Chris Abani: Lie$ of the Truth-Seller

by Kennedy Emetulu

(4) Behold the savages!

To understand the effect of Abani’s lies and how much damage he has done to our national history and to our psyche as a people, while making blood money from it and acquiring fame for himself, let’s just consider one of his poems from his Kalakuta Republic, Ode to Joy. We are choosing this poem, because it is one of his works that he swears to be an eyewitness account of the suffering and experience he went through in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison. It is the poem that canonized him in the literary hall of fame in the West and had laureates like Harold Pinter gushing about its stark frankness and so on. Indeed, it is the singular most popular of his poems. Personally, reading the poem does nothing for me; but until one understands the devious cultural mind-reading underneath it and the purpose Abani used it to serve and the purpose it serves its promoters in the West, one may think it’s just an innocent poem by a young African writer.

Today, that poem is emblazoned in the city centre of Leiden, the sixth largest city in Netherlands where it is being ‘celebrated’. Leiden is an old historical city located on the Old Rhine, twenty kilometres from The Hague and 40 kilometres from Amsterdam. It has one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Europe, the Leiden University, established in 1575. Its importance as a learning and cultural centre in Europe is further emphasized by the fact that the city is twinned with Oxford, the location of the oldest university in England.

Before we get into more discussion on Leiden and Ode to Joy, let’s get the gist of this poem. Here is a link below:

The tragedy is that everything in that poem is a lie, a fabrication, which Chris Abani sold to eager Westerners as true history of suffering and death in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, something that is usually the cornerstone of his talks all over the globe. There was no 14-year old John James who was tied to a chair and had his penis nailed to a table and left to bleed to death. Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison is a Nigerian prison for adults and despite its notoriety, has no history or record of holding any juvenile. There had been allegations of incarceration of children and juveniles with adults, but only at the Kirikiri Medium Prison, where in a report sponsored by the United States Consulate in Lagos in March 2004, they were told by prison officers of some teenage boys who were said to have had their ages falsified by the police to class them as adults. However, there is nothing by way of fact or rumour to indicate that there was anything of the sort mentioned by Abani as an inmate and an eyewitness at Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison. His story as he tells and retells it is about this John James boy who was seized, imprisoned and killed so brutally by the authorities because they couldn’t lay their hands on a relation of his they wanted for some unspecified crime. Of course, this sounds incredulous to most Nigerians who understand that it is a lie too far. The inconceivable idea of a 14-year old boy, handcuffed to a chair and his penis stretched forth or elasticized to be nailed to a table with a six-inch nail isn’t believable. Worse still is Chris Abani’s claim that the boy died three days later. He must be a superhuman to last 72 hours or thereabout in that condition!

Chris Abani then ratchets up the lies. In accounts after accounts, he claims to have been put in solitary, because he spoke out against this boy’s death. In the poem, he talks of himself and other inmates, risking death and singing in protest. The protest song he has in the poem which he says incensed the authorities there to go on a “killing spree” has not been successfully interpreted by everybody I’ve spoken to so far. I reckon it’s a vernacular (Yoruba) song about prison. I speak Yoruba and the only conclusion I can reach from trying to interpret it is that it is a poor attempt at a song in prison-vernacular or slang with reference to ‘eating beans’, a metaphor or euphemism for doing hard prison time. At any rate, there is nothing in that, to the best of my knowledge, to incense any prison authority to go on a killing spree. While that isn’t the core issue here, the fact is that there is no account by way of authentic report or rumour of many men dying singing on any of the nights Chris Abani claims to have been in Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison. Indeed, those who have been to Kirikiri have no idea of “solitary” as he speaks of it. They say space was so lacking that the biggest form of torture warders were likely to give a prisoner of the calibre Chris Abani makes of himself would have been to put him in “back cell”, which is the place for condemned criminals where they have some of the most psychotic prisoners who are free to do anything to anybody dropped in their midst. This is where they colloquially refer to as “solitary”. The only recorded prison riot at the time Chris Abani claims to be in prison was at the Benin prison in May 1987 where 24 inmates were killed by armed police (not prison warders) in a massive riot over food. That one made national and international news.

