On Northern Nigerian Literature And Related Issues


Richard Ugbede Ali




Arewa: Northern Nigeria.



In Nigeria, when either of these words is mentioned, a flurry of images is created in the mind. Some of these can be stated without fear of a faux pas while other images, of social unrest, illiteracy and a billowing ultraorthodox Islam, are hinged upon very persuasive prejudices and are for this reason not openly expressed. This gulf between the object and its perception is of course in the context of northern and southern locales in all aspects of the Nigerian superstructure, most especially in the realm of literature and allied expressions; this gulf forms the basis of my article. Considering the comparatively recent development of literature written in English in Northern Nigeria and the still low formal education enrollment figures, it is possible to as a Northern Nigerian writer critique one’s own space.



Northern Nigeria is a vast tract of landlocked space in the Central Sudan bordered by the republics of Niger, Chad and Cameroun; its furthest southern border is marked by the territories of the Borgu, Yoruba, Nupe, Igala, Fulani and other Kwa-language speaking people. The admixture of an Islamic influence via the trans-Saharan trade route, and the very accommodating policies of the British colonial administration which favored a propping of the early 19th Century Islamic reformer Uthman dan Fodio’s system of Emirates, resulted in the peoples of the north not being exposed to Western education until about a century after the peoples in the southern parts of the country. While a rich history of Arabic-based literature existed, the extent of the known world of our fathers quadrupled in the decade starting from 1901. English, not Arabic, became the language of world expression. Consequently, while the people of the north have had their unique experiences, these experiences have hardly weighed in the national consciousness for they are only recently, in the last thirty years really, being expressed in the language that counts – in English.



Perhaps the most dominant mental image that is conjured by the phrase “Northern Nigeria” is that of the Durbar, that traditional panorama of homage to Emirs, a fleeting movie of men ceremonially robed on splendid horses charging down a field and drawing rein before their suzerain amidst the dust – with the exited ululation of crowds of talakawa {working class} as a necessary backdrop? The durbar IS a fitting metaphor for the North and the cusp of this essay is to break this movie-metaphor down to its rudiments, with the eyes of Rushdie’s involved criticism, to seek the points where the picture is less than it seems, the glint in the eye, the swing of a dagger, a whiff of perfume; the places where the perception is weak, threatening the fidelity of the entire picture.



At the head of the charge of men from the north on the field of Nigerian literature is the figure of Abubakar Imam Kagara who is recognized as a paterfamilias. His works, primarily Ruwan Bagaja and Magana Jari Ce, published in 1934 and 1939 respectively, were a bridge between the old tradition of northern literature and the new Western ways. Seeing that his times were swiftly changing, he had the vision, quite radical, to write neither in Arabic nor in the popular ajami {Hausa language in Arabic script}. He chose Hausa written in the Roman script for he felt that the Hausa language, with its remarkable adaptability as a Sudanese pidgin, would be the lingua franca of Nigeria. This assumption was of course frustrated by the Western educated, ethnicist-leaning, positions of Chief Awolowo rooted in personal ambition and a political fear of the mega-sized Northern Region. Thus was Imam’s contribution overshadowed two decades later by Chinua Achebe in 1959, with his famous novel written with the same sense of cultural identity, but written in English. After Imam’s experimentation, a lull in Northern writing occurred until the late 60’s which saw the contributions of Labo Yari as well as those of Mohammed Sule whose “The Undesirable Element” remains one of the classics of African literature. Abubakar Gimba became the leading light of northern writing in English in the late ‘80’s and through the ‘90’s. Perhaps recovering from trauma, or simply in recognition of the importance of writing in English, the ‘90’s saw the emergence of many Northern writers ranging from Abubakar Othman, Ismail Bala and Ahmed Maiwada in poetry to Maria Ajima and Victor Dugga in drama. However, with the exception of Abubakar Gimba’s contributions in prose, which while noteworthy are hardly stratospheric, there have been no important novels in English from northern Nigeria since Yari and Sule’s contributions in the mid ‘70’s. Neither has the poetry or drama been exceptional. And the question is – why?



