By Anote Ajeluorou
The Lagos Books and Arts Festival (LABAF) organised by Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) informally opened on Tuesday with a ‘Book Trek’. Usually held at the University of Lagos, this year’s Book Trek was held at Quintessence, Falomo, Ikoyi, Lagos, because of the school’s closure. However, the paltry audience that turned up almost defeated the organisers’ noble efforts; the ‘Book Trek’ could have been taken to another campus within the city, but this did not happen.
Nevertheless, the organisers would be consoled by the quality of discourse the two critics - Mr. John Uwa and Mrs. Adaobi Muo - doctoral students of Literature of the Department of English, UNILAG under the supervision of Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo brought to bear on the two books, Ezeigbo’s Roses and Bullets and Bishop Hassan Kukah’s Witness to Justice. The two books, one fictional and the other factual, are accounts about Nigeria’s brutal and rudderless politics since independence. London-based Bubbles FM anchor man, Lukman Sanusi moderated ‘Book Trek’.
Bishop Kukah will hold vintage conversation with Tolu Ogunlesi about his book today at the festival ground at Freedom Park, Broad Street, Lagos, starting from 11am. He will speak on, ‘My Experience at the Reconciliation Room’.
In his opening remarks, CORA Secretary, Mr. Toyin Akinosho, restated the festival theme, ‘Narratives of Conflict’, as it encapsulates the nation’s body polity and how very fitting the two books under review capture the perplexing complexity Nigeria’s politics has turned out to be. He noted that the two texts interrogate the national question that keeps recurring, especially Kukah’s Witness to Justice that brings with it that critical, journalistic and popular account that is lacking in the nation’s discourse, which lays bare the absence of critical interrogation that shapes the fortunes of nations elsewhere.
Akinosho also said although many attendees would be disappointed that critics rather than the two authors would be discussing the books, he noted that books would amount to nothing if only the authors talked about them, since books become public property once they are published. He indicated that the books typify the Narratives of Conflict and singled out Witness to Justice, which he said qualified to be called Book of the Year, as a “storyteller’s account that lasts; the books chosen are chosen because of their elegance of prose in the conflict narrative”.
Akinosho further stated that a book was as good as the number of people that engage in it, noting, “That is why LABAF is different from other festivals; we insist on talking about texts and not just ideas. We must be addressing texts and examine the issues, situations through texts. But we’re still not doing a good job of it because audience (attendance) is still poor”.
Readers as leaders: Bane of ignorance
The worrisome issue of book readership in the country came to the fore, as it became apparent that not many Nigerians – politicians (from the President to governors and legislators), academicians, journalists, civil society people, opinion leaders, clergy and many other Nigerians – have not yet read Bishop Kukah’s seminal book, Witness to Justice based on his insider account of the Justice Chukwudifo Oputa Panel, a Reconciliation Commission since it came out early in the year. For Mrs. Muo, this is a disturbing trend that has dogged the nation’s heels and every effort to move the nation forward.
She frowned at Nigerians’ level of consciousness to the basic issues that confront them. She argued that unless Nigerians found a sound basis for spearheading the so-called constitution conference being canvassed with a measure of intellectual depth, nothing much would be achieved, noting, “Our level of consciousness is worrisome. How many people, intellectuals have read Kukah’s book? What we don’t know is that leaders are readers. Do you listen to those leading us in this country talk and hear their grammatical errors, their poor sentence construction, and their level of thinking that is so porous? And did they listen to President Obama’s acceptance speech?”
She noted that Nigerians had degenerated to the level of a people only interested in looking for food with the politicians using poverty as a weapon to keep them down; so much so that Nigerians were just looking for a means of survival. She queried, ‘How can such people rise beyond the poverty to higher needs, ideals? Right now, the politicians are training their children to lead our children unless we do something really urgent to check them’.
On his part, Uwa said Kukah uses Witness to Justice to engage Nigerians in a socio-political dialogue, and recounted the nation’s buoyed optimism before independence and the hopelessness that soon set in after independence, which has continued till date after over 50 years. Uwa called for some form of dialogue where Nigeria’s fortunes could be discussed so as to define the essence of the togetherness of the different nationalities that make up the country as a realistic basis for equity and justice.
Uwa expressed the hope that someday, the people would have the courage to look at the issues contained in such documents as Witness to Justice or even the submissions of Oputa Panel and insist on having them fully implemented, as a way of saying ‘enough is enough’ of the ongoing madness that has kept subverting the people’s will and wishes for a genuine nationhood. “A time will come when bold men will reference these books and do what is needed to be done,” he affirmed.
War narrative: Roses and Bullets
ALTHOUGH the two books under review are diametrically different in that one is fictional and one factual, however, they both mirror Nigeria’s tragic historical march from independence in 1960. Ezeigbo’s Roses and Bullets is a war novel, but it provides the setting that gave birth to the narratives that form Kukah’s Witness to Justice. With the civil war fought, won and lost on the Nigerian and Biafran sides, the military became the inheritor of a vastly wealthy nation, which they promptly began to plunder with their civilian cohorts with marked impunity, with a rash of human rights abuses that necessitated the setting up of Oputa Panel of enquiry on which Kukah’s book is based.
In effect, Kukah’s factual account is a validation of Ezeigbo’s fictional narrative. Ezeigbo’s is a war narrative, of the brutality of war, its effect on innocent civilian population, especially women and children. The protagonist is a teenage girl, whose sheltered world is shattered upon the outbreak of the war. She stops school, had to relocate several times due to the shifting landscape of the war and the desperate times that enveloped Biafra, including the loss of innocence and a people’s psyche that was badly traumatised.
For Muo, Ezeigbo’s narrative is a relentlessly haunting one as Ginika and everyone around her confront the horrors of war. Uwa sees Ezeigbo’s narrative as her contribution in mining the psychological distortion the war wreaks on all. Also, that even in war-ravaged situations, something as mundane as love still finds expression; here also, Ezeigbo finds expression for her feminine ideals and presents the suffering woman as the recipient of man’s brutal nature. From her father to her husband, Ezeigbo makes Ginika to drink from the dregs of men’s mad brew in the name of war.
Ginika is repeatedly raped by men from both sides of the war and finally becomes pregnant for one who is not her husband. She is finally rejected by her husband after returning from the war. Her brother, who also went to war, kills Ginika’s husband for leaving her vulnerable and then rejecting her. But Ginika triumphs at the end as she overcomes her ordeals and goes back to school after the war through the kind help of her former school teacher. This Ezeigbo’s vintage feminine manifesto narrative as the two reviewers argued.
Muo argued that although Ezeigbo believes in complimentarity of the sexes, she retains a nagging suspicion about men and she distorts the male characters such that so endows them with one form of flaw of the other that grates her female characters. From Ginika’s father to her husband, women will find reason to be wary of men.
But is Ginika too perfect a character in Ezeigbo’s hands? Uwa thinks so and said Ezeigbo unnecessarily enriched Ginika almost to the point of super perfection in her unrelenting portrayal of her seemingly unjustifiable suffering in the hands of the men in her life. But Muo thinks otherwise, saying that although presented as a near-perfect character, “Ginika represents the consequences of the war. A writer is like God that creates and has prerogatives. Although Ezeigbo ennobles her, she manages to show her rashness – she talks rashly to her father and goes out partying at night in a military barrack as a married woman and gets raped in the process and becomes pregnant. Ezeigbo shows these flaws in her heroine”.