Anyway, back to Leiden and the glorification of Chris Abani’s Ode to Joy. To the undiscerning, this is only a multicultural city in some civilized climes appreciating poetry from other persons and cultures. But those who have a sense of history and who know how the mind of cultural imperialists work via so-called liberal promoters will note that Leiden has an infamous history tied to apartheid, not because it is a Dutch city or ancestral home of the Boers who created apartheid, but because in 1946, against world outrage, the Leiden University had awarded a honorary degree to Daniel Francois Malan, the Father of Apartheid South Africa. Two years later, his Afrikaner party, the Nationalist Party narrowly defeated Prime Minister Jan Christian Smut’s United Party, which had led South Africa, amidst fierce opposition from Malan and his Hitler supporting cohorts, on the side of the Allies and who later became one of the founding fathers of the United Nations. The city of Leiben and its university thereafter became tarred and ever since then, they have sought to validate themselves internationally, not by rejecting their past and what they had done, but by surreptitiously selling the same line Malan and his supporters sold internationally then, that apartheid was no different from the colonial regimes all over Africa.

What Chris Abani’s poem does is let them satiate their minds by claiming that they weren’t exactly the devils everyone said they were. The story they seem to be selling now with the help of Chris Abani’s Ode to Joy is that if the world wants to know the real devils, here they are in black and white, exposed by an African who tells them from experience that they were tame compared to what their citizens suffer in the hands of their contemporary leadership! Oh, they may have killed Steve Biko one way or the other, but they never nailed the penis of a 14-year old to a table and watch him die drip-drip over three days! Ode to Joy! The joy of reclaiming their humanity! In essence, Chris Abani has helped the apartheid supporters find a reason to think they were saints. He did it lying through his teeth about his country and her people. And this is what it’s all about with his work.

Thus, when we see him on TED or on speaking tours all over the world, with auditoriums packed full, people coming from far and near, it isn’t exactly about his art, it is to listen to his fabricated experience in the hands of the demons of Nigeria, with whom he’d supposedly had a brush. It is to validate the image of the savage Africa that needs all their tears, a bit from their purse, their chuckle-filled prayers and their help to civilize us! Chris Abani is the ticket the liberal literary gurus need to focus on Africa, the new thought-market. He is the cash cow that they have to

parade in their circus of lies to get the grants and oil the wheel of distorted history! They have conquered our minds and of course, we know history is written by the conquerors and their little ‘native’ collaborators! It is a strain of neo-colonialism worse than the obvious political and economic ones. This one is mind-poisoning!

Also, we must know that Chris Abani’s choice of name for the boy is deliberate, just as we find that his choice of names for his fictional characters is deliberately aimed at sending a message. Again, here in Ode to Joy, it is to play on the Western sense of religion and persecution. A Christian boy (no doubt from the double names – no ‘native’ name whatsoever) hammered to the table by heathens. He starts it: “John James, 14” and the allusion or imagery that comes to mind is a biblical chapter or verse. Perhaps, it’s a coincidence that John 14 talks about Christ dealing with the incredulity and disbelief of his own disciples. Chris Abani has laid the mines for those of us who doubt him today. He is our Christ, our prophet; we have to accept his seemingly outlandish tales because he, Chris Abani, our Christ, who suffered persecution in the hands of the state for his art, says so. Yes, there was a John James, because Chris Abani says so! Yet, no one has bothered to ask why we have not seen any relation of this John James, this young martyr, contact Abani to thank him for immortalizing their son. Not even the family member for whom John James supposedly sacrificed his life! Yes, in 20 years, no one has stepped forward to say they knew this boy!

