African Library: The Naked Gods by Chukwuemeka Ike

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The Naked Gods
Chukwuemeka Ike

The Naked Gods was first published in 1970, one of a series of novels by Chukwuemeka Ike. It can be described as a sophisticated African campus comedy, and is set on the brand-new campus of a first local (and therefore “national”) university in the mythical country of Songhai, where a four-way tug-of-war is underway among two ambitious local academics, the American faction (led by the vice-chancellor) and the British lobby (led by the registrar).

A prize-winning author in his country of origin and also king of an Aro town in Eastern Nigeria, Ike is an alumnus of Ibadan University and his writing has a sophisticated satirical edge. The topic of education clearly lies close to his heart: not only does it feature in several novels of his substantial fictional oeuvre, but it is also the topic of his scholarly text University Development in Africa: The Nigerian Experience, as it is of a book which he co-edited – University of Nigeria 1960–85: An Experiment in Higher Education. Ike is therefore as eminently suited to write about the intricacies of local university politics as he is about the (inter)national political and cultural dimensions of setting up and developing an institution of higher learning in an Anglophone African country as the text of The Naked Gods proves him to be. But the frequently comic and as often nasty shenanigans he depicts as occurring in all quarters – as the issue of succession to the influential vice-chancellorship of the University of Songhai rapidly inflames ambitions and intensifies plans for string-pulling – show Chukwuemeka Ike’s profound understanding of human nature and of the ridiculous as well as laudable, or merely understandable, aspects of personalities and relationships.

The tone of the text is initially quite low-key as the novelist carefully sets the scene to help us understand the different centres of force that come into play, whose conflicts intensify greatly as competition heats up and the gloves come off. The text opens on an unexpected visit of His Royal Highness, Ezeonuku III of Onuku, to the fairly recently appointed expatriate (American) vice-chancellor of Songhai University in his prefabricated temporary residence on the campus. The slight ditherings of the host contrast with the lofty confidence of His Highness, who majestically dismisses the shamefaced offer of a Heineken (beer); the king has brought whisky, gin, a box of stout, eggs and a turkey in addition to “two giant pineapples” as “cola” (a welcoming gift) (9) – since Songhai is his country, the king says, it is for him to play the part of host. Although he claims to have come on his visit only to greet the rector, the king lets on that he is friends with the Prime Minister, the Minister of Educational Affairs and the Governor-General of Songhai and that he is the First Class Chief of the province in which the university is located. He also drops the hint that the university’s registrar has displeased him by not employing enough people from the region and that among the two academic staff members that he singles out, “that boy they call Okoro” (actually Dr Okoro, one of the few locals with a PhD on the faculty) should be watched. Professor Ikin, on the other hand, earns the king’s praise for his social poise and sense of responsibility. “Anyway, that is not why I came,” (12) the king then adds, disingenuously, revealing to the reader exactly how astutely he manages to pull strings at Songhai University.

As soon as the king has left, Dr Wilson (the vice-chancellor) rushes off to inform and consult his two main henchmen on the staff, both of course American, about the royal visit. Naturally this leads to a discussion of the respective merits and demerits of Professor Ikin (an experienced and responsible person of professorial rank, but with only a bachelor’s degree) and Dr Okoro (who has a first-rate PhD from an American institution, but is a newly-appointed academic and by far the younger of the two men) regarding the possible succession of Dr Wilson at the end of the third year of his contract appointment, its having been agreed at the highest levels that a local academic should succeed the expatriate even though the university is US-funded. Despite Okoro’s youth, the Americans favour him because he has a doctorate and particularly because he is deemed likely to continue employing the American way of doing things. The British have nominally handed over power to locals, but all three US academics are terrified of the British “taking over” at the university by means of a local successor over whom they could wield power. There is an interruption as another unexpected visitor has tracked down the vice-chancellor; no less a personage than the Minister of Educational Affairs, who has another kind of complaint against the (British) registrar: he has refused admission to a secretary of the Minister’s even though she sent proof that an American institution was prepared to enrol her. Clearly, in Songhai, university autonomy is not a priority!

The scene shifts to stage the reader’s first opportunity to encounter Okoro, who is hailed (in a tone of pretended adulation) as “OK Power!” by three bright junior lecturers who are also friends. They use the nickname to soft-soap Okoro, whose vanity is impervious to their irony. The trio are lecturers in mathematics, economics and history respectively. It is especially the latter who resents the flamboyant Okoro who, despite his doctorate’s being in linguistics, had earlier attempted to muscle himself into an appointment as senior lecturer in that department, which would have blocked the junior man’s way to promotion.

