by Prof. Egya E. Sule
Let me start by invoking the idea of the poststructuralist historian Hayden White. In all his work, mainly centred on what he calls “the historical imagination”, White has consistently maintained that there is just a slim divide between history and literature. In his view, all historians and philosophers of history, like literary writers, are engaged in narration, in emplotting events; and in doing so historians, like the literary writers, depend on tropes or literary devices such as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (White particularly identifies the four) to tell or to put in perspective whatever they consider as facts. Histories are thus subjective stories, gaining force of acceptability by an imagination which is largely manifested in the historian’s capability to deploy those literary devices. White concludes that histories are “verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences”. Historical events, White has stubbornly insists, are value-neutral. No historical event is, for instance, intrinsically tragic; it is only tragic deepening on how the historian emplots or encodes it.
From such perspective, we need not worry about the facticity or what some of you may call the God-given truth of the events Ogezi has dramatised in Embrace of a Leper – a drama that I am sure is capable of stirring debates among historians working on central Nigeria. Ogezi’s book is literary, what literary scholars would call a historical drama – a subgenre, since Shakespeare, that has tended to confound literary and history scholars mainly because of the literary licence the playwright often deploys to excuse her distortion of “facts” in the eyes of the “owners” of the history. Natives of Keffi, descendants of the past emirs and their palace attendants, may consider themselves as the owners of the history emplotted in Embrace of a Leper. They are likely to contest the story in Ogezi’s drama. Daughters and sons of other ethnic groups within the Keffi area (Eloyi, Yeskwa, Eggon, Mada, Panda) are also likely to contest the story.
But Ogezi, as a literary artist, as a playwright, offers us a drama, something more than history, a dramatisation of human struggles in the face of colonial domination, racism, and violence. Captain Maloney is His Majesty’s imperial representative in Keffi; his project is to get Keffi and its environs under the absolute control of the British government. He is, however, faced with stiff opposition from the “Mohammedans” installed in Keffi through an earlier colonial project: the colonisation of northern Nigeria by the Arabs and the subsequent jihadist movement that brought the Hausas from the far north to brutalise the natives of Keffi. Rather than see the crisis as occurring between the natives of Keffi and the British colonial government, as some audiences of Embrace of a Leper might think, it is in fact between two colonial powers, the Arab and the British, leaving the real natives of Keffi as the proverbial grass that suffers when two elephants fight.
The fieriest of the Mohammedans is Magaji Dan Yamusa, a warrior described by the playwright as “a man of few words, whose taciturnity often finds an outlet in his hasty and fiery temper”. Indeed his few words are disturbing insults on the natives of Keffi and its environs whom he, along with other Muslim Hausas, calls “pagans”, “infidels” or “kafure”. Just like the British colonial government, the Emirate of Keffi is still engaged in its task of colonising the natives, raiding their villages and taking them as slaves. The emirate in Zaria, where Keffi is answerable to, is “not satisfied with a hundred slaves and a handful of crops and livestock annually” from the palace in Keffi. To get more slaves for Zaria and for Keffi, Yamusa is poised to “attack the pagans in daytime. [Because] The infidels are only fit for slavery. We do them a favour by saving them from the wrath of Allah by raiding them. Eaters of pigs!”
The shrewd British Resident, Captain Maloney, sees as a veritable excuse to crush Arab colonialism what he considers the Emirate’s inhumanity to the natives. But before he does that by taming the blood-thirsty Yamusa, the same Yamusa, unprovoked, beheads the British Resident. Expectedly, the British take the advantage to deploy their superior weaponry and effectively take over Keffi and other bigger northern Nigerian towns.
While it is troubling that Ogezi’s Embrace of a Leper fails to give a voice to the so-called “pagans” (the drama is annoyingly silent on how the Mohammedans institute their power in Keffi, as though Keffi was a virgin land grabbed by the jihadists), the real natives of Keffi and its environs, it clearly portrays the incredible damage Arab and British colonialisms have inflicted on indigenous ethnic groups such as Eloyi, Eggon, Mada, Yeskwa, Panda, Agatu, and others. And although the drama lays no explicit claim to any radical project of contestation and interrogation, it is one welcome attempt at revisiting our pasts – perhaps something in the line of a people, according to Chinua Achebe, knowing when and where the rain started beating them. It is in this regards that I consider the book a vital historical drama especially about a society, about diverse ethnic groups, that still suffers from internal colonialism and cultural haemorrhage.
To return to Hayden White: Ogezi has given us a drama in which he emplots historical events from his perspective. We need many more of such literary works, from diverse perspectives, including those with a stronger tenor of radical probing, of radical action towards recuperation. Meanwhile, we must salute the playwright Ogezi for reminding us of one of the most critical historical moments of our lives.