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Francisco Macias Nguema of Equatorial New Guinea, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan, King Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and many more. Prominent among them in Nigeria include General Ibrahim Babangida, General Sani Abacha, and few others. The consequence that the content of literary works produced by Nigerian (and African) literary writers tackling this issue was only too predictable.
Another factor which dictates the tune of Nigerian literary writers can be traced down to the culture of the African people. Africans are culturally diverse and unique. In terms of quality, each society has distinct ways of doing things ranging from music to dance, political systems, food, language, family structure and many others. Asides these features, the African people are very rich in orature such as folk tales, myth and legends, proverbs, riddles, stories and many more. It is with regard to these that the writer draws his inspiration. Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, for instance, infuses elements of Yoruba tradition into his literary oeuvre; also he tends to use the English language in such a way that soothes the taste of his mother tongue. We also have the likes of Ola Rotimi, Femi Osofisan and many others who use elements of these important African cultural and traditional elements in their work. Achebe, for instance, flies high the flag of Igbo mythoi in his works, especially his earliest novels. Consequent to all the arguments mentioned, the anchor of this essay will rest on the interpretation of three literary texts picked deliberately from the three genres of literature. This interpretation goes to reveal how each work from the trio portrays the Nigerian unique experience. The texts to be examined are Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman (1975), Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God (1964) and Tanure Ojaide’s “A Poem for My Grandchild.”
Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman
The text’s preoccupation rests squarely on leadership. Many critics, particularly Western scholars have added that the work tackles the clash of cultures: the British versus the Yoruba. Soyinka exploits the character of Elesin to argue for the true nature of leadership. Thus, Elesin’s traditional and sacrificial role of committing suicide is a metaphorical representation of the role of leaders, particularly, Nigerian leaders. The playwright backdates the play and sets it in 1946, during the pre-colonial era, to satirise the Nigerian political climate of the 1970s, particularly, the series of military regimes in Nigeria. Thus, what the playwright posits here is that the issue of the role of leadership is a universal one that cut across time and space.
Being metaphorically represented as death, the role of leaders are therefore presented as a crucial one, and one which if not fulfilled, might disrupt the cosmological set up of the world. In other words, a failed leader disrupts the cosmological order of the world. Thus, Elesin’s sacrificial death is one which has to be done not when he wants, but at a particular time and place which must not be missed. This is what is represented by his death’s date being exactly thirty days after the king’s death.
In exploiting the character of Elesin, we see that he is a noble man who enjoys all the privileges of his office, and at the end, being unwilling to part way with these pleasures, delays and is reluctant to kill himself when the time is set. Thus, this component of this play presents the playwright’s warning to Nigerian leaders to not get carried away with the pleasures of office which can make them forget their responsibilities.
Also, the presence and the obstruction of Pilkings in the play to the ritual suicide represents the intrusion of external cultures, in this case that of the British colonialists in the Nigerian problem. As a representation of these, the obstruction of Elesin’s death and his imprisonment by Pilkings is a mere, and feeble, external factor. This is so because Amusa arrives at the ritual scene some minutes after Elesin has delayed his death due to some factors such as his lack of strong will and diffidence to carry out the task, and also, his sluggishness as a result of the sexual intercourse that he just had. Thus, the arrival of the police at the scene is not what prevents the sacrificial death, but a mere external factor which succeeds as a result of the most important factor, which is rather internecine. This exposes the intrinsic character or characteristics of the leader. It goes to show that it is only a system that is frayed internally that will yield to external pressures.
The play also thematises the limited role of women in the African society. In it, the only influential woman is the Iyaloja. No other female African character is as noble as this woman in this play. She is the head of commerce and a minister in the king’s cabinet. Apart from her, other women play minor, and subtle roles, in the play. Thus, in this patriarchal Yoruba society, some women are as powerful as some men (and even more than some) because of their achievements economically, politically and socially. In the play, Iyaloja participates in the ritual of which no other women are allowed to enter. She is more revered and loved more than the likes of Amusa and Joseph who work for the Europeans.
Also, the African tradition is exploited in the play. Soyinka introduces his audience into the nexus of African tradition. Through its ritual exercises, we are inducted into the belief in the existence of three worlds: that of the dead, the living and the unborn; the importance of ritual suicide (which Olunde compares to an altruist act), the importance of the market place; the oral tradition of performance poetry as exemplified the praise singer, the drummer and Elesin; the use of incantation and many others. Thus, the Yoruba belief system is exploited to discuss the focal and salient issues in the play.
Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God
Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe is another epitome of what the Nigerian novel is about. The novel, also dated back to the pre-colonial era dwells on the issue of leadership and of communal disintegration which made Africa vulnerable to colonialism. The novel argues for the cultural importance and vitality of the African society. Also, local tradition and mythology is betrayed in the novel.
Like Elesin, the character of Ezeulu is a representation of the leader status. In the novel, Ezeulu is half god and half man. This is represented in his ceremonial costume of painting half of his body (vertically) white. As a result, the novel explores the character of Ezeulu through the author’s use of the stream of consciousness technique. Achebe presents the pressures and pleasures of the office on the leader, the role of the leader’s flaw in administration, and the effects of anarchists on the leader (such as Nnaka and Ezidemili). Also, the leader is like the arrow of, and from, the gods to the people representative of the Nigerian society. Leaders are seen as gifts from the gods. As such, in the pre-colonial Nigerian society, leaders are heroes, priests, links between the gods and the people. In addition, the desire of Ezeulu to be more powerful, especially over Ezidemili is depicted as a bad attribute of leadership because it is what leads to Ezeulu’s downfall in the novel.
