Dr Abba A Abba is a scholar and a creative writer. Currently, he is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. He is the Head, Department of English and Literary Studies, Edwin Clark University, Kiagbodo, Delta State. In this interview with Henry Akubuiro, the highflying academic spoke on the significance of the scholarship and the bent of new Nigerian literature.
You recently won a DAAD scholarship to research on the Nigerian civil war. What triggered your research interest?
In my many years of scholarship as a student and an academic, I have always grappled with the question of indigenising existing non-African critical canons in order to account for the African experience, especially in African/Black literature and other cultural art forms. I have, through teaching war and terror narratives, theories, dances, songs and drumbeats, sought to interrogate many non-African assumptionist theories used to articulate the African milieu and also tried to highlight the role of African cultural arts in varying shades of resistance struggles. This is the vision that colours my research project.
In recent times, there are instances of renewed agitations for Biafran secession. This is a very important issue and I wish to look at what other scholars have done in the past on this issue to see what needs to be done further. I discovered that the Nigeria-Biafra war has been studied extensively, but what needs to be done further is to consider the diverse claims of marginality among the different ethnic groups in Nigeria. That is, while the Biafrans continue to point to a sense of marginalisation during and after the war (which has generated potent resistance that seeks to resuscitate the war), there is literary evidence that subaltern feeling has characterised the socio-political life among all the ethnic groups in Nigeria. My project is then is sparked off by the availability of literary accounts that seek to remediate the resuscitation, reconfiguration, and continuation of the war by drawing attention to the counterclaims of the other ethnic configurations.
Again, rather than dwell forever on the feeling of subalternity in the Biafran national imaginary, the project reimagines the possibility for Biafrans to strategically seek greater political, economic and social inclusion as the most effective way of addressing subaltern feeling. In a way, the project offers a conceptualization of this strategy by framing a universalist guiding principle. Thus, rather than the aggressively confrontational “nzogbu-nzogbu” approach, it advocates what Okechukwu Ibeanu and others term “mainstream-inclusivism” which is guided by the Igbo notion of Ako-na-uche: the application of wisdom, common sense, sound judgement and restraint in dealing with all issues and situations to achieve desired results. It is an approach that encourages dialogue, friendship, and systematic planning rather than undue provocative rhetorics.
I think also that war is not an option now. I believe that while negotiating a post-national consciousness coloured with endless war rhetorics, it is important to find out what possibility, for instance, is open to the injured when the cost of remedying an injury would be higher than the injury itself. The clamour for war thrives on emotions but war itself is won through preparation and strategy since even the best soldiers get eaten by the war. War is a stage, where death, ever constant, seeks to humble the will of men. In times of war, all those often looked up to for assistance would do nothing more than condemn the war in very strong legal terms, but there it ends. The dead, the raped, the abducted, the swindled, the exploited, the displaced, the disillusioned remain trapped in their tragic solitude. Those who had earlier promised support would disappear into thin air. The most unfortunate thing is that the homeland would be the theatre in which the war is to be executed. This means that all the destructions would be upon everything that is dear to the same people who feel oppressed –the beautiful mansions, markets, farms, churches, factories, offices, schools. Worse still, bloodshed, rape, arson, looting, name them. When all these are brought to a desolate heap, wherein then lies the desired enemy’s pain?
Of course, literary and historical narratives are littered from page to page with various accounts that prove that war does not allow one to pack one’s loads properly, to enjoy one’s wedding ceremony, friendship, comfortable apartments, cars, businesses, jobs and all those great dreams. It hurries one away to safety. At this time, one, for a moment must forget the justness of the cause and hurry away in search of peace which is the oil that lubricates life.
So, I believe that scholars need not keep aloof from these issues or stay by the side and watch things go wrong. If those engaged in the continuation of the war are not getting it right, or are deploying the wrong tools, it is not the best to sit by the side and condemn the tools. We must all get involved by showing our own informed perspectives because it is also about us. Whatever comes out of the struggle, positive or negative, must affect us all. That’s what triggered my interest.
Is your research limited to the war accounts or fictional narratives?
The research is a textual analysis of creative and critical literary works in order to demonstrate that war fiction generals engage narratives as artistic trenches through which the Biafran war is continually interrogated. The research engages primary literary texts and memoirs, historical accounts which are analysed under the lens of some important critical theories. It is so crucial for the project that it is conducted at the Institute of Asian and African studies at the Humboldt University, Berlin, an institute that is dedicated to the study of Africa and its varying experiences. As a result, there is unlimited access to primary and secondary sources of information. Apart from the earlier mentioned very important voices in the Biafran war narratives, other accounts by other important figures like Christopher Okigbo, Emeka Ojukwu, Alex Madiebo, Fredrick Forsyth, Michael Gould, Marion Pape, Fola Oyewole are also important for the project. The list is inexhaustible. The works of these writers have been chosen because they all expose, from diverse perspectives, the deepest nature of the Nigeria-Biafra conflicts ranging from the period before, during and after the war.
