Ola Rotimi’s Ovonramwen Nogbaisi: When History Becomes Drama by Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Ola Rotimi’s Ovonramwen Nogbaisi: When History Becomes Drama

OBARUDUAGBON. Today is your day: tomorrow belongs to another!

ESASOYEN. Indeed: the Whiteman who is stronger than you will soon come! (Ola Rotimi 6)

The above reminds me of the words of a great Zulu Chief (Chaka) to his assailants. The difference this time is that the setting is the ancient Benin Empire and the words are not coming from a dying king but from subordinates who have just been sentenced to death by their Oba for murdering his trusted adviser. Nonetheless, it is a great inciting action for Ola Rotimi’s eponymous play, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi.

You might not like Ola Rotimi’s other plays, but Ovonramwen Nogbaisi is a play I am sure you cannot help loving. Aside Kurunmi (another historical drama by Ola Rotimi), this play is for me the best from the playwright. Ovonramwen Nogbaisi is a play that further establishes Rotimi’s talent as a great African dramatist. His ability to rework history and breathe life into it on stage leaves me with nothing but admiration.

It is ancient Benin Empire and the ruler is Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, a young king who does not wish to be taken for granted by his subject considering his young age, he pronounces death upon the first set of rebel chiefs arrested in his kingdom to serve as a deterrent to others who might be thinking of toeing the same path of rebellion. The still defiant chiefs prophesy the conquest of the kingdom and the coming of the white man who would effect it. Against pleas by both the chiefs and the palace jester, Ovonramwen insists that his decision would not be rescinded.

There are troubles within the empire as little towns under Ovonramwen’s kingdom are beginning to show signs of revolting yet Ovonramwen quashes these troubles to keep the kingdom a united entity. Since Ovonramwen succeeds in repressing internal rebellion, would he succeed in suppressing the aggression from external forces?

As prophesied by Esasoyen, the Whiteman came; with the intention to trade in rubber; but Ovonramwen is not impressed by the Whiteman’s antics, was it not them who went about fixing a different price for oil after the Oba had chosen a certain price for the same commodity? How could the Whitemen call themselves his friends when they went about encouraging his people to rebel against his authority by selling commodities for different prices? This settled the issue for Ovonramwen and he refused to sign the trade treaty, neither would he accept the gifts of the Whiteman whose love only shows on the face but not in the heart.

Despite Ovonramwen rejection of the trade treaty, the White man’s greed for the untapped resources in the Benin Empire would not let him turn his back to it as he makes another attempt to see the king but he has come at a wrong time; it is Ague ceremony and culture and tradition forbids strangers or visitors from making an incursion into Benin throughout the period of this ceremony and neither is the king allowed to see nor entertain visitors. The insistence of the group led by the Whitemen to make an incursion into Benin despite the refusal of the Benin police would lead to the group being attacked and killed by the warriors of Benin who take away the heads of the Whitemen as part of the spoils of war.

There is a reprisal attack from the British authority and it is terrible, with it came the fall of the Benin Empire and the takeover of the Benin Empire by the European authorities in the land. Oba Ovonramwen was arrested after attempting an escape and whisked away to Calabar, the colonial headquarters.

The play is a historical presentation of the fall of a great king, it describes a clash of interest between two opposing forces (the Benin Empire and the British Authority cum colonialist), it also shows the disregard and disrespect shown by the British authorities for the African cultural norms and traditions, and it reminds us of how African artifacts now deposited in European museums were looted or (to use the right word) stolen at the behest of an insensitive and greed inspired conquest.

Ovonramwen Nogbaisi was forced off his throne and land (an abomination!) , so was Jaja of Opobo, and so Nana of Ijekiri, all kings who refused an unjust trade system introduced by British authorities. In Ola Rotimi’s Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, we are reminded of these great men who stood up and said “nay” when fear made all others say “ye”.