(5) Lies, Fellowships, awards and dollars

To further understand how much his lies have helped to bring in the awards, rather than the fidelity of the literary works themselves, all we have to do is read some of the citations of his awards. The first award he won in the West not surprisingly was the Prince Claus Award for Literature and Culture from The Netherlands in 2001. The citation reads: “Chris Abani articulates his experiences of being a political prisoner of civil war in a highly personal and explicit way, while still achieving universal relevance. In awarding Chris Abani this prize, the Prince Claus Fund is acknowledging a promising poet and a persuasive humanist. Albani speaks for the ‘zones of silence’ within societies”. That same year, he won the PEN USA Freedom to Write Award (after obtaining the Middleton Fellowship from the University of Southern California) because, according to PEN USA, he “has fought for freedom of expression internationally” and the award is “to honor men and women who have produced exceptional work in the face of extreme adversity, who have been punished for exercising their freedom of expression or who have fought against censorship and defended the right to publish freely”. His 2003 Hellman/Hammet Grant from Human Rights Watch, USA was cashed in on the same tissues of lies. Below is what Human Rights Watch says about the grant:

“Human Rights Watch administers the Hellman/Hammett grant program for writers all around the world who have been victims of political persecution and are in financial need. The grants are named for the late American playwright Lillian Hellman and her longtime companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett. Both were questioned by US congressional committees about their political beliefs and affiliations during the aggressive anti-communist investigations inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Hellman suffered professionally and had trouble finding work. Hammett spent time in prison..”

In response to his Nigerian colleagues who challenged him in 2003, Chris Abani’s defence for the Hellman/Hammet Grant is that he didn’t apply for the grant, but that someone apparently nominated him. Yet he didn’t find it within himself to tell Human Rights Watch that they are dressing him in borrowed robes, because he still insists on his lies about imprisonment. So, whether as a nominee, finalist or winner in these award circus or in winning money, grants or Fellowships, Chris Abani has gamed the system in the West to the extent that he will always bob up somewhere from whatever heap, because of his unique story, massively underlined by his false status of suffering and imprisonment and how his art reflects this honestly without animosity. Now, could he have won these awards without his false stories? Perhaps, but I doubt. I doubt because apart from Saro-Wiwa who paid the ultimate price (and that is for his politics), no other African writer in history has suffered or endured the kind of things Abani claims to have suffered for the sake of his art. More than Chinua Achebe, more than Wole Soyinka and more than Ngugi wa Thiong’o Chris Abani created a shrine of suffering occupied only by himself. With that type of story and the fantasized details of bestiality and inhumanity he ascribes to the African torturers of this boy of an English woman, the awards were just bound to follow.

(6) Who will bell the cat?

I have wondered why the attempt in 2003 by his colleagues to expose his lies fizzled out. In the course of privately discussing this issue with a group of writers, one of them sent us a private email that talked about his dealings with Chris Abani and some influential person in the US university system who was part of the establishment trying to give Chris Abani one of his first jobs in the system. The distinguished fellow, who had read widely about the sufferings of Nigerian writers during military rule and in the fight for democracy wanted to verify whether the claims Chris Abani had made about his imprisonment were true. But when he pointedly asked our friend, Mr Abani’s colleague who knew that everything Chris Abani claims were fabrications, this colleague said he couldn’t bring himself to tell this man, who was his mentor, the truth. He said he couldn’t bring himself to shoot down the dream of the lying Chris Abani. So, Abani got the job and used it as the springboard to build his empire of lies and deceit and here we are.

The significance of this story is that it gives an insight into the reason why his colleagues demurred from pursuing the matter after 2003. It’s got something to do with how some of us Africans, no matter how highly educated or enlightened, see issues like this. Many of them didn’t want to be seen as the people who brought Chris Abani’s flying career to a screeching halt. They fear to be stigmatized as jealous colleagues with the PHD (Pull Him Down) syndrome. This apart, it isn’t something African writers were used to dealing with. Some of them actually felt that Chris Abani is a creation of Western thinking of the worst of Africa. They felt Abani merely validated their prejudicial thinking and it is their choice to accept his hocus-pocus when, in their perception, the stories are “childish” and patently untrue. Indeed, when I first read the story, my initial conclusion was that it is beneath debate. But, of course, it isn’t. The damage being done to Nigeria and Nigerians and its capacity to distort the history of the struggle against dictatorship is massive!

