THE WRITER AS A REMINDER OF HISTORY: A CRITICAL REVIEW OF ONYEKA IKE’S SHACKLES OF FREEDOM BY TERESE UWUAVE

BOOK TITLE: Shackles of Freedom
AUTHOR: Onyeka Ike
PUBLISHER: SEVHAGE, Makurdi
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2014
PAGES: 176 Cream Paperback.

Onyeka Ike’s Shackles of Freedom details the country’s post-colonial hostage days in the hands of the military who took over the leadership of Nigeria in quick succession immediately after the abortion of the first institutionalized independent government. There is a side story that is dominant, that of Major Shigaro, a soldier who tries to save the country by staging a coup. He is integral to the book and in the end, his biography becomes the major component. In a way the author tries to show how some heroes are born and why they are the way they are.

Throughout the novel, Ike realistically paints an unforgettable picture of an unflinchingly wicked dark-goggled General whose description and rapacity are reminiscent of General Sani Abacha to hover the entire novel. The dark-goggled General who holds the country in hostage as he perpetrates his every day churlishness becomes Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ or perhaps Adichie’s ‘Big Man’ or ‘Big Oga.’ Through the leadership of the dark-goggled General, readers are realistically brought to witness and feel the selfish, evil and tyrannical leadership of the military. In the case of the novel, there’s a thin line between the fictional narrative and the actual events in Nigeria. Real events are narrated and the names of real life characters like M. K. O Abiola, Gani Fawehmi, Beko Ransome-Kuti, are mentioned. In this way, the novel might be seen more as faction—a mixture of facts and fiction.Shackles of Freedom

The appropriateness of Ike’s choice to expose the evils of military dictatorship in Nigeria through the dark-goggled General is not only premised on the fact that the dark-goggled one represents a figure that hijacks the country, but this same military leader epitomizes corruption, human rights abuse and brutality. At the opening pages, readers already have their indulgence craved, of the intimidating presence of the military dictator:

A military mafia spearheaded by a dark-goggled General was holding the country hostage. The General, perhaps, considered himself a special breed who was born to rule perpetually. He was in the clique of ambitious soldiers who severally conspired to abort democracy in Nigeria and substituted it with treachery, dictatorship and agonizing tyranny (9).

With the above acquaintance, the author brings into synergy the evil acts carried out by the military dictator; which of course stand for the entire military administrations in the country: siphoning of government funds into private funds into personal accounts, brutalization of innocent citizens, complete denial of the fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech, underdevelopment, intimidation, unlawful killings of citizens, especially human rights activist among many other ways aimed at nipping full participatory democratic government in the bud. There are also several mindless killings.

One of the earliest exposition of the General’s unlawful killings is the recorded death of the environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was sentenced to death without fair trial alongside eight others under the command of General Abacha (in real life) and General Abudu (in the novel). This brings up a painful realization that death stands out as the military’s ‘appropriate’ reward to people speaking against their constant dehumanization, exploitation and other killings. As the people cry and sympathize with the Ogoni people, the author evokes the question of the far earlier killing (during the Babangida government) of prominent journalist, Dele Giwa in the now famous refrain: WHO KILLED DELE GIWA? (11). Through this means, the author decries not only the Abacha regime but the military regime in Nigeria, Africa, and the entire world in the recent past as he navigates through the military leadership of Charles Taylor, Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, Samuel Doe, Jerry Rawlings and Fidel Castro, among others.

With the power crazy General, readers are exposed to other ambitious soldiers as they conspire among themselves against their leader to save their country—or perhaps, also get their own share of the national cake. It is among this group that we find Major Shigaro, the main character in the book around which most of the narration is seen. Major Shigaro is consciously preoccupied with this quest as seen in most of the novel. This is also marks Ike’s answer to the reason behind the myriads of military coups the country suffered in the past.

In bringing about change, the author views the option of another coup as conceived by Major Shigaro as uncivilized, barbaric and most importantly, undemocratic. This act by Ike clearly shows that two wrongs don’t make a right and that an evil should not replace an evil for this would give birth to only more evil as experienced in the history of Nigeria in the military coups and takeovers. This justifies the emergence of civil rights activists like Wole Soyinka, Bunie, Femi Falana, Beko and Gani  (who appear in the novel without any change to their name) who head the people to demonstrate their disenchantment of military regime and a crave for democracy, with the masses throwing their back behind these heroes. These activists take up different activities to ensure their voices are heard including write-ups (in journals, newspapers and the like) and peaceful demonstrations. An example is seen in the scene:

They sang it, they chanted it. They demonstrated and displayed it with diverse inscriptions… ‘ABUDU MUST GO!’ ‘WE WANT DEMOCRACY AND GOOD GOVERNANCE!’ ‘RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS!’ ‘SET M.K.O ABIOLA FREE!’ ‘NO MORE DETENTION!’ ‘JUNE 12 IS ALIVE!’ ‘BEKO IS A PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE!’ ‘NIGERIA MUST BE FREE!’ ‘NIGERIA MUST MVOE FORWARD!’ (127).

