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Essay ; New realism, new barbarism: A retelling of a bloodied history in Achike Chude’s Twilight of Darkness

By Chijioke Uwasomba

Introduction

In my two earlier works  (1999, 2015), I have tried to characterise the Nigerian  novel as having produced two clear and distinct aesthetic and ideological traditions – the reformist tradition and the radical tradition. Generally speaking, the writers of the two traditions are disturbed and aggrieved by the crises and contradictions that have engulfed their country and made a mincemeat of the lower classes of the society. The first tradition of reformist writers is characterised by a deep feeling of disillusionment and capitulation. The writers within the rubric of this artistic and ideological temperament appreciate the fact that their colleagues who run the affairs of the country have failed the people but they deliberately create status-quo-oriented characters whose individualist “dares” do not go far enough to challenge and dislocate the political economy of the country. They resort to leadership – bashing, satire, obscurantism and individualist/existentialist moralising. Soyinka, Achebe and their numerous creative children belong to this school of creative writing.

Of Soyinka and Achebe, the epigons of this school, Fatunde and Iyayi (2016) observe thus:

…Soyinka and Achebe, though nationalists, never moved beyond their ethnic base and ethnic mythologies in their literary works as far as the colonial question was concerned. Even as nationalists they wavered between ethnic loyalty and timid nationalism. That was why the coming to power of the Nigerian emergent looting class i.e. the comprador class was not challenged from a proleterian angle. Both The Interpreters by Wole Soyinka and A Man of the People  by Chinua Achebe, never went beyond a moralist critique of the unpatriotic Nigerian intellectual and the corrupt Nigerian politicians from various nationalities. As liberals, they recognised the social crises but felt that this crisis could be solved only if the ruling comprador class and their intellectual advisers could be disciplined within the same neo-colonial social structure (73 – 74).

The second tradition is the radical group and as Amuta  (1985) has noted, “its ideological alignment is generally with Marxism”  (56). The works of members of this group issue from the ideology of the lower oppressed classes. This type of literature is also called the proletarian literature because the viewpoint of the working classes is the centre piece of its organising principles. This group of writers “cherishes an alternative, more egalitarian framework” (4) and locates the causes of the failure of leadership in the dependent, neo-colonial and peripheral capitalist economy run by the country. It, therefore, means that the radical group unlike the reformist mode articulates its artistic and aesthetic formulations with a view to championing a fundamental change in the socio-economic order of a country that runs this type of economic arrangement.

Achike Chude’s first and only novel, Twilight of Darkness, no doubt, belongs to the radical tradition of the Nigerian novel. The novel is a recollection of real events that took place at a particular point in time in the evolving sordid history of Nigeria. The novel which is part factual, part fictional delves into these horrible and horrifying events that gripped and racked the Nigerian firmament occasioned by an economic and socio-political system put in place by the Nigerian ruling class in collaboration with their imperialist friends and forces. The novel is set in the mid 1980s and early 1990s under the praetorian and asphyxiating order unleashed on the country by military dictatorship of the worst variant. As a politically conscious student who participated in those struggles with his colleagues to enthrone a society governed by rules and laws, Chude has in his novel given an account of events that happened in his university when he was an undergraduate.

Nigeria Under Military Rule: 1984 – 1999 

The 1980s and 1990s marked an important period in the history and struggle of the people of Nigeria to resist imperialism and its local agents who ran and have continued to run the affairs of Nigeria. The Alhaji Shehu Shagari regime under the political platform of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) had taken over the administration of Nigeria in 1979 after thirteen years of unbroken military rule. But the regime began on a shaky note as many people thought that the party did not meet the full democratic requirements as it obtained a simple majority of the total votes cast but failed to get 25% of the total votes cast in thirteen states of the federation. Predictably, the supreme court ruled in favour  of Alhaji Shehu Shagari over Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his Unity Party of Nigeria  (UPN) 2.

Apart from the reckless politics of the NPN-controlled federal government, the regime also embarked on all sorts of projects including the establishment of federal universities in each state of the federation. These projects had a toll on the economy of the country coupled with the global economic recession in the early 1980s and the collapse of crude oil prices in the international market. The Economic Stabilisation Act of 1982 which was meant to address the situation exacerbated the economic problems of the country leading to hopelessness and misery (see http://www.vanguardngr.com/2016/09/economic-emergency-laws-history). It was under this state of affairs that Major-General Muhammadu Buhari and his group of military officers overthrew the Shagari government on Deceember 31, 1983.

The Buhari regime, though very dictatorial, rejected the conditionalities of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which among other things included the devaluation of the Naira by over 60% and the liberalisation of the foreign exchange and import controls. A schism within the military clique led to a palace coup with the then Chief of Army Staff, General Ibhrahim Babangida taking over power in August 1985.

