Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Madhouse Called Niagara


Part of what lends Opilogue: Not a Laffing Matter its irresistible, tantalising power is the tragedy in our comedy and the comedy in our tragedy it lucidly portrays. Such is the surprising paradox of many of the pieces in this collection that they will repay contemplation. Once you understand what comedy of humours is all about as a mode of literary production, you will enjoy Dele Omotunde’s Opilogue. Wikipedia defines comedy of humours as a genre of dramatic comedy that focuses on a character, or range of characters, each of whom has one overriding trait that dominates their personality and conduct. This definition is not as accurate as that of Webster’s Dictionary, which says that the comedy consists in the portraiture of characters in whom one humour is overdeveloped, making them ridiculous when judged by some norm of behaviour. Satire, irony, parody, mockery and paradox are, therefore, some of the components of this mode of writing.

This book, to be sure, is not a collection of plays; it is a collection of melodramatic pieces of journalism, an interface between literature and journalism – a combination of fact and fiction. The people Omotunde writes about remind us of those marvellous characters in Aristophanes The Frogs, Ladies’ Day and The Birds. They remind us of Wole Soyinka’s Brother Jero, the charlatan, and those shameless characters in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Devil on the Cross who boast in the open about how they loot in Kenya. It also recalls John Milton’s defiant Satan. Peter Enahoro, Sad Sam, Dan Agbese, Niyi Osundare, Adebayo Williams, Olatunji Dare and Reuben Abati have used some aspects of this genre in their journalism. What distinguishes Omotunde from these other worthy satirists is that he predominantly uses Socratic Method, not necessarily in its purest form, to dramatise the state of our conditions and the conditions of our state. He tactically removes himself from the pieces in order to give his reader a false sense of neutrality.

This book is not a collection of plays; it is a collection of melodramatic pieces of journalism, an interface between literature and journalism’. See also

Since its debut in 2003, Opilogue has not been a conventional, mainstream column writing engagement. In its grotesque, comic, ironic and absurd transformation of people and events, it turns exaggeration into an art form spiced with appropriate proverbs and interesting turns of phrase. This collection, then, is full of genuinely funny moments and comic tenderness, yet it is also very remorseless in its rage. To whom and to what does Omotunde turn the heat of his rage? I have given a hint of that already: lunatics and demons. Omotunde masks them in the same way that he invents Niagara as a name for Nigeria and Peoples Destruction Party for PDP. The masking of the bunch of lunatics and demons in Opilogue is not for fear of litigation or any artistic timidity. If anything, at the heart of the creative strategy in this collection of 75 Opilogue essays published in TELL, is intransigence itself. The author just wants the essays to be engaged at different layers of meanings. But I have chosen to tear all the painted masks to enhance my own interpretation. After all, I am a responsible citizen and critical student of Omotunde’s country.

The list is long. For lack of time, let us close-up on a few distinguished ones. For his astonishing buffoonery, hypocrisy, cunning, intolerance of better, dissident or opposing views, greed for power, encouragement of sycophancy, and for nurturing private and sick ambitions, which he packaged as national interest, General Olusegun Obasanjo is on top of this list. In the imaginary conversations, which he had with Remi Oyo, Folake Soyinka and Major Hamza Mustapha; in the imaginary meeting he held with the women in his cabinet; the chats he had with Nigerians on both radio and television; the talks he held with Matthew Kerekou and the madman Robert Mugabe who was very afraid of death but enjoyed killing his compatriots to remain in power, Omotunde uses the fantasies of Obasanjo to interrogate his horribly negative thoughts.

Next, of course, is the vampire of Ibadan, Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu. He was mad at Governor Rashidi Ladoja for preventing him from having unfettered access to the state treasury, from choosing his own commissioners and chairmen of government parastatals and board members. He regaled us with how powerful he had become. He had many houses, slaves, cars and a young beautiful woman to boot. What did Ladoja have, he boasted to a journalist, that he did not have except that he was the governor in Agodi while he was the godfather in Molete? He said he would deal ruthlessly with Rashidi. And he did so with the support of the federal government under Obasanjo.

