TITLE: SHACKLES OF FREEDOM
AUTHOR: ONYEKA IKE
REVIEWER: ADA AGADA
Onyeka Ike’s activist novel Shackles of Freedom can rightly be sub-titled The Biography of Major Shigaro. This is the case because it is the story of Major Shigaro Genje, the over-ambitious soldier who rose from the mire of the most abject poverty to become a Major in the Nigerian army. He is presented from the beginning as a power-hungry middle-level officer intent on overthrowing the dictator General Abudu. The Abudu factor is a thinly veiled reference to the late General Sani Abacha who ruled Nigeria with an iron fist between November 1993 and June 1998.
Shigaro embarks on his risky project of coup-making in an explosive socio-political atmosphere, with the defiant cries of pro-democracy activists shattering the air and their tireless feet practically pounding the streets in demonstration after demonstration called to put pressure on Abudu to change his mind about transforming into a civilian president. Major Shigaro the adventurer reviews the political events in his country and feels that they provide the perfect opportunity for intervention. He is not a moralist. He is not motivated by the kind of patriotic fervour that led Major Kaduna Nzeogwu to make history as the first coup leader in Nigeria. Shigaro is motivated by raw, unadulterated love of power: a yearning perpetually energized by the wretchedness of his past which he is never going to forget. While the love of unlimited power motivates Shigaro, Captain Kokoma who he successfully ensnares is genuinely disturbed by the Nigerian predicament. The Nigerian reader understands only too well when he or she hears Captain Kokoma lamenting thus:
An average Nigerian, first of all thinks of the good of his stomach; his family; then his tribe before he remembers his country. He mainly thinks of what he will grab for his stomach and for his ethnic group which he erroneously believes should always dominate the others … That is our problem; no genuine consideration for other people … No one really knows when the trend will stop; when we will begin to reason properly (23).
Captain Kokoma’s appeal to reason, the impotent demand that Nigerians enter the age of the intelligent African, is a forlorn appeal. The man listening to his appeal, the untested revolutionary, Major Shigaro, is impatient with what he considers the sentimentality of his junior colleague. Yet Shigaro’s dream of succeeding the hated General is one too fantastic to be realized. The brash, highly effective, and sadly unprincipled major is forced to abandon his tall ambition on the day the general succumbs unexpectedly to the greatest dictator of all, and also the most feared ̶ death.
Ike’s narrative style is colourful. He employs poetic language to evoke the beautiful, alternating short with long sentences in the process. However, his indiscriminate use of semicolons instead of commas is something of a mystery to the reader. The reader cannot help but reflect on Ike’s ultra-realism, the wedding of fiction with historical facts in a certain quasi-naturalism reminiscent of the naturalism of the French writer Zola. There can be no doubt that Ike deliberately inserts into the novel such real personalities as Wole Soyinka, Gani Fawehinmi, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Olusegun Obasanjo, Shehu Musa Yar’adua, Alfred Rewane, etc. Shackles of Freedom is an activist novel calling for political reform in Nigeria. To achieve his aim in the most spectacular way possible, the novelist introduces art to history and produces not a work of fiction in the strict sense but a work of ‘faction’. How well does Ike succeed?
The major weakness of this ambitious project of reconciling history with art is not the forced appearance of the historical figures per se but rather the sloppy manner the novelist throws these historical figures into the flux of fictional events, the glaring disconnect between the story of Major Shigaro Genje and the sub-story of, say, the historical Gani. Ike grants too much freedom to Gani and other historical figures to operate at the expense of the major characters in his novel. At one time the reader even wonders whether Gani is the major character or Major Shigaro. Ike does not manipulate the historical facts at his disposal well. In his anxiety to address the Nigerian predicament directly he usurps the duties of the journalist and the historian. Consequently, art suffers. A cameo now and then by Gani and his fellow activists would have allowed the narrative to flow as it traces the stories of the fictional characters in relation to the momentous political events Ike so earnestly wishes to describe. Indeed, a much bigger novel will be required for Ike to realize his tall ambition. As things stand, Shackles of Freedom is a medium-size novel. The space for historical and artistic grandstanding is lacking. The result is that the reader begrudges Ike for turning a novel that started so well into a piece of political writing.
Where Ike interests the reader most and where he performs brilliantly is in the portrayal of the human story of Major Shigaro, the depiction of the characters in the novel in their “everyday averageness”, as the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger will put it. In the kindly but battered old woman Eneza, in the miserable life of the dissolute Genje, the traumatized Zamuna, the forlorn Linda, and others we see a universe expanding beyond the horizon of the celebrated historical figures that clutter Ike’s novel. It is here that we read the personal and very tragic history of Major Shigaro, his arrival on earth through the instrumentality of Genje and Zamuna for which he is ungrateful, like Job, his struggle with huger and lack during which period he loses his mother and a useless father, and his heroic march to the Nigerian Defence Academy. We read that:
Academically, he was on the average scale, but he never ceased to work hard in order to improve himself. He would leave school for several days in search of school fees by doing diverse menial jobs which he had become accustomed to at this stage. It was a struggle which seemed too big for a boy of his age, especially at a time when some of his age mates were still being pampered by their parents … He had never reasonably drank the milk of motherly kindness nor really benefitted from fatherly love and affection (63).
The early suffering of Shigaro recalls the agony of Idemudia, the major character, in Festus Iyayi’s protest novel Violence. Unlike Idemudia, however, Shigaro lacks the elevation of heart and mind that enables Idemudia to see all human strivings for influence and wealth as vanity and that what truly counts for the dignified human are duty and love. Unable to rise above mediocrity, Shigaro fails to heed his dying mother’s plea to him not to be like his father. He fails as a husband just like his father, marrying three times without finding conjugal balance, the same Shigaro who “dreamed of the day he would insult money which had been insulting his family; the day he would sit on it as on a chair in the day and sleep on top of it as on a bed at night (50).”
This miserable aspiration is not the kind that creates heroes, and Shigaro does not convince the reader that he is a hero. In the end it is Onyeka Ike’s deeply moving psychoanalytic excursion into the past of Major Shigaro Genje that persuades the reader that he is indeed a novelist rather than a political pamphleteer. But even this is with sceptical conviction.
Ada Agada is an acclaimed critic and writer. He is the author of the novel, The Anxious Life. He lives in Makurdi, Nigeria.