As soon as Okoro leaves, the discussion among the other three reveals how much they despise him and his ruthless willingness to manipulate people (he has successfully made himself the adored hero of a majority of students) to serve his ambition.

In the following chapter we see the British faction, in which the two chief players are the registrar and the professor of English. They, too, discuss Ikin and Okoro; they are convinced of the importance of backing Ikin to succeed Wilson, but are aware of the danger posed by Okoro’s suspect glamour in contrast with Ikin’s relative timidity and his quiet ways, as well as the drawback presented by Ikin’s loud and bumptious wife, an unstoppable, excessively lively woman.

The plot begins to thicken as we see Okoro arriving unannounced at his home town. Having always disdained “supernatural assistance” (juju) in the earlier stages of his stellar intellectual career, Okoro has decided that beating Professor Ikin to the post of vice-chancellor requires his seeking the aid of a “medicine man” – Ebenebe, perhaps the most formidable available manipulator of unseen forces among a people (his own) known for the supernatural skills of their traditional doctors and their readiness to avail themselves of such help.

In contrast with the rather eerie and yet thrilling visit to Ebenebe, we see in the next chapter exactly how inane “academic debate” can be: chapter 7 depicts this in brilliantly satirical but entirely convincing detail as we witness heated discussions inter alia about whether two committees are “standing” or “ad hoc”! Ike is a most entertaining author and his deft but unpredictable shifts of scene and of viewpoint in this text give us a vivid impression of the tangled skein of human affairs on a small campus. We learn that Brown, the professor of English, has been having a finally unsatisfactory affair with the wife of his good friend the registrar, tacitly encouraged to do so because “no single man could satisfy Julie; what she probably needed was a relay of at least five deprived soldiers!” (81) – at least in the eyes of the poor, crestfallen and sexually inadequate Brown.

Dr Okoro, who has set up his balcony so as to spy on his rival and others on campus, finds the tables turned on him in the next scene. A patron of the League of Bribery Scorners of Songhai University, he is caught in the act of accepting the standard bribe of lots of expensive liquor and foodstuffs by Mrs Ikin, who simply walks into his home, on a flimsy pretext, in order to find out who his visitors are. And off she goes to spread the news on campus. The next chapter depicts a confrontation between the vice-chancellor and the registrar: Dr Wilson is furious because the registrar and some influential allies have written to the chairman and members of the university’s Provisional Council in regard to instituting a Senate – a British institution that would evidently curtail the vice-chancellor’s powers and serve their ends. Dr Wilson cannot do much more than air his furious irritation, but the next bout of problems strike when a young female student leader dies unexpectedly and the restive student body demands cessation of classes and other (expensive) measures in her honour. And no sooner has this crisis been weathered than a damning report – highly detailed and convincing – about the university and its future management appears in the leading local daily. The report implies that Wilson, in order to extend his vice-chancellorship beyond the three years of his appointment, has been driving a wedge (divide-and-rule style) between the two leading Songhaians, Ikin and Okoro, one of whom is likely to succeed him. The report also reveals that Dr Wilson had to leave a previous appointment (at an Asian university) prematurely and ignominiously because of student dissatisfaction with his rectorship. Wilson sees no option but to resign with immediate effect, but Okoro joins their discussion and offers to get behind the damaging report and find out who wrote it and what can be done about it, so Wilson agrees to hang fire for the moment.

Songhai University’s troubles only intensify. On the same day that the report becomes known, Professor Ikin and his wife – engaged in a furious argument about how the professor should or should not be campaigning for the vice-chancellorship – discover, attached to the door of their living room, a juju or “charm” known to have lethal potency. Though tiny and made of leather rather than anything blatantly poisonous, it is considered so fearful thatno one, not even the vice-chancellor, is prepared to risk touching it – so the entire door is removed! This incident then provokes an anonymous letter in an outraged tone, widely distributed on campus and ridiculing Dr Wilson for allowing the university’s academic standing to be undermined by its having seemed to succumb to intimidation by primitive magic. What the juju does achieve, however, is at last to galvanise the hitherto sluggish ambitions of Professor Ikin, for the juju has recognisably come from Okoro and his cultural group. As the narrator comments drily in the words of a local proverb: “It is never necessary to tell a mad man that the market is ablaze” (129). Still, his wife pronounces that his “gentlemanly” ways won’t land the prize; she’ll do what is necessary. Ikin goes to see his British allies, the registrar and Professor Brown, warning them that they face a “tough battle”, one that will have to be “fought on all fronts” (133). He is unaware that Brown has an additional (secret) reason for joining battle on Ikin’s side against Okoro: Brown has discovered that Julie, his friend the registrar’s spouse, has replaced him as her lover with Okoro, a substitute who leaves her purring with satisfaction. Or as the disgruntled Brown comments huffily on Professor Okoro’s “deplorable character”: here is “a man who spent his working day deploring everything British but sneaked off at night with a British wife!” (145).

