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‘I have something that is worth winning the NLNG $100,000 prize’

‘I have something that is worth winning the NLNG $100,000 prize’

Despite losing some of his original manuscripts to communal clashes years ago, Henry Akubuiro still found courage and time to write again. Akubuiro, a Nigerian writer who doubles as an assistant editor of Saturday Sun, and an art editor, is among the Three Shortlist for the $100,000 Nigerian Prize for Literature. In this interview, the veteran journalist speaks to Obinna Emelike on his chances of winning the prize on his first attempt this October, the impact on his career, the platform, the sponsors, among others. Excerpt:

How do you feel about making the Three Shortlist?

I feel excited and fulfilled because the Nigerian Prize for Literature is the biggest in the country and Africa. It is one of the most prestigious prizes in the literary world today. So, coming this far, from the longlist to the shortlist, is an affirmation of the good work I have put into my book, Yamtarawala: The Warrior King.

I am excited.

Is this your first entry for the Nigeria Prize for Literature?

No. In 2015, I was part of the unfortunate group of writers who entered but the prize was canceled. That was for Children’s Literature. The judges canceled all the entries that year, and plunged all into despair.

Read also: The significance of the Nigerian Prize for Literature is bigger than the verdict of the jury

How do you see your second attempt at the prize?

It is not how many times you have entered for the competition. Majority of those who have won in the past entered only once. If you get it right the first time, you are on the right track to be celebrated. Don’t forget, Achebe wrote his first book, Things Fall Apart, at 28, and it went on to become the most translated work of fiction by African and the greatest literary work in the African canon.

Also, Chimamanda Adichie wrote her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, and at just 46, Chimamanda has become a literary avatar of contemporary African literature.

Having said that, I feel fulfilled. The dream of every writer is to be recognised and be honoured, apart from writing good creative works. So, when I was long-listed and I went on to make the shortlist, I felt on top of the world. I am fulfilled; it has always been my dream to get this far, because I know my qualities as a writer haven’t been recognised compared to my journalism, which I have paid more attention to for close to twenty years now.

What is the idea behind the play, Yamtarawala – The Warrior King?

I was inspired by an untold aspect of Nigerian history. Nigeria is a multi-cultural society of hundreds of ethnic groups, but the literature we have been showcasing in our writings is the literature of a few cultures. I don’t believe in the literature of exclusion. So, I wanted to celebrate an aspect of Nigerian history that has been neglected over the years – a compelling national story, too, celebrating a personage from the Northeast.

The Kanem-Bornu Empire which was one of the greatest African empires back in the days, and its sister domain, Biu Kingdom, a strategic emirate in the Northeast. In the ancient times, what we had were kingdoms, empires and chiefdoms. Kanem-Bornu was about the biggest empire of what we have in today’s Nigeria. It was a contemporary of empires like the Benin Empire, Oyo Empire, and so on. There was no Fulani Empire then in what is today Nigeria. Kanem-Bornu was about the biggest empire in this part of the world. The Benin Empire was limited to certain places south of Nigeria, and the Oyo Empire was limited to Western Nigeria and a part of the Benin Republic. But Kanem was about five countries – Northeast Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Southern Libya, and Northern Cameroon. So, it was a formidable empire. Nigerian literature hasn’t done justice to Kanem-Bornu Empire and the Yamtarawala story.

So, I thought it was wise to excavate this aspect of Nigerian history and culture. Also, I wanted to place emphasis on Bura/Babur culture and history, because this group emerged from Kanem-Bornu. It was the crisis of ascension that led to division of the Empire in the 16th century, when Abdulahi, who was to become Yamtarawala, broke out from the kingdom where he was supposed to be the next king. He was denied on the grounds that his mother came from Yemen. He, therefore, separated from Kanem and went southward to form his own kingdom. But it wasn’t an easy ride for him.

So, I was trying to focus on the resilience of the human spirit; how destiny could shape our trajectory even when the time odds are stacked against us. When you’re robbed of what you think is your right, how do you react? What do you do? Do you fight your brother, as we do in Nigerian politics, or do you go away to find your own fulfillment? That’s what Yamtarawala did. He didn’t fight his brother; he went his way to find his own fulfillment. It is a triumph over a dilemma.

Read also: Nigeria Prize for Literature: Rainbow book club hosts 2023 shortlisted playwrights

Also, there is a whole lot of misconception about Nigeria peoples, especially those from the northern part of the country. We don’t seem to know so much about them; we rely on hearsays and sentiments. When you know people better, you interact better with them. So, this drama informs Nigerians and other parts of Africa of this particular north-eastern heritage that we don’t know much.

