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Pandemonium, as serpents eat doves

The narrative thrust of the novel is potently propelled by all the rage, passion, and antipathy, which must have been bottled for a long time…

The narrative thrust of the novel is potently propelled by all the rage, passion, and antipathy, which must have been bottled for a long time deep down inside the author, against a system that has bastardised a country full of potentials on the eve of its independence. It is a passionate renouncement of a system that has made a despicable rot of the country’s youth and an obscenely corrupt perverts of its leaders—with the leadership being responsible for all the degeneration.

Toby, a university lecturer who has lost his job, finds himself living with Chinwe, although her father belongs to the upper class he detests with passion. His idealism and socialist inclination, moreover, prevent him from accepting Chinwe’s proposal that he works in one of her father’s companies.

Instead, even as he professes an undying love for Chinwe, Toby finds “solace” in the company of Sade, a journalist struggling to uncover the whereabouts of a drug baron who went missing from prison after his capture. Sade’s adventures (or misadventures, depending on how one looks at it) take the two “friends” (he starts falling in love with her along the line) deep into the heart of area boy territory in Lagos, where they discover that the hopelessly dirty and hapless youth live under the supervision of a GOC—a reflection of the militarised nature of the society—who ensures steady supply of drugs to them and, on one hand, keeps a vibrant section of the community in perpetual servitude while, on the other, maintains a steady source of riches for the elite. At the end of their encounter with the GOC, by which time they have suffered a lot of humiliation and even physical attacks and narrowly escape being killed, Sade learns that there will be a meeting at the party headquarters of a political bigwig.

There, they meet Brother Patrick, a friend of Toby’s father, who gives them certain information about the First Lady and invites them to the home of his boss, Chief Dike, where they espy Mustapha, the First Lady’s brother, and learn that Mustapha is going to meet someone at a hotel the following day.

Sade disguises herself and, bribing her way, incapacitates Alhaji Garba (with whom Mustapha is going to meet) and deals with the First Lady’s brother on his behalf. Besides learning that Alhaji Garba is supplying Mustapha with cocaine, she also coax out of Mustapha details of the profane lifestyle of the First Family and how his sister sprang Frank Udoji, the ace drug dealer she is after, from prison. The debauchery is so stupendous that Sade almost gives up on her mission but for a stubborn streak that inflames her determination (whether to realise her ambition to become the editor-in-chief of the magazine she writes for or to free society from the yoke of bad leadership it is not clear).

At last, Sade publishes her story and becomes the most wanted person in the land. After a few months however, Sade is captured and brought before a military tribunal which summarily sentences her to death.

Toby vows that he will have to die before  Sade is killed. With the help of Brother Patrick, he starts planning an operation to save her from Kirikiri Maximum Prison. To do this, he enlists the support of some friends with whom he did the national youth service. While these friends—Yisa, Ciroma, Femi—gather to celebrate their reunion at a bar before being briefed by Toby, a counter-coup is announced on television, and a mini-revolution erupts.

As the demonstrators are gunned down by soldiers at the Tafawa Balewa Square, survivors disperse in many directions, venting their anger on anybody and anything that looks uncooperative. Toby loses his friends and is carried along by a human vortex to Kirikiri where they find soldiers on alert. The soldiers start shooting the crowd, but the mass of bodies, women and men and children, refuse to budge. After a while, area boys came from behind and overpower the soldiers. All the prisoners are freed and Toby carries Sade outside where he reunites with his friends. Reasoning that Sade will not be safe no matter who assumes power after the mêlée, he and his friends decide to proceed with Operation Eagle Wings.

They arrive at a spot from where the operation is to proceed and, there, they find Sade’s room mate, Philomena, and Chinwe. Toby hands out military uniforms to all of them and they proceed to Katsina, from where they hope Sade can be smuggled into Niger Republic. From Niamey, according to the plan, she will fly to Paris. But on the way, all but two members of the team get shot down in cold blood by an Army general manning a road block. End of the story.

To pen a story as long as this without losing control of its flow is quite an achievement. However, Emmanuel Onwe is so engrossed in purging the palpable frustrations that have rendered many Nigerians speechless that he exaggerates in some places. He tries to say everything in the dialogues, although the wittiness of the narrative makes them less boring than they otherwise would have been. Although he explains some of it away, they nevertheless are exaggerations. When Toby and Sade meet with the GOC of Oju-Ina, they exchange words about his treatment of his toddler son, and he ends up telling them why he has become a drug lord even though he refuses to lead them to see the Commander-in-Chief (information supplied later by Mustapha).

Speaking through Toby, Onwe explains that the GOC told them his story because he did not want to be seen as quintessentially bad. These explanations may be metaphysically satisfactory but not the character of Alhaji Garba (Onwe spells it as Garuba—this spelling, as written on the man’s tag, is acceptable because he might not have been the one who wrote it; but for him to spell it as such is a misnomer). To say Alhaji Garba (as Alhaji Ibrahim, the rich and powerful man said to own Kaduna) pronounces every English sound written “th” as “z” is also gross exaggeration: Zank you (for thank you), for example.

Onwe also succeeded, though unwittingly, in underlining the single most important factor that has prevented Nigerians from rising collectively against the wanton rape of the country—lack of a sense of belonging. When they converged on Tafawa Balewa Square, Nigerians of different gender, religion and ethnicity saw the protest as a common endeavour—a venture in which all Nigerians had a stake. To achieve that, respect for everybody is essential. This, some may think, is undermined if all the serpents—the generals with bloodshot eyes — are depicted to have come from only one part of the country.

 And in Toby’s failure, one can read the failure of idealism and, more importantly, of leadership. Despite his superiority complex (for want of a better word to describe his attitude), Toby fails to lead his friends and associates out of danger because he fails to accurately judge and entrust them with details of the operation (illogical as it may sound to Onwe, Toby should have taught them to use guns too because, in the end, only he and Sade survive—and they are the only members of the team that know how to use guns).