In a real sense, Chris Abani posed a moral conundrum for his African colleagues in 2003. They possibly thought at the time that squealing on a colleague about his lying past when this colleague clearly has the talent for the job was a little too much. They may have also thought not doing so could be a moral problem, but they may have resolved this by believing that as victims of his lies themselves, it was their prerogative alone to either save or expose him. Choosing the former would have seemed easier as most felt that the challenge was enough to put him in check. They never reckoned on Chris Abani’s determination to conquer the world with his portmanteau of lies. They never thought Abani would read their dithering as weakness.

I am not saying the above as criticism of those who let the matter slip out of

public consciousness in 2003. People have to make their own moral judgment about their responsibility in matters like this and I do not for one moment think that the choice I make is morally stronger than the choice others make, as far as these others aren’t the ones lying to the world. Considering this issue deeply, I believe a whole country, a continent, audiences, young and old, who listened to Abani around the globe and writers who have truly suffered for their art and politics in the hands of the state all over the world are all victims of his lies. At this moment therefore, the only moral question before me is how much and how many people we are prepared to sacrifice for Chris Abani’s ‘career’.

(7) Silence as a lie

The choice is clear now. I think we now have another opportunity to speak out, rather than protect this man with our corrosive silence. In the immortal words of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, when truth is replaced by silence, that silence is a lie. It is time to lay the lying ghost of Chris Abani’s past to rest and my friends and I involved in this new effort welcome all men and women of conscience to join us. At this point, we welcome those who’ve done a bit of hand-wringing and head-scratching over this in the past. It doesn’t matter to us when the scales finally fell off their eyes. What matters is that they now fully appreciate the danger of letting the Chris Abani’s juggernaut of lies continue unchallenged.

In the course of our private discussions over this, a Professor in the US university system with wide connections in Amnesty International offered to contact them about this issue, but even though I also have contacts at Amnesty, I wouldn’t bother them with this one yet, because I know that Mr Abani has already taken care of that aspect with a careful courting of Amnesty from the time he began to grow as a writer of stature. I mean, when he launched his book, Song for Night in Australia in September 2008 and delivered the Opening Night Address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, he was there with Nicole Bieske, the National President of Amnesty International, Australia. In October 2009, Amnesty International Scotland featured him in the “Heroes and Heroines Exhibition” as one of 12 individuals around the world “who dared to speak out against human rights abuses in the face of repression”. In fact, in his PEN America Conversation with Walter Mosley, he mentioned doing a lot of work for Amnesty along with actors, celebrities and so on. He’s said that much in his 2003 defence at krazitivity.

So, no, Amnesty wouldn’t say they were aware of him being in prison the four times he mentioned he was in prison in Nigeria, because it is not true and Abani has made sure not to claim that. The only thing he has craftily said was that he expected them to come and save him, but they didn’t come. Now having woven his tales so well in the West and into the intellectual and social fabric of discourses on writers as prisoners of conscience and using the unsuspecting Amnesty for that purpose, we are only likely to get the latter ‘confirming’ the lies he has told them and other institutional sponsors and interests as the truth. So, they wouldn’t be my source of validation or verification at this stage. Like a lot of those who have feted Chris Abani in the West and validated his lies against Nigeria and Nigerians at the cost of the distortion of our national history, Amnesty will hear from us when we are ready to bring this formally to their attention. We have to do it for all those audiences around the world that Chris Abani has emotionally defrauded and for writers who truly suffered in the hands of the state for their art and its trajectory with politics; writers who have genuine things to say, but whose voices have been drowned out by the wily marketing machine of a talented liar.

(8) Lies? What lies?

In the course of discussing this matter with other people (including non-Nigerians and non-Africans) on some forums and via private exchanges, some contributors have expressed doubts as to whether what we have now is enough to reach the conclusion that Chris Abani is lying. They say there is a patent difficulty in proving that the experiences he claims to have undergone in prison aren’t true and that all we can do is only express incredulity since we cannot muster proof. Some have gone further to say the onus of proving he is fabricating stories rests on those of us accusing him of doing so.

