Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Nation in Search of Its Soul in Okediran's Tenants of the House

Isaac Attah Ogezi

It has long become a cliché that literature is the heart-beat of every nation. African literature is not an exception, and perhaps because of the historical background of the continent, it has its peculiarities when viewed vis-à-vis its Western counterparts. The same can be said of its writers. Pitted against the colonial misadventure, the African writer used his sacred art to protest the rape of his motherland. Despite the attainment of independence, he is still no longer at ease in the new dispensation, what with the ugly scenario where the lives of the citizenry are not any better than under colonial rule. To him, art for art’s sake is an abdication of the sacred duty he owes his society; a half-digested foreign theory regurgitated by those who see art as pure entertainment and nothing more. No, he must steep himself in the politics of his times not necessarily as a card-carrying politician but as a critic. Chinua Achebe did this so well when he captured graphically the disillusionment and cynicism that marked Nigeria’s First Republic in his A Man of the People. Since then, the Nigerian state is like a rudderless ship at the mercy of military adventurers and careerist politicians. Today, after more than a decade of civil rule, the Promised Land is still a tantalizing, twinkling dot in the distance. Wale Okediran’s latest fiction offering, Tenants of the House, is a strong warning to a nation at the precipice of self-destruction, to boot it awake as it is not yet Uhuru. What have we done with our democracy? He seems to ask.
Okediran’s Tenants of the House is a timely metafictional account of the goings-on in the apex legislative arm of our nation, its perennial cat-and-mouse relationship with the executive and the failure of leadership. It tells the story of Honourable Samuel Bakura, a naïve first-term member of the lower house of the nation’s National Assembly, known as the Federal House of Representatives. His dreams of contributing his quota as a lawyer towards the enactment of laws that will impact on the lives of the citizenry are dogged by the daily happenings in the House, the endless politicking, conspiracies, intrigues, betrayals and scheming. He discovers much to his shock that most of his honourable colleagues have hidden agendas which are anything but honourable. His first baptism of fire into this murky, dog-eat-dog world of politics that he finds himself is when he saw a gun in Honourable Elizabeth Bello’s handbag. What will a gun be doing in a honourable member’s handbag? He is jolted awake by this and several bizarre happenings in his new world of Nigerian politics where ‘to kill is a crime: to kill at the right time is politics’ (p. 3). This amazes our central character greatly as he narrates on pages 3and 4:
What did guns have to do with serving one’s country? Should I have come to the parliament? Now, I thought, it was too late to go back. The road here was hard. To get my nomination confirmed at the constituency level had been a fierce struggle. I had coughed up half my annual income for the nomination but it was not enough.

He learns the bitter truth that the murky waters of Nigerian politics, money answereth to all things including the conscience of a man. A seasoned Nigerian politician, Elizabeth educates him further on page 6 as follows:
Huge loads of fertilizer is what you need. Money, money, money is the fertilizer of politics. Sam, don’t be a small boy. How much do you earn here as a Member of Parliament? Peanuts … peanuts that godfathers and constituents swallow up as quickly as chickens devour maize … You want to make it back? Take the money; make the money, from anywhere, everywhere. Prepare for the rainy day. Politics can be good for you. In this Nigeria, life outside parliament is hard, hard, hard.

In his naivety, and perhaps due to the mesmerizing effect of seeing so much money for the first time in his life, Bakura, the character-narrator, is drafted sheepishly into a clandestine plot to unseat the Speaker of the House. He soon learns that in politics scruples could go to blazes, all that matters is the self, for ‘there are no permanent friends in politics, only permanent interests’ (p.10). Fortunately, his waning idealism is revived when the embattled Speaker pays him a sudden visit at two in the morning to canvass his support with a view to forestalling the impeachment, pricking Bakura’s almost dead conscience with the following words on pages 53 and 54:
I cannot but shudder at the quality of the kind of people you are associating with in that your group… Let me urge you to back out from the group and join me in moving this democracy forward. As I said earlier on, there are several altruistic projects we can carry out within this National Assembly that will both improve the quality of governance in this country and, at the same time, benefit us individually as politicians.

These soul-stirring words strengthen Bakura’s resolve to henceforth listen to his conscience in his future dealings rather than allowing money to be the sole determinant of his actions or inactions. In his words, ‘I was about the best educated. Who of our group knew about Clausewitz? Or Plato? Or Socrates? Education and political gangsterism do not go well together. And instead of my current alignment with political gangsterism, I should use my education and experience as a lawyer in a more positive way: promoting bills and policies which would move the nation forward’ (p. 57). Once he has made this avowal, he is unstoppable. He rises in collaboration with students and workers in the country to help the Speaker nip the impeachment move in the bud. But no sooner is the impeachment saga over than the President comes up with the sinister third-term elongation plan. Perhaps, the climax of Bakura’s shock of how politics can be played without regard to conscience is when he discovers that the President has co-opted the same Speaker he sought to impeach some months ago to spearhead his infamous dream of tenure elongation. One could liken this to erstwhile Vice President Abubakar Atiku’s reconciliation with his boss, former President Olusegun Obasanjo in order to gratify his vaulting ambition for Aso Rock. The reader is equally baffled like Bakura at the prostitute-like change of language such that the now pro-President Speaker could try to persuade the central character with the following words:
Samuel, are you really a politician? Have you forgotten the saying, No permanent friends, only permanent interests? Let me tell you, it is a truism. That is one. The President was against me in the past, now he is for me. Two, the North. The people of the North? They are an amorphous sociological mass, not a political entity. The people. Which people? Our hungry passive constituents? What do they care about politics? The hungry masses will go for anything. At any rate, my own take … what is at stake for us is to give the President our support. Life is a risk. And this is a good risk. If the plan succeeds, all well and good. If it doesn’t, we have nothing to lose. You and I, Sam, all of us would at least have gained some money’ (p. 167).