In a speech titled “Breaking the Cycle of Chaos”3 to mark Nigeria’s 25th  anniversary of independence, General Ibrahim Babangida declared a state of economic emergency for fifteen months.  This culminated in the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). Nigerians were asked to embark on strong belt-tightening measures/exercises. Babangida claimed that the fundamental objectives of his administration were ECONOMIC RECONSTRUCTION, SOCIAL JUSTICE AND SELF-RELIANCE. The emergency plan of Babangida threw up all kinds of problems for the citizenry and was generally seen as a failure with the economy contracting by 8.8 percent in 1986 (see West Africa, October 7, 1985).

The Structural Adjustment Programme, which was a largely IMF/World Bank-supported programme was embarked upon to “promote a deregulation of the economy, restructure and diversify the economy and promote sustained growth. Its major elements include trade liberalization, currency devaluation, withdrawal of subsidies, reduction in the role of government in economic orientation and general deflationary measures of the economy”  (Oyeweso 1995). According to Ihonvbere (1991), the Babangida regime “pursued a vigorous trade liberalization policy, devalued the currency by over 600%, sought and obtained loans from the World Bank, provided very generous incentives to transnational corporations and kept up the policy of retrenchment and commercialization and/or commercialization of public parastatals…froze wages and deregulated the economy in general”(18).  SAP worsened conditions for the ordinary people, led to wage cuts, reduction of employment, increment in the prices of basic communities, especially food and basic services such as health, education, etc. In the words of Sam Aluko (1985), a highly respected political economist, “contrary to the belief of SAP apostles that it would induce the inflow of foreign capital…. statistics from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) showed that SAP had no effect on foreign capital inflow”. (8).

The negative effects of SAP led to street reactions by the lower classes including students of higher institutions who were the worst affected segments of the Nigerian society. The regime reacted to these protests with brutal force. The state violence manifesting in the policy instruments of the didctatorship and other forms of violence took various dimensions in Nigeria’s higher institutions of learning, fostering a gale of violence by persons and groups who felt that force and its usage were the order of the day. Secret cults and other armed groups took over the souls of many higher institutions, especially the University system.  In some universities, these groups were fought to a standstill in schools where there were strong ideological platforms of students who saw it as their bounden duty to defend the much cherished values of the institutions and the God-given freedoms of their fellow students.

It is also important to note that this period produced Rights  groups like the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights  (CDHR), Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Campaign for Democracy (CD), Joint Action Committee of Nigeria (JACON), National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), Women in Nigeria  (WIN), Human Rights Defenders, Human Rights Monitor, Gani Fawehinmi Solidarity Association, Constitutional Rights Project and other numerous groups that fought the military in defence of the people’s rights and the sovereignty of Nigeria. Suffice it to say that these groups were active and played a major role in forcing the military to hand over power to the civilians in 1999.  Olorode  (2016) has aptly captured this period as “a defining decade for Nigeria’s future – a decade in which military dictatorship sought to perfect the foundations of re-colonization (SAP) which Obasanjo built between 1977 and 1979” (109).

These human rights coalitions and students under the umbrella of the National Association of Nigeria Students (NANS) engaged the military between 1984 and 1999. The struggle got so intense in 1993 when the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola who won the presidential election organised by Banbangida’s regime was disallowed from taking over power. Babangida was forced to hand over power to an interim government which was swept out of office within months by General Sani Abacha.

Twilight of Darkness and the SAPpy Days

The Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) has enjoyed robust academic engagements. Beyond the struggles of the Nigerian students and other layers of the Nigerian society, scholars have written on the crises and consequences of SAP on the Nigerian people (See Fedrici, S.G. and O. Alidou, 2000; Jega, A.N. 2000; Olukoshi, A. O. 1990; Turok, B. 1991; Adewumi, F. 1998; Onimode, B. 1998, etc.). But it is surprising to note that in spite of the grave injustice suffered by most Nigerians and the destruction of their economy with the introduction of SAP, not much has been recorded in the area of literature. Uko Atai’s play, SAPRITES (1989) deserves commendation as a major entry.

Achike Chude’s Twilight of Darkness is perhaps the first Nigerian novel to raise the twin issues of Babangida’s SAP and cultism in Nigeria’s higher institutions of learning. The novel is set in the University of Port-Harcourt where the writer himself played an active role in the heroic fight against cultism within the University.

The novel takes a deep view of Nigeria, twenty-four years ago when “the military was in complete control, riding roughshod over a citizenry long used to subjugation and oppression and the subsequent economic deprivation” (18). John Dike, the protagonist of the story is admitted to University of Port-Harcourt and within a short period he integrates himself with the politically radical elements on campus. He embraces with delight and vigour the politics of the students’ union and gleefully participates in a protest over alleged purchase of properties by the wife of the head of state. Many other students join as the students’ leaders make powerful speeches on their condition and that of their country Nigeria. The speeches border on the graft and high level corruption in the country:

They told of the subversion of political power in Nigeria for personal gain by a tiny clique of military elites and their civilian collaborators, of fat bank accounts in Switzerland and major state capitals in Europe. The names of major political actors and their businessmen friends featured prominently in these songs (33-34).