Mrs Ikin, in the meantime, has driven straight to the palace of His Royal Highness Ezeonuku III of Onuku. Her opening gambit (since she has dared to interrupt his afternoon nap, and knows him only slightly beyond being aware that he is a major power behind the scenes in university matters) is to lavishly praise his superb taste in having the magnificent palace built, landscaped and beautifully furnished. He soon succumbs to her evident desire to charm him, especially since he identifies her (culturally) as being “an Okanu woman” and since it is well known, he states, that Okanu women “have a natural gift for it” (150) – in other words, for bedroom antics! The two soon come to an understanding, especially as the king is already a supporter of Ikin’s candidature for the vice-chancellorship and Mrs Ikin can reassure herself that in seeking the sexual and other favours of the king she is doing no more than a loyal wife should! The whole scene is depicted in delightful, lively detail as the flirtation proceeds to a promise of eventual fulfilment, the shapes and characters of the enormous king and the very large woman with their equally outsize egos and appetites delineated robustly but without vulgarity. For now, however, Mrs Ikin has to proceed with her campaign and drive on down to Capital City to see the chairman of the Provisional Council – another powerful source of influence on the outcome of the succession battle.

Her first port of call is the home of the chairman of the Provisional Council of the university, but here a very jealous second wife resolutely blocks another woman’s access to her husband – even summoning the police to eject the nearly equally determined Mrs Ikin! She gives up to fight another day by inserting herself (here, too, despite resistance from the servant whose task it is to fend off unwanted visitors) into the home of a couple with whom she is only slightly acquainted, since it is too late to drive back home and she is yet to speak to the Council chairman. With undiminished chutzpah (or is it simply gall?), Mrs Ikin gatecrashes her way into the Council chairman’s office the next day and leaves only after he has promised his support for Ikin’s candidature.

In the following chapter we are at last enlightened concerning the source of the damning newspaper report about Songhai University: it had been none other than Dr Okoro – drunk in a pub and wanting to impress a young beauty queen and outshine her scornful boyfriend, unaware that the man is the editor of the most influential daily in the country. Since the false “information” he spread at the time has backfired in strengthening Professor Ikin’s chances of getting the rectorship and weakened his own, he is now driven to the desperate measure of trying to bamboozle the mother of the university’s Provisional Council chairman – an elderly lady who is known to hold sway in her son’s life – that she needs to instruct her son to support Okoro’s candidature. He drives away after visiting her on the pretence of being a close friend of her son’s, certain that “Madam Coker would not let him down; she had looked so fascinated with the [expensive] presents [he had bought to take to her] and the account of the powers wielded by her son” (177).

The three young assistant lecturers continue to fulfil the role of a type of chorus of interested commentators on the main events of the text. They have their own ambitions, but their perspective on the two main Songhaians and the British versus American interests at play are quite enlightening. Osita, the assistant lecturer in economics, is thoroughly disgruntled with their institution. Except for the one or two “intellectuals” on the staff, he declares, Songhai University dons “spend all their time scheming or dispensing charms or running after village girls and colleagues’ wives – concerned with everything but the traditional occupation of intellectuals” and he himself is determined to take up a post elsewhere “before the world’s intellectual community gets to know what’s going on here” (180). Already the local (Songhai) “public knows that we [academics] devote all our time to building camps around personalities rather than to academic pursuits” (181). Osita, himself the author of several important articles in his field, is particularly critical of Okoro, who appears to “choose to rely on nocturnal visits and unscholarly activities” rather than research publications for his “progress” (183). Etuk, assistant lecturer in mathematics, confirms these remarks with further damning information about Okoro:

Those of us who knew him in the States know how many American girls he ruined over there. At least three of them have kids by him. None of them knew when he left the States. A fourth girl who was expecting a baby by him at the time he left, is believed to have committed suicide since then. (185)

When she wrote to his home address, Etuk says, Okoro made his father write in a reply that Okoro had died!