The above statement is as convincing and selfish as Chief Nanga’s advice to Odili to step down for him and to leave politics to those adept at it. Bakura may appear timid and unprincipled in the early part of the novel, but at this stage such speeches cannot move him to support a plan that ‘may truncate our democracy’ (p. 184). He boldly advises the President to shelf this Lady Macbeth-like ambition as ‘the other examples of tenure prolongation experiments mostly ended badly. My feeling is that here in this great country the idea may not fly … Let us not lose to it all the goodwill we have amassed over the years’ (p. 184). He bravely refuses offers of bribes by the President and his cohorts, dares intimidation and threat to his life, thereby contributing greatly to the killing of that selfish dream.
On the extreme side of the divide is Honourable Elizabeth Bello, who, quite unlike Bakura, appears well-acclimatized to the ‘murky waters of the male-dominated world of politics’ (p. 3). Beautiful, fearless and an irredeemably corrupt single mother, she is not a woman to be pushed around or browbeat. She is ‘direct, combative and hard’ (p. 3). Sizzling Lizzy, as she is fondly called by Bakura, is a maverick in the deadly game of betrayal and could stop at nothing to have her way like when she offers herself to him to enliven his weakening interest in the impeachment plan against the Speaker. She uses what she has to get what she wants. Never truly in love with Bakura until when he informs her of his engagement to a young Fulani girl and suddenly her love for him is ignited (pp. 286 -289). She is among the honourable members fronted by the President to impeach the Speaker, yet she is seen openly mobilizing members to forestall it, ‘playing the role of a decoy … of a mole in the Speaker’s camp’ (p. 15).
Told in simple, unpretentious, lucid language, Okediran employed skillfully the swift, dexterous use of alternate narrative techniques of the first-person narrator and the omniscient narrative in an engrossing, suspenseful, pacy and intellectual and highly informative manner to portray a nation in dire search of its lost soul, using the Federal House of Representatives that he knows so well as the microcosm of the larger society. Despite the all-pervasive air of pessimism and disillusionment that runs through a greater part of the work, Okediran sees a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, when, at the end of the novel, the tables are turned and we see the rather dictatorial President fighting for his life. The love-affair between Honourable Bakura and a village Fulani girl, Batejo, coupled with the foiling of the impeachment of the Speaker by students and workers may appear too idealistic to the reader who is more at home with realism. But is the writer’s duty not the creation of the ideal? In a world of impossibility, enters the writer, a prophet like the US President Barack Obama, bearing the message of ‘Yes, we can.’ The ideal can be made a reality if only we believe and make concerted efforts towards actualizing it.
However, Tenants of the House, like most great works of art, is not without some imperfections. Undoubtedly, the most glaring is the love sub-plot. For the sake of his love for Batejo, Bakura is inflicted with some injuries by his illiterate herdsman rival; he defies all oppositions including his Deaconess mother’s and a reactionary society to convert to Islam, only to fail cowardly and melodramatically at the manhood-testing Sharo festival when flagellated by his rival, much to the chagrin of his would-be wife and her people. ‘Instantly, I let out an ear-shattering scream, tried to flee from the field but collapsed in a heap on the dusty ground crying, wayyo Allah! Wayyo Allah!’ (p. 297). This is a great failing of the novel as the ending of a work of art affects significantly the theme of the writer than anything. What is the message of Okediran to his reader using this character who has withstood all oppositions to his love and conversion to Islam, weathered all the political storms on his way, only to collapse cowardly under mere Sharo flogging? Also, the alternate use of the first-person and the omniscient narratives can be confusing to the reader at times. On pages 37 and 236 in particular, the reader will hardly know where one narrative technique stops for the other to continue as there are no signals such as enough line-spacing nor the use of slight linguistic differences or signposts to distinguish one from the other. Lastly, the transliteration of Hausa words to English like Chimamanda Adichie’s rather over-use of Igbo expressions in her Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, depict both writers’ lack of in-depth knowledge of the culture of the Hausa and the Igbo respectively. In the case of the former, the average educated native-speakers of Hausa will not thank him for this effort, bereft of the ethos, mores, norms and values of the Hausa or Fulani race. The non-Hausa writers in Nigeria who have succeeded so well in the portrayal of the Hausa or Fulani man in his community in their works are Cyprian Ekwensi’s The Burning Grass and Biyi Bandele-Thomas’ Burma Boy.
In conclusion, since the publication of Achebe’s A Man of the People, no novel in Nigeria has captured the political life of Nigerians in a wonderfully satirical manner like Okediran’s Tenants of the House. Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah may well have been shortlisted in 1988 for the Booker Award in England, yet there is no gainsaying the fact that it still toddles as a midget before the towering A Man of the People in the deployment of political satire. Bold, topical and experimental, Okediran’s Tenants of the House places him on the same pedestal as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in terms of the effective use of satire. It is a must read for students of political science, law, and the new lawmaker who wants to know how legislative activities are conducted at the apex legislative house, the delicate nuances of lawmakers’ language and the nitty-gritty of how bills are passed into laws.