The play is replete with the rich use of various Nigerian languages, such as the Benin language, Yoruba, and Hausa language, aside from the English language used in producing the play–Ola Rotimi’s love for various Nigerian languages is obvious, being from a mixed race himself (Yoruba and Benin), we see a better incorporation of various languages in another of his play, Hopes of the Living Dead. Also, the ornamentation of dialogues and speeches with myriad proverbs leaves one marvelling at the depth of the writer’s knowledge of the oral repertoire, along with the various songs, they make the play a beautiful piece!

“Ikpema! Oba gha to o kpere!”

Rest on Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, the home leopard, rest great king!

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2017

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A. M. Mainasara’s The Five Majors: Why They Struck is Mere Ethnic Propaganda by Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

The First (Igbo) Coup d’etat in Nigeria–A. M. Mainasara’s The Five Majors – Why They Struck is Mere Ethnic Propaganda

–Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

 

I read Adewale Ademoyega’s Why We Struck a long time before now and found it an interesting and informative account (from an insider and an active participant in the coup) of the events that necessitated the first coup d’etat which took place in Nigeria. But when I came across A. M. Mainasara’s refutation; The Five Majors-Why They Struck; I found myself scuttling back to Adewale Ademoyega’s Why We Struck to ascertain the validity of A. M. Mainasara’s facts, or perhaps opinions.

To A. M. Mainasara, the first set of coup plotters in Nigeria had no honourable , noble, or patriotic intentions. Rather, their concern was to wrest political power from the north which they assumed had become some sort of threat to the political existence of Nigeria. Let us hear him:

Redemption of the country was not their aim. Their purpose was to prevent a section of the country, the North, from effective participation in the governance of the country. This was to be accomplished through the physical elimination of the entire political and military elite of the North, beginning with the top leadership; the Sardauna of Sokoto, Premier of the Northern Region of Nigeria, the embodiment of the soul of the North and all that it stood for. The final solution of the so called Northern menace was to be effected after the conspirators had seized control of the government of the Federation. (A. M. Mainasara 9-10)

It is highly disturbing that some educated Nigerians prefer to distort history for the sake of ethnic propaganda. It is this kind of Mainasara’s form of distorted history that is responsible for giving young Nigerians wrong notions of what transpired in the country’s political past. An example is contained in the letter recently addressed to the acting president of Nigeria, Professor Yemi Osinbajo by the Arewa Youths Forum which in part states that:

“Our doubts are informed by the following historical antecedents that have characterized the behavior and conduct of the Igbo in Nigeria and previous efforts at containing them.

“The Igbo of Eastern Nigeria manifested their hatred for Nigeria’s unity barely five years after we gained our independence from the British when on January 15, 1966, their army officers carried out the first-ever mutiny that marked the beginning of a series of crisis which has profoundly altered the course of Nigeria’s history.

“By that ill motivated cowardly and deliberate action, the Igbo killed many northern officers from the rank of lieutenant colonel upwards and also decapitated the Prime Minister and the political leadership of the Northern and Western regions but left the zenith of Igbo leadership at the Federal level and the Eastern region intact.

“In line with the Igbo plan, General Aguiyi-Ironsi took advantage of the vacuum and, instead of returning power to the remnants of the First Republic government, he appropriated the coup and attempted to consolidate it for his people.

“Army officers of the Northern Region were eventually compelled to execute a counter coup on July 29, 1966 following a coordinated series of brazen provocations from the Igbo who taunting northerners on northern streets by mocking the way leaders of the region were slain by the Igbo. This unfortunately resulted in mob action which resulted in the death of many Igbos.

“And when Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, from the North took over as Head of State following the counter coup, the Igbo through Lt. Col. Ojukwu, characteristically refused to recognize Gowon. Ojukwu declared the secession of the Igbo people from Nigeria and the formation of the republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967 resulting in a civil war that led to the tragic deaths of more than 2 million Nigerians”. (Culled from https://www.vanguardngr.com/2017/06/northern-youths-write-osinbajo-beg-allow-igbo-go-biafra/)

See, young people are getting things wrong! To the northern Nigeria educated youth, the first Nigerian coup had to be about Igbo officers killing the political leaders of the North, yet it is more than that. This kind of misconception is invented because some writers; such as A. M. Mainasara; choose to underscore facts or tell half truths for their words are biased and reek of ethnic bigotry. Their facts are meant only for the dim witted and those who fail to evaluate events from various angles by getting hold of available historical documents.

