One of Nigeria’s strongest critics, Paul Liam examines Abdullai Ismaila’s works and the rise of literature in Northern Nigeria.
Society ought to protect its young ones for the young shall inherit the future and become the legacies of their forebears. A society that kills its young ones through its actions or inactions automatically sets itself on the path of destruction. Thus, it goes without saying, that youths are the drivers of a functional and progressive society. Equally, a society is sustained by the action or inaction of those who inhabit it. The destruction of society through unhealthy exploitation of its valuables, especially because of greed, is tantamount to digging one’s own grave. These are the underlining leitmotifs that foreground Abdullahi Ismaila’s A Harvest of HATRED, a brilliant collection of short stories.
First published in 2006 by Kraft Books Limited, Ibadan, the book has undergone three reprints in 2011, 2015 and 2020 respectively. These reprints are testament to the success and quality of the collection and a clear indication that readers connect with the beautiful stories. It is not common these days for a book to undergo such number of reprints unless it is truly a remarkable book. However, it is also safe to say that Ismaila is not as popular as the success of his books attests, especially in the southern parts of Nigeria, outside the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). This reality may not be unconnected to the poor distribution dilemma of the Nigerian publishing industry and poor culture of book promotion by publishers and authors. It is on this note that a brief biographical sketch is imperative.
Born in Niger State, Abdullahi Ismaila studied English and Literature at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, where he was also the chairman of the famous ABU Creative Writers Club. A seasoned writer and scholar, Ismaila has been writing for more than three decades and is the author of several works including: The Demons and Other Poems (1990), Scourge of Earthworms (1996), Islam in Lapai Emirate (1999), Elipsis (2001). He edited Echoes of Young Minds (1996), Dance-steps of Dawn (1997), The Unique Madmen and Other Stories (2001), Words on Marble (from General Abdulsalami Abubakar) (2002), among several other works. His most recent books include: Our Country Holds A Whip Against Us (2017), Nana The Storyteller (2020), Songs of Silence (2021), Emir Emeka (2021, in the works), The Garbage School (2021), and No Alkibla Here (2021). Ismaila is also the co-author of the highly acclaimed critical book on the late novelist, Abubakar Gimba; Abubakar Gimba: Perspectives On His Writings and Philosophy (2008). He has published in all the genres of literature and until recently, he was a lecturer in the Department of English and Literature, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He was at one time the chairman of the Niger State chapter of ANA and National Assistant General Secretary of the same association. Dr. Ismaila is currently the Director of Communications and Liaison, Federal Inland Revenue Service.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ismaila is one of the most under celebrated literary geniuses from Northern Nigeria, yet he does not seem bothered about the self-promotion that has become a common feature of the writing business. He belongs to the ilk of writers who believe that the quality of their writing other than their personalities should speak for them. While the 1990s witnessed a consistency of resistance poetics to military tyranny in Nigeria, many of the poets who were published at this time chiefly wrote anti-establishment poetics or narratives. This was a continuation of the literary struggle – protest literature –that was already fought by the Osundare-Ofeimun generation. Everyone writing poetry at the time seemed obsessed by the notion that the state was an enemy. Of course, the 1987 famous ANA anthology, Voices from the Fringe, edited by Harry Garuba, succinctly chronicles the national rage that dominated that period.
While the poetics of remonstration dominated the national literary discourse, a group of the then emerging Northern literary stars had a different idea of dealing with the scourge of national despondency. To this group of thinkers, the rot was systemic and had to be dealt with systemically. And fighting the government in their considered opinion was enough to overturn the decades of decay. So, they came up with a literary movement, which they called the Fourth Order, to function as the vehicle for driving the new ideological vision of correcting the wrongs through the instrumentality of regeneration. To them, the country itself needed to be reimagined within the context of an ideal state. They also reasoned that this was only attainable through a deliberate social reengineering and the instrumentality of the art. For a sane and functional society to be attained, young people had to be conditioned towards becoming model citizens who would bring about the quality change that the society needed to thrive.
