Book Reviewer: Jane Bryce
Even for a country whose post-Independence history has been as turbulent as Nigeria’s, the ten years covered by this novel – 1983-93 – will be remembered as a period of unprecedented social change. The novel is not, however, a record of the political upheavals that marked this period, so much as a dramatization of their effects and consequences on ordinary people in a particular place. Though dates are important: it starts with a prologue dated Weds 27 May, 1993, before taking us back to 1983, forward to 1985, 1987, 1990 and eventually full circle to 1993 again, the date markers are those of an individual life rather than a national or political entity. The one exception is Dec 31 1983, the date when a short-lived democratic inter-regnum, begun in 1979, was once again replaced by military rule, which lasted a further 15 years. But the individual life we mainly follow is that of Obioma, a boy of ten in 1983, twenty by the time the story ends, and in this respect the novel could be described as a bildungsroman or coming of age story. But the place, Owerri, is equally important in the narrative; one of the novel’s greatest strengths is the way it evokes the smell, feel and shape of that busy eastern town, and the concerns and ambitions of its inhabitants.
When we meet Obioma as a child in 1983, he is threading his way through the chaotic centre of Owerri, with its cacophony of traffic, people, market traders and amplified music, in search of 5.00 Naira. This is the price of entry to the school’s effort at winning a French song competition, instigated by the charismatic Mr Success. One of the key ways the novel tracks the expansion of crime and the growth of corruption in the succeeding years is through the value of money, and Obioma’s quest for a paid errand that will earn him his 5 Naira signifies the relative stability and shared values of an era that is about to end. Not that this earlier time is in any way perfect. It has its share of corruption, greed and violence, from Mr Success’s swindling of the entire region’s schools, to the reported death of Obioma’s uncle at the hands of business rivals in the stockfish trade, to his father’s joy at being upgraded to driver of a local Commissioner, with all the opportunities for handouts this involves. But such misdeeds in the first two sections of the novel are the merest peccadilloes compared with the monstrous inventiveness that characterises corruption in the next two sections.
The pivotal moment between the Nigeria of then and since is the Buhari coup of Dec 31, 1983, with which Part 2 ends. The massive corruption subsequently uncovered, ‘Wads of cash that could literally fill lorries…dug up from the compounds and gardens of politicians’ sprawling mansions and modest bungalows alike,’ foreshadows the gruesome digging up of bodies in the final chapters. Again, what shocks the country in 1983 is as nothing to the merciless and luridly ritualised elevation of money above human life by 1993. When, in 1983, the young school-mates, Obioma and his best friend Kalu, conceive a way to make 80 million Naira by growing and harvesting palm-nuts and making palm-oil, they painstakingly work and save towards this goal over the next few years. As a result, Kalu is drawn into his older half-brother, Benjamin’s, use of his vulcanizing business as a front for swindling, through running errands and carrying messages for him to the teenage girls he routinely deflowers. Later in the novel, there’s a casual reference to the fact that, ‘The going rate among these 419 boys was 2000 Naira to fuck any girl in Owerri without a condom.’ Compared with this, and the horrific sexual crimes that colour the latter part of the book, there’s something almost innocent about the glamour of the items that attract girls to Benjamin at this earlier stage: his motorcycle, the fact that he had ‘a shed all to himself’ a black Hitachi music system, a fridge freezer, ‘a Sanyo 21-inch black and white television and JVC VHS video player for watching dubbed pop music videos’, and a king-sized bed. By 1990, when Obioma and Kalu are seventeen, Benjamin is right-hand man to the flagrantly corrupt Chief Alusi, driving a Lamborghini and spraying American dollars like confetti, while 419 has become a routine source of conspicuous wealth for many young men. The moment of truth for Kalu comes when he witnesses the murder of one of Benjamin’s associates and his father tells him: ‘All that rubbish they teach you in school or that you read in the heap of books in your bedroom is child’s play…we cannot be forever children.’ After a moment’s hesitation he joins Benjamin’s enterprise, offering services from ‘quick turnaround assassination’, to underage teenage prostitution, drugs, counterfeiting, armed robbery and extortion. The young boys’ dream of making 80 million Naira from palm-oil is truly dead.