Dike is told of the advent of secret cults in the university system by one of his activist leaders. A mention is made of the role of the one established by Wole Soyinka and how the movement galvanised the “Ali Must Go”4 protest in 1978. The new cult groups are seen as a complete deviation from the original one which identified with the people and participated in activities that advanced the cause of the people. Three weeks after Dike’s admission to the university, there is a clash between the Pirates confraternity and the Mafia.

Because of Dike’s inquisitive mind, his clear-headedness and the way he participated in the last protest against the wife of the military president for alleged fraud, he is invited to join Youssan – Youth Solidarity on Southern Africa in Nigeria5. Meanwhile, the reprehensible activities of the cult groups are on the increase. They harass, rape female students, intimidate innocent students, including exorting them. Youssan under this climate of fear begins to write articles and engages in other mobilisation efforts to stem the tide of insecurity, fear and hooliganism which has taken over the campus.

Youssan is also involved in other activities on campus. Those include providing ideological education to its members and by extension the university community, internal politics of the students’ union campaigns and public lectures which touch on the welfare of students, the need for return to democracy, opposition to neo-liberalism and rabid capitalism, the evil of militarism, the thieveries of the ruling elite and the mismanagement of the economy by the regime in power. These activities do not go down well with the administration in power in the state hence the display of arrogance and impudence on the part of the military administrator even in the affairs of the university:

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, the school which has been entrusted to you is becoming unmanageable by the day..

What can you possibly say, Mr. Vice-Chancellor? That it is not exactly so? That the reports we have coming from your school are false? Well, Mr. Vice-chancellor, we do things differently. Do you want to know why?

Well, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, we do things differently simply because we are different… Well, you might not have the benefit of the discipline the average soldier goes through….

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, anarchy and open revolts are anathema to this government. We will do everything to bring sanity to all parts of the country. That is the task before the federal military government. My own job as military administrator of Rivers State is to ensure peace and stability at all times in my area of jurisdiction. Your institution has been a hot bed of misplaced radicalism with your clearly misguided students running amok under whatever guide (151-153).

The military is so involved in the administration of the university and others in the country that an earlier plan of the Uniport students to protest is aborted. It is a double jeopardy for the students as they suffer from both the students cultists and the military and its goons. All forms of opposition are targets of attack by the military government. Individuals like Gani, Fela, and some vocal student activists are attacked and imprisoned while associations like ASUU, NANS, NBA, NMA, etc. are proscribed.

It is meet to recall that the weakening of the radical students and their organisations like Youssan creates an opportunity for cultists to take over the students’ union. This is because the military government uses the secret police  (the SSS – state security services) to frighten and deal with the radical students as they are arrested and incacerated. Those on campus who are not arrested are made to face one disciplinary panel or another. Under these circumstances, the union is completely taken over by reactionary elements. Youssan appears undaunted even when some of its leaders have been arrested and detained. On the rampaging activities of the cultists, one of the leaders of Youssan asseverates:

Nobody has conceived the notion that we might go back on this. There are two conflicting ideologies at work here, the ideology of mindlessness and hate and that of humanity. One will ultimately give way for the other. The two cannot co-exist. As an organisation, of the nature and character of Youssan this kind of conflict is inevitable. It is  either us or them. There are two ways we can cease to exist. We can throw in the towel now without a single shot being fired. In this way we lose our liberty but preserve our lives or we take up this challenge. The consequence could be the possibility of losing our lives but preserving our dignity (273).

With Youssan’s revolutionary activities on campus, the fear of cultists suddenly disappears and the students themselves begin to challenge them. The authorial voice  reports thus about the students:

As he spoke, his joy knew no bounds as the ever thickening crowd told him that students were coming out in their numbers. They were openly talking about cults this night, disparagingly and yet the students continued to multiply. The cultists were all around them, in this same crowd, many of them unknown, yet they continued to stream out of the hostels. It’s like a miracle. If a miracle is about making the impossible then this is a miracle (306).

With the boldness of the students, the cultists become afraid and quite a good number of them hastily leave the campus. Those who cannot run away, hide themselves on campus where they will not be easily located.

Incidentally, Johnson, a key member of Youssan, is the chairman of an important hall on campus. The hall is known for its radical and progressive bent. His room becomes the strategic and co-ordinating centre where all the decisions that affect the cultists are taken. This coalition of  students fighting the cultists is named “Abumog” – Abuja monitoring group – a reference to ECOMOG military outfit of the governments of West African countries set up in the wake of the Liberian political and military crises. Abuja is the name given to the University Park which is the permanent site of the University.  The university has other campuses – Delta park which houses the female hostels and the secretariat of the university and Choba campus which is where the Science, Engineering and Management Sciences are located. The hostels of the students of these faculties are also located in Choba. Students who live off campus are in Choba town.

With the leadership provided by Johnson in the absence of the students’ union, cultists are dealt a big blow and attempts by the university administration to use the group to subvert the democratic rights of the students to have their union restored are squarely and clearly rebuffed. Even those who are accused to have compromised themselves by collecting bribes from some of the fleeing cultists are made to refund whatever they would have collected.

Chijioke Uwasomba teaches in the Department of English, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ifwe.

To be continued next edition

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