By Jerry Chiemeke
In a system that is subtly oppressive or significantly untrue to governmental principles it claims to uphold, there has to be someone who is bold enough to question the establishment.
Satire, while usually delivered in a humorous tone, is given expression with the aim of drawing attention to issues, particular and widely ranged, in a given society. It is not meant to please, it operates to disturb the comfortable, and the principal intent is to shame key stakeholders and institutions of society that have failed in their duty to the people, until a marked improvement is shown. Whether in musical lyrics, television shows or Internet memes, it must flow without fear or favour. Otherwise, it is no longer satire.
Elnathan John, lawyer and novelist, has been in the forefront of Nigerian satire for a significant number of years. The 36-year-old, whose works have been shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing and the NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature, has been actively involved in canvassing for the rights of women as well as ethnic and sexual minorities in his tweets and his blog columns.
Not one to back down from fierce intellectual engagement, the author of Born On A Tuesday (which in itself is a fictional narrative bordering on insurgency and religious fanaticism) is known for using his penmanship to tackle relevant socio-political issues with a blend of candour and cheeky sarcasm, and is quick to describe himself as “being in an abusive relationship with Nigeria.”
Be(com)ing Nigeria: A Guide, published by Cassava Republic Press, is a non-fictional book that attempts to shed light on the Nigerian condition with all the non-inciting but brutal honesty that satire demands.
It could be seen as a collection of essays, wherein John captures (almost) all the things that are wrong with the polity in the nicest way possible. He expresses his intent to ruffle feathers in the first few pages, wherein he dedicates the book “to all who feel personally attacked or offended by something” he would write. The first chapter begins a largely altered and ‘nationalised’ account of the biblical creation story, which runs along the lines of:
“In the beginning the British created the Northern and Southern protectorates. Now, the nation was formless and empty and darkness covered our collective identity.
And the British said: ‘Let there be Nigeria.’ And there was Nigeria. And the British saw that Nigeria was good (for them) and they separated the ruling class from the serfs.
And the British said: ‘Just as we have a vault between us and you, let there be a vault to separate the rulers from the citizens.’
So the British created Nigeria in their own image, in the image of their colonial rulership they created it; oppressor and oppressed they created them. And there was independence from the British and there were coups and counter coups and there were military dictators.
And the decades passed and the military rulers stripped their garbs and uniforms and transformed into civilian rulers. And they declared: ‘Old things have passed away and all things have become new…’
This sets the tone for the rest of the book, with thinly veiled digs and not-so-subtle jabs thrown at virtually everyone: the government is called out for enabling the monopoly exercised by a certain renowned business tycoon, the randy clergymen gets a mention for displaying “a level of grace that we do not understand”, and the overly religious are indicted for the sanctimonious manner in which they conduct their affairs, with references to the fact that “the Nigerian God doesn’t care if you have neighbours and neither should you. When you are worshipping in your house, make sure the neighbours can’t sleep. Use loud speakers even if you are only two in the building. Anyone who complains must be evil. God will judge such a person.”
There are also commentaries on the manner in which journalists conduct news reporting (especially in the event of tragedy), the subtle fraud perpetrated by (a few) Non-Governmental Organisations, general attitude of Nigerians to time management, and the tendency to resort to denial as a coping mechanism in the face of health complications. Politicians and creatives are not spared either, and there are more than a few words that add up to a comedic depiction of the lifestyle depicted by returnees, expatriates and social media enthusiasts. How To Show Love is an essay that paints a picture of the chauvinism and emotional abuse that bedevils Nigerian relationships, and child labour is elaborately discussed here too.
A few of the essays in this compilation may not be new to ardent followers of Elnathan John’s blog, but the delivery is no less potent when all the pieces are placed together. The writing is irreverent, witty, and savage in certain portions, with adequate sprinklings of sarcasm.
It is a more wholesome version of Bayo Olupohunda’s Are You Not A Nigerian? and more third-person in nature than Victor Ekikhamenor’s Excuse Me. You just wish that he did not have to use the term “hustle” to an ad nauseam effect. It is worthy of note, too, how this book proves that most of the problems pointed out in Peter Enahoro’s 1966 classic, How To Be A Nigerian, still exist to the day, with little hope for any positive change.
Elnathan John’s latest offering is not without its hitches though. Some paragraphs fail to pack the punch, and sometimes you feel that there are parts where he could have gone in with the bite of column entries like, My Penis Makes Everything Ok (a notable omission from this collection). He is guilty of excessive rambling in one or two essays as well, and a little bit of ‘Naija-speak’ would have definitely spiced up the narratives.
These are, ultimately, negligible ‘misgivings’ (if they could be regarded as such), and they take little away from the slice of genius that is Be(com)ing Nigeria: A Guide.
This body of work is well-constructed if it were to be compared to a lego house, it is relevant (not least due to Nigeria’s heated political climate), and it is proof that Satire is by no means a dead art form in these parts.
Chiemeke, editor, lawyer and book reviewer, resides in Lagos
This book review was originally published by Guardian Nigeria on 10 March 2019.