Nigeria in Transition: A Historical Recollection

Debut novelist Nnaziri Ihejirika is the author of A Rainy Season. He spent most of his formative years in the thriving city of Lagos, Nigeria. An alumnus of the University of Toronto, he retains an avid interest in African history, literature and infrastructure development. Here he discusses the socio-political background that influenced his debut.

Nnaziri Headshot
Nnaziri Ihejirika

None of the many military dictatorships in Nigeria’s history squandered as much goodwill as General Sani Abacha’s regime between November 1993 and June 1998. As a young boy who came of age during this time, an awareness of the socio-economic impact of his government and observations of the individuals forged by this environment provided the backdrop for my debut novel, A Rainy Season.

Abacha’s predecessor, General Babangida, was a politician in uniform and his charisma, oratory and policies were cultivated to maximize his political appeal. However, his attempts at transitioning Nigeria to democratic rule failed in June 1993 when he was pressured by his colleagues to annul elections that were considered free and fair. From the ashes of Babangida’s regime came Abacha and his promise of political reform and discipline. Doing away with the transitional administration left by Babangida, Abacha was backed by pro-democracy activists who believed his promise to reinstate the June 1993 election results. Even Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of those elections, gave tacit support to Abacha’s palace coup.

Within two years, Moshood Abiola was in prison for seeking his mandate. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the populist social critic was hanged on trumped up murder charges. Several serving and retired military officers, including former Head of State Olusegun Obasanjo and his deputy, Shehu Yar’Adua, were sentenced to life in prison for plotting a coup against Abacha. Newspaper editors were routinely harassed and arrested. Political opponents were assassinated in broad daylight on the streets of Lagos. As a result, the country was turned into a pariah state on the international stage. Developed countries limited visas to Nigerians, rendering escape nearly impossible for all but the wealthy or those lucky enough to win the US diversity visa lottery. Economically, oil – the country’s main source of foreign exchange – traded at eighteen dollars a barrel and inflation was as high as 47.5% in January 1996!

Living in Lagos, I witnessed the depths to which the citizenry fell as they struggled to survive their daily existence. I saw schoolteachers, bribed by desperate parents, assisting students during exams. The clergy openly courted the rich, with no regard to the source of wealth. Young women offered their bodies to those who could offer material comfort. Young men, lacking gainful employment, took to crime and ethno-religious fundamentalism. When asked, people said “conditions are what make the crayfish bend”. Rationalization of misdeeds became a popular pastime…

It is easy to understand the reaction, palpably captured in A Rainy Season, to Abacha’s death. The book’s characters are fictional, but many of the social ills which currently plague Nigerian society were incubated and birthed during that dark era. Nearly two decades later, it is time for Nigerians to realize something they did during those dark days – the question is not whether the country’s ethnic, religious, gender and class fault lines will lead to its downfall. The question is whether or not its people will join hands to ensure Nigeria’s salvation.

 

For more information, visit Nnaziri Ihejirika’s website www.nnaziri.comRead an excerpt of A Rainy Season here.

 

 

A Rainy Season by Nnaziri Ihejirika | An Excerpt

Chapter 1: Jude

I met Alex at a cocktail party at the British High Commission. One of those the parties where tickets are sold out well in advance and senior Nigerian government officials paid homage to British officials in exchange for horrible food and condescending remarks like:

“Well, I guess we should be happy NEPA provided power for an hour today. Surely, that’s a milestone for your people, isn’t it?”

The Nigerian officials would grin stupidly and bob their heads like excited zombies.

Alex was introduced as a progressive journalist who was “passively campaigning against the government in power” as my British host, Mrs. Chambery, assured me with no small hint of high intrigue. What exactly was a passive campaigner? In any case, despite my reputation as a government news spinner, he smiled warmly when introduced. I had to wonder why he was wearing aviator sunglasses indoors. Later, I would appreciate the cunning brain behind the jovial countenance and dark shades.

“Are you the same Jude Ezeala who turned a small consulting outfit into Abacha’s spin room?”

“I see my reputation precedes me. As does yours, or aren’t you the same Alex Odutaye who specializes in getting the scoop on which government official purchased a mansion or a sports car and other such important news?”

