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THEMES AND STYLE IN HELEN HABILA’S WAITING FOR AN ANGEL AND FESTUS IYAYI’S HEROES

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THEMES AND STYLE IN HELEN HABILA’S WAITING FOR AN ANGEL AND FESTUS IYAYI’S HEROES

 

CHAPTER ONE

INTRODUCTION

 

1.1 Background of the study

The Mid 80‟s through the later part of the 90‟s marks a significant period in the landscape of Nigerian history, mainly because of the militarisation of the entire  Nigerian  society.  From  the  subtle  but  repressive  government  of Babangida to the crude and unbridled dictatorship of Abacha, were the periods characterised by the muzzling of the press and radical intellectuals by various agencies of the military. The masses were not spared; they languished in abject poverty, misery and general social malaise that were as a result of harsh economic policies, most especially the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of the Babangida era.

 

1.2 Facts and events

These facts and events are what Helon Habila captures in Waiting for an Angel. Though it is a fictional novel, most of the events if not all are true to life. An x-ray of the incarceration of Lomba (pp. 3-32) the hero of the story, to the various strikes, riots and demonstrations in the novel are reminiscentt of the jailing of Nduka Irabor and Dele Thompson of the Guardian Newspaper. Similarly, the various riots and strike actions that swept across Nigeria beginning from the 1991 petroleum subsidy riot that started at the University of Jos and climaxed with the petroleum workers strike of 1994 (PENGASSAN) and the various June 12th demonstrations across the country were also reflected in the novel. Closely linked to this, is the juxtaposing of true life events in the novel that have resemblance to their characters and institutions. Such events include the expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth (p. 192), the assassination of Dele Giwa (pp. 196-197), the pro-democracy group; NADECO and the eventual assassination of Kudirat Abiola (p. 210). These were all lyrics of the era. And Habila‟s inventiveness to harmonize faction with fiction without undermining his message and technique marks waiting for an Angel as an overture of the period. This technique is commended by Akingbe (2010:31):

 

As a work of fiction, the novel makes it possible to identify with Nigeria‟s real world, the people and the actual events depicts in the narrative. This identification with real-life situation is one generic characteristic of faction which distinguishes it from other narrative forms which are considered fictional.

 

If the statement of Akingbe above is true, it therefore means that Waiting for an Angel falls within the period that this essay seeks to  address. Consequently, this paper will attempt to explore some of the narrative techniques Habila uses to highlight the evil of the era.

 

1.3 Festus iyayi

Festus Iyayi (1947-2013) is one of the pioneer of social realism in African novel. Besides Violence(1979), The Contract (1982), Heroes (1986) is his third novel in which he looks into the limbo of civilians caught in crossfire between the Federal Army and the Biafran troops, during the Nigerian Civil war 1967.

 

Heroes is a war novel as well as political. Themes of brutality, cruelty, lawlessness, and conspiracy, opportunistic tendency and wicked nature of man are examined. The story is about a journalist who went to find his girlfriend, Salome, in the battlefield.  What he saw and learned devastated him.

 

Osime Iyeri’s main aim is to recruit Third Army who will stop the bloodshed on realizing that the war is unnecessary. The real enemies are not the Nigerian soldiers nor the Biafran troops but the generals, politicians, businessmen and traditional rulers who are benefiting from the war.  But the real tragedy is that people are deeply indoctrinated by the rhetoric of politicians and driven to the streets on rampage, maiming, killing, looting and raping each other.

 

Osime Iyeri was originally on the side of Nigerian troops. He thought they were good, virtuous, and humane. Ohiali’s coldblooded murder in the hand of Nigerian troops and the maltreatment he himself experienced at the stadium changed his perception.  Mr Ohiali is his landlord and in-law, Ndudi’s father, who got killed emotionlessly when he went to register himself at the army post.  He finds this highly cruel and inhuman and becomes sympathetic with the Biafran troops. But they too he realizes are killing and maiming cruelly.

 

From both sides, he disapproves of the killing because “so much in thousands of lives, tens of thousands of lives, tens of hundreds of them are disgraced, ridiculed and spat at before being killed” in the name of liberation.

 

Both sides are to blame. Nigerian troops were grist and applied disproportionate force. Since it’s clear the Biafran troops are doomed to imminent defeat, there is no use killing a fly with an AK47. On the other hand, Biafran troops refused to surrender despite the looming defeat that stared them in the face. Their troops were teenagers conscripted with no proper training and equipment, merely used as cannon fodder.

 

He wants the country to be united but he opposes mass killing. He believes that consideration is the best and there are possible alternatives that can save lives. His reason being that “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffer.” But the politicians would have none of that, what they are seeing is a profit not a war, fighting to keep themselves in power at the cost of human lives.