More so, the play focuses on north-eastern dramatic and cultural aesthetics, which we haven’t seen much about in Nigerian theatre. When we go to cinemas or theatres, what we see are basically southern-based performances. That aspect of the northeast is not being recognised and celebrated in Nigerian theatre. So I am trying to bring something new; bring the northeastern aesthetics into Nigerian theatre, and also history that we haven’t forgotten. Also, how did our ancestors found their kingdoms and empires in those days? How did they relate? How did the indigenous northeastern culture relate with the Islamic ? Don’t forget that, in the 16th century, there was no British incursion yet in Africa in terms of political administration. But already at that time there was a Middle Eastern incursion, even regarding slavery. Islam was also creeping into Northern Nigeria.

So, the play seeks to interrogate that relationship between North Africa, the Middle East and Northern Nigeria and which we did not place emphasis on in Nigerian literature. But history is important in literature. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a work of historical literature. Ovonramwen Nogbaisi by Ola Rotimi is a historical drama –a Nigerian classic. Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka, The Women of Owu by Femi Osofisan and Atahiru by Ahmed Yerimah are some of the greatest dramatic works in the Nigerian literary canon. They are all historical dramas about cultures and histories outside of what I depicted in Yamtarawala, the Warrior King.

Let’s not forget, Northern Nigeria suffered incursions – Arabic, British – but what those of us in the south suffered was basically British incursion. So, I went back in time to depict that setting and the external influences, and also how the people reacted to them.

Aside the challenges, how long did it take you to research, put your thoughts together and write the play?

Just a few days ago, the legendary scholar and writer Prof. Idris Amali got across to me and said: “Henry, I’m surprised you wrote this play.” Also, Prof. Femi Osofisan, the most prolific and celebrated Nigerian playwright, called me and said: “Henry, you’re really educating me. I’ve never heard about Biu and the Yamtarawala story. You really did well. This is how it should be. For you to achieve this, that means you must have gone the extra mile.” Those words alone from a literary avatar are a validation.

In writing the play, I was inspired first by A History of Biu written by Dr. Bukar Usman, who is the president of Nigerian Folklore Society. In the book, he wrote about his people, the Bura people. They don’t only exist in Borno State; they are also in Adamawa and in Gombe State.

In those days, during the Yamtarawala era, they were also in today’s Yobe State. When I was writing this book, I was fascinated by the history. I said, “How come history didn’t teach me this, because I thought everybody was Kanuri in Borno State. I didn’t know that there were about 27 ethnic groups in the state, of which Biu is among. And also, the Bura people, with capital in Biu, is the second largest emirate in Borno State.

Read also: Nigeria William Moore makes shortlist of 5 for James Currey Prize for African Literature

So, I was fascinated by the book by Dr. Bukar Usman, who challenged me to travel to Biu to see different parts of Nigeria, because I told him I loved what I read in the history book. I wasn’t keen to travel initially, because I thought I could be killed by Boko Haram or kidnapped. I grudgingly went after much persuasion.

When I got there eventually, I fell in love with the entire emirate. I saw one of the most beautiful places in Nigeria; and they have a rich cultural heritage which many of us don’t know about, for it seems you are isolated. When I saw the kind of dance they have there, the Mwari-wari dance, the Bansuwe dance, etcetera, we’re used to seeing these on national TV or cinemas. It’s like an exotic culture, different from what we value.

In Biu Emirate, I saw where Yamtarawala himself committed suicide. That place still exists; it is a monument. Also, I went to where the kings were buried, dating back to 500 years. They also took me to where Yamtarawala used to go hunting. I saw so many things that I never come across in Nigerian history books. So, I started to put these things together.

I also went to the Emir’s palace to see what the palace looked like; the system of administration, from the top to the bottom rung. I had to learn all those things. I also met custodians of culture in Bura who taught me how the people organised warfare in those days and the weapons they used. And I married everything together. It was a risky adventure, from a southerner perspective; not everybody could go to Borno State because of fear.. Not everybody has the courage and confidence to go to Borno State. I thought I’d be killed. I was scared. Even the first time I went there, the people were surprised to see me. They said, “You, an Igbo man coming all the way from Lagos to Borno State, when your brothers had fled (laughs). They thought Boko Haram would kill everybody, so people left, abandoned their shops. It was a big risk for me to go there, but I spent days, thanks to the Bukar Usman Foundation.

The first time I went there in 2016, I spent two days there, visiting different locations. Last year, I went back there, spent more days, and I felt more at home. I also witnessed the kind of progress the Nigerian military had made, because when I went there for the first time, there were military checkpoints everywhere. But when I went there last year, there were fewer of them.

Having gone this far, what are your expectations?

The dream of every writer is to win the biggest prizes when he gets to the shortlist. So, I am also positive, but that doesn’t mean that, if it doesn’t come my way it is going to be the end of the world. But I’m very optimistic, because I know the story I have, and not just the story but the dramatic elements in the story – the performative aspect of it, which is very important. That is a key aspect of Yamtarawala – The Warrior King. It is out of the box. A play is not just a text– it is meant to be acted on stage. If it lacks the right ingredients to be realised on stage, it’s a failure. Yamtarawala… is meant to bewitch the audience watching it on stage.