He laughed where others may have taken offence. We struck a fast friendship.

Naturally, our first few meetings were slightly contentious.

Me, trying to paint a rosy image of the regime. Alex, berating me for propping up the government’s propaganda. He tried to obtain insider information on whether General Abacha was planning to shed his uniform and contest the presidential elections as a civilian in ‘98. I stuck to the official line that the good general was going to retire to his family home in Kano and leave Nigeria under a democratically elected government. I could tell from his disbelieving looks he wasn’t buying any of it. Certainly, I was not, either.

Alex was separated from his wife and I was single, so we spent a great deal of time playing tennis or squash at the Ikoyi Club. Having resolved to get more active, I was glad to have a regular partner to play with. Afterwards, we would enjoy suya and chapman, a tasty cocktail made with angostura bitters, orange soft drinks, blackcurrant juice and slices of lemon or cucumber for garnish. We’d watch the women at the bar, pick the best looking one and make bets on which of us could get a date.

Outside of that, we discussed a variety of topics. Pan-Africanism. Reparations for victims of civil war in Africa. And what Alex liked to call the “stifled polygamous nature of the African man,” his absolute favourite topic. I don’t think his wife shared his justifications, which could explain his impending divorce.

From day one, I was convinced that our meeting was not entirely coincidental. It did not take long for Alex to reveal his hand. We were by the swimming pool bar at the Le Meridien Eko Hotel when he decided to come clean.

“You know, Jude, if you want to do something about this despotic government, you’re not alone.”

I stopped in the middle of singing praises of the government’s public relations campaign to eradicate cerebral meningitis. Alex continued blowing cigarette smoke and sipping his 33 Export beer nonchalantly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Oh come on, Jude. You believe that bullshit you’re spitting out as much as I believe that Abacha plans to retire next year. How did you get into this PR business, anyway?”

“This is Nigeria.” I shrugged. “A fellow has to make a living. The gift of gab coupled with a buried conscience.”

“Indeed,” he laughed. “I have heard about your student activism at Legon. How you marched on campus with posters denouncing the governing council. Vitriolic letters written to university administrators demanding tuition freezes. You know, stuff that sounds radical and fancy but means nothing once you graduate and need to find a job.”

“It was a little nobler than that, Alex,” I demurred.

“Be that as it may, I’m talking about real action here. You and I know that the biggest obstacle to Abacha’s selfish ambition is a free press. Coupled with a vocal political opposition, we can ensure that enough pressure is put on Abacha to leave office and allow democracy to flourish in the country.”

I was silent, looking intently at my drink.

He continued with increasing vigour. “The group I’m with is made up of people in our age group. We’re looking to provide a haven of escape for journalists, politicians, pro-democracy activists, basically anyone with principles whose life is in danger at the hands of government agents. Shall I continue or are you about to call State Security and report me?”

“Come on, man,” I retorted, “surely you know me better than that. Besides, you haven’t told me anything about this haven of escape of yours.”

“What’s your gut feel about being involved in this project? It’s certainly anti-government and it flirts with the Abacha government definition of treason.”

My heart was pounding in my chest, and a feeling of inevitability was creeping upon me. It was almost as if the door I had been knocking on was finally opening. I had to be sure of Alex, though.

A Rainy Season by Nnaziri Ihejirika | Buy the Book | Read more by this writer

FriesenPress | 2014 |  978-1-4602-4495-1

Malawi: Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Pipe Still Puffing (Ten Years On) | Jack Mapanje

Yesterday, I stopped at another
Shell petrol station and recalled how
you’d have loved to puff from your pipe
there, for your Ogoni people and land;
I did not, of course, stop to fill up with
petrol, definitely not! I stopped merely
to have a good pee, as promised I would
when they got you executed. Today, I
thought, well, why don’t we treasure
the moment we once shared?

 

Jack Mapanje (b. 1944, Malawi), currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, is the author of 4 collections of poetry, the editor of several more, and the recipient of awards including the Rotterdam Poetry International Award and the African Literature Association (USA) Fonlon-Nichols Award.