A. M. Mainasara’s view of history is slanted and should be regarded as nothing more than mere ethnic propaganda. He had set out to refute the claims of Adewale Ademoyega and Ben Gbuile in their written accounts (Why We Struck and The Five Majors respectively) of the first Nigerian coup d’etat and their roles as active conspirators and participants but had unknowingly  proven their facts to be  correct as a result of his slanted diction and approach to issues.

Maybe A. M. Mainasara does not know, but Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu had more of the Hausa traits in him than being an Igbo man. He was born and brought up in the North, even bore the name “Kaduna” in addition to his Igbo names, he regarded himself first as  Nigerian before identifying with any tribe, religion, or region. Here is what Adewale Ademoyega has to say about Nzeogwu in his book:

Living with Nzeogwu gave me a deep insight into his character. He was the son of a civil servant. His parents hailed from Asaba in the Mid West (now Bendel), but he was born in Kaduna, schooled there and grew up there. He spoke HAUSA very fluently and he understood and HAD MANY HAUSA TRAITS.

I knew him to be extremely straightforward, open hearted and open handed. He spoke freely, hiding nothing. He gave generously. He was a good Christian (Roman Catholic), and attended Mass regularly. Unlike most single officers, he did not go around with girl friends. This surprised me, for, although we both agreed that there was no question of getting married before the revolution, I did not subscribe to total abstinence.

Nzeogwu was a good leader of men. The same could not be said of 90% of the officers. He drew the younger officers irresistibly to himself, endeavoring always to awaken in them both political and revolutionary consciousness and above all, patriotism. He spoke amusingly and all the young officers that had passes through his hands in the NMTC cherished him and held him in high esteem. Throughout 1965 Nzeogwu spoke freely and openly to some young officers about his intention to stage a revolution which would bring Nigeria to the path of greatness. All the young officers loved the idea and came closer to him. But the same could not be said of the middle level and senior officers, that is, Majors, Colonels, Brigaders and above. [Assented words are mine] (Adewale Ademoyega 68-69)

Judging by the words of Adewale Ademoyega, it is obvious that Nzeogwu had lofty ideas and was a detribalised Nigerian, unfortunately the same could not be said of A. M. Mainasara!

Nzeogwu was respected by his colleagues in the army including junior and senior officers that even when he died fighting on the side of Biafran forces during the Civil War, he was given and honorable burial benefiting a hero by the Federal Army. Nzeogwu died, not as a Biafran but, as a Nigerian.

We kept up our correspondence until the outbreak of the war on July 6, 1967. Three weeks later, I heard it over the NBC that Nzeogwu had been killed in the Nsukka sector of the war. I was utterly chagrined. Hours later, Biafra denied the report over their own radio. Later on, the Federal side confirmed the report and claimed that he was given “a hero’s burial with full military honours”. Pictures of him were displayed in the papers. Gowon also paid tribute to him saying “he was a gallant soldier, with principles.” Many other Nigerians paid glowing tributes to his memory and everybody believed that he died a Nigerian, though fighting on the Biafran side. Of course, the Federal authority knew that it was they who had confined him inside Biafra, totally against his will. If the Gowon Government had released the whole lot of us detained by Ironsi, surely, Nzeogwu and the remainder of us would have returned to the places of our choice in Nigeria. Not one of us would have been involved in Biafra. (Adewale Ademoyega 201)

Now, I wonder why the Nigeria government then led by northern elite and soldiers would give a heroic burial to a man who A. M. Mainasara describes as a arch rebel and assassin in his book of refutations. The idea that the coup d’etat was only targeted at Northern leaders was mere propaganda in the hands of deceitful politicians to fuel the ethnic crises for their personal aggrandizement or to get hold of power. Yes, more northerners lost their lives in that unfortunate coup than any other group of people, but I also know that the premier of the then Western Region (Chief S. L. Akintola) and Finance minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh also lost their lives in that coup, yet these were not northerners.