It is not what we’re used to seeing in Nigerian theatre. When I took the manuscript to the National Troupe of Nigeria, immediately they saw it, they fell in love with it. They said, “This is the kind of play we love acting”, because it has dance, music, songs and folklore –that authentic African aesthetics and cultural identity of African indigenous drama meeting the European dramatic model. It is a new thing that I am bringing to the Nigerian theatre. Little wonder, the National Troupe of Nigeria and also the CEO of the National Theatre of Nigeria, Nigeria’s number one theatre ambassador, gave it a resounding pass mark when he saw it, too. That is the beauty of this work – not just the storyline. The theatrical qualities are spellbinding.

Read also: Authors receive over $1m in 17 winning works at Nigeria Prize for Literature since inception

What message are you trying to pass across in terms of leadership with the play?

First of all, I am looking at conflict resolution at its best. When the crisis occurred in Kanem-Bornu Empire, how Yamtarawala himself managed it is not something we’re used to in Nigerian politics today. His right was trampled upon. A typical Nigerian would not run away; he would stay there to fight his brother to standstill. But instead he decided to run away and found his own empire. So he embarked on his own quest to found his own kingdom. He didn’t fight his brother; he didn’t fight his people. He went his own way. That is one of the beauties of conflict resolution. That is what Yamtarawala showed here.

His tragedy is also a lesson to Nigerian politicians, because here was a man who aspired to be a leader. He got what he was looking for; he became a king himself. But how did he manage it? He didn’t manage it well. He eventually started fighting his own children, and that led to his tragedy. He felt there was a conquering king, a warrior who took the entire southern part of Borno by storm, conquering kingdoms. And when he conquered all the kingdoms, he started to conquer his own family, and that led to his tragedy. So, it is a big lesson. His ego became too much for him to manage such that he saw everybody, including his own children, as a threat. He committed suicide when the scale turned against him. That is a big lesson to Nigerian politicians. When you get power, how do you manage it? This tragedy is also akin to the Igbo traditional concept of the scapegoat as a vehicle for societal purgation.

When do we see ‘Yamtarawala – The Warrior King’ on stage?

It has already been staged by a troupe in Owerri. Right now, King’s College, Lagos, has approached me to stage it. Also there is a theatre in Abuja that approached to stage it. The University of Tubman, Liberia, has got across to me. They also want to stage it. The National Troupe of Nigeria is very interested. They have told me that they are interested in staging the play, because it is their kind stage of play, which they believed would resonate. It is a national story that they want to recreate on stage.

It is a historical drama, but I improvised with the dialogue –about 95 percent of it. I had to use the context of the story to invent the dialogues, also taking into consideration the speech mannerisms of the people I have encountered in Biu, and also create original characters who would fit into the original narrative.

After this play, what next?

I am getting a lot of encouragement. Scholars from all over Nigerian universities have been calling me. They want to use the book. The University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) has approached me. The University of Lagos and University of Maiduguri have also reached me. I am getting feedback from all over Nigeria, because the story line doesn’t exist in Nigerian literature. Nobody has tried writing it. It is like a virgin topic. Every scholar wants to be the first to write an essay on it. So I am going to continue in this light due to the encouragement I have gotten so far. And also people from Borno State are excited. There is so much buzz in the Northeast. Everybody wants to see this play on stage. Some people are also telling me that they want to put it on screen, because it is not just meant for theatre. It has cinematic appeal.

Look at how Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman has been turned into a movie; and it is a box office hit already. If you look at the Anikulapo movie that won several prizes at the last African Movie Academy Awards, it is a similar story. But these are Yoruba stories. I am stepping out of the bounds to go to a part of Nigeria where nobody is talking about. That’s the beauty of this narrative.

Read also: Nigeria Prize for Literature: Eleven in contention for $100,000

What is your take on The Nigeria Prize for Literature?

As everybody knows, I have been a literary journalist since 2005 when I was employed by The Sun and put on the Literary Beat. So, I have been reporting The Nigeria Prize for Literature since 2005. I have been following all the conversations, crises, promoting the Prize and critiquing works of writers. I am also part of the success story of the Nigeria Prize for Literature.

What this prize does for the writer is to encourage you to do more, because once you win it, all eyes are on you. Even getting to the longlist or shortlist, people will start taking notice of your art. It is like you are elevated to the next level. So, the Prize does so much for the Nigerian writers, both financially and as a platform to leverage on.

As I told you, I have been getting offers both from outside the country –from Liberia to Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and beyond – from people who want to read this book and those who want to stage it. It’s an authentic African story. That is what the Prize does for you; it is the number one Prize in Africa. So, I encourage NLNG to continue in this direction. When you celebrate Nigerian writers, you are encouraging the flowery of ideas and the intellect, not the yahoo-yahoo kind of smartness.