How did your Ph.D research influence this current research?
The research is part of an on-going project which started since 1999 during my BA project at Imo State University, Owerri. Then I had tried to investigate the contributions of J.P Clark’s and Chris Okigbo’s poetry to the literary explorations of the Biafra war. Clark’s most popular poetry collection, The Casualties and Okigbo’s Path of Thunder provided the material for the project. In my MA and Ph.D research engagements, both at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, I continued with this same interrogation of the concept of resistance, terror and tragic optimism. In the MA research, I had worked on the writings of the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the British author, Joseph Conrad. In the Doctoral research, I beamed my critical searchlight on the French-Algerian Absurdist, Albert Camus, and our own dear Wole Soyinka. You can see the trajectory of my intellectual quest and how all of them are connected with my current postdoc project. I am on this intellectual pilgrimage in order to understand the terror, trauma, resistance, motives, challenges, and the gestations that drive the spirit of war.
You are a first-timer in Germany. What do you find unusual or otherwise of the German society?
Germany is a country that has conquered many of the challenges that continue to plague the global South. A whole lot of things are fascinating about the country. German society has a culture of discipline to the laws of the land. The law is instituted with the power to over-ride the individual, no matter how highly placed. The idea is that the law derives its power and authority from the people. So, if the people decide to make the law powerful, it would be powerful. But if they decide to make it a mere smokescreen, it would remain so. If it is powerful, it would protect everybody; if it is weak, it can’t protect anybody. Then, there would be anarchy, kidnapping, ritual killing, corruption, looting of public funds, nepotism, tribalism, robbery, breaking of traffic rules, all thriving on impunity. When these things exist in a society, it is a problem for all, including those who perpetrate them. In most developing countries in Africa where all these forms of social ills exist, the law is disempowered because the police are ill-equipped, hungry and emasculated. Individuals are stronger than the system.
Let me illustrate with the transport system in Germany which fascinates me a lot. Usually, people obtain bus/train tickets for a certain duration of time, say hourly, daily, weekly or monthly. With this, one can go to wherever one wants to go irrespective of the distance. As a passenger, getting this ticket is your obligation. Then the bus/train must be at bus-stops/train stations at a particular time which is usually telecast on billboards scattered all over the appropriate routes. Neither the rain nor the cold can change this. The driver can never say he is late for any reason except he doesn’t like his job anymore. People are paid for “hours of work” not “hours at work.” Now, neither would a passenger try to evade getting his ticket, or under-purchase a ticket, or flash an expired ticket to the driver in order to short-change the government nor would the government collect the money and float rickety buses on the road, or refuse to provide the buses/trains as at when due, or leave pot-holes on the roads. Everything works with unimaginable precision to the comfort and honour of everyone.
Why does it work like that, you may ask? Yes, THE LAW! The system is stronger and wealthier than the individual and not the other way round. The German police, for instance, is one of the most motivated, equipped, trained and therefore, patriotic in the world. He must find you and must bring you to book. The system has been programmed to find you. Every information about every person living in the country is stored in the system. So, things are not only meant to work. They must work, and they do. Public officials or rich and influential individuals cannot change this. It seems to me that the police take it that the crime you commit is a personal attack on them. In a world that is technologically driven such as this, fewer crimes go unpunished because human beings work almost at machine speed and accuracy. So, here, things must work, and everybody must contribute to make it work.
One Nigeria politician was hosted here recently while on a vacation. During his speech, he was grinning from ear to ear as he expressed his fascination with the beauty of the city of Berlin. He joked that from what he saw, it would be difficult to ask our brothers here to return to Nigeria because here, everything works with a perfect flourish. Then, he added that with his few days’ stay experience, he too was feeling reluctant to return to Nigeria. Then, the MC of the occasion asked him: “Sir, you are a very important government man at home. You have come here and have seen all these things you are praising. Others like you have also come and have said the same thing you told us here tonight. My question is; why can’t Nigeria work like this? I believe that we even have more money in Nigeria than here. Is it that many people that thrive and make huge wealth in a chaotic system don’t want to encourage a system where there is order? The politician laughed and said: “We are trying!” before he scuttled away.
What is happening to your creative side?
