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The African Playwright: Old Stories, Present Day Realities
A short essay that reviews the relevance of plays written in the eighties and nineties on the modern African socio-political landscape.
[1,162 words]
Adesola Orimalade
[April 2005]
The African Playwright: Old Stories, Present Day Realities
Adesola Orimalade

The playwright, like every author, is a story teller. Whether writing fact or fiction, he takes his society and using the medium of drama expresses his feelings, emotions and experiences.

Drama itself is an art that brings the playwright’s story to life, to an audience using the creativity of the director, producer, artistes, set designers, choreographers and so on and so forth.

Drama over the years has therefore become a tool through which society is mirrored. Drama is a tool through which the critical playwright can criticize society, government and individuals alike.

In Africa, agitation for self-determination especially in the 1950s and 1960s provided the right atmosphere for the new breed of militant playwrights. Mostly educated abroad, these young men and women created drama pieces that agitated for the rights of the people to self-govern. Dr Miuke Aliu in his paper ‘ CRITICAL DIMENSIONS IN NIGERIAN DRAMA BEYOND YEAR 2000’ stated that ‘…the use of the dramatic medium as a means of propagating ideologies and the struggles for the control of the conscience of man has been noted by writers like Ngugi Wa Thiong's …who sees drama as one of the most potent media in the struggle against cultural and neo-colonialism in Africa.It is also a decisive weapon of galvanizing the masses towards radical socio-economic changes’
As one after the other African states became independent, the envisaged ‘new dawn’ of African development became a mirage. The exit of the colonial masters only created a vacuum that the new elitist political class that fought each other; often to the death, thankfully filled. The era witnessed civil wars, military takeovers and general political upheavals. The African playwright quickly adjusted, shifting its theme to the pervading social and economic malaise of the continent. This was the period when the playwright tried to touch our conscience and put all of us in front of a mirror. The image we saw was not good.

Sadly however, after more than 30 to 40 years some of these drama pieces were written, the same image we saw on our mirror then, has changed little, if at all. In some cases we have grown uglier. The same issues of corruption, political instability, excesses of the political class, poverty and disease still remains as relevant then as they are now. Then most African countries were not as poor as they were then.

Written in 1983 by the notable Nigerian playwright, Professor Femi Osofisan, the play ‘ If: A Tragedy of the Ruled’ draws inspiration from the political experience at that time in Nigeria.

Nigeria was in an election year. The military had handed over to the National Party of Nigeria with Alhaji Shehu Shagari as President in 1979. The election result then had been hotly disputed. As the nation prepared for another election after 4 years of alleges misrule by the party in power, tension was understandably very high.

The stories told within the play addressed such issues as corruption, misrule by elected officials, poverty and above all the very lack of basic social amenities such as affordable and adequate heath care.

Set in Diobu, a slum area in Port Harcourt, southern Nigeria, the play is woven round a tenement apartment. The tenants were from diverse ethnic background but were all united in their search for a better life.

Opera Wonyonsi was written in 1981 by the Nobel Laureate; Professor Wole Soyinka It focused on such issues as bribery and corruption, smuggling, armed robbery and most importantly the misrule of African political leaders.

Set in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic when Emperor Jean Bokassa was that country’s leader.The cast comprised who is who in an average African urban setting. There was the despotic ruler Emperor Bokasa, Dago (the jailer) and Colonel Moses ( the Nigerian ambassador to the Central African Republic). There were also men of the underworld; Anikura; the Chairman of a company that was into begging (but he is shown as being very influential in Bangui) and others.

‘ Who is Afraid of Solarin’ was written in 1978. It tells the story of bribery and corruption within the political class. It includes stories of misrule and abuse of political office. No one is spared, not even members of the clergy. It also tells the story of the fear the political class have of a probes and any attempt to expose their ill gotten wealth.

These stories told in the period 1970 and 1985 