Unlike in the Western tradition wherein lies the belief of supremacy of God and the selection of man by God, the Igbos are known to create their own gods. It is said that the god, Ulu, was created by the seven villages to ward off the Abame slave raiders. The Igbo society creates their gods to fulfil certain tasks. However, if the gods fail to fulfil their tasks, they are removed or replaced by another one. This is similar to the fate of Ulu in the novel. Ulu had fulfilled his task of warding off the Abame slave raiders, but he is unable to ward off the colonialists. As a result, both Ulu and his priest are emaciated, and replaced by the christians’ God whom the people take their yams to after Ulu and his priest almost imposed famine on them. Thus, the beauty of the Igbo tradition on religion is shown by the novelist. It is portrayed as being flexible and somewhat existential.
Yet another issue in the novel is the clash of gods, their priests and villages. Apart from the dispute between Ezeulu and Ezidemili, Ulu and Ezeulu are also fighting each other. Their households and the people from their villages also express a no-love-lost relationship among one another. It is this anarchy and unhealthy relationship, or lack of cooperation that results in their vulnerability to colonialism. As shown in Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, the disunity from within precipitates the invasion from without.
The belief and account of seeing ghosts or spirits are evident in the novel. Obika claims to see Eru, the god of wealth, one frightful night in the novel. Ezeulu also communicates with Ulu on more than one occasion in the novel. Also, during the pumpkin leave festival, Ezeulu clasps his hand with unseen characters in the air occasionally while performing his “ritual gymnastic” round the ilo. As noted, the text presents adequately the spiritual beliefs of the Igbo people. There is the presentation of the existence of the G/god, Chukwu, the high god, personal god, Chi, and Ekwensu, the spiritual embodiment of evil. Another significant proof, and one that coalesce to form the climax of the novel, is the death of Obika, who dies while performing the role of Ogbazulobodo, the night spirit in the village. However, we do not arrive at a consensus. On the one hand, according to beliefs in gods as seen in the novel, one of the interpretations of this event could mean that Ulu disapproved of the conduct of his chief priest, Ezeulu. On the other hand, the fact that Obika was sick while asked to perform as Ogbazulobodo, the night spirit who chased away evil spirits, could be the reason for his death. Despite his illness, he agreed to enter into the character of the spirit, Ogbazulobodo, realising the growing indifferent attitude of the villagers who had been suffering hardship because of Ezeulu’s decision to postpone the New Yam Festival. This incident, the death of Obika, breaks Ezeulu and makes him “mad.”
The presence of Winterbottom (or Wintabota) represents the colonialists who enjoy the benefit of discord among African communities. This enforces the proverb by Achebe that when two brothers fight, it is a stranger that will inherit their estate!
Tanure Ojaide’s “A Poem for My Grandchild”
The poem paints a picture of how ships are being supplied crude oil. The ships in this context are referred to as “slave.” The poet mentions how the people are promised of developments from import and export trade. Furthermore, the poet persona changes his tone from that of someone who is talking generally to a tone showing hurt in the description of his children’s woes in the third stanza. Likewise, stanza three and four further describes the ecological condition of the society by characterising the forest and the river as dangerous.
The youths of the society are also given a vivid description in the fifth stanza as graduates who have no jobs especially in the oil sector. The poet further describes the condition of the policemen and how their jobs are being done by foreigners. The poem further tells how the whole country is being portrayed by the international press in their constant focusing on the negative side of the stories. These problematics form the body of “A Poem for My Grandchild.”
In analysing the poem, perhaps the first thing the critic notes is that the poem vividly describes the dilapidating condition of a society. We would say this is a typical Nigerian poem, not just because it is written by a Nigerian but because it portrays the Nigerian experience. The first image in the first stanza of ships loading crude oil tells of the unimaginable wealth of crude oil that the Nigerian society is blessed with. This black gold brings downfall to its owners instead of expected development. The government no longer invests in agriculture or education anymore but squanders the proceeds of the oil on nothing worthwhile. The political ploy of making empty promises is also tackled in the poem. This brings us once again to the questioning of leadership in Nigeria.
Other important issues that are enumerated in the poem are those of decaying infrastructures and debilitating ecological conditions. We can see the pollution of the Niger Deltan rivers with crude oil, now a regular picture of the south-south region of Nigeria.
The poem’s use of language is significant. The accessibility of the language and its free verse form suggest a typical Nigerian poem which has no strict meter or form. The language helps to express the message being passed. The use of unrhymed end lines also portrays his point.
Going by the poem’s tackling of the problem of joblessness of university graduates and lack of good education as suggested by the poem through stanza 3 and 5, the critic suggests that the poem has been able to reveal some of the themes that are of eminent in Nigerian literature. Such themes include the dilapidating condition of average Nigerians in terms of joblessness, low standard of living, lack of education, and so on.
The three texts investigated beat adequately thethematic crux of Nigerian literature. This essay drew evidence from three influential texts by three equally influential Nigerian writers. From these works, the reader and critic is able to exhume typical and vital motifs common in literatures from Nigeria. With the examination of these three texts, readers are brought into the thematic drift of Nigerian literature.
is a literary analyst, essayist and poet. He is also an educator. Mumin is a graduate of the Department of English, University of Lagos and Tai Solarin College of Education, Ijebu.
He is a freelance writer who has written on a wide range of subject matter for both individuals and corporate bodies. He has been published on The Shuttle, The Nation and Unilagnews.com.