Yeah, I used to belong to the Campus Press at Imo State University, Owerri. First, I was with Campus Periscope before we founded FrankTalk publications alongside Maxwell Eke, the then President of ELSA; Obinna Ginn Nwosu, Iwunze Davidson, and of course, the very outstanding creative wizard, Henry Akubuiro. Henry’s award-winning short stories encouraged most of us in the English Department to develop some interest in creative writing. We published pieces of poetry, short stories, and campus news. Then, on graduation, I published my first novel, The Ugly Queen in 2002 and my first play, The Lunatic on the Throne in 2003. Although my major focus has been on scholarly research, I couldn’t help it recently when I had to give in to expressing my creative insights. So, in April this year, my latest play, The Blood Price was published. I haven’t published any poetry collection yet. Perhaps it still on fire and would be served to the public when ready.
What is your impression of new Nigerian literature, compared to what it used to be?
The new Nigerian literature is doing so well, although modern Nigerian writers do not receive the same kind of acclamation like those before them. The reason is obvious. Achebe and his contemporaries wrote at a time when creative writing was relatively new in Africa. However, the current NLNG and ANA literature prizes help a lot in encouraging the new Nigerian writers. And just as the old generals tried to use the literary artefact to negotiate our colonial and postcolonial history, the new Nigeria literature continues with the responsibility of articulating our postcolonial challenges which have given birth to other issues like post-nationalism, post-war discourse, interculturalism, multiculturalism, neo-cosmopolitanism, ethno-culturalism, ecocriticism, globalization, glocalization, migration and exilic dilemma, refugee problems, gender palava, queer and the LGBTI, and so many more. These are issues which the new Nigerian literature practitioners try to explore. In poetry: Olu Oguibe, Tanure Ojaide, Ogaga Ifowodo, Isidore Diala, Unoma Azuah, Ikeogu Oke, Amatoritsero Ede, Maik Nwosu, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo. In prose fiction: Abubakar Ibrahim Adam, Chimamanda Adichie, Chimeka Garrick, Henry Akubuiro; in drama: Sam Ukala, Julie Okoh, Isidore Diala. The list is endless. I only mentioned those that quickly came to my mind. Many of these articulate the idea of understanding the other person, or the other culture, or the other sex, sexuality, class, race, position and every other kind of difference-marker. The consciousness is that we live in a world in which the hitherto closed horizons of the different traditions of people are reaching out to each other, and our hitherto differentiated histories are beginning to reconnect, sometimes in strange ways, in mannerisms that have never been heard of. So these new writers are paying considerable attention to the interdependence of these ways of viewing the world both within and outside their cultures. Thus from the struggle, the dilemma and anxiety about the colonial contact which we saw in the literature of the sixties and seventies to the idea of intercultural communication which the new Nigeria literary artists explore, I can say that Nigerian literature is living up to its intellectual destiny.
Are there some teachers who have in a special way influenced your intellectual quest?
Ha-ha-ha. I have come in contact with many great teachers in my life starting from secondary school through the university. First, I came in contact with Chief/Sir Eugene Udogu, (Ezeonyehikanne-Okwakorobeya), the proprietor of Spencer Secondary School Uli where I completed my secondary education. He offered me a scholarship opportunity that saw me all through my secondary education and employed me as a tutor in the school thereafter. He has remained a huge source of encouragement to me till date. His motivation and invaluable support enabled me to secure admission at Imo State University, Owerri to study English and Literary Studies. Here I met the man who has helped to re-fire my intellectual zeal, Professor Isidore Diala, under whose feet I learn. Professor Diala has contributed so much to the growth and development of African literature, locally and abroad. When I first arrived Germany, one of the professors I met during an introduction in the department told me that Professor Diala is one scholar whose works on the South African writer, Andre Brink, have remained indispensable to South African literary scholarship. I couldn’t hide my pride that Prof. Diala has such an enormous intellectual stature. The guide and the insights he provides have continued to illuminate my research path. And at the UNN, I met Rev. Fr. Prof. Amaechi Akwanya who supervised both my MA and Ph.D degrees in the Department of English. He too has remained a huge beacon of support for my research works. Of course, Professor Ogaga Okuyade is a great inspiration to me and has done so much to help sharpen my critical arsenal. Here at HU, Berlin, Prof. Dr. Susanne Gehrmann has helped to offer fresh perspectives in my current research on the Biafra war, thus inaugurating some new frontiers in my research profile. I can say, therefore, that I have the good luck of having great teachers around me.
Who are you grateful to for this research fellowship?
The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) offered the scholarship grant while the Humboldt University, Berlin provided the research facilities. I am so grateful to them as much as I am to the Vice-Chancellor of Edwin Clark University, Kiagbodo, Professor T. O. Olagbemiro for the permission for me to embark on this sojourn. And to my wife and children for accepting to endure my absence at this time. Above all, I am grateful to God who made it possible.