The Fourth Order Movement was chiefly driven through ANA Niger State chapter, where the anchor men of the movement resided. This resolution was arrived at around 1994 in Minna, and the famous Annual Schools Carnival of Arts and Festival of Songs (ASCAFS) was birthed as the initial vehicle that would be used in propelling the vision. In 1996, the first teen authors’ poetry anthology, Echoes of Young Minds, by secondary school students of the Hilltop Model School Minna was published under the facilitation of BM Dzukogi and editorship of Abdullahi Ismaila. ASCAFS would later hold annually for over a decade and a half. The Fourth Order Movement was altruistically dedicated to the single purpose of empowering the young for future leadership roles and the development of the society.
The Fourth Order believed that a progressive society was only possible through the conscious positive actions of the citizenry. To achieve this objective, the youths were to be guided and empowered to rethink their roles in the overall advancement of the country. Their activism was centered around developing the intellect and skill of the youths to enable them think and function independently. Dzukogi even established a centre for this purpose, the Hilltop Creative Art Foundation Minna, where young people came together to acquire skills and develop their talents. However, beyond the physical realisation of the vision through reading campaigns and art competitions, some of the key actors took to textual theorisation through their writings. Many wrote monographs and critical papers that were published in the New Nigerian Newspapers and other national dailies, while others took to writing children literature. The latter believed that by building the cognition of the child, they would be preparing them for greater societal undertakings later in life. Others took to mentoring young people towards acquiring the right professional skills and competence for maximum performance in their workspaces.
Some of the noticeable writers associated with the movement include, but are not limited to, BM Dzukogi, Baba Akote, Kamar Hamza, Odoh Diego Okenyodo, SumailaUmaisha, Ahmed Maiwada, Almamum Mallam, and a host of other writers who were mostly northerners. The movement enjoyed the patronage of literary godfathers like the novelist Abubakar Gimba, the celebrated playwright Yahaya Dangana, Usman Gwarjiko, etc. Some were journalists who used their platforms to promote the ideals of the movement. Two texts carry the full weight of the crusade. The first is Sex is Beautiful by Dzukogi, a non-fictional sexual education manual for young people, especially young married couples. This manual holds that a functional marriage and sexual life is the foundation of a progressive society. The second is A Harvest of HATRED by Ismaila, a fictional construction of the parallelism between societal neglect of the youth and underdevelopment.
It is significant, now to return to the focus of this exercise, which is the uncovering of the leitmotif of regeneration as contextualised by two important stories in Ismaila’s A Harvest of HATRED. The two stories I shall briefly be dealing with are the tilted story, “A Harvest of HATRED” and “Sundry Tales”. “A Harvest of HATRED” is a symbolic story that deconstructs the role of the society in the development or retardation of its young ones and its implication for the sustainability of the future of that society. It is a tragic tale of jealousy and man’s inhumanity to man. Through a series of relatable events, the narrator takes the reader through the travails of Ba-Ahmadu’s family in the hands of his elder brother Ya-suman in the fictional village of Etizhuru. Ba-Ahmadu dies from a mysterious illness caused by his elder brother Ya-suman through witchcraft. It takes the expertise of a native doctor to reveal the cause of his predicament and eventual death to him and his friend. With Ba-Ahmadu out of the way, one would expect that Ya-suman would be happy, but evil men are never tired of doing evil, so he shifts his attention to thirty-five-year- old Ahmadu, Ba-Ahmadu’s surviving male heir whom he regards as a threat to his claims of the family’s farmland. Ahmadu, a successful farmer is the only one in his village whose house adorns a steel roof besides the village mosque. He becomes so successful in his farm work that he sends his son Mahmood to school and plans on buying a car to help in transporting the villagers’ produce to the market in the nearby town. He also plans on sending his mother and uncle to Mecca for pilgrimage. Of course, Ya-suman becomes unhappy, on hearing of this development, and launches another spiritual attack on young Ahmadu that leads to his death.
