By Tejumola Olaniyan
Oladejo Okediji is without doubt one of the finest writers in Yoruba language today. A distinguished teacher, poet and essayist, Okediji has since 1969, had five works published with a few others still in press. His first work Aja Lo Leru (1969) has the distinction of being the first detective novel in Yoruba. Along the same line is Agbalagba Akan (1971). The popular Rere Run (1973), is his only dramatic work in print. Atoto Arere (1981) is a novel and then the children adventure story, Oga ni Bukola. Evident in all these works is a stability of a vision, a consistency of concern with the inhabitants of the lowest segment of our social strata – in all their varied appearances – as they eke out from the not-too-kind society a meager existence.
The date of publication of Aja La Leru, 1969, shows the genre of the detective novel as a new entrant in Yoruba literature. Given our free-wheeling new colonial circumstances, there is some sociological inevitability about the emergence of this form. By 1969 when the novel came out, a substantial part of the Yoruba country had been opened up to the influence of the cities in all ramifications in warped urbanization, slumnification, prostitution, night crawling, robbery, political thuggery and violence, drug addiction and a host of other vices. These vices once considered the exclusive preserve of urbane centres, had become the everyday reality of the rural folk. Then there is the comparatively wide literacy base as initial audience for this category of writing, an audience already on a staple diet of Hadley Chase, Nick Carter and Ian Flemming.
Aja La Leru is a Hadley Chase type thriller without the electronic gadgets and automatic pistols. But more significantly, private detective, Lapade, is not some hired mercenary ready to do the job ‘if the pay is good’. He is not offended as an individual but rather as a member of the collective. Unlike in the Chase novels, our hero here dons the heavy garb of social morality.
A one time policeman, Lapade, like other members of the society, is worried by the increasing circulation of ‘Indian hemp’ and the inability of the police to break the syndicate. Lapade sets himself that task. After a series of successes and reversals, with many escapes by a hair’s breadth, he finally achieves his aim. A pragmatist to the core, Lapade finds nothing wrong in duping the hoodlums in order to finance his investigations and give succour to the victims.
Of all character groups in the novel – detectives and aides, victims, crooks and the police – the police receives the most scabrous treatment. Every chance is seized to show us that they are ill trained, ill-equipped, unintelligent and pathologically inefficient. Every success of the private detective puts their own uselessness into sharp focus. The title itself is an ironic sneer at their posturing and a vote instead for Lapade’s effectiveness.
Private detective Lapade continues his exploits in Okediji’s second novel, Agbalagba Akan, loosely translated as the foolish old man. This is Okediji’s second novel. The tasks to be performed have grown more complex and dangerous, the criminals more vicious, the encounters more hair-raising and the police, more ineffective than ever. While Lapade brandishes his concrete results, police investigations would, traditionally, ‘still be continuing’. The pun on police chief, Audu, which ends the novel (and from which it gets its title) shows uncompromisingly that the institution he stands for, as then constituted, is hardly deserving of public respect.
For a first attempt at play writing, Okediji’s Rere Run is a most remarkable achievement. We would only wonder less if we read the preface and find the author’s confessed indebtedness to Ola Rotimi. In the immediacy and treatment of its theme, the play has effortlessly won for itself the first place in the category of contemporary Yoruba social drama. It also boasts of a fine English adaptation as The Shattered Bridge by Bode Osanyin.
Workers demand for better conditions. But the employers – also the rulers – reply with base cunning, intrigues and intimidation. Lawuwo, the committed union leader proves a thorn in the flesh of the exploiters, who then cunningly blackmail and portray him before his fellow workers as a traitor, hoping thereby to easily replace him with their stooge Idowu. Idowu himself does not sit idly; he cleaverly arranges that dupes defraud Morenike, Lawuwo’s wife, of union money. Morenike, believing that she would remain a lifetime disappointment to her husband for losing the money, promptly commits suicide. The cumulative effect of all these shatters Lawuwo. He is unable to lead a union in his tortured state of mind, and the rulers conveniently replace him with Idowu. The struggle fails and the workers are forced back to work amidst news of increased taxes and longer working hours.
