“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” – Virginia Wolf
Okay, I envy literary writers. I envy them because there is no vocation with a wider licence to lie than that enterprise. Creative writers are the only ones allowed to take us on a ride, stretch our imagination mercilessly from Alberta to Jakarta and back again, suspending us in tiny twines of woven words of secret magic as their anthills turn mountains, their dust gold and their little droplets of ink drown us in pleasure as we lap it all up in thankful complicity! Yes, yes, it comes with the job description.
However, our complicity isn’t won without a cost. Their licence to lie to us comes with caveats upfront, writ-large in blurbs, bio-data and in promotional materials for their work. Their lies must not seep out of their work and begin to coagulate in their heads as some truth, rather than as staple of their art. This trust between writer and reader is established in such bold relief that it is indeed a most sacred covenant.
So, our enjoyment of a writer’s work or our emotional and material investment in it is solely premised on their literary invention, not on their invention of facts. Characters, thematic ideas, dialogues, plots and even language can all be invented to go with the art, but once they begin to address us as writers and individuals, truth cannot be compromised. Writers who betray the trust of readers would surely as the sun rises, have to one day first confront the sentinels who, for the good of society and protection of art and civilization, question the veracity of their claims before they are left at the mercy of the world that they have betrayed. Such has been the fate of James Frey, Greg Mortenson, Norma Khouri, Margaret Selzer, Forrest Carter, Binjamin Wilkomirski, Misha Defonseca, Martin Gray, Herman Rosenblat, Timothy Barrus to mention but a few. They all embellished or fabricated tales about themselves to sell their art. Sure the money came, fame followed, but shame crowned it all as they got exposed.
(1) A finger in palm oil
It is instructive that when a comprehensive list of writers who have betrayed their readers’ trust through lies is made, you will never find an African on that list. By African, I mean continental African writers, persons born in Africa, who experienced Africa, possibly started their writing career there, even if they ultimately got universal acclaim. Yes, you will not find them in that hall of infamy. As a student of political and social history, I do believe the reason for this can be found in the way African writers and the African people have historically fashioned their role and responsibility in society. Unlike in the West, where there are many agents of social and political change and progress, Africa has very few. Writers may not have the wealth, celebrity status or fame of popstars, but they are the only ones, even above our political leaders and traditional rulers, that we’ve placed on the mountain top and deified as consciences of our nations and communities. They are the oracular voices that sting us to action, the ones that speak truth to power. They are the activists and the rallying pillars of protest against a gangrened and incapacitated political system unable and unwilling to deliver on the accumulated visions from our stunted past and erased future. For the African writer in whatever literary genre, we often find that money is not the first consideration, but message.
Now, someone is about to change all that. His name is Chris Abani. Something is rotten in Mr Abani’s Denmark and I’m not talking tail! I’m talking the whole head with swarms of multi-pronged lies buzzing all over him as he traverses globally from stage to stage! He’s bitten the forbidden fruit and the tragedy is he isn’t letting go. He has failed to read his history well to see that the road to redemption begins with an acceptance of the inevitable early enough to begin to rebuild. He wants to keep on milking the juicy lies until the literary undertakers actually walk through his door. They are coming!
But I’m a latecomer to the Chris Abani mess. It all began for me on the morning of November 28, 2011 when I visited the Facebook page of my good friend, Meg Amechi and saw that she and some other friends and contributors were engaged in a discussion of Abani, based on an article written by Ikhide Ikheloa, titled, the “The Trials of Chris Abani and the Power of Empty Words”. First, I was amused that the usually mild-mannered Meg was waxing tough and declaring: “I do not want my son to look back at the history of Nigeria and believe that fourteen year old boys were killed on death row for the crimes someone in their family committed. Unless of course there is documentary proof of this!” That got me more curious. So, I clicked on the link to Mr Ikheloa’s piece. I read it, including all the links he provided to support his claims against Mr Abani.
