Farafina Books (2006)
Celebrated Nigerian poet-scholar Tanure Ojaide fires a salvo by bringing us The Activist, a provocative novel that articulates to readers the irony of oil exploitation in modern Nigeria. This exhilarating tale, rich with local and universal issues, weaves historical facts with sophistication and passion in telling the story of its nameless protagonist, the Activist. Reminiscent of Ellison’s protagonist in The Invisible Man because of his nameless identity, Ojaide’s protagonist represents the very opposite of the modern Nigerian interested in fleeing the stymied climate that favoured the rich and well-off. An educator by profession, he abandons the safety and comfort of life in America and returns home with a revolutionary vision to support local communities protesting the desecration of their flora, fauna and livelihood by military dictatorship and multinational oil companies.
The Activist follows a middle-aged man whose life includes a mission to change the livelihood of his impoverished Niger Delta community, win the hand of his heartthrob and eventual wife Ebi, and honour his service to humanity. Ojaide’s protagonist is a man determined to protest and fight the corruption in the corridors of power and the exploitative practices of multinational oil companies in Nigeria’s Niger Delta community:
The Activist was one of those people described by American armchair psychologists as protest bugs that showed up wherever there was a big protest to attract media attention. He always tried to make time to join what he considered a necessary cause, and many causes were necessary in his view. He was on the mailing list of many organizations and more often than not responded to calls for major protests. To him, answering such calls was not civic but a human duty. He had flown to Europe several times on chartered flights to carry placards against Bell Oil International and the Group of Seven over debt relief for Third World countries (15-16).
Ojaide’s novel is full of memorable characters tied to the same destiny of survival and protest. Some of the protesting characters, though poverty-stricken, conjure up ways of risking their lives by engaging in the oil bunkering business dominated by corrupt army generals and the powerful elite. In fact, The Activist is Ojaide’s tribute to the unemployed and less privileged citizen in the struggle to gain his/her share from the multibillion dollar oil business in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region. He acknowledges their plight, tells the story from their viewpoint, and gives them a voice:
Pere also learnt that many of the top military officers were involved in bunkering. The head of the military junta was himself a bunkering chieftain. He had associates who did the job for him to enjoy the huge profits … Many of the generals had their own tankers taking crude oil to the spot market in Rotterdam (136).
Ojaide’s intention in his second novel is laudable. The narrative glides smoothly, and he addresses issues of universal concern with great subtlety and clarity. His descriptive language and economy of words capture the flora and fauna of his African homeland. His sense of history and exploitation of local communities lends legitimacy to his story. Only a writer who has lived in such a community could recapture the sensibility of his characters and the scenery of his setting with such depth and precision. Ojaide brings to his readers characters whose morals sum up the predicament of any human being living in an oppressed society. This novel, unlike any other work of creative imagination written about the oil saga in modern Nigeria, exposes the factors responsible for the creation of the "area boys", a group of Niger Delta youths and young adults armed and constantly waging battles with government forces as they fight for their rights to gain economic empowerment and an equal share of the profits of oil exploration in their homeland. Using the plight of the leader of the "area boys" as an example, Ojaide explores the mindset of these rebelling youngsters to show how social and economic forces dictate the morals of an oppressed community:
Pere saw petroleum as his own property forcibly taken away from him.
He was going to set up a business to reclaim his birthright. Call it illegal business, smuggling, stealing, or bunkering, he did not care what dirty names you called it.
He thought of the mobile police, the army boys, and the foreign planes with military men wielding strange guns and binoculars flying over the airspace. Their presence in the oil-rich area amounted to blatant intimidation and robbery. He would rob the robbers to get back his property. Bell Oil Company or any of the other oil companies did not have more right to the crude oil than him (137-8).
The power and importance of women as political and social forces in their local communities is another pivotal matter Ojaide brings to bear in this book. He introduces readers to the planned nude protest by the elderly women of the Niger Delta, whose region experienced oil leakage and a massive fire outbreak that claimed houses, lives, plants and farmlands as a result of negligence and neglect shown by the federal government and multinational oil exploiters, who saw no reason whatsoever to take preventive measures to avoid the occurrence of such a terrible experience:
The women were set for action. The Nigerian workers who had heard of the planned women’s nude protest either did not show up for work or slipped out before the women arrived. They were not ready to commit a taboo seeing women old enough to be their mothers or grandmothers naked! The gatemen were so embarrassed that they did not resist when they saw a stream of elderly women pouring in from boats. From the stare in the women’s eyes, the gatemen knew the women meant business and so ran away. The women took over both facilities without any resistance from the guards (250).
Despite the slew of political tensions that readers are constantly exposed to in this novel, many of Ojaide’s concerns float around the romantic adventures of his characters. The Activist, though occupied with his acts of protest, still finds time to court and marry Ebi, a young woman who lectured at the same university where he was hired as a lecturer. Their shared interest in the arts brings them together as one, despite occasional interruptions from family members who oppose their courtship because of tribal sentiments and patriarchal perceptions concerning Ebi’s childbearing capabilities, since she was already in her mid-thirties.
Ojaide also plays with the idea of love and romance inspired by relationships built across the Atlantic. Dennis Ishaka, the son of a wealthy Niger Delta businessman and titled citizen, falls in love with his personal assistant Erika in the Netherlands. The rest of what happens between the young lovebirds is a result of destiny in this hearty and splendid work of unravelling imagination.
Whether Ojaide succeeds in this novel is a debate open to readers who may critique his fiction from various schools of thought.
Where his plot seems to be preoccupied with language, he more than makes up with memorable events and dialogues. The Activist and Ebi’s participation in a protest march in front of the IMF and the World Bank in Washington DC shortly after his inauguration as Governor of Niger Delta State is an indication of the undying spirit of protest inherent in both characters and their commitment to justice and fairness that stretches beyond the confines of their homeland.
A reader desiring a feast of historical accounts enmeshed in finely crafted story lines may find Ojaide’s novel a welcome addition to his/her collection of books with ironic undertones. Ojaide’s knack for detail and socially relevant themes immediately places his book alongside books written by many of Africa’s finest novelists of social realism, such as Ousmane Sembene, Isidore Okpewho, Festus Iyayi, Magfouz Naguib, Zakes Mda, Mariama Ba. Though renowned for his numerous awards from the commonwealth and BBC for his poetry, with this novel he certainly announces his arrival as a gifted voice committed to telling stories that examine the human condition in the face of tyranny, oppression and military dictatorship in Nigeria.