Thursday, March 15, 2007

Niyi Osundare's "State Visit"

THE STATE VISIT- A Review by Wole Oguntokun

The State Visit by Niyi Osundare is a Stage Drama published by Kraft Books Ltd in 2002 but first performed by The Creativity Workshop at the Arts Theatre of the University of Ibadan in 1997. The genre chosen for expression by the writer is a sartorial comedy.

The location is the fictional Yanke, which appears to be a thin veil for Nigeria itself and the antagonists are the ruler of the country simply known as “Head” and his entire cabinet of ministers. The Head and his ministers prepare for a state visit by a ruler of a neighbouring country, Wilama, hence the title of the drama, a visitor known by many names including the “Son of the Leopard, Descendant of the Towering Giraffe, Offshoot of a warrior family…” amongst many others.

Many Nigerian playwrights consider it a point of social responsibility to discuss the issue of the excesses of their military leaders and Professor Osundare is no exception. Wole Soyinka’s King Baabu, this writer's Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka? and Deji Toye’s Botching of a Brute are examples of work done in this regard.

The cabinet of Yanke, an obsequious crew that follows its leader, the Hyena of Yanke to the point of absurdity in his various schemes are given curious characters by the playwright bordering on the farcical. The Minister in charge of Public Morality is female but spends time engaging in touching and being touched in sensitive areas of her body by the Minister of Agriculture, all these taking place during cabinet meetings. It appears the Minister of Agriculture whose ministry is deprived of money designed to keep the masses from starvation is a form of the former Roman Emperor Nero who fiddled as Rome burnt. This minister has no problem with the impending starvation but finds the threat of hunger to the people amusing.

The Minister simply known as “Agric” says: “What future are you talking about?” The future is not the problem now. When it comes, it will take care of itself. Let us eat and be merry today. Why should we bother about tomorrow? You can only grab what you see.”

The Minister of External Affairs is lent more intelligence than the entirety of the cabinet combined, indicating to the reader that sometimes, the dictator-rulers of Africa often add members of the intelligentsia and academia to their ranks, people who should know better but instead become willing aides in the continuous pillaging of the African continent.

The voice of conscience in the cabinet of Yanke’s government is the Minister of finance who makes his opposition known to his fellow cabinet members and the Head of Yanke. He then walks out on the cabinet and is replaced by a more unscrupulous and opportunistic Finance minister. It is unlikely that in reality, any finance minister could state his opposition plainly to a ruler like the Head. Opposition is not accepted lightly by people of this ilk, is regarded as a personal affront and extreme and final steps are taken against thos regarded as disloyal. Sanni Abacha of Nigeria (who appears to be the Head) and Idi Amin Dada of Uganda are examples of the reactions of maniacs in power.

There is an official journalist for the Head and his ministers and the extremes gone to, so as to be perfect in the pictures taken are absurd, ridiculing the entire cabinet. It appears that the main pattern of satirizing the excesses of African and particularly Nigerian leaders is farce. The journalist represents those that fiercely opposed the Head but who were bought over by subtle threats and the largesse given by the government to those it tries to silence. The question to be asked here is, “Does everyone have a prize?”

Even today, in modern day Nigeria, it is obvious that parallels may be drawn between the cabinet of Yanke, deaf to the entreaties and sufferings of its people and the ruling government in Modern day Nigeria peppered with members of the ruling political parties.
The discontented people of Yanke are represented by a selection of beggars, students, workers and a discontented painter who refuses to use his skills for preparing for the visit of the neighbouring ruler. The beggars tell their own stories of how they have been betrayed by the state, left to fend for themselves in extreme deprivation. It is obvious that Yanke is a failed state, lacking all forms of welfare for its people and the similarity to the Nigerian situation is extremely disturbing to this reader.

One of the beggars becomes a alms-receiver as a result of an accident with a piano he was helping to unload. The Piano itself, an instrument of cultural enlightenment meant for his master‘s daughter, falls on him as he helps with the unloading, and causes him the use of his limbs. The master, representing the upper class does not see to his welfare and subsequently he becomes a beggar. The symbolism of the piano as an instrument of subjection and repression is a striking one.

The painter (or creative person) who refuses to work for the Lion of Yanke fearlessly calls the entire cabinet derogatory names to their faces. He refers to them as tyrants and vampires but the Head chooses to remain obtuse, not understanding what is being said. When the cabinet finally realizes the “artistic” insults of the painter, the ensuing rage costs the painter his life.
The State Visit does not take place, at least in the play as the people violently resist the excesses of the Lion of Yanke. The Narrator is left to finish the story in the end, saying that “Yanke will never be the same again” and indeed the songs of opposition are heard continuing despite the deaths of several citizens at the hands of the law enforcement agents of Yanke. The Narrator who set us on the path to an understanding of the play ends the performance and it appears as if the future of Yanke is in the hands of the people and whether they will choose to react or be silent. One wonders if this is a call to revolution by the playwright. For those who might think all revolutions are calls to anarchy, we must remember that we have seen the success of a rose revolution where no shots were fired but where the people took back the reins of government from undeserving leaders.

The writer seems to be comfortable with a didactic approach, one where lessons are taught and learned and indeed the entire play through its Narrator, plot, twists and the development of its characters teaches moral development all the way. The helplessness and frustration of the citizens in the country today are well thought out and a way out is revealed by the playwright. The people must speak up and reclaim what is theirs or die in the throes of tyranny.

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