Basically, the story is that Chris Abani, who came to the West in 1991, had published a book of poetry in 2001 which he titled Kalakuta Republic. Mr Abani and his publishers claim that the poems in the collection are “a powerful collection of poems detailing the harrowing experiences endured by Abani and others at the hands of Nigeria’s military regime in the late 1980s. In them he describes the characters that peopled his dark world, from the prison inmates to their torturers. While intense episodes are vividly described, it is above all a work greatly tinged with humanity and a durable tribute to the triumph of the human spirit”. Since then, Chris Abani has won worldwide acclaim for the book, with review after review and prize after prize, including Fellowships, all of which were premised on the assumed fact that Chris Abani actually suffered these harrowing experiences in a Nigerian prison.
The great British writer and Nobel Laureate, Harold Pinter had this to say about Kalakuta Republic: “Chris Abani’s poems seem to me to be totally naked. In no way are they pitying, never for a moment self-indulgent. They’re economic, spare, concrete and precise, and truly alarming. They also express a profound and very tough compassion for all the people he saw die, all the people he saw mutilated around him. The other point here is that although the poems are precise and specific, they definitely refer to a universal state of affairs which is, of course, man’s inhumanity to man. These are not simply documentary facts, they are coherent and harmonious pieces of work, I admire this very much.”
Pinter’s view above is representative of the sort of praise that Chris Abani has received from the literary high quarters all over the world. His agent, promoters, publishers and marketers then devised a programme which has Abani traversing the world, filling up auditoriums, regaling audiences with stories about his imprisonment and its connection to his art and generally delivering performances filled with anecdotes, humour and a lot of mirth, leaving listeners with the impression of a man who is no less than a secular saint. How can anyone go through such suffering for the sake of his art and still have such gaiety and joy? How can he still have belief in the goodness of the human being and go about preaching this beauty of humanity all over the world? Is this a literary Gandhi in designers’ shirts and shoes? His absolute mastery of his pitch, his smooth delivery and seeming intellectual depth all go down well with audiences around the world who, after every session of such talk, he entertains with interpretations of his art via a solo performance on the saxophone. Chris Abani is the closest thing to a literary celebrity on tour!
(2) A word in a brother’s ear
It isn’t that Chris Abani’s antics had escaped everyone up till now. In 2003, a group of fellow Nigerian writers and others publicly challenged his
accounts of imprisonment amongst other things on a Yahoogroups listserv they all belong to called krazitivity. In August that year, the writer Lola Shoneyin, who along with other writers and journalists had been involved in a six-month investigation of the Abani incarceration story in Nigeria, reported back that they came up with “didley, zilch, nada. No records. no files. Nothing. No one remembers him. No one knows him”. Chris Abani then came up with a defence in a response to his fellow writers. Below is a link to his piece at krazitivity:
The defence was as lame as the lies he tells! It manages to avoid the core issues, focusing instead on what is not in dispute, while raising straw man arguments to ‘demolish’ them. For instance, no one was arguing about when he wrote the books he said he wrote, but he copiously detailed them, the awards he won and the press publications they were in. The same chap could not tender one publication or evidence in support of any of his claims to imprisonment!
Indeed, when he took on the subject of imprisonment, he did it woollily. For instance, hear him:
“From 1987 ¬ 1989 ¬ whenever I was out of prison, myself and Emmanuel Opara (who is unfortunately dead now) organized and performed anti-government plays in front of Government House Owerri, and other such places. They were skits, with no scripts, trying to follow Ngugi¹s ideas by roping passersby into the performances. There is no documentation of these, but that I was essentially the student force behind all the plays put on in Imo State University between 1987 – 1991. We had no formal theatre department and Dr. Tess Onwueme began a fledging company. That should be easy to verify”.
