Nigerian Theatre Remains Fiercely Political

Fixer by Lydia Adetunji, London: Nick Hern Books (2011), and The Killing Swamp by Adinoyi Ojo Onukaba, Ibadan: Caltop Publications (2010).

From the years immediately following their country’s independence in 1960, the most pressing concern for Nigerian writers and playwrights has been the pitiful state of the Nigerian State.

In his 1983 essay The Trouble with Nigeria, Chinua Achebe laid the blame firmly on the greed, brutality and criminal incompetence of Nigeria’s leaders. As murky civilian regimes were toppled by the military and one military regime morphed into another, the refrain of the country’s writers might well have been “Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse…”

From the 1970s, a special focus on the Civil (or Biafran) War developed in Nigerian literature. Work on this subject continues to appear, one of the best examples being Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wonderful novel Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).

More recently, literature on the Niger Delta crisis has emerged, focusing on the despoliation of the Delta by oil companies, the squandering of oil revenues, and the role of activists in contesting this. The impact of this literature is evidenced by the fact that the most recent annual conference of the African Literature Association (April 2011) devoted two whole panels to its discussion. Novelists such as Helon Habila and poets such as Ogaga Ifowodo have contributed works in this field, and now two plays on the subject have appeared.

Anglo-Nigerian dramatist Lydia Adetunji’s Fixer is set in the north of the country and centres on events surrounding the construction of an oil pipeline across the Sahara. In a hotel bar, journalists gather, anxious to interview the “boys”, the activists who are bent on sabotaging the project. They are joined by Sara, a spin-doctor for the oil consortium, and the only female character in the play — a touch that seems appropriate, given the fact that the play describes a male-dominated world of violence. Also present is Chuks, the fixer of the title, who is reluctantly persuaded to lead the journalists to the volatile and violent boys.

Adetunji, who has worked as a journalist, skillfully explores the corrosion of press ethics. In Chuks she builds a powerfully moving portrait of a small man caught up in big events. At one point a Tracksuit Man enters the bar and confronts Chuks, telling him “You have a big mouth . . . And you have small ears”. From here until the play’s grim conclusion the tension is riveting.

Adetunji was brought up in northern Nigeria. She has a strong sense of what it’s like to live there and is able to convey this without encumbering the dialogue with oral footnotes. Fixer has recently completed a successful run at London’s Oval Theatre; it would be good to see some enterprising company stage it in South Africa. But given the fiercely critical light the play throws on misgovernance, they shouldn’t expect sponsorship from the Nigerian High Commission.

Adinoyi Ojo Onukaba’s play The Killing Swamp is set in the Delta itself and dramatizes the last hours of the Ogoni writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The subject-matter points to another trend in Nigerian literature — much more observable than in South African (a point that might open up interesting debates) — namely a concern with the role of the artist / activist. This concern is prominent in the work of the so-called third generation novelists writing in English, work in which such figures are lionized, as well as in Soyinka’s autobiographical volumes such as You Must Set Forth at Dawn, though Soyinka’s work is let down by his maverick approach to fact.

Onukaba’s Preface notes that “the trial and conviction of the ‘Ogoni Nine’ by a military tribunal were condemned worldwide as a sham, a travesty of justice and a criminal act of state murder. Saro-Wiwa’s supporters believed [the Nine] were murdered because of their political beliefs and campaign against the environmentally hostile operations in the Niger Delta”. The play itself begins with an appropriately shocking image of an army Sergeant pushing Kenule (Saro-Wiwa) forward, hoisting him on to a stool and placing a noose around his neck.

Kenule’s protest — that he wants all nine to hang together — is delivered through dialogue that is stodgy and formal, missing the direct, astringent impact its sentiments deserve. The task in staging this scene would be for the director to work with the actor to recast the dialogue into something more vividly idiomatic.

The Sergeant is morosely silent throughout this part of the play, which is an effective touch. Also compelling is the horrific cruelty of the botched execution (the rope keeps snapping), and the verbal tussle between Kenule and a newly arrived Major, who accuses the activist of tarnishing the image of the country — the tired ploy of so many dictators and their lackeys, as seen recently in pronouncements from the Assad regime, in the context of the Syrian people’s uprising.

With the shambolic execution put on hold, Kenule and the Major role-play the trial of the Ogoni Nine, with Kenule representing himself. This at least gives a mandate for formal speech-making and an explicit opening out of the play’s central theme, with Kenule insisting: “My Lord, the Nigerian nation is on trial here, its present rulers and those who assist them.”

Asabe, a lover of Kenule’s, turns up, and from this point on the dialogue snaps with venom as it proceeds to foreground the ambiguities of concepts like justice and law in contemporary Nigeria, as well as the intersection between the personal and the political:

Major: No spousal contact here please.

Kenule: Why not?

Major: It’s against the law.

Kenule: We live in a lawless land, Major. That’s why I’m here now.

The play ends with a double climax. First, Kenule and Asabe insist that the Major marries them and that they consummate the marriage before Kenule is hung. Second, the Major is discovered to be Kenule’s cousin, not a military man at all, but taking on the role of hangman to avenge the murder of his father, one of the four Ogoni elders the Nine were accused of killing. All this is dramatically explosive, if thematically a little thin.

Over the last decade the work of young Nigerian novelists has been appreciated worldwide (the names Adichie, Habila, Chris Abani and Sefi Atta spring most obviously to mind). I suppose relatively few people read drama as literature, but both the Adetunji and the Onukaba plays reviewed here are lively and provocative, the former especially so, and there is always the hope of local productions.