This is the author’s picture of the disillusioned masses who are held hostage by the dark-goggled General, as they express their grievances on the continuous killing, intimidation, cheating and unjust detention of the masses by the military dictator. Ike gives his readers a more illuminative insight into the atrocities of the military and cogent reasons for its abolition in his open letter to the Head of State, written by the daring Gani (136-137). All these help to show readers the various struggles and means through which a lot of people fought for democracy to be brought back to Nigeria.

In this wise, while the dictator entrenches himself through various means including a million person march for his return, the soldiers led by Major Shigaro, on the one hand plot his coup. On the other hand, the democrats fight. It seems a showdown is evident that would change history forever. At the height of the excitement and the twists that Ike brings to his novel, he adopts an option to end his tale that shows that even in rulership and life, there’s always an extra player somewhere making things go in ways one might never expect.

Ike’s patriotism and realistic representation must be commended as he does not only bring readers to feel the dirt of military regime at close quarters but to also advance cogent reasons capable of convincing readers that democratization is better than militarization, especially with the clamoring for fundamental human rights as demanded by purposeful and well-meaning leaders plus the international community. Thus, in his own way the author holds up the mirror of the dark days for the country to view itself despite democratic administration.

Worthy of mention is the author’s ability to sincerely stay close to history, thus giving more credibility to the symbiotic relationship that exists between literature and society. This demonstrates Ike’s knowledge of his country of birth. The chronology of some the events of history backed with fiction bring to mind Ferdinand Iorbee Asoo’s comment on the historical inclination of writers in his The African Novel and the Realist Tradition thus:

A writer with an incorrect or distorted sense of history will have no bearing on his audience and for such a writer, the function of the artist in society becomes essentially circumscribed. Equally the artist with correct historical facts, dates and other details but who lack the power to use history to reconstruct the future is doing a disservice to his society and humanity at large (234-235)

It is on the basis of this Ike would be considered a dedicated writer who uses history as material to warn his people of evident troubles. In his own way, the author seems to be advising the nation against considering military option as this might spell out troubles and untold evils that they cannot fathom. Ike’s historical inclination is important, especially as Nigeria seems not to be better in her constitutional handling than the military decrees from the recent past.

While all this is said, the same merit of Ike’s book can also be seen as a major defect. The book, Shackles of Freedom, is heavily influenced with seemingly unprocessed raw materials extracted from history. This makes Ike’s meal somewhat insipid as the obvious is not given artistic coloration or at best is given very thin coloration. This is what distinguishes fiction from fact, creative writing from non-creative writing. Obvious characters and names like Gani, Falana, Major General Shehu Yar’adua, M. K. O. Abiola, General Obasanjo, Soyinka, and the like could easily have been given new names even with their characteristics intact. This might have left the work in a very fictional state without the meaning being lost. The fictionalization of these characters might also have made the novel pregnant with meanings with a more objective outlook. The lack of this denies what might have turned out a classic as the book in this light, despite its several merit stated above, would appear now more with an inclination towards history  than creative writing.

Furthermore, Ike’s work is garnished with some material that one might find unnecessary. One wonders the overt biography of Major Shigaro and then Gani’s metamorphosis from ordinary human rights position to a position reminiscent of Jesus Christ or Ngugi’s Dedan Kimathi. The short biography of the lives of the various coup plotters also doesn’t add much to the tale as one wonders what it adds to the whole novel. Perhaps, the author might have considered giving more attention to the lives of the masses and the brutality facing them.

Despite all of these, Ike’s book is a book that would appeal to people who need a wake-up call on the activity of the military within the days of the dark-goggled General. It also zeroes in on the life of one solder (Major Shigaro) showing how most men become the monsters that they are.

It is a book worth reading and one that shows promise in the writings of the author.

Terese Uwuave, an award-winning critic and writer lives in Makurdi, NIGERIA.

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