The period between 1987 and 1989 he is talking about above is supposed to cover his second and partly his third stints in prison. He isn’t telling us why he was in prison at this point, but having told us he was in prison from December 1985 to May 1986 as a teenager (before he entered university), we are supposed to deduce that he was now being hounded and imprisoned because he was using his improvised plays to sensitize the people in front of Government House Owerri, at school in the Imo State University and other places around. Where is the evidence? Oh, the only person doing it with him is dead and the other participants were just ordinary passersby and conveniently unknown to him. As for his story about his theatre activism in school, Professor Tess Onwueme classily debunked this in her email to another writer, Nnorom Azuonye:
(3) Pinocchio comes home
Chris Abani certainly chose the dates of his imprisonment carefully. It is instructive that none of these stories of imprisonment found their way into public space until after 2000, which was about the time he published his first book abroad, Kalakuta Republic. He chose his first stint in prison (between December 1985 to May 1986) to coincide with a time the Major General Mamman Vatsa coup plotters were arrested, imprisoned and executed and also a time Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was in prison. This serves three purposes for him. One, it is to validate him as the intellectual brain behind the Vatsa coup via his book Masters of The Board (he tweaks this lie further by claiming they found his book on Vatsa when he was arrested) and the second is to make him into an Achebe figure of his time in replication of the prophetic Man of the People and the claim by a section of the mutinous Nigerian Army of the time that it was a blueprint for the January 1966 coup, even though Masters of the Board is about a neo-Nazi takeover of Nigeria. The third was to ride the wave of national and international concentration on the music and legacy of Fela in the immediate aftermath of his death.
Abani had to find a reason to leave on an afterthought “exile” and that reason has to be within his concocted experience in prison, a reason strong enough to resonate with Western readers eager to gobble all sorts of fairytales following the end of military rule and the return to democracy in Nigeria. He was not in Nigeria during the critical period of pro-democracy struggle or throughout the Abacha era, so he found that strong reason in the form of the John James story, which is the flagship of his collection of poems, Kalakuta Republic. He posited himself in the thick of national uncertainty, a teenager put on “death row”, who, on his last stint in prison at the age of 24, met this 14-year old boy, John James whose penis was nailed to a table and left to die! Why, because he was taken in lieu of someone in his family being hunted by the regime! I mean, why would anyone torture and kill a little boy because they couldn’t find his adult relation?
Chris Abani claims that some nameless friends bribed Kirikiri prison officials to aid his escape in July 1991, after four months in prison. He said that “alone and with nothing”, he escaped to exile in London. Yet, in other versions of his story of leaving Nigeria, he talks about leaving Nigeria with four siblings and his English mother. They certainly couldn’t have left like that if he was a wanted man, could they? To add more drama, he tells the story of how several attempts were made to kill him in “boot camp”. Of course, here he is referring to the one year National Youth Service Corps programme that is compulsory for all Nigerian graduates of tertiary institutions below the age of thirty. What he calls boot camp is the initial few weeks period of Orientation in a camp consisting of no more than mere physical exercises under the guidance of army officers, before being posted to areas of primary assignment. Chris Abani was posted to Ondo State and the camp for the state was at a place called Efon Alaaye. I have read one or two things from persons who remember him in camp and they all are unanimous in dubbing his stories lies. One actually called me to say what they knew of him then was his constant grumbling about the exercises and his clear inability to cope. This same person says Chris Abani actually abandoned the programme, because he couldn’t cope with the exercises and left for the United Kingdom. In other words, Chris Abani’s whole escape from prison story couldn’t be right, because if he did, he wouldn’t be found at the Orientation camp. It also means the imprisonments he claims could not be true, because if they were, he would have lost almost two academic years and wouldn’t have been graduating in 1991, since he claimed to have entered school at the earliest in 1987 (though he claims to be in prison between April and December 1987). In any case, whether it was 1987 or the following year he entered university, we know he graduated with the June set of 1991, which was why he was able to go for the August 1991 National Youth Service Corp Orientation at Efon Alaaye, Ondo State. Again, that puts a lie to his claims of imprisonment, because if he escaped or was released in July 1991, when did he sit his final year examination, considering that he had by his own account being in prison in far away Kirikiri for four months? And having escaped to England as he claims under whatever circumstances, why didn’t he alert the world immediately about his ordeal and the fate of those he left behind in prison? I mean, he was now in the United Kingdom with every member of his family and there couldn’t have been any fear of reprisals against them in Nigeria, so why didn’t he speak out?
