Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Activist

by Tanure Ojaide
324 pages
Reviewer- Wole Oguntokun

The novel appears to be along the lines of “faction”, first coined by Wole Soyinka, meaning “fiction based on fact”. The theme of the novel is unhidden, direct and confrontational. It is a strong depiction of the terrible exploitation of the Niger Delta area and the writer succeeds in painting a vivid picture of the rape of the environment by the Oil and Gas companies that do their business there.

There is a half-hearted attempt to hide the identity of Shell as the chief marauding company but even the emblem of the main culprit in the book is a red-rimmed shell of yellow flames, the same as that of Shell Oil in reality.

The writer makes many strong allegations, chief of which is that the rest of the country developed with the oil wealth of the Niger Delta area but at the detriment of the oil producing areas. Examples given are the development of the Festival Town (Festac Town) in Lagos and the Federal Capital Territory in Abuja.

It is notable that the book was published (at least in Nigeria) in 2006, yet the major local collaborators with the exploitative Oil companies is the Federal Military Government of Nigeria. No where in the book can this reviewer recall seeing the word ‘Government’, without the prefix, ‘Military’. It is almost as if the writer wishes it to be believed that civilian governments have not collaborated with the Oil Companies in the transformation of the Niger Delta Area into bleak and desolate wastelands. It might also be considered a self-preservatory reflex by the writer.

At some point, Ebi, the main female character and a supporter and eventual wife of ‘The Activist’ takes a suitor (Udoma), whom she met before she met her husband, to a traditional healer who is asked to help the man father a child with his wife. The inclusion of this ‘digression’ from the plot is the cause of puzzlement except it is to promote belief in the efficacy of traditional healing remedies as a cure to the woes of the Niger Delta area.
Udoma eventually fathers a child through his wife but loses the child years after because he did not pay the debt he owed the healer and instead trusted in his ‘born-again’ pastor.

The sensuality created by the writer between ’The Activist’ and the unlikely 37 year old virgin known as Ebi is at its most captivating when they go for a picnic by a distant river. The follow-up to the scene where they actually make love fails to match the initial sensuality. The language chosen does not call to mind a picture of a long awaited event. “The Activist stretched his tongue and Ebi reciprocated. They kissed.” Imagery calling to mind the activities of an Anteater.
The degree of sophistication of the Nigerian reader is a high one and appropriate words would have aided the appreciation of the situation better. The writer continues, “They began to rub each other”. Further on, we read in a moment of loving desire with Ebi and the Activist that “They broke the embrace to look at each other’s eyes satiated with desire for the other”. There is a contradiction in terms here and the language caused this reviewer to look up the word, “satiated” again. “Satiated” is a feeling of having had too much of something.

The main character, “The Activist”, is an academic and without any noticeable flaws. Even when he engages in the illegal acts of bunkering and fuel hoarding along with his area-boy friend, Pere, where the people who feel the hardship the most are the oppressed of the Niger Delta area, the writer lays no blame at the door step of “The Activist”.

Further on in the book, we observe that a Women’s stripping protest” where aged women had intended to walk naked in protest was aborted by the oil companies and the Federal Militry Government. Mrs. Taylor of the Women’s group invokes Umalokun, the patron goddess of women, to avenge the rape and humiliation of the women.
Mr. Van Hoort of Bell Oil subsequently suffers a heart attack and dies a week later while General Mustapha Ali Dongo, head of the Military Government also dies in strange circumstances. According to the writer, “the women’s thoughtfully planned action was fulfilled cosmically”. This appears to be an advocacy by the writer for supernatural ways of fighting the exploitation of the Niger Delta area. When the matter of Udoma’s son’s death for not paying a debt to a traditional healer is looked at in this light, the writer’s leanings become more apparent.

There are some grammatical errors in the book of which the blame of oversight must be laid on the publisher’s editors. The trunk of a car is referred to, at least twice in the book as a “booth”. The proper word would have been “boot”.

For this reviewer, by the end of the book, the Activist could not be told apart from the exploiters he had fought long and hard against. He had engaged in bunkering, a criminal act, and had also used his petrol station as a base for the illegal hoarding of petrol so as to force prices up in periods of scarcity. Who paid the ultimate price for these acts and suffered hardship? Not the Oil Companies but the poor people of the Niger Delta.
The Activist also sends his daughter to a “high class private kindergarten” school attended by the Children of Bell Oil and other Oil Company workers. The Activist’s excuse is that it is a “counter penetration” into the ways of life of those who have ravaged the land.

The reviewer learnt more in this book than he ever had about life in the Niger Delta area and the information on the background of the crisis is highly instructive. Still, there are many ways the story telling might have been improved.

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