A new (or hitherto unseen) role player in the affairs of Songhai University appears in the following scene: the American ambassador. He has, we learn, called the vice-chancellor to a meeting at his residence. Though his tone is cordial and the two are old acquaintances, it is clear that there is a power hierarchy in play here when the ambassador asks the vice-chancellor whether he consulted anyone before informing the chairman of the Provisional Council of his decision to resign after only a year, with immediate effect, well before the end of his three-year tenure. Somewhat puzzled, the vice-chancellor insists: “[T]he decision is mine”, evoking this response from the ambassador:

“Mal,” he resumed slowly, in a mellow tone, “there’s one point you must recognize.” He lifted himself and sat on the edge of the chair, as close as he could get to the vice-chancellor, who instinctively reciprocated. “You must recognize that you are not as free in your decisions here as a university president may be at home; for at Songhai you represent the interests of the United States.” (193)

To the foregoing he adds:

“The Home Office pours more money into this country than into any other underdeveloped country. Why? Because of the strategic importance of Songhai. Give us an air base and a naval base in this country and we’ll readily thwart all British designs on Africa. […] Capture the education of a nation, and you capture that nation’s crème de la crème.” (194)

The by now increasingly hapless figure that the vice-chancellor has become is articulated in his conclusion: “So the upshot of all this is that I cannot resign, no matter how much dishonour is done to my name?” and in the fact that at this moment, when he looks at the large photograph of the US president, “he found the Big Brother smile on the President’s face revolting” (195). The ambassador now also informs the vice-chancellor of unsavoury aspects of Okoro’s nature; that he is the source of the unfortunate publicity in the newspaper report and the one who had acquired the juju to scare Professor Ikin, as well as being a serial seducer – without mentioning that he had found all this out by means of the spy system after Okoro had, previously, briefly got his claws into the ambassadorial couple’s own elder daughter! Crestfallen, Dr Wilson leaves the scene. The ambassador has even dropped a hint that the embassy is well aware of the vice-chancellor’s own brief fling (resulting in a pregnancy and an abortion) with a Songhai village maiden which HRH Ezeonuku III had sent to him as “comfort” since his wife had not yet joined him!
A further crisis comes upon the university when a “major student riot” (205) erupts at the end of May, triggered by the resentment of the respective Okoro and Ikin supporters against one another; inflamed feelings that come to a head in a clash between rival demonstrations. “Everyone at the University [the narrator tells us] considered the student riot to be a barometer reading of the highly explosive campus atmosphere” (210).

The voice of decency in commenting on these events is yet again that of Osita, the assistant lecturer in economics. “After this riot I’m beginning to wonder, as a Songhaian, whether it’s enough just to resign. I’m sure you, Opara [he says to his colleague in the history department] and I, plus another few other honest people on this campus, […] can do something to save the University” (216–7). Osita, we gather, is rather less than willing to commit himself to such an ideal and the struggle it entails. What idealists would be up against becomes clear in the following scene, where Mrs Ikin pays a second visit to HRH Ezeonuku III in his palace, using her usual technique of forcing her way in, but generously welcomed by the king once she reaches his presence. From the king she learns (without being aware of the American ambassador’s blackmail or “persuasion”) that the vice-chancellor is about to put proposals to the Provisional Council that are designed to elevate Ikin to the vice-chancellorship within one year. She and her husband are to spend the coming year in the US to provide Ikin with the opportunity to learn more about the American tertiary education system, following which a US institution would confer the Honorary DLitt degree on him. Glowing with pride and elated at such an imminent elevation in status, Mrs Ikin returns home, convinced that her husband will accept this splendid proposal.

Next we see the British faction deliberating about how to adjust their lobbying strategy now that the Americans seem to have “dropped” Okoro in order to back “their” man, Ikin, as successor for the vice-chancellorship. They’ll get him to spend several weeks in the UK on his way home, they decide, as the guest of the British Universities Council, believing that this will “erase” much of the American influence and “would identify Britain with the grooming of the vice-chancellor designate” (233). In the meantime, Okoro is becoming increasingly desperate and worried about his own prospects, which will be abysmal once Wilson is succeeded by Ikin as the administrative head of the university. No newspaper will take his “feed” this time; he does have the registrar’s wife fiercely on his side, as openly as she dares to be in backing her lover; nevertheless, he is anxious indeed.

