MUSDOKI: Literature and the distortion of history

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Reprinted for archival purposes: First published December 25, 2010

The poet Ahmed Maiwada is a talented, hard working writer possessing a vision seemingly informed by a personal sense of integrity. In his poetry and prose, Maiwada, boldly experiments with life’s meaning, even as he stares controversy in the eye. He has just written a debut work of fiction titled Musdoki, published in Nigeria by an outfit called Mazariyya Books. Maiwada is the Chairman of Mazariyya Entertainment Company, which presumably owns the publishing unit. What is this book about? I am not quite sure, even though I read it back-to-back twice. Let’s just say that the main character Musa Maidoki aka Musdoki, is a good looking self-conscious lawyer from Northern Nigeria with awkward social graces who is hounded by a demonic lady bent on setting him on a destructive path.  Also, as the book tells it, Musdoki, living in the South, gets caught up in the civil unrest following the 1993 annulment of the Nigerian elections by a Northerner, General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida. M.K.O. Abiola, a Southerner was widely believed to be the winner of the elections. Angry Southerners spill into the streets, eager to exact revenge on Northerners for the sins of Babangida. So alleges the book. This distorted interpretation of history ensures that this deeply flawed book is fascinating reading.

Musdoki reads like a typical debut novel. It seems autobiographical; like Musdoki the main character, Maiwada is a lawyer and one detects his life’s experiences between the book’s covers. It is difficult to tell if one is reading a work of fiction, or the true autobiography of the author. The book has its charms. Read it, close your eyes and you can visualise Nigerian males in heat lusting after ladies with names like Christine, ladies who wish to be re-christened Jolene after country singer Dolly Parton’s song of the same name. Weird, but charming.  This is one quirky, strange book; Maiwada loves lime and shades of green. It seems like every colour in the book is lime, or a shade of green: The story inhabits a strange space filled with malevolent aliens wearing lime and green coloured dresses. Sorcery is a recurring theme. Sometimes however, attempts at magical realism manufacture hallucinatory silliness. The book is an intriguing, if awkward sequence of malarial hallucinations; Musdoki sees apes, hawks, flying feathers etc in strange places. The reader is treated to Ben Okri-like scenes with people morphing into snakes and appearing in bathrooms.

Like Okri’s The Famished Road, Maiwada’s novel adequately captures the drama and dysfunction that is Nigeria. There is atmosphere, lots of it. Maiwada negotiates the Nigerian cities with eyes of wonder and magnificent detail. The book draws on a lot of colourful characters to portray equally colourful scenes: Nigerian bus drivers collect urine to use as hydraulic fluid for their buses; there is a dog named Junta and there is a tortoise named Tortoise; the reader learns a lot; for example, fadamas are flood plains, low-lying land; and there is a truly gripping, scary section in the book where a girl tries to drown Musdoki in the sea.

Shabby production. From a technical standpoint, however, Musdoki is a shabby production, a disjointed sequence of events featuring awkward dialogue with an inchoate plot. Maiwada’s talent for prose-poetry is not enough to save the book. This is a book featuring loosely and poorly structured narrative, hopping along on several themes, many allergic to each other. Musdoki, the main character is described as handsome and he knows it. He is also self-absorbed and narcissistic, wearing an air of megalomania. He has these awkward, stilted mannerisms. A deity-complex seems to follow him everywhere he goes and he loiters around, drenched in a smug air of self importance. muttering baffling psychobabble that fuels his self-absorption. The dialogue flows with the speed of molasses, moving along like a constipated boa constrictor. Most times the dialogue is merely baffling and one wonders where it is leading.

Musdoki is a sad commentary on the awful state of the publishing industry in Nigeria. It is really disheartening how a publishing company can take the product of a promising writer like Maiwada and simply staple together his raw manuscript with little attempt at polish and refinement. There is abundant evidence that not a single sentence was edited by someone with editing skills. The book showcases the usual issues plaguing books published in Nigeria and they collectively spell mediocrity, to put it mildly. ‘Musdoki’ suffers from an abundance of poor attention to detail, sloppy research, grammatical errors, awful prose, inappropriately used words and an atrocious grasp of Pidgin English. Even the spine loudly misspells the book’s title. The publishers have done all the wrong things that it is possible to do to a book. It is a shame because one could visualize a totally different outcome for the book in the hands of a competent publishing company.