From all indications, Chris Abani’s career of lies to sell his art began in the UK exactly with the incidences he recounts about his passport renewal at the Nigerian High Commission and Scotland Yard questioning him. He claims Scotland Yard interrogated him on charges of funding terrorist activities in Nigeria. I made certain inquiries about this and my sources dismissed this outright, saying it was “very, very unlikely” that Scotland Yard would be doing
that pre-September 11, 2001. When I presented this as possibly a charge of “funding anti-government elements”, my sources again raised doubts, because, according to them, this was one of the easiest grounds Nigerians used at the time to claim political asylum in the UK, because of the pro-democracy activities against the General Sani Abacha government and British support for National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) and pro-democracy elements, including those accused of using arms. These sources actually mentioned Bola Tinubu, Ralph Uwechue, Anthony Enahoro, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, John Oyegun and Dan Suleiman (amongst others) as persons who enjoyed the protection of the British establishment at the time, because of their political differences with Abacha. They strongly doubt that any Nigerian was grilled by Scotland Yard for terrorist activities or funding anti-government elements at the time.
Chris Abani always says he fled London to the US, because of a killing on his doorstep. Though, I didn’t or have not raised the murder issue with my sources, my conjecture at the moment (until I see something to disprove this) is that the Scotland Yard bit may have been related to the police questioning him about the killing, if that really happened. Of course, he has never mentioned the name of the person killed and depending on which version of his story you are reading, it was either a neighbour or a friend or someone close to him. While it increasingly follows the pattern of his lies – that is the tendency to mention dramatic incidences involving others without mentioning their names (because they’re false), if any questioning happened at Scotland Yard, it was possibly in connection with police investigation into that killing.
At any rate, what is obvious is that before this time, Chris Abani was not known to tell tales about any imprisonment or suffering in Nigeria, including throughout his time as a student in Birkbeck College, University of London where he earned a Masters degree in 1995. Chris Abani began to craft his lies at about the time he began to dream of writing Kalakuta Republic, which is the first book he wrote abroad. He read the political signs after the demise of Abacha and the tales of horrors coming out, yet because he had left Nigeria by the time Abacha took over and died, he had to find stories that connect to prison predating that era. Since he couldn’t make any pro-democracy claims (which he possibly did and was quickly exposed, because it evidently isn’t true), he chose to lie about his condition from the time of his first novel in 1983 and his leaving Nigeria in 1991.
He scoured national history and chose periods of great uncertainty to posit himself in prison and weave tales around certain national events. His mission was to produce a literary work of poetry, which he would present as a collection of poems on his own true experience (quite convenient as no detailed narration is necessary with poetry) and lie to his heart’s content about his suffering in prison. The concoction of a relationship with Fela was necessary, because the work he had in mind was to be named Kalakuta Republic, which was what Fela called his abode and what sections of prisons and detention centres are dubbed in popular parlance. He calculated that a work like that at a time Fela just died would have popular appeal and in that spirit he would take liberty more with truth by talking about Fela and their relationship. After all, Fela was dead and wouldn’t be jumping up to refute his claim! This was how he began the story of Fela teaching him to play sax while in prison. That story was on until he was challenged by those colleagues in 2003. That challenge made him begin to backtrack in subsequent interviews, claiming now that he only saw Fela in prison playing his sax and that he spoke to him once. So, while he’s backed away from the sax tutoring lies, he sticks to the story of him discussing his troubles with Fela and the latter telling him: “Truth, my young friend, is a risky business”. This, of course is still a lie, because Fela never went into prison with a saxophone and as an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience at the time and knowing how outspoken he was, he could not have kept Chris Abani’s story to himself and himself alone. Meanwhile, all that time, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) were busy calling for the release or pardon of Vatsa, who was a poet and a patron of the organization. Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka made high profile national and international pleas and in all this, they didn’t mention a Chris Abani, a young talented writer languishing in jail for writing the ‘Bible’ of the coup plotters! It’s obvious that Chris Abani chanced upon the idea of lying with Fela’s name as he wrote Kalakuta Republic, just as he concocted all the lies he’s been using to sell himself and his books since then.