Now, on the question of whether we have enough to declare that Chris Abani is lying, I think from the findings so far and his attempt at a defence, we do have enough to reach certain basic conclusions tending towards the fact that he is lying. In the very least, these put heavy doubts on his story, not on the conclusions reached by those who say he’s lying. Of course, for some people who did not live through the relevant historical period or in the environment he claims these things happened it could be more difficult accepting that it’s all a lie or they may want a higher standard of proof from his accusers, but what they cannot do is ask people to do the impossible to prove that Abani is lying. We do not think most Nigerians will have a problem understanding that Chris Abani is lying, but for Western followers of this issue, we want to let them know that what we have here isn’t conclusive even for us. It is not conclusive in the sense that we are not just going to go to sleep after saying these things; we will continue to provide more and more evidence to support what we believe is the truth. For now, this and other articles on the matter arguing from this perspective are only meant to generate public discussion and to begin to bring the issue to the attention of everyone and every institution on both sides of the argument with a view to giving Chris Abani further opportunity to come clean.

People must understand that this is not a criminal trial. The standard of proof required is therefore not one beyond reasonable doubt, but one based on the balance of probabilities. Even in criminal trials, people get convicted on circumstantial evidence precisely because the court and all reasonable people understand that the nature of crime is to cover up, but a successful cover-up need not absolve the criminal if enough circumstantial evidence can be produced to nail such a criminal. The fact is this is a case in the court of public opinion, not in a court of law. Each side should be striving to show the world that their position is the truth. It means presenting logical, believable arguments in support of their position, including hard evidence where necessary. But what we all need to note is that while the onus of providing proof here isn’t the exclusive responsibility of one party, the higher duty lies on he who asserts. The test for determining who asserts is a simple one – it is to identify the claim or statement that elicited the reactions or other claims. The assertion here isn’t that Chris Abani is lying. That is only the reaction to the assertion he made that he was in prison four times. He has said it and repeated it several times and has got his promoters to repeat it several times and has used it as a selling point in his speaking engagements several times to the extent that we are all now sick of hearing it repeatedly. Chris Abani has asserted that he was in prison and we do not believe him. We are raising questions and challenging him to prove the truth of his assertion over matters that affect our public policy, national and corporeal image at a particular time in our history that most of us were very much aware of. The rules of law, logic and natural justice state that he who asserts must prove; so, it’s Abani’s duty to truth to go out there and provide for us anything, any type of evidence, apart from him just saying so, that he was indeed in prison. He’s been challenged for almost a decade now and still he hasn’t done so. Indeed, every attempt he’s made to defend himself has

further confirmed that he’s lying.

There is a strand of argument that attempts to draw a moral equivalence between Chris Abani’s lies about his prison experiences and the experiences of people who really underwent this suffering on the basis that both are attacking the Nigerian state that we all know was and possibly is still capable of such evils as narrated by Chris Abani. Analogically speaking, these people are saying accusing someone we all think is a killer of murdering someone we all know he didn’t kill is okay, because the guy is a killer anyway. Of course, that can’t be right. We shouldn’t be holding the Nigerian state responsible for phantom crimes against the person. Instead, we should be holding Chris Abani responsible for preying on the genuine sufferings and death of those who actually suffered these fates under military rule. Indeed, people like Chris Abani who tell outright lies about their sufferings under the dictatorship of bad leadership in Africa are themselves enemies of truth and progress and are bad role models for the Africa we are trying to build from the ruins of that failed leadership. They are moral equivalents to the extent that both tendencies are nurtured and sustained on lies, vile marketing, physical and emotional violence, personality cult and propaganda.