The crop of officers in the Nigerian army of those days were brewed from the barley of patriotism, they were uncommon soldiers and their kind is no more to be found in modern Nigeria. It is unfortunate, therefore, that A. M. Mainasara is still buying into the propaganda that led to the pogrom in the North, a counter coup and finally culminated in a Civil War and it is even more worrisome that this is coming many years after the execution of the first coup, when we should have been able to asses situations with a clear mind and an analytical approach to issues.

However we choose to see it, the fact remains that the British government introduced nepotism into the newly independent Nigerian government and they favored the north over other groups. Till date, the system is still not balanced and perhaps it is why we hear of agitations here and there, the latest being the demand for the sovereign state of Biafra.

If the coup was an Igbo coup as A. M. Mainasara seemed to presume, how come it was still Igbo officers who frustrated it and arrested the perpetrators? If we are to go by Major Ademoyega’s account, the roles played by Lieutenant-Colonel Odimegwu Ojukwu, Alex Madiebo, and General Aguyi Ironsi were instrumental to the unsuccessful completion of the coup.

Again I ask that if Nzeogwu had wanted power for himself and wanted northerners out of the political scene totally, would he have willingly accepted to function under a government headed by Aguyi Ironsi and handed over the reins of the Government of Northern Nigeria to Lieutenant-Colonel Hassan Katsina?

At the Brigade Headquarters, a short ceremony was staged. There was a parade. Nzeogwu took the salute and formerly handed over the reins of the Government of Northern Nigeria to Lieutenant-Colonel Hassan Katsina. It was a public ceremony. The press, the radio and the television were present, together with the world press. Hassan made a brief speech in praise of Nzeogwu. He lauded the selfishness of his fight and principles.

He also promised to stand by those principles and purpose for which Nzeogwu fought. After that, he embraced Nzeogwu and both of them parted as comrades-in-arms. Nzeogwu went from there to the airport and flew to Lagos. (Adewale Ademoyega 137-8)

Is it not then an irony that Lieutenant-Colonel Hassan Katsina (a northerner) emerged one of the major beneficiary of an Igbo coup?

Lastly, even it were Igbo officers (which is not even the case here for Adewale Ademoyega for example is not even an easterner, talk more of being Igbo) who conspired to run northern elite and politicians out of government, does it justify a reprisal attack, a counter coup, and the total annihilation and persecution of the Igbos in the north? While the coup plotters might have destabilised the north, we cannot but affirm that the greater damage had later been carried out by the northern elements. Historical records are always there for proper confirmation.

To A. M. Mainasara, the Hausa-Fulani has an advanced system of government when compared with other sections of the country and this might likely explain why they found favour with the British colonial administration:

Without doubt, the people (Hausa people) benefitted from the enlightened rulership of the Fulani and the reform of the social political institutions of the land. Meanwhile, the Igbo and other peoples in the South were leading a life of ignorance, indulging in all sorts of practices such as witchcraft, juju and cannibalism while the Northern peopled style of living was comparable to other peoples who are advanced to similar level. The conditions against macabre practiced and other acceptable rites performed out of a terror of the unknown or for material gain.

These pagan practices still occur in parts of the South as the story in the Daily Times of Wednesday 17th March, 1981 on the discovery of two near fresh human skulls at Murtala International Airport testified. [bracket mine] (A. M. Mainasara 20)

Wonderful! So A. M. Mainasara is in essence saying that the colonial administration found it inconvenient handing power over to the “pagan South” due to the preponderance of pagan practices and lack of civilized ethos cum existence! Just wonderful! Yet, we know how civilized the north is, even in this new millennia. It would be foolish to enter into an argument of civility over an issue such as this, I would rather hands off! However, I wonder why Mainasara had no foresight to see that a statement such as the one above validates the idea that the political existence of Nigeria was manipulated by the British to favor the North?