Chris Abani cannot also tell us who within the university knew of his prison ordeals. He claims to have been seized ten minutes into the “university commencement” play he wrote and was acting in, along with fellow actors and students, yet he cannot name one of these persons arrested along with him and for whom he signed a forced confession to treason to effect their release. He also could not tell us those who did the arrest or forced him to sign the statement indicting him for treason. The university has no record of such occurrence. Nobody in his hometown of Afikpo raised a voice; his mother, an English woman kept schtum throughout and Amnesty International Annual Reports for the country throughout this period made no mention of him! All we have is Chris Abani making claims with no iota of evidence and with nobody, nobody backing him up!
Now, consider his attempt to talk about why there was no publication of his ordeal:
“Available Newspaper articles about me in Nigeria that I have: On December 5, 1985, in The Vanguard Newspaper (page 7), Kolasa Kargbo covered my winning of the 1983 Delta Fiction Award in a features article. On Sunday December 15th (page 3), again in The Vanguard Newspaper, Kolasa Kargbo carried a feature about my book launch. I was arrested later that month, and Kolasa Kargbo could not be reached by my friends to run an article. I was released from prison in May 1986 and approached Kolasa and his editor at The Vanguard Newspaper. They agreed to run my story as a three-part episode, under the title, The Plot to Blow Up Nigeria. The first, an excerpt from my book ran under said title on June 15th 1986, page 12. The following two episodes were withdrawn for security reasons. Dilibe Onyeama, my publisher might remember this. Also on March 8th 1986 in The Nigerian Statesman Newspaper, an interview recorded in December 1985 finally ran on page 7 under the byline of Comfort Obi in which I complain about the way older Nigerian writers had marginalized me. On June 24th 1984 the Weekly Democrat ran a story on page 6 in which my award and book were mentioned”.
Looking at that account, we will note that every publication he detailed only had to do with his literary work, not his imprisonment. His attempt to niftily indicate that he or his friends approached the press to tell his imprisonment story is evidently a tall tale. He mentioned his friends trying to reach Kolasa Kargbo to tell him of his first imprisonment, but ended that by saying they couldn’t reach him. They couldn’t reach him for five months? So, is that the reason there was no news of it? Was Kolasa Kargbo the only journalist in Nigeria? Was Vanguard the only newspaper in Nigeria? And who are these friends that knew of his imprisonment and tried to make the approach? Yet, he claimed he met Kargbo after his release and they planned to do a story on him. But then it turns out that the story he’s talking about here was not about his imprisonment, but about his book, Masters of the Board! He claimed they ran one excerpt on June 15th 1986, page 12, yet nothing on his supposed imprisonment!
Of course, he’s conveniently stressed that his incarcerations “were not in the mid to lat
e 90’s and would therefore not necessarily be known to CLO”. Yet, he forgot that the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) was founded in October 1987 and its first years were the most vibrant under the leadership of Olisa Agbakoba. Indeed, from its formation up to 1991, the organization set its main task as that of thoroughly investigating the prison system and the goings-on within, including organizing copious visits and interviews with prisoners. The result of that is the 1991 publication, “Behind the wall: A Report on Prison Conditions in Nigeria and the Nigerian Prison System”. It’s a well-researched documentation of the goings-on in Nigerian prisons and not a jot is in there to support the fantasies of Mr Chris Abani. Any follower of Nigerian history would know that the CLO of the said period would not have missed such a great story as this one told by Mr Abani. The CLO apart, how that escaped the vibrant Nigerian press as a whole is still a mystery!
Chris Abani’s lies only began to take centre stage when he got to America and gamed the system in such a way that his lies can pass for truth, considering the West’s notion of Africa. In that attempt he continues to carefully use the language of the terrain. When he says he was on “death row” or that he was the playwright for a “university commencement” play or when he says he graduated “magna cum laude” or that he was in “boot camp” and so on, it is a way of using the language of the terrain to get to the people. His promoters and marketers understand this and are doing it so well, raking in the dollar!