Another argument says Chris Abani may have only exaggerated, rather than fabricated the whole thing and that even if the stories are lies entirely, the things he said happened to him or some of these things at least actually happened to others and therefore must be “emotionally true”. So, while Chris Abani’s story may not actually be reality, his emotional experience during military rule may have made him feel it was. But again, this is scraping the barrel stuff. Emotional truth and fact aren’t mutually exclusive. Chris Abani does not have to concoct facts to write an emotionally true story about imprisonment or military dictatorship or even about his family’s experience during the Civil War or his mother’s work amongst women in Eastern Nigeria and so on. There is enough in our real life experience and the experience of others to give us great material for telling emotionally true and factually correct stories. Chris Abani’s privileged upbringing did not expose him to any hardship to the extent of being that emotionally affected. He was never brushed by the wings of any demon! His is a case of clear-eyed calculation to lie about himself and his imprisonment and persecution, because in his scheme, he needed these outlandish personal tales to actually sell his books and establish a career. Once his career started profiting from those lies, he follows up by using part of that money and his time to court PEN International, Amnesty International and CLO and so on, ingratiating himself with them as a true writer-activist. This to him is some kind of investment against tomorrow when his lies get thrown in his face. He thinks by doing this he has successfully laundered his lies into the system and bought strong institutional support against any attempt to question his credibility thereafter. But, of course, he’s sorely mistaken, because we are going to make each and every one of these organizations and institutions connected with him, including his publishers to make their own investigations and publicly present their findings. Chris Abani has fortified himself thoroughly between the last time he was challenged and now. He has done so in preparation for this moment, but he’s about to find out that lies can only take you so far!

(9) Not in our name!

Honestly, at this stage, while still gunning for more facts to prove our point that Chris Abani is an unreconstructed, inveterate and pathological liar who has used his nation and people-damaging lies to heartlessly twist people’s emotions, I believe those of us challenging him today have put enough information out there to at least set decent people on inquiry. When he delivers his paid speeches and regales audiences in the West with these lies, he does so to create the image of a man who has suffered in the hands of the Nigerian state for his art. It makes his creative work more compelling; it makes people beat a path to his door and it opens wallets everywhere. But the cost to those he is lying to, the cost to the Nigerian nation, the cost to writers and activists who have truly suffered for their art and politics is immeasurable. Chris Abani has betrayed people’s trust in the writer as an agent of truth, the poet as a prophet and the intellectual as a beacon of civilization. He has distorted the history of the struggle against dictatorship in Nigeria and the more he is allowed to run roughshod over truth, the worst will be the damage. Yes, in 2003, some writers and activists attempted to take him on, but they backed off, because they possibly felt it was too much ruining his career over such a lie, considering he actually has the talent for writing. But they have forgotten so soon that the day will come when those who are busy promoting him in the West today will pull the rug under him and expose him as the typical Nigerian 419 or scammer who has taken them for a ride. While he’s still making money for them, he’s their bastard; but once that stops or is threatened, they will wheel him out and hang him out to dry. Thus, Nigerian writers and activists have the opportunity to speak out now before this happens. If they do so, they avoid the future of a bad brush tarring everyone. They will stand in history as people who understand the value of truth and who would not allow one of their own fingers dabbling into bad oil to smear the rest. They will expose the hypocrisy of Western promoters and free the thousands of people who have innocently bought his lies and whose idea of the Nigerian struggle against dictatorship is seen from Chris Abani’s lying lenses. Make no mistake about it, the work to torpedo every lie Chris Abani has told is continuing behind the scenes. Patience never kills truth; but lies will always die many times before the cold hands of truth gets to them.

Of course, we are not trying to ruin Chris Abani’s career as a writer, because he’s had great success as a talented writer already and I believe as far as he sticks to writing fiction, rather than fictionalizing his own life as the reality with which to sell his books or make more money from his speaking engagements, he’ll be fine. We are and must only be interested in decoupling the truth (his art) from his life as an artist who has suffered for his art and politics (the lie). We must call on those we send our findings to at this initial stage to ask themselves if Abani has the integrity to speak for art, beautifully woven around false personal history. No doubt, it’s going to be a long drawn-out war and we must be prepared to be attacked by those who benefit from the Chris Abani fairytales industry; but it’s a duty we must do for our country and its history, for true art, genuine activism and for our own personal integrity. Good culture vigilantes, must for the good of society and protection of the art, believe that they are morally obliged to shoot down these damaging lies.

The way forward is simple. Chris Abani has made money from his lies, but he did it because he thought it is a cunning way to sell his art. He has now established himself as a bona-fide writer, it’s time to let go the lies and let true history stand! He should learn like other decent writers to sell his art on its own merit, not on the prop of fat, destructive lies that emotionally swindle people around the world. Blood money isn’t good money! Enough is enough!

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