A. M. Mainasara calls the officers who constitute the inner caucus of the coup plotters “an Igbo cast indeed, except for the presence of only one Yoruba officer” (23). Yet, that singular exception makes all the difference and invalidates the idea of the coup being strictly an Igbo coup. The writer also calls Aguyi Ironsi a true Nigerian yet he does not blame the northern officers for staging a coup that had him shamefully executed and betrayed by his trusted allies, the north! Mainasara would later assert that Aguyi Ironsi was spared in the first coup simply because he belongs to the Igbo tribe! Perhaps, he did not read Adewale Ademoyega account of how Aguyi Ironsi narrowly escaped Major Ifeajuna or did he purposely hide that fact in order to peddle false opinions and ethnic propaganda?

A. M. Mainasara goes about using uncouth language on others yet claims to be a part of the civilized northern society. Such language runs through his book of refutations. For men as Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Sir Ahmadu Bello, he has appellations as “great” and “noble” for them in his book but Nzeogwu and his co-conspirators can be no more than “assasins”, “arch rebels”, “murderers majors” etc. Who is Mainasara seeking to impress? After reading Mainasara book of refutations and Adewale Ademoyega’s account, it becomes totally obvious that A. M. Mainasara is guilty of ethnocentrism and tribalism both in language and thoughts.

While I have much respect for Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and other notable great men killed in the first Nigerian coup d’etat, I also have great respect for the executors of the first Nigerian coup for their intention to pull Nigeria out of tribalism and nepotism. I believe both groups had noble intentions for this great country, it was only in approach that both groups differs.

However, what has happened has happened. Should we remain stagnant licking or nursing old wounds, there might never be progress. The need to look towards a great future is pertinent and beckons on us all to show responsibility towards such a cause. This is where I still favour Adewale Ademoyega over A. M. Mainasara. Ademoyega provides blueprints in his book that can move the country forward while Mainasara went about issuing threats and identifying rebels in his. His slanted version of history should be seen as nothing more than what it is, mere ethnic propaganda.

I end this essay with one of John Pepper Clark’s poem entitled “Seasons of Omen” to show the sentiments expressed by many Nigerians immediately after the January 15, 1966 coup was executed

When calabashes held petrol and men

    turned fagots in the streets

Then came the five hunters

When mansions and limousines made

    bonfires in sunset cites

Then came the five hunters

When clans were discovered that were not in tue book

    and cattle counted for heads of men

Then came the five hunters

When hoodlums took possession of police barracks

    in defiance of bullets

Then came the five hunters

When ministers legislated from bed and

    made high office the prize for failure

Then came the five hunters

When wads of notes were kept in infant skulls

    with full blessing of prelates

Then came the five hunters

When women grew heavy with ballot papers

    delivering the house entire to adulterers

Then came the five hunters

When a grand vizier in season of arson turned

    upon bandits in a far off place

Then came the five hunters

When men lost their teeth before they cut them

    to eat corn

Then came the five hunters

When a cabinet grew so broad the top gave way

    and trapped everyone therein

Then came the five hunters.

Works Cited

Adegboyega, Adewale. Why We Struck. Ibadan: Evans Brothers, 1981. Print.

Clark, J. P. “Season of Omens.” Full Tide. Ibadan: Mosuro, 2010. Print.

Mainasara, A. M. The Five Majors – Why They Struck. Zaria: Hudahuda, 1982. Print.

Vanguard. “Northern Youths write Osinbajo, beg him to allow Igbo go with Biafra”. https://www.vanguardngr.com/2017/06/northern-youths-write-osinbajo-beg-allow-igbo-go-biafra/. Ret. Sept. 17, 2017.

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2017

 

Meet the Reviewer

 

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy is a literary critic cum reviewer, poet, and writer.