Nigerian literature predates Nigeria’s independence. As far back as 1789, Olaudah Equiano, a former Igbo slave, published an account of his life in bondage and in freedom. There were many other literary offerings right into the twentieth century, including those inspired by competitions organized by the colonial government. Then in 1952 Amos Tutola’s fantastic magical tale, The Palm Wine Drinkard, which was written in an equally fantastic brand of English, put Nigeria on the literary map. The world began to see that the pen was being well wielded in Nigeria.
Although Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City, which was published in 1954, has the honour of being the first Nigerian novel written in Standard English, it was not given due recognition, perhaps because it did not dwell on the exotic, the macabre and the unusual -which many Western literary connoisseurs assume to be a canon for assessing African literature. In my opinion, that novel gave the world the heart of Lagos in the 1940s and 1950s like no other literary work has done since. It is much more than a vignette; it is a portrait of a young man’s pull from and immersion into the never-ending contradictions of Lagos.
Two years before independence, Chinua Achebe seized the throat of Nigerian, nay African, literature with Things Fall Apart. This article is not the forum to extol a novel that can never be sufficiently eulogized; a novel that turned the black man’ s condition into a powerful weapon against the European-dominated colonialist structure. Achebe’s pioneer novel is both subtle and radical in confronting the ‘heart of darkness’ depicted by Joseph Conrad and other Western writers. But the novel’s singular achievement at a time the anticolonialist movement was straining and striving in Nigeria was that it told us about ourselves through our own eyes.
The 1960s was a period of great literary ferment. With the imprimatur of the Heinemann African Writers Series, Nigerian writers shone like a million stars. Though subjects and themes were diverse, engagement with the colonial condition defined literary intercourse. This was an era when Nigerian, indeed most sub-Saharan African, writers - many of whom had been in the trenches against colonialism and all its works - grappled with the quest for an identity. Who was the black man vis-à-vis centuries of cultural emasculation by a supposedly superior culture? In the words of Bode Emmanuel Esquire at the seventh Macmillan Literary Night on 24 November 2009: ‘… African literature in general and Nigerian literature in particular has been dominated by one major theme: an assessment of Africa’s contact with the West. The spiritual and social implications of this contact have been the concern of most writers worldwide. Characteristically, the meeting of Africa and Europe has been presented as a conflict. The lesser writers have been content with a general presentation of typical incompatibilities, but the more perceptive writers have dug deeper and attempted to determine the specific implications of this conflict for a particular African community like Nigeria.’
Though they had been writing before the 1960s, the decade gave Achebe, Wole Soyinka, T.M. Aluko, Christoher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, John Munonye, Gabriel Okara, John Pepper Clark and many other writers of that era a well fertilized soil in which to sprout. It was only natural: the heady quest for independence had given way to the even more robust search for nationhood. What was Nigeria? (Fifty years on, that question remains unanswered.) How was the Nigerian writer to engage with this sprawling land bursting with apparently different peoples yoked together by a self-seeking colonial power? How could one make literary sense of the contradictions of groups living in such a land? Through plays, poems and prose our writers tried. They rang their bells in the ears of both the leaders and the led. Their works were, to quote Emmanuel again, ‘directed towards analytical assessment of the Nigerian socio-political situation in the desperate bid to analogically project the country’s multifaceted precarious situation and thereby proffer solutions.’
But the falcon could no longer hear the falconer. The literary prophets had a hard time of it as their seeds were eaten by the birds of corruption, tribalism, winner-takes-all politics, social inequality and military incursion into politics. In 1967 the civil war erupted and a new chapter of blood was opened in the annals of Nigerian literature. Forty years after the guns ceased booming the blood- soaked chapter is still being turned by an impressive population of Nigerian writers. Mostly - but by no means exclusively - from the former Biafran enclave, they continue to grapple with the historical tragedy. The gamut runs across all generations of Nigerian writers. From Sebastian Okechukwu Mezu, whose Behind the Rising Sun is the first Biafran war novel, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Dulue Mbachu’s War Games, the story of the Nigerian civil war continues to resonate.
A new but far from brave world beckoned. The 1970s to the mid-1990s took Nigerian literature into the realm of protest, often coloured by Marxist-Leninist pretensions. This was the era of ‘us’ against ‘them’. In truth, Nigerian writers had always railed against the ruling elite’s real and imagined excesses. But the period mentioned was one when Nigerian pens were filled with gall instead of ink. Kole Omotosho, Bode Sowande, Femi Osofisan and Niyi Osundare were some of the masters of this new universe. In a systematic manner quite unlike before, those afflicted by the writers’ scourge deployed their arsenal. Given that the military called the shots it was a grim situation. The tribe of quill-wielders witnessed much more than political persecution; socio-economic maladjustments also shook the very core of the writers’ trade. More...