What if that last hope failed him? […] [H]is rivalry with Ikin had become a war of survival. It made no difference whether you eliminated your opponent with a dane gun or with [a] napalm bomb. If subtle tactics failed him, Ebenebe the medicine man would not. […] This time he would not ask for a charm. […] Something more precise was needed, and it must be arranged so well that he could protect himself with a watertight alibi. (239–40)

On this ominous note, we move to a scene where Ikin gets home well after dark finding his wife, to his surprise, dressed in an evening gown and about to summon the vice-chancellor and his two main (American) allies on campus to a champagne celebration at the Ikins’ home – to celebrate, he learns, his imminent appointment as vice-chancellor designate of Songhai University! The rather dour professor puts an immediate stop to his wife’s partying plans because he has received “no formal offer” (243) as yet. Soon after this, Ikin informs the council chairman that he needs time to consider his response to the vice-chancellor’s proposals, which the chairman puts to him. Ikin will present his response in person at the imminent full meeting of the Provisional Council, he tells the chairman.

In a fairly long chapter following this, the narrator depicts the gathered members of the Provisional Council of Songhai University one by one in vivid and amusing detail, informing us of their various personal idiosyncrasies. They include a hugely wealthy and all but illiterate businessman, a church minister, a special adviser to the Ministry of Educational Affairs with a doctorate in pedagogy, a former teacher who is a Member of Parliament, the vice-chancellor, as well as the registrar of the university. They have some interesting and occasionally odd preliminary discussions and disputes, in the course of which the special adviser seems to discover some rectorial ambitions of his own, since he does possess what are listed as the necessary qualifications – being a local citizen and having a doctorate in a suitable discipline to qualify him for such a high academic post.

When Professor Ikin addresses the Council members in his usual quite formal and deliberate fashion, he reads from a carefully prepared statement. To the probable dismay, or at least surprise, of many of them, especially the vice-chancellor, Ikin states that, conscious as he is of the honour of the offer made to him, several key aspects of it are unacceptable (and, he distinctly implies, all but insulting) to him. Firstly, he questions why he would require a year’s stay in the US to immerse himself in Songhai University’s educational philosophy, when he has twenty years’ local experience. Nor does he see the necessity of having a fast-track doctorate being bestowed on him when, throughout the world, many university rectors occupy the position capably despite their lacking PhDs. Thirdly, he is perturbed and incensed that many decisions vitally affecting the university’s future are being rushed through without his being consulted as to his views on these matters. In view of these factors, Ikin concludes, he finds himself unable to accept the offer. After further problems are raised, following Ikin’s dignified departure from the meeting, it ends inconclusively.

The next chapter opens with fears of a further riot by the Songhai students. When the rumours turn out to be baseless, campus gossip is divided as to who would have started them. Some say it would have been Mrs Ikin, who left as soon as the Council meeting had been concluded, “to facilitate her recovery from the stunning blow [to her ego and her ambitions – that] she had received” (271). Most of the men on campus suspect Okoro of having attempted to foment student unrest clamouring against the rumoured offer of the university vice-chancellorship to Ikin rather than to himself.

At the campus end-of-year banquet, the atmosphere is unusually subdued. From a conversation between the three assistant lecturers we learn that Osita, armed with a firm offer of an appointment to a prestigious UK institution, went to Capital City to discuss the situation on Songhai campus and to enlighten influential people concerning what is (in his eyes) the true state of affairs and what he sees as the appropriate remedial measures. He found, he says, “abysmal ignorance about the University […] even in the Ministry of Educational Affairs”, but “everyone advised [him] to expect major developments very soon” (275) and, without explaining what these might be, advised him to put his resignation and relocation plans on hold. Whether this is a hint (as it seems to be) that he himself harbours hopes of a much more important role in the university’s affairs, not excluding the vice-chancellorship itself, is not entirely clear.

In the concluding chapter we learn that the US ambassador is absolutely furious at the outcome of the Council meeting and the subsequent news that the British ambassador saw a gap and proposed Professor Brown, the professor of English, as the interim successor of Dr Wilson till a suitable Songhaian could be found. Knowing the danger this spells for his own diplomatic career future, he has ordered Wilson to resign, making the present vice-chancellor the scapegoat for the failure of the Ikin project – on pain of exposing Wilson’s affair with an under-age local girl, but offering a few sweeteners to soften the blow. So now a new interim, temporary, American vice-chancellor is to be appointed (and paid) by the American government, to be succeeded after a year by a suitable local. By now, the reader is aware that those in the running have grown from two – Ikin and Okoro – to four with the “addition” of Dr Osita and the Council member who is the special adviser to the Ministry of Educational Affairs.

The novel ends with the defeated Wilson accepting an all-expenses paid holiday in the Caribbean for him and his family from the US government – the offer relayed through the ambassador.

This clever text – amusing and entertaining as much as it is instructive – has stood the test of time.

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