Deftly utilizing the ‘back to the beginning’ technique and the aesthetics of the bizarre, Okediji in Atoto Arere spreads before us a large canvass in which all our social ills are garishly animated with the burning exasperation of the highly concerned. His thesis is that criminals are bred by the society they are in. Victim of a broken marriage, young Alaba, runs away to the city. His rustic innocence is the least quality needed in the ‘fast’ world of the metropoles. He meets his age mate Saminu who initiates him into petty thievery. Doing all sorts of odd jobs, they live in dilapidated shacks and literally from hand to mouth. Misfortunates come tumbling down on Alaba’s head whenever solid success is near arms length. The seven -year prison sentence which he receives for being in possession of stolen goods from his now wealthy friend, Alhaji Saminu “Milonia”, becomes the decisive turning point in his life.
Having lived so long with professional robbers, Alaba comes out a hardened criminal. He gets himself involved in a bank robbery which by a twist of fate leads to the execution of Saminu, the gang leader. The resultant corner-cutting among members of the group litters the novel’s end with spine-chilling murder and innumerable corpses. To complete a most horrifying picture, birds like vultures, hawks and ravens descend to a mighty feast of human bodies, eyes, intestines, et cetra.
Other issues raised in the novel include the now usual ineffectiveness of the police and their constant collusion with criminals, the painful irony of our penal system which releases on the streets, not reformed, penitent citizens but hardened, vengeance-seeking criminals, the corruption of the clergy, and the crass materialism of a majority of our women who run after money no matter the source.
Perhaps more than any other Yoruba language writer, Okediji shows a firm and unflagging concern with the downtrodden of his society, the wretched of the earth. And this is not done in a simplistic manner. In his detective novels, Aja Lo Leru and Agbalagba Akan, he condemns their intra-class cannibalism and asserts that both crooks and victims most times belong to the same rung of the social ladders. However, the kind of resolution he adopts, namely, the private investigator who restores normalcy, is questionable. It is in fact part of the problem rather than the solution. Lapade’s success in these novels is no success at all but an illusion of success.
Similarly, in these novels, Okediji demystifies the myth of the invincibility of the collective State security apparatus while he erects the opposing myth of personal heroism and individual action. In the context of a society that has lost faith in the protective power of the state – manifested in the heavy, prison-like security gadgets at our residential buildings – the attitude is explicable even realistic. But to stop at that, as these novels do, has some disagreeable pessimistic tinge about it, for in the final analysis, the enduring solution to these evils lie in collective action.
It is in Atoto Arere that Okediji attempts to historicize crime, the manifestations of which were his focus in the detective novels. With excoriating candour, he rightly traces the root causes of crime back to society and by implication nods at the need for its cleansing. For such an eminent sympathizer with the oppressed, Okedji can not further postpone their actual confrontation with the oppressors which is why Rere Run came up. The issues are presented in so unmistakably clear terms that the oppressed can no longer afford the luxury of illusions. Exploitation is shown to the only essence of the relationship between the two camps. The battle line is clearly drawn.
And so what does Okediji make of his clear battle-line? Utter despondency, stuffed with long pulpit-type appeals to man’s ‘humane’ nature as in Atoto Arere. A similar situation obtains in Rere Run with Mopelola’s long speech. The fact, however, is that all the evils shown by Okediji are caused by our diseases, peripheral capitalism and the only truth is that this can never be liquidated by perorations or abstractionist appeals to man’s ‘innate goodness’, ‘honesty’, ‘morality’ and ‘fellow-feelings’ byt by planned, concerted action. This major point apart, Okediji remains our eloquent sociologist of crime and abiding friend of the dispossessed.
-Tejumola Olaniyan, Louise Durham Mead Professor of English and African Cultural Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributed this essay to The Guardian’s Perspectives on Nigerian Literature, 1700 to the Present, Volume Two, Pages 168-172