Fearing that he might become Ya-suman’s next victim, twenty-three-year-old Mahmood, who by this time is in a tertiary institution in the big city, absconds from the village on self-exile, never to return to Etizhuru. He leaves with the promise of sending for his mother once he settles down.
In retrospective contemplation, Mahmood reflects on his decision to leave Etizhuru while biding his mother goodbye,
Nna, I am leaving. But don’t panic, I’ll send for you wherever I go to settle. The most important thing is for me to go away and pursue my education. Hopefully, this will brighten our tomorrow. (p.84)
Mahmood’s remark cited above is reflective of the fate of many young people in Nigeria who are confronted by harsh impediments as they struggle to survive and find meaning for their lives. His story is not different from those of many young promising Nigerians who, neglected by the society, embark on exile to foreign lands in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Many of them end up dying at sea or in the deserts on their way to finding greener pastures in foreign lands. What other choice does a young person have in a society that does not take care of its young ones? It is instructive to note that, while Ba-Ahmadu’s family suffer the witch-hunt of their powerful uncle, nobody in the village is bold enough to stand up for them; they are left to their ugly fate. And seeing no future in sight, Mahmood does the rational thing of absconding. His action is in line with the saying that he who fights and runs away lives to fight another.
It is the responsibility of a society to take care of its young ones because they are the future of any society that plans to outlive itself. Reflecting on the complacency of the entire community to his family’s ugly situation, Mahmood spares no one. He attacks the hypocrisy of religiosity, as the narrator recounts.
As he stepped out to open the improvised gate for the car he saw people coming out of the mosque. He took a cursory look at them. He didn’t know which one of them was truly a Muslim at heart or the one that was a hypocrite, the wicked soul. There was no way of distinguishing between the in their innocent faces and cloak of pretensions. (p.84)
The mosque in the text is a symbol of the decay that religion and worship centres have become synonymous with, today. They no longer embody the spirituality or godly prestige they that were known for. The mosque is thus an equal metaphor for the church, which has also been polarised by greedy businessmen. It is therefore understandable why Mahmood looks at the mosque with condescension as the narrator informs us.
He passed a look at the mud building that was the mosque and he wondered if it had not become a mere symbol, just another building bereft of its spiritual purpose of moulding the character of those who go there perfunctorily to offer prayers to God. Then he sighted Ya-suman coming out of the mosque. He hissed and looked away quickly. (p.84)
Ismaila’s bravery in confronting the social realities of the society without the fear of victimisation epitomises the truth that every writer owes the society. By underscoring the ugly situation of the youth, he is drawing society’s attention to their predicament and calling for positive actions to change the sorry narrative. If the Imam of the mosque or the elders had intervened in Ba-Ahmadu’s family situation, then Ahmadu would not have died, and his son Mahmood would not have had a reason to run away from his village and his family. Clearly, Mahmood looked up to the mosque as the apex moral authority in Etizhuru to intervene in his family’s behalf, but nothing was done.
In “Sundry Tales”, which is the opening story of the collection, we encounter a familiar perversity that has become definitive of Nigeria, creatively represented in the story as Motherland. The metaphor of Motherland in “Sundry Tales” is an allegory about the bastardisation of a country by her own siblings; metaphorised through an incestuous relationship that rapes her of her dignity and womanhood.