It is simply riveting reading the fictional broadcast of Chris Ngige from his hellhole in Anambra. A victim of another godfather across the Niger. Like a rattled rat he squealed, asking the whole world to save his life. The venality of Chris Uba had no limit. He had the full backing of Alhaji Tafa Balogun, the inspector-general of police, and, again, President Obasanjo. As if that was not enough to belittle a country, one day at the Heathrow Airport in the United Kingdom, a melodrama played itself out right on the tarmac. A band of deranged Niger Delta activists were protesting the arrest, for money laundering, of Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the Governor-General of the Ijaw nation himself. How could these neo-colonialists arrest the people’s general? What impudence! The protesters would not leave the tarmac if the man was not released immediately. In the alternative, Britain could keep part of the money and wire the rest to Nigeria. They reasoned oddly that Britain must be foolish, in the first instance, to make noise about the money it should just have kept for itself. Yet at that time the militant Niger Delta youths were up in arms against Nigeria for stealing all the resources belonging to the Niger Delta. Hostage-taking was rife. The militants whose leaders included Alhaji Mujahideen Asari-Dokubo just kidnapped a ‘whiteman’. It was only in the course of interrogating him that they discovered that the man was Ben Murray-Bruce!

The country, in this book, is a madhouse where Atiku Abubakar, whose hands were not clean, talked like Martin Luther King Jr.; a land of opportunists like Orji Uzor Kalu who talked about Igbo marginalisation only when it was convenient; an asylum where the judiciary took bribe and brazenly perverted justice; a prison-house where the policemen remained incorrigible crooks; a stinking cathedral where pastors praised dollars and naira, not Jesus Christ; a ‘Fuji House of Commotion’ where Ayo Fayose’s sister, Bimpe Sorinolu, took her brother-governor to the cleaner in the media; a haven for Charles Taylor, a war monger and a plain thief; a theatre of the absurd where Umar Musa Yar’Adua, the dead, held the living to ransom for months; a country of fanatics and rookie bombers like Farouk Abdul Mutallab.

If these represent a group of negative archetypes who are condemned in this book, there are positive archetypes too who are celebrated. They are the Avatars. Intellectuals like Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Elizabeth Anderson and Christopher Hitchens have argued rigorously and almost convincingly that there is no life after death. In the imaginary Godstown of Omotunde, however, the ancestors and Avatars met and had a national conference. Justice Atinuke Ige, the wife of Bola Ige, who hardly discussed politics publicly when she was alive, became a powerful debater of Nigerian conditions. Both husband and wife had brainstorming sessions in heaven. Ige who had now made many friends including William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Steve Biko and Oliver Tambo shouted Pin-Di-Pi! when Atinuke told him that one of the people being tried for his murder had won ‘neat and square’ in Ige strongholds. M.K.O. Abiola, who by this time, now lived in the God’s Reserved Area, GRA, in heaven, was holding talks with Kudirat his wife when Ajibola Olanipekun walked in. He informed them how and why Nigeria had become a den of assassins. All those whose lives were cut short by the bullets of assassins actually formed what they called Association of Assassinated Nigerians in Heaven. Barnabas Igwe and his wife were members, Papa Alfred Rewane, was a notable and active member. Omotehinwa and Olagbaju were members. Ken Saro-Wiwa and Adaka Boro were members. There were many others.

Obafemi Awolowo, a politician who was given to finding practical solutions to political problems on earth, was still agonising over many great opportunities, which he thought Nigeria was missing. Professors Claude Ake, Chike Obi and Ayodele Awojobi, Raji Abdallah, a NEPU leader, Walter Sisulu, Tai Solarin, Aminu Kano and Malcolm X always enjoyed Awolowo’s company. Gani Fawehinmi was happy to meet Dele Giwa in heaven. Giwa specifically wanted Gani to describe how he was killed, and what has been done to track down his killers. When Beko joined Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Olikoye and Dolupo in heaven, they reminisced on the essence of the struggle, which was the life of their family. We are reminded of the necessity of struggle against poverty, oppression, insecurity and bad governance. Every meaningful, effective struggle, we are told, is not a tea party.

With these refracted, mediated representations, Omotunde appears to be telling us: Let the spirit of the avatars guide us in our quest for greatness. Let the fog of the lunatics and demons clear. Let it clear.

Ajibade, executive editor of TheNEWS, identifies lunatics, demons and Avatars in OPILOGUE: Not a Laffing Matter at a public presentation of the book in Lagos, May 17, 2011.

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