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Macdonald Ukah: Lessons from Chimamanda Adichie’s masterpiece


Macdonald Ukah: Lessons from Chimamanda Adichie’s masterpiece

By Macdonald Ukah

This is a reaction – by all means a friendly one – to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest addition to her oeuvre of fine fictive prose, The miraculous deliverance of Oga Jona, published on this platform on July 18. I hesitate to call it a review, but you may regard it as that if you so wish. I believe that attempting a review of a short story is likely an unwieldy exercise and that’s in addition to its being unconventional. I just seek to extend the conversation by highlighting themes and contributions that emerged from that sublime literary dose. These I itemise below.

1. The piece is allegorically excellent.

There is a sub-genre of fiction called the roman a clef. It is simply a work of fictional prose that makes thinly veiled references to known public individuals, dead or alive; and to known events or circumstances, past or present. With characteristic courage, Chimamanda takes the genre a step or two further. It takes delusional people to fail to recognize the characters, from the protagonist, Oga Jona, to his traducers, like Oga Segi and Bourdillon. The character Sharp Woman might lend itself to some contention, but I strongly suspect that it’s the bespectacled one once referred to by Wikipedia as the de facto Prime Minister. The characters Man Friday, Man Monday and Man Thursday are not easily decipherable but we can pass on that.

2. It galvanizes the thoughts and dissipates the frustrations of neutral commentators.

In Nigeria these days, increased political toxicity is accompanied by increased polarization that is shrinking the space available to genuinely neutral commentators. Some brilliant analysts have even suggested that in the current scheme of things, there is no room for neutrality. For others, any claim to neutrality is simply dishonest or indicative of lack of conviction. One lesson from the piece being discussed is that this seeming abolition of neutrality is one impasse that literature can help resolve. I am grateful, as I suspect many are, to Chimamanda for exploring it.

3. It recommends a sublime assessment of presidential genius.

Somewhere along the line, after having dismissed his American PR consultants and replaced them with a very pan-Nigerian assemblage of amazons, Oga Jona encounters, for the first time it is suggested, Abraham Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals”. The use of the quotation marks is heavily intended since the case of letters used in the story suggests a proper noun and is thus a reference to a “Team” that carries more specific weight than just any “team”. Just to clear the air, “Team of Rivals” was coined by Harvard presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, to title her 2005 book, which projects Lincoln’s political shrewdness, in addition to his virtues, as a major contributing factor to the successful abolition of slavery in the United States and the successful prosecution of the American Civil War. It comes with the rider, “The political genius of Abraham Lincoln” and describes h0w he deftly cultivated the goodwill and cooperation of even some of his political adversaries to obtain the liberty of those in bondage. Unfortunately, as of the time of writing, yours truly has not read the book. But the good news is that where books are scarce, movies are not. I therefore recommend the 2012 DreamWorks classic, Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and based in large part on Goodwin’s book, to readers who haven’t seen it. The lessons therein, for us all, and for those in Aso Rock, are abundant.

4. It is an artistically delivered wake-up call.

In dramatizing Oga Jona’s sudden epiphany, the story envisions what is possible. Oga Jona literally “wakes up” from both natural and presidential slumber and announces to his aides that he has got a revelation from God, affirmation of what this writer once read from the stables of a brilliant commentator whom many suspect is one of Bourdillon’s people in the media – that great leaders are often fashioned for their task by forces beyond themselves. Bourdillon’s media people – and I speak of realistic and not fictional conditions now – have asserted with polemic astuteness that there is hardly evidence that such preternatural force(s) are at work in the real Oga Jona. I know not if they are correct, but I hope for some strenuous imagination, revelatory or not, from Oga Jona and his people henceforth.

5. It is very imaginative, not just as a fictional trope but as a directional beacon in the real sense.

Chimamanda’s veiled wake-up call is delivered with a series of imaginative recommendations to Oga Jona – look inward for talent whilst learning the lessons from other climes, extend the olive branch, assert your authority over the armed forces creatively, fortify the reins on domestic intelligence gathering, communicate effectively and sincerely empathise when you do so. And she is not the only one imagining. Her Egba literary uncle, Prof Soyinka, has made some startling recommendations too. That one’s reach is just stratospheric. Has anyone read his address to the South-South Economic summit some two years ago? The recommendations therein are not necessarily for Oga Jona to implement, because they call for a “bottom up, outward in” surgery on Nigeria. I don’t know if Oga Jona has read it, but if he had, we may not have had need for the money-haemorrhaging confab. But that, for now, is water under the bridge. Chimamanda’s recommendations do not call for a definitive national surgery, just a presidential one. Is that too much to handle? Only God and Oga Jona can tell us.

There is not much else to say, except to wrap it up with this: God blessed this country the day He gave us Ngozi. May creative genius continue to drip from her pen!!!

– Macdonald Ukah is a budding economist temporarily based in Abuja. He writes occasionally for The Scoop. 

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