She gave everything, the story went…and now haggard looking, everything came back to her. Especially with this very peal of experience: the rape by her own sibling. She couldn’t raise her head to face her sibling. She just buried her head in her palms and sobbed away. “O, God, why did you make me see this day. (p.11)
The passage above is a deprecatory self-evaluation ofMotherland, relayed by the narrator. Motherland’s deplorable condition is an indictment of her siblings’ greedy lust. In quite a number of instances, the narrator suggests that beyond the fleshy layers of the text lies a deeper message, in the sexual nuances of the story. For example, in further relaying Motherland’s precarious situation, the narrator opines, “She was such a beauty even if haggard. Her expansive bossom, sexy eyeballs, inviting succulent breast like its mineral resources-made her all the more irresistible. (p.11-12)
Although the narrator does not say that he is telling the story of Nigeria, one can detect this through the choice of words and use of metaphors that are reminiscent of the Nigerian reality. The paradoxical twist to the story however is that while an older sibling is the main antagonist that keeps defiling Motherland, he does it in the presence of Junior, his younger brother. The implication of this portrayal is that Junior would soon become a man and might continue in the exploitation of Motherland’s wonderland, which in turn would foster an incestuous tradition of the raping of Motherland. The older brother in this allegory simply represents the older generation of political thieves that continue to syphon the resources of the country. The overreaching impact of this abomination is that Motherland remains the perpetual victim of the greed of her siblings, just as suggested by the antagonist who remains unnamed in the story; “Yes, Junior. He too is growing fast. Soon she too would want to a feel of what I have had. No!” (p.12)
“Sundry Tales” is an anthropomorphic narration that poses a philosophical question through Junior’s confused state of mind about the workings of the world, such as the difference between good and evil and the burden of expectation. And we can see that just like in the first story, Junior, a young man whose consciousness has been affected by the actions of his senior brother becomes unsure of what is right and wrong and how to navigate the pandemonium of life created by those who should guide him aright. In soliloquy, Junior confronts the ethical questions he is confronted with and goes on to commune with an inner voice that provide answers to his myriad of questions. The inner voices as solution tells him three things he must do to live a meaningful and positive life. First, the voice tells him to have faith in God; second, he needs to look around him and pick a role model or role models whose good conduct he cherishes and adopt them as his alter ego; and third, in his own deeds, he must strive to uphold ethical conduct in order not to disappoint his alter ego and himself, and he must disappoint God. The inner voice concludes his admonishment to Junior by remarking thus:
This way you will become a good example to your peers and those that will take you too as a role model. Hopefully, this chain of role models will become a veritable instrument of regeneration. (p.18)
In the above passage, the moral burden of creating a better society is placed on the shoulders of young people – in this instance, Junior. Junior’s contemplation indicates that young people must be critical thinkers and must question the existing norms to attain that moment of enlightened knowledge that will lead them to the consciousness that they need to be able to change the society.
In conclusion, Ismaila has successfully textualised the philosophy of regeneration as propounded by the Fourth Order Movement through creatively woven stories that entertain as well as teach moral lessons with lifelong implications for our ever-troubling society. However, like in every work of art, the collection is not without its own shortcomings. Because of its academic disposition, the stories come across as didactic and prosaic. In many instances, the narrator’s voice comes off as subjective. The stories analysed herein are good examples.
Finally, there are several instances of typographical errors. For example, the following sentence, “Junior was astounded by his friend’s outburst,” bears a comma instead of an apostrophe to indicate the plural possessiveness of the action being described. Another example is the confusion of pronoun in the following sentence, “Soon she would want a feel of what I have had”. The “she” should have been “he” since in this context reference is being made to Junior, a boy. These examples are found in pages 12 and 18 of “Sundry Tale”, respectively. Abdulahi Ismaila is without a doubt a brilliant writer whose works need to be given quality academic inquisition. He is one of Nigeria’s finest authors yet to be fully explored.
Paul Liam is a poet and literary critic with several critical essays on contemporary Nigerian literature to his name. A co-editor of the Ebedi Review, he is a 2014 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency, Iseyin, Oyo State Nigeria. Liam is the author of two poetry books, Indefinite Cravings (2012) and Saint Sha’ade and Other Poems (2014). He is regarded as one of Nigeria’s most significant literary critics of today, and his works have appeared in several reputable platforms both in print and online. He is currently the Head of Operations of Isu Media Ltd, a Development Communication company in Abuja, Nigeria. He loves critical discourse, travelling and mentoring aspiring writers.