 

Civilian population were the worst affected. Iyayi, through Iyere, insists: who are the heroes? The generals who steal the salary and pension of the fallen comrades or those working class who keep the unity of the country with their blood? After the war, the name of soldiers like Otun, Emmanuel, Ikeshi and Yemi will never be mentioned. Generals will write accounts and claim they have singlehandedly fought and won the war while in reality they run away from the battlefield. “The generals take the credit, get the praise, always they are heroes” (P. 86).

 

This way, he consistently tries to make us see through beyond the façade. Starting from himself, Iyeri initiated a campaign for the Third Army who will conscientize the public from both sides, about the ills of war. Patani, Musa, Obilu, Ituah, people from the warring parties all agree the war is meaningless.

 

In Heroes, two stories are simultaneously woven: the story of war and the story of love. Omise Iyeri falls in love with Ndudi who is an Igbo lady while he is Midwesterner. His support for Nigerian troops does not prevent their love. He doesn’t have money to pay the dowry, Ndudi’s mother promises to pay and tell her people it is from him. There is warm relationship and affinity and friendliness among the citizens even in war time. Sergeant Audu, one of the Nigerians officers and Omise maintain a good relationship.

 

There is strong symbolism of unity in terms of human intimacy in the Asaba Bridge massacre where the blood of the Nigerian Army mingled with that of the Biafran troops and flowed into the River Niger. This is to show relationship that exists among different ethnic groups. Iyayi questions the rationale behind the senseless killings. People have married among themselves, were friends, traded and lived harmoniously, but all of a sudden they were told to kill each other. Since the war could not prevent people from loving each other, although from belligerent sections, why couldn’t stop to ask some vital questions. He used this argument as a tool for recruiting people into the Third Army, the people’s army to fight people’ war. It is puzzling people woke up suddenly and started killing each other. The war is an excuse for human vices and wickedness.

 

Another thing that will factor in is the greed and selfishness of the top army officers and politicians. There are two armies in the war. The officers who issue order from lavishly furnished rooms and the rank and file who are at the fields. Knowing that nothing can bind hand and feet than love, the army officers had somehow persuaded the rank and file that they should kill each other for the unity of the country. The rank and file are fighting to keep the unity of the country whereas the generals are fighting to keep one section of the ruling class in power and another away from power. The Nigerian working class were manipulated as field-soldiers from both sides not knowing that they share more in common with each other than with the rulers.

 

Corruption has ranked among the military top brass. Relief materials supplied by the humanitarian agencies were hijacked and allocated to the friends of the army generals. Medicine, drugs, milk, blankets and other relief items meant for the victims of war find their way to the markets.

 

Brigadier Otunshi, in particular, is hypocrite. He sells arms to the Biafran troops and sends his troops to the battle-field ill-equipped. As such, he is merely sending them early to their graves. Brigadier and later General Otunshi, executed 42 soldiers and 5 officers for mutiny by deserting the battlefield while he was away attending a party. They did that because they were sent to the field ill-equipped consequence of the generals’ siphoning of funds meant for the prosecution of the war.

 

The war opened so many atmospheres for criminal activities. Otunshi camouflages in the cover of the ensuing confusion: after an offensive, he goes to the banks, breaks the safes and steals the cash.

 

The danger of war is that it creates great uncertainty. You can be alive, just a moment, you are dead. For instance, Ohiali was alive by eleven o’clock, moment later, he was dead. Intense mistrust and suspicion were created among the once trusted neighbors, trauma and horrors devastated the psyche of the individuals and renders life directionless and meaningless.

 

In terms of devastation, one month in war is more than a decade in peace. With every killing, for instance, of hundreds of men, the casualties transcend the surface value. From both sides, thousands of children are made orphans, women widow and property destroyed. Prices drastically rise and people have to travel far away to buy commodities. Children are dying of hunger, disease and malnutrition became prevalent.  Yet the politicians who want to increase their power refuse to consider the misery of the citizens.

 

All of this made Omise realize it is not the sixty-millions odd Nigerians who are being slaughtered either at the battle front or on their beds that matter but individual rulers. “The same greed, the same hunger for power” (P. 90). On Biafran side, there are only two soldiers at the airport while there are many more standing guard at Governor’s house.  Nigerians troops were blown off into the Asaba Bridge while their commanding officers were in Lagos attending the wedding of the Head of State.

1.4 Image features

Images feature in the narrative depicting the misery of people in things such as “grass” to show starvation and emaciation, “the river turning red” to create the idea of bloodshed and “sand” and soil at market square mixing with “red,” “vomit” for disgust, “filthy” for squalor and “blood” for stench and violence. The atmosphere is ghastly horrific. Everything carries a message of death to which even birds in the street were silent.

 

The setting is Southeast, Mid-western Nigeria, Kaduna, Lagos and Kano but largely depicting cities such as Port Harcourt, Onitsha, Benin, Ognaza, Uli the location of the Biafran airport, Enugu, Ihiala, Asaba, etc etc, where the real war is happening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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