Stereotypes and caricatures. One gets the feeling that the main purpose of Musdoki, once one gets past its editorial issues, is to goad Nigerians of Southern extraction into a foaming rage. It features unfortunate stereotypes of Southerners as caricatures. On the other hand, Northerners are clothed in the dignity of moral rectitude and are portrayed as victims in that troubled space called Nigeria. Where Southerners communicate in halting English like half-humans, Northerners happily engage others using standard English. The book is reams of bigotry and ethnocentrism casually dropped into the middle of a baffling tale. It features an analysis of the events after the unfortunate annulment of the Nigerian elections on June 12, 1993. The analysis is rife with misstatements. According to the narrative, Southerners, especially the Yoruba, enraged that the elections have been annulled by a Northern president, go hunting for Northerners to kill in revenge. There is an orgy of ethnic cleansing and Musdoki survives a near lynching: “Lagos was shut down by the riots in the streets following the annulment of the 1993 Presidential Election in Nigeria… I learnt that offices and banks had been shut down; that there were bonfires… that the Hausas were being murdered in the streets by the Yoruba who would stop a moving vehicle and demand for its occupants’ identities and then hack down any of its Hausa occupants (p86).” What are we supposed to make of this? I would say that ‘Musdoki is a work of fiction bearing weighty untruths. This is magical realism taken to an unnecessarily provocative level. As an aside, the book makes the case eloquently that Nigeria is a strange country of mimic-people invested in uncritical imitation of whites and western values. Who in the world has hot dogs and hot coffee for breakfast?

Bigotry. As poorly produced as the book is, it is an important one, because it allows the reader a peep into the seething soul of a Northerner. At some point in the book’s journey, Musdoki is in a car filled with Northerners, fleeing the South and an alleged pogrom. This is Maiwada at his best, or some would say, at his worst. The reader is taken by Musdoki’s trip home to the North away from the vengeful Yoruba. It is harrowing and moving indeed, except that this is fiction. It did not happen. The dialogue in that car houses some of the worst bigotry against Southern ethnicities that I have ever heard or read in my lifetime. In any case, someone with a good grasp of the events of 1993 should educate me: What exactly did M.K.O. Abiola the presumptive winner of the elections say against the North after the annulment that was meant to incite Southerners into war?

This book is an inelegant expression of lingering resentments by Northerners against Southerners, a book that is almost dismissive, perhaps a rousing defense and justification, of the pogrom of the sixties against the Igbo, one that is curiously silent on the genocide that was the Nigerian civil war. It also seems devoted to glorifying T.Y. Danjuma’s counter coup, that bloody response to Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu’s 1966 one (p100). Hear one of the characters taunt the Yoruba. “They are indeed white hyenas. Otherwise, why have they deserted their towns and villages for their dogs and goats? See for yourself! How can white hyenas ever have the liver to declare a war, like Ojukwu did? (p99).” ‘Musdoki’ is a bipolar organism moving swiftly between narcissistic self-absorbent musings to a sweepingly false vista of Nigeria’s history, relentlessly blurring the border between truth and fantasy. It comes across as a partisan attempt to rewrite a most unfortunate portion of Nigeria’s history.

Misogyny. Musdoki is also an important peep into the state of gender relations in today’s Nigeria. If this book is accurate, the relationships are mostly unwholesome and steeped in disrespectful engagement. Strong shades of misogyny colour relationships; and women get the awful end of the stick. It is a disturbing look at how Nigerian men view women and how women (submissive and docile for the most part) respond to the abuse. This attitude is pervasive and it doesn’t seem to matter if the women are educated and accomplished. Indeed it appears to be the case that those attributes would appear to aggravate the misogyny.

Musdoki is what happens when living witnesses remain mute and a nation refuses to confront its past. Time is dulling the pain of injustice. It is the nature of injustice that Biafra seems so far away. Dozens of books have been written about this mad episode in our nation’s growth, most of them by Southerners, the latest being ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’. Adichie’s book is a work of stellar industry and near genius considering that the author was born well after the end of the war. There are perhaps some facts and conclusions in that book that need to be addressed and confronted. This should be done with respect for historical accuracy and compassion for the hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost in that unjust war.

It is true that in terms of the written word, with respect to the Nigerian civil war, the commentary has been dominated by Southern thinkers. There have been few Northern writers weighing in with their perspective. Despite the myriad flaws of Musdoki, it is an important book in that it shows that a fiery rage burns still in the hearts and minds of Northerners. There is no excuse for what happened during the pogrom and the Nigerian civil war. Today, the major characters of that era are still with us, sporting fancy titles and stealing the nation blind. They loom large on the landscape seemingly proud of the mess that they have created out of our nation space. It is said that Danjuma’s counter-coup was the North’s deadly response to what they saw as an Igbo coup led by Nzeogwu. We are living with the consequences of those dastardly actions today. Let it not be said that the writer Ahmed Maiwada is following the same dastardly dysfunctional tradition.