ACCESSING THE STRENGTH AND SHORTCOMINGS OF WALE OKEDIRAN’S THE BOYS AT THE BORDER
Title: The Boys at the Border
Author: Wale Okediran
Publisher: Spectrum Books Limited
Pages: 141 (Paperback)
Reviewer: Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy
To all the boys who seem to do nothing all day but idle away, making a charade out of what it means to be a writer, it will be encouraging to know that Wale Okediran is a medical doctor writing in between stolen minutes of running in and out of hospital wards, yet making such a great job of it! The Boys at the Border would be the second novel book of Okediran that I would be reading (the first being After the Flood).
The Boys at the Border tells a story of deceit, corruption, betrayal, and revenge within the Nigerian Customs Service. However, the happenings in the Nigerian customs are but a reflection of what is obtainable in other government agencies in the country.
The dwindling price of crude oil has initiated a downturn in the economy scale of the country. This forces the military President to give directives to the Director of Customs to curb the illegal exportation of cocoa and groundnuts (both cash crops) outside Nigerian borders. This measure is taken as a last resort towards salvaging the already dwindling economic situation of the country. But can the Director of Customs achieve this feat, knowing quite well that some army boys are involved in smuggling, that the lower cadre of customs officials accept bribes and allow smugglers go scot-free, that some high profiled individuals (such as first class emirs and politicians) are making a fortune from smuggling? When the dangerous smugglers themselves, who are always prepared to give the customs boys a showdown (through spiritual and physical combat involving fire arms), are considered, should any attempt be made at confiscating their illegal goods by the Nigerian customs?
Of course it is a daunting task, but the Customs’ boss has no intention of declaring before the military president that he is incapable of carrying out the expected task. Certainly, not if the stability of his job depends on it! Mr. Emeka Emordi (the Director of Customs) convenes a meeting with his immediate sub-ordinates who disagree with the right of the military to order them about and blame all the smuggling on soldiers.
Meanwhile, a confrontation between some customs officers and smugglers has led to the death of Emeka’s brother-in-law, his wife’s brother. Emeka’s wife (Gladys) blames her husband for not having her brother transferred from the border as she has always requested of him before his untimely death.
When Emeka is summoned to an emergency meeting with the Military Council, he comes up with the truth that some soldiers have been engaged in smuggling, a fact disclaimed by his sub-ordinates for fear of losing their jobs when summoned by the same Military Council. This spelt doom for Emeka who goes into a state of cardiovascular arrest the moment he hears of his dismissal on the evening news relayed over the television.
With a brother dead and a bedridden husband brought to his current state by the deceitful manipulation of the Deputy Director of Customs (Enforcement), Alhaji Jibo, Gladys vows revenge. She will strike at the man who betrayed her husband and also deal with the smuggler who killed her brother. Reporting them to the law doesn’t fit into her plans. Past experiences have taught her that the men she is about to confront have always proven to be far above the law. Enlisting the help of Peter Ikoku (an ex-customs officer who resigns because he was frustrated by the corrupt practices within the Nigerian Customs) she decides to use unorthodox means to get at them, leading her to employ blackmail and attempted murder.
The novel’s magical realism keeps one enthralled as Okediran does not mince words on the efficacy of African “juju” (charms and amulets) and for a medical doctor, one might find his belief in this almost absurd and, still yet, admire the faith the writer invests in the metaphysical practices of the African people.
There is stark realism in the story and if the reader is looking for morals, this might not prove to be the right novel. In The Boys at the Border, it is a tit-for-tat affair. While one may not have issues with Gladys setting up Alhaji Jibo, one would probably not appreciate the fact that she received money from him and when the money was later discovered as counterfeit, it was taken to the bank to be exchanged for real ones! Does the corruption chain ever stop? What moral right has Gladys to set up Alhaji Jibo when she could allow counterfeit money to be exchanged for her?
Also, the blackmail part is not well written. I expected Gladys to tell Alhaji Jibo that she has given out a copy of the tape to someone else in case anything happens to her. In real life, Alhaji Jibo could have Gladys assassinated for blackmailing him, and the character of Alhaji Jibo in the novel is not beyond orchestrating such a devilish act. One does not just cut the tail of a snake like Alhaji Jibo and then expect to rest easy; one has to watch his/her back!
Maybe the idea of using crude means to have Lati Baba assassinated is not likeable. A society without law and order is in a state of anarchy. Gladys takes the law into her own hands by trying to murder Lati Baba, which is rarely a good manner of making someone pay for their sins. There must always be a way to let the law handle the issue and exert full punishment on all who have gone against societal laws. Man must not be allowed to take laws into his own hands, else there will be chaos.
But, to ponder on this: Does Samuel Adigwe really deserves to die? He has lived by the gun and through collection of bribes, so he can go that way. Gladys does not have the reader’s sympathy for trying to avenge him. Also, Peter is too sanctimonious for my liking, he backs out when his plans for revenge on Lati Baba fails and claims he is tired of the corruption in the Nigerian Customs. Had Lati Baba (the smuggler’s kingpin) not made a metaphysical attack on his life, one wonders if he would not have accepted the bribe and allows the free passage of Lati Baba’s goods.
It is interesting to know that none of the characters in Okediran’s novel is morally upright, such as the protagonist in his After the Flood; except perhaps Emeka Emordi (the customs’ boss). The novel’s lack of morality will not make me recommend it for students in secondary schools yet its simple narrative style might not make it an enjoyable read for readers seeking novels with exciting twists and a profound story.
I have also come to notice the influence of Okediran’s field in his stories. In After the Flood, the protagonist is a nurse and we are frequently brought in contact with the hospital environment. The same is applicable in The Boys at the Border where there exists numerous scenes within and around hospitals; even the story’s beginning is at a hospital where Samuel Adigwe is rushed to for treatment after sustaining gun shots injury. Here is an attestation to the fact that few, if any, writers are able to write outside the experiences that condition their being.
If asked to make a choice between The Boys at the Border and After the Flood, both by Wale Okediran, I think I would rather stick with After the Flood for its maturity. Nonetheless, though it does not leave me satiated (that is, if a novel is capable of doing so) I still enjoyed The Boys at Border.
Abubakar Isiaka Ishaq holds a degree in English and Literary Studies. He is an editor, poet, short story writer and has a keen interest in critical writing. He lives in Lagos and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org .