Two other strands woven into the narrative are that of the rural village, Umuwe, from which Obioma’s family hails, and the story of Nneka, Obioma’s childhood sweetheart. In the former, Obioma’s uncle, Iwuagwu, is a figure of resistance to the corruption that is worming its way into the very heart of a traditional way of life that has sustained Nigeria’s sense of its own humanity up to that point. Iwuagwu represents the alternative for Obioma to either following his mother into trade, or achieving wealth through corruption like Kalu. A traditional healer, he starts to initiate Obioma, promising to pay for his medical studies later so he can combine traditional and western doctoring skills. But this dream is doomed when Obioma fails at school, despite seeking to pay a surrogate to sit his exams, and he ends up, at twenty, running a stockfish business for his mother.
While in the city the main avenue for women’s autonomy is trading, in the village Adanna, Iwuagwu’s friend, is a powerful woman leader who builds schools and clinics, until a city Big Man starts coveting the position of Eze, and Adanna is toppled. The undermining of an effective democratic organizational system, with its built-in checks and balances, is a further effect of rampant political corruption at national level. When, like several other characters, Adanna dies as a result of fake drugs – another corrupt means of making money – the tragedy is far greater than the loss of an individual. Meanwhile, Nneka, having struggled to avoid being sucked into the nexus of providing sex for favours from older men by which her fellow-university students finance their studies, succumbs when her mother falls sick and needs what seems like a fabulous amount of money – 800,000 Naira – for an operation. Her insidious seduction by Kalu, who lends her the money, transforms her into a sex-toy for himself and his men, debases and ultimately discards her, is rendered in clear-eyed painful detail. On the eve of the fateful day May 27 1993, by the time Obioma witnesses the arrest of Benjamin’s henchman with basketfuls of human heads for use in money rituals, Nneka is just one in a long line of the disappeared. The novel ends with Obioma joining the band of people who go from house to house digging up the gardens of rich men in the search for bodies, desperately hunting for evidence of Nneka’s death.
Though the novel is in English, the use of proverbial sayings as epigraphs to every chapter (most, but not all, Igbo and given in the original language), is a metatextual device that signifies the alternative morality and wisdom to which Iwuagwu adheres and for which Obioma had been marked out by the deity, Agwu, whose call he fails to answer. These sayings offer a benchmark against which the degradation of national values can be measured. The same metaphysical frame of reference informs Iwuagwu’s classification of people into four types, recalled by Obioma towards the end of the novel as he sits in Kalu’s abandoned and looted mansion: “Ndi oma”, the good; “Ndi miri miri” the benign but essentially passive onlookers; “‘Ndi nkemu nkemu”, the indifferent and selfish, who inevitably become “nde ojo” , bad people, “vile and entirely disconnected from the positive forces of life; people who take actions that hurt others and would never dream of preventing harm, but rather only of causing it.” Forced to ask himself to which category he belongs, Obioma thinks of how he stood aside and let Nneka be used by Kalu and concludes he is one of ‘the benign’. In a bitter irony, it is the search for her remains that for the first time infuses Obioma with purpose and his life with meaning: a personal transformation of sorts, but too little, too late. The disease infecting the body politic has already gone global, with: ‘Cartel leaders in Europe, Asia and South America, even motorcyclists in North America… along with respectable suited bankers in large skyscraper-infested cities, quiet dainty hamlets in Switzerland and others in picturesque vacation islands,’ all forming part of a global network of violence, crime, and corruption. Obioma, spade in hand, has become a truth-seeker. Who knows where the bodies are buried?
Jane Bryce is a professor of African Literature and Cinema, University of the West Indies