Contemporary northern writing is now centered on four towns {Minna, Jos, Kano and Kaduna} and this writer has been sufficiently exposed to all of them to afford a critical address. Among the older contemporary writers in the north are B. M. Dzukogi, Ismail Bala, Yusuf Adamu, Musa Okapnachi, Razinat Mohammed and E. E. Sule who has also been the preeminent literary critic. The younger contemporary writers include Gimba Kakanda, Abdulaziz Ahmad Abdulaziz, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Awaal Idris Evuti, Elnathan John, Binta Shuaibu Abdallah Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Alkasim Abdulkadir.



The first doom of our northern horsemen of the Word is perhaps a shocking one, for it is not more or less than a sense of unjustifiable hubris. How writers with so little experience begin to see themselves as oracles is to say the least surprising. Indicative of this is my experience with writing from Kano generally, a locale which seems to have for the most part abandoned the rundimentaries of the English language – tense and syntax. On first noticing this anomaly, one is unsure whether this is done for some justifiable stylistic reason or the other but when this same error is found even in the work of older writers, one begins immediately to suspect a more sinister truth. The only exception to this seems to be the writings of the academics Yusuf Adamu and Ismail Bala. To the man, Kano writers have answered to the effect that they are contributing to the English language with this bad brew of sentences! And it begs the question, how the hell can you contribute to the building of the English language without knowing the way the weight is distributed at its foundations? How can you put something on nothing and expect it to stand? A desire to fly is a wonderful and poetic gift in the human imaginative spirit, but it must come further down a sequence that starts with walking, then perhaps running.



For the most part, these culpable writers cannot even be said to have made “mistakes” of grammar – this excuse being unsustainable; they simply do not know better. And this is what southern Nigeria and the rest of the world reads and are very justified in ascribing puerility to northern Nigerian writing! This is so bad that even the critic can no longer be heard, for whenever a critic disconnects himself from a sympathy to what the writer wants to say and points out that he has not indeed said this in the form required by correct language, he is buried immediately by howls from the friends of the writer in question who all have a shared ownership of the blocks of language, to use, misuse and abuse as they wish. In prose, in poetry, the story is the same. While I have taken Kano as the center of this unfortunate malaise, I will say it is not in that city’s exclusive domain. This sense of irresponsible hubris has been read all over northern Nigeria, from Sokoto to Maiduguri and while it seems more a serious problem in the north west, least so in the north Central, this flaw has been seen enough to stamp ALL writing from the north. There exists a very nimble intellectual and creative ability in northern Nigeria and this becomes evident when one takes the time to read between the lines. But the placement of the runes as well is fatally important. An apposite example suffices; if that fabulous diamond, the Koh I Noor, is left in a bucket of broken glass, its beauty would be no more noticed than that of the astoundingly perceptive creativity beneath our literal northern literary rags is now. If this flaw is to be fixed, assuming one can get past the billows of hot air surrounding our young writers especially, one would advocate a return to studying rudimentary language. Dubious thanks to the thriving book piracy business in the south, such gems as “Brighter Grammar” are cheaply available – that is, if young northern writers do not see it as beneath them to buy these primers.



Quite related to this is another issue – literary “ranka ya dade” {kowtowing}. We must imagine this as a fight for supremacy by all means as our fully clad writerly horsemen charge down the field of letters. It is chaos of horses, dust and death. Northern Nigeria is vast, and it is a still somewhat feudalist society based on assumed and assumable elitisms. It is demanded that the young show respect, often to the ridiculous point of choking themselves and their creativities, to their elders. And because northern Nigeria is large, we have had the state and the media more of less pushing certain writers to oracular status simply because they are the better of a regular pack without necessarily being close to distinctive in the scale to the best. For example, in Minna, where the oracle seems to be B. M. Dzukogi who has been hailed with every epithet from “ascetic” to “the philosopher” yet when we read his actual works we ask – Is this the Dzukogi fellow? This is the same scenario we see, and which is consequently read, from Gusau to Maiduguri to Makurdi.



What is the danger of this last to northern Nigerian writing? In one word; mediocrity. I have said earlier that the stuff of writing, a creative spirit and a perceptive eye, is very abundant in northern Nigeria. Yet if our writing is to compare favorably, and this favor is largely one precipiced on that masterful knowledge of the sentence that is called stylistics, then the use of the best role models available can lift a young northern writer’s craft from the commonplace to the exceptional. I have interacted with young writers from the south who tell me their literary mentors were say Wole Soyinka, or Garcia Marquez, or Osundare or Michael Ondaatje – and when you read their writings, this influence shows, not in the fraudulent manner of a copy but in that intellectually salutary manner of an improvement, of innovation. The geographical vastness of the north has made its younger writers gather in clusters around local champions who argue their championship to the most fantastic extents, yet ones who will not be seen to sit at a table of national, talk less of global, champions of literature. And this is the germ of the greatest harm to the future of northern Nigerian writing. The effect of this imposition of the second-rate {because perhaps the first-rate is unavailable?} is a fostering of mediocrity and the rise of sophistry to explain that. And sophistry is by nature a corrupting thing. To return to Minna, this writer has noticed the activities of some young writers, the most forward of whom is the poet Gimba Kakanda, who are trying to break through the mold of “ranka ya dade” stymied writing; to him and others like him across the towns of Kano, Jos and Kaduna, I can only say – “May your road be rough”.



To return from Minna back to our field of horses, I say if we must have horsemen indeed, who we shall be unafraid to send into the real battle of telling our northern stories well, then they must be trained by gods. The surrogate of a god is not a god, and this becomes clear when the Armageddon comes. The younger writers from the north must seek true gods as their mentors, or else they never would be able to stand on a level field with other writers writing in English from anywhere else. And to be able to do just that is to be possibly first-rate.



The third and last danger to northern Nigerian writing I shall discuss is something that the fine critic E. E. Sule formulated memorably as a “chaos of perception”. It is a misperception of what writing really means. It is quite related to the philosophy of writing. I would say that this chaos of perception is not related to northern writing alone but southern Nigerian writing also, it has been noticed even in the writings of our Diaspora writers as well. There is one question that every writer must ask himself and answer silently –“Why do I write?” And this question must be asked in the cupboard, in meditation, in privacy, for when a writer does not have the answer to that question he cannot write a classic, try as and as talented as he may be. It has often been asked how is it that Nigerian writers {ever since the first classic, “Things Fall Apart”, then Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” and perhaps Ken Saro Wiwa’s “Sozaboy”} have been unable to write truly great books? The answer is found first of all in a chaos of perception about themselves as writers and themselves as a position in History. I wager that Chinua Achebe knew why he was writing in ‘58’, but does Onyeka Nwelue know today? Wole Soyinka surely knew why he wrote but does say Ibukun Babarinde know as surely why he writes today? And this knowing is one that goes past the watery hash gotten secondhand from MFA programs in the west. It goes further than the homegrown pseudo Marxist hash as well.



A philosophy of writing must be rooted in a sense of self and it is the way one shares it that is the most poetic gift in ones craft, it is what makes the heart of the reader weave whether he is in Budapest reading a translation of “Okonkwo” or in Zakibiam reading a Tiv translation of Tolstoy’s “Voina I Mir”, it is what makes the words dance in the mind of posterity. Without it, a writer cannot communicate to the basic humanity of any reader, he just cannot do this without clarifying to himself what he MEANS to himself. Indicative of this dearth are the two answers writers give when asked why they write; either that they “write to express themselves”, or that they write for that vast amorphous abstraction – for the “people”. But the true writer can only answer that question by replying – “You’ll have to ask my readers.”



Writing goes beyond stringing words together, even if this is done skillfully; a sense of self in writing is the individual interpretation of a larger social experience untainted by the opinions of the experience of other individuals and of collectives of individuals especially. It is something you do not know how to but which you ARE putting into your words. This sense of self is absent in northern Nigerian writing almost as much as it is largely absent in southern Nigerian writing, only the absence is more felt here – for while the southern Nigerian writer can with moderate effort assimilate into his milieu of a pseudo-European “self”, the northerner is in this respect painfully odd. Yet this sense of self can be found in the examination of a dominant cultural legacy, and the dominant cultural legacies of northern Nigeria are Arabic influenced forms; social conservatism, the primacy of dignity, the demand for justice. We should not advocate the writing of pseudo-Arabic poetry and prose, for that would be the animation of a corpse, a waste of time that is ultimately of no intellectual or material value. But we could reinterpret, replacing the corpse with a new body given life by the breath of our individual {this is important} additions to a distinct corpus. The outdated old becomes the fertilizer of the distinctively new. The Kano soft literature written in everyday Hausa has shown that this is possible and a receptive audience does exist. Northern writers in English need to take this experiment to the next level.



The chaos of perception in which all Nigerian literature is mired also extends to how writers view their own vitality. Perhaps this even extends beyond Nigerian writing to African writing in general? The most recent debate kicked off by East African writer, Miss Petina Gappah’s comment to the effect that she did not see herself as an “African writer”, on the rather opposed grounds of that term being too vast and too restrictive at the same time, is a case to point. It indicates how Miss Gappah sees writing on the whole. But neither are her traducers any more correct. The opposite argument to Miss Gappah’s point of view argues that one is an African writer if one is seen {from the West?} as an African writer. While one understands Africanist ire at a seeming self-distancing from the continent by Diaspora-based writers, the opposite argument is equally of little intellectual merit.



Both positions are rooted in a chaos of perception of a sense of self.



Writing is a fully social action, but it is not a collective one. One can only write one’s perception of a story shared by all, yet a writer is a part of that larger experience. And that larger experience is a human one, true in Bombay as it is in Naivasha and as it is in Alagomeji. The attempt at being global writers breaks down for this reason, because a theory that is not true anywhere is incorrect everywhere. To return to the example given above, Shakespeare or Achebe or Tolstoy would be accessible even to the Inca is we could read it to them in their language, in their script, solely because it is Writing, not writing so called, and definitely not because it is British Writing. What is advocated is the creation of a philosophy of writing based on universal human experiences and values and themes.



When we see ourselves as African writers we miss the entire picture as fatally as those who deny the locality of a culture rooted here in their writing. These are the twin chaos of perception. It is as untenable as being between the pinchers of a scorpion or a crab. The safest place in that situation is to seek the body where the pinchers protrude from – in this case to locate oneself within the universal themes of humanity. The moment this is done, the present “scholarly debate” on all issues related to a writer’s identity would become superfluous.



Following this general excursus on above-the-air theories, I must return to my beloved northern Nigeria and its metaphor of a field of horsemen. The challenge for the younger writers from the north is an exhilarating one for it is still early enough for something distinctive and radical to be done across the genres of English. By this I mean something not less paradigmatic than what the Latin Americans, led by Garcia Marquez, Jorge Amado and Vargas llosa, did to “world Literature” in the 70’s. But we must first sit on our mats, holding our beads in our hands and mentally reach a place where we can banish the cloys of personal hubris, and the pressure to kowtow, from our psyches. And at this same place we must ask and answer personally the question of why we write and settle privately and conclusively the issues relating to our sense of our selves, triumphing over Siamese evil twins of a fostered chaos of perception.



And when this is done we shall be able to stand up from the floor and mount our horses. And when we thunder down the fields of Literature, we shall do so in the aura of a global applause deafening far beyond the stampeding hooves of our own vitality.




Richard Ugbede Ali, writer of poetry and prose, is the Editor-in-Chief of the new Sentinel Nigeria Magazine. richardalijos@gmail.com