I have decided to title this address by appropriating the title of a famous and long-forgotten experimental fiction of Wole Soyinka, Season of Anomy, to foreground the fact that no matter how far we think we have advanced from the world of the 1960s Nigeria, our daily fare since that period is still a conundrum of chaos, violence, conflicts, upheavals and general societal incongruities. If we should sift through the socio-political history of the country from independence till date, we will definitely discover that we have not really lived outside the season of anomie. Our literature since that time of flag independence till date has been a reactive enterprise towards the anomaly of general instabilities in our nation.
Let us leave out needless excursion into a history that is not in any way ennobling and forage into the present. At the 36th International convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), which held in Makurdi, Benue State, in October, 2017, amidst the occurrence of a debilitating flood disaster in the state, angst and hunger of an unpaid public service populace, the message of the Executive Governor of the State to the gathered writers was clear and direct. That message, delivered by the Governor’s representative at more than one event of the convention was for writers to devise means in their writings to help propagate and support the State’s Government Anti-Open Grazing Law, which was then yet to take effect. The Government of the State, in its thinking, felt that the law would solve the perennial conflicts between herdsmen and farmers in the State.
Shortly after that convention, the Chairman of the State’s Chapter of ANA called me one morning to ask for advice on whether ANA Benue should join the parade of groups trooping to the Government House to express solidarity with the governor on the Anti-Grazing Law promulgated by the state government. I told him to restraint our members from such open show of uncritical partisanship, which would definitely be misconstrued in some quarters. I told him to advise his membership to do what the governor requested writers to do in his address at our convention –creatively respond in writing to the problems the law was set out to resolve. I gave the advice with a proviso that, as writers, we should at all times be objectively critical and shun crass partisanship in whatever we do or write.
We are all aware of what happened as soon as that particular law was given effect. Before the enactment of the Anti-Grazing Law in Benue, Ekiti State had enacted one not without its own attendant crisis. Even in places where such a law was not in place, the menace of the herdsmen, whether they were Fulanis or of any other ethnic group, had seized the nation in its jugular and plunging all of us into another abyss of an old problem dressed in new virulent robes. All sort of violent acts happening almost in all parts of the country –kidnapping, rape, cattle rustling, mindless murder, armed robbery, name it –now wear the uniformed image of faceless herdsmen.
A few days ago, in the aftermath of this present eruption in the Benue Valley, I came across the call by ANA Benue for contributions for an anthology that would document the blood that have been shed in the State. In the words of the call it says:
The Association is working on a collection of Short Stories and Poetry Anthology with the killings by herdsmen militia as the subject matter as part of the Literary body’s contribution towards recording the violent invasion of the State by Herdsmen militia for posterity.
This call brought sharply to my mind a similar occurrence in that same Benue Valley in 2001 when Nigerian soldiers mindlessly killed innocent persons in some Tiv villages bordering Taraba State after an alleged murder of some Nigerian soldiers engaged in internal security operations by some Tiv militias. That incident is popularly referred to in Nigeria’s human rights and Tiv lores as Zaki-Biam Massacre. The Zaki-Biam Massacre gave rise to Zaki-Biam Blues, a yet-to-be published poetry anthology, to which I was approached to write a foreword in 2012. I hereby present an elaborate excerpt from the foreword I wrote for the yet to be published anthology:
Zaki-Biam Blues, coming out over eleven years after the event it mirrors, has been long-awaited and that is very instructive. Was the anguish of the unfortunate incident too devastating to allow for an immediate poetic flourish? Must the voices of the ethnic minorities in Nigeria be continuously smothered even when they suffer grievous injustices? Where are the poets, the dramatists and novelists who should chronicle this massacre in artistic garb for posterity? These were the questions on the lips of poets who sent contributions many years back to make up this anthology as they awaited its publication.
The foregoing introductory statements have pointed out three things to us: 1. That our nation has always witnessed the recycling of one violence for the other in different times. 2. That writers have always been perceived by the society as chroniclers of its affair. 3. Writers have, indeed, been living up to their self -imposed duty of being the conscience of the society. The other hanging question I will try to answer in the remaining part of this address is how effective or utilitarian can the voice of the writer or literature be in a time that is out of joint.
What is the Justification for Literary Endeavour in a Discordant Society?
At the 2012 International Convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors, the keynote Speaker, Prof Pius Adesanmi, in talking around his topic “What Does (Nigerian) Literature Secure?” wondered about the audacious connection of literature to the issue of national security(1) . To him, at face value, one can hardly find any relationship to what writers do in the isolation of their writing space which later manifests into what we call literature and the insecurity that is all over the place as in the ethnic clashes, kidnappings, politically motivated violence, armed robbery, Boko Haram insurgency and the likes. Later on in his presentation, he was able to point out that, at the end, literature indeed does secure memories, fictional truths and is a bulwark against forgetting our common humanity(7).
Taking off from that standpoint, we can conclude that, indeed, literature has a lot of role to perform in the quest for a stable and peaceful society. Literature reflects life, analyses society, propounds visions with the implicit understanding that whatever is written will be read somewhere by someone who is expected to take away something from what has been read. The history of Nigeria from its amalgamation in 1914 to the independence era in 1960 and through to the present times is replete with the pains of coming together of a very diverse peoples to form a nation. These pains have been expressed in political battles, ethno-religious crises, electoral violence, general disillusionment, dictatorship, failure of leadership and a Civil War that nearly tore the then young nation apart.
Correspondingly, Nigerian literature is replete with texts that have devoted a lot of attention in focusing and analyzing all these pains of our coming together, viewed from different and divergent sociological and stylistically unique premises. To illustrate this further, let us reflect on the works of D.O Fagunwa, Abubakar Imam and even Cyprian Ekwensi to find out what they tell us about the pre-I960 Nigeria, the social relations and the cultural connections, along with the attendant tensions. What have we made of the multiple literary texts that came out from our Civil War experience of 1967-1970 in the light of the not too long ago agitations for the dismemberment of the country, mainly from the part of the country whose geographical space was the theater of that war? In what way has the angst in the literature of our third generation writers, as they reflected on the years of military dictatorship and political disillusionment, affected us? The attempt to answers these questions lead us back to the supposition that in our clime, literature shares close affinity to reality and cannot be divorced from any engagement set up to confront the issues and problems within that same reality.
Even now as we speak, there are poets, dramatists and novelists penning down pieces that bear direct relationship with emergent problems of our contemporary society, be that the baby factory syndrome, kidnapping, Farmers-Fulani clashes, assassinations, political chicanery and the Boko Haram insurgency. Can we say these contemporary writers and those of old do their job for the fun of it, to revel in the artistry of their crafts? Definitely the answer is no. These writings are done with the expectation that the society will find uses for them in overcoming the present debacle of violence and insecurity that have befallen us in the past and that are still plaguing our society.
To foreground the fact that we are making that literature has a bearing to the pursuit of peace and harmony, let us briefly re-examine a body of work which is referred to as Nigerian Civil War Literature. Chidi Amuta said thus about war:
War, as the most logical means of settling inter-communal and international disputes, offers the greatest opportunity for the display of heroism as well as the infliction of great pain and death. Because war puts the greatest pressure on human nature, relationships and institutions,it becomes also a fertile ground for the literary imagination(86).
Also Chinyere Nwahuananya, in A Harvest from Tragedy: Critical Perspectives on Nigerian Civil War Literature, stated that:
Probably because of the socio-political implications and significance of the Nigerian Civil War ,the literature arising out of or based on it is not just the fastest growing aspect of contemporary Nigerian literature….(255).
He went on to compile an extensive (but not exhaustive) bibliography of the Nigerian Civil war literature, ranging from novels, plays, poetry, short stories, memoirs, articles in journals, books, interviews and bibliographies (257-277). From Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country, we can see that the Civil War is still resonating creatively and factually among Nigerian writers. But the sad truth is that, while our writers have written about the war from every perspective imaginable, the readers and the nation in which the writers have afforded these remembering, appear to have learnt very little from that horrible experience. The literature on the Nigerian Civil War are not mere attempts to glorify the war or glamorise clay-footed heroes but to bring to the readers and for posterity the great human sufferings occasioned by the war through the devices of fiction. Underlying this concentrated concern of our literature on the subject matter of the Nigerian Civil War is the admonition for us not to contemplate following the paths that led to that war. Reading these war narratives, one would definitely come away with a variety of scenarios of the ethnicities, prejudices, stereotypes and injustices that led to the war and its aftermath; and a reader of such texts should be better informed on the way to avoid furthering such negatives in our national space.
The Role of our Writers in this Season of Anomie
The scholarly study and general appreciation of literature through the ages has always been a battle of two contending positions: that stance which sees literature as a reflection of life with the possibility of engaging with the reality outside the text and that other narcissistic ideology which sees literature as an end in itself. I need not tell you where we stand in Africa and the larger part of the Third World between these two critical conceptions of literature. It has been said overtime again and again that the concept of art for art’s sake is not a tenable one in our world. I know that if we should review all the undergraduate and post-graduate theses in the literary studies departments of Nigerian Universities over the years, we will be re-enforcing the position of the utilitarian value of literature as most of them often focus on the sociological dimension to the criticism and appreciation of literary texts.
It is, therefore, not out of place for our writers to respond creatively in this season of anomie to the menace of the Fulani Herdsmen, which has become stubbornly insistent the same it was with the Boko Haram Insurgency and the Niger Delta Militancy. The Civil war gave rise to a corpus of literature as noted earlier so has the despoliation of the Niger Delta environment given rise to an environmentally conscious brand of literature. Where are the writers documenting the violent extremism of the Boko Haram era with a view to prevent same in the future?
Cyprian Ekwensi foreshadows the travail of the Fulanis of today in his romantic account of their lifestyle in The Burning Grass; Wale Okediran in Tenants of the House touched on the problem of the incessant farmers-herdsmen clashes within a narrative of politics intertwined with pastoral love; and a new writer, Munzali Dantata in 2017 presented to readers a refreshingly forward looking novel Tammunde:Hope on the Horizon in which the stress is on the imperative of addressing the herdsmen menace from purely ecological and scientific perspectives amidst the pull of change and conservatism. Our writers would thus be seen to be steadfast in their duty to the society by throwing their creative and critical searchlights on the menace of today in their unique ways with a view to proffering the much needed solutions to societal problems.
I will at this point share again from the Foreword to Zaki -Biam Blues:
A poet, Onyebuchi Nwosu, in this collection asked, “When will the guns stop booming in Zaki-Biam, Odi, Aso?” Every Nigerian has a ready answer to that, the guns have not stopped booming, their sounds have become familiar tunes all over the land and deadlier beats have been added to the macabre dance. If this be the case, the poets of Zaki-Biam and all other centers of carnage, despoliation, brigandage and rapacious destruction of lives and properties in Nigeria should not be lulled to sleep with lullabies. They should work up their vocal cords to rail against the militarization of our society, rescue the fleeing humanity in us and celebrate the vista of interlocking communities that have kept our people together for so long in spite of the devious manipulation of the elites.
This task for writers as we can deduce from the examples of the great writers of yore may well be executed beyond the text for sometimes the need for practical action may be too insistent or the exigencies of textual battles may be too tame or just be an abstraction.
Literature has the interpretative and regenerative powers that can be extended beyond the text to repair our damaged world if only we are committed to learn from what we read and see literature as an applied art rather an exercise in esoteric amusement. My summation on the role of literature in the pursuit of peace, harmony and unity within our nation is that our writers, like philosophers, have done enough interpretation (and are still doing that) of our world, it is left for every active player in all fields of endeavor, to change it for the better. Characters in a novel or play would not jump outside the frame of the text to re-order our society based on the analyses and scenarios well explained in their textual worlds. It is those who read such texts, who live in the referential world of the texts; who are students, workers, intellectuals, administrators, politicians and literary critics, who should translate the visions gleaned from the texts into workable dispositions or objectives for societal re-armament and transformation.
Being a keynote address presented at the First Anniversary Celebration of the Association of Nigerian Authors(ANA), EKiti State Chapter, on February 15, 2018 at AB Hotels, Ado Ekiti.
Abdullahi, Denja. “Foreword.” Zaki- Biam Blues Unpublished Poetry Anthology of ANA Benue.
Adesanmi, Pius. “What Does (Nigerian) Literature Secure?” Being a keynote lecture delivered at 2012 International Convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) in Uyo,Akwa Ibom State, 9 November, 2012. 1-12.
Amuta, Chidi. “Literature of the Nigerian Civil War.” Perspectives on Nigerian Literature, 1700 To the Present. ed. YemiOgunbiyi. Lagos: Guardian Books Nig. Ltd., 1988.Vol.1.86-90.
Ile, Onyebuchi James. The Text, The Critic and Conflict Resolution in Nigeria . Abuja: Rossen Publications Ltd., 2014.
Nwahunanya, Chinyere. “Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources on Nigerian Civil War Literature.” A Harvest from Tragedy: Critical Perspectives on Nigerian Civil Literature. Owerri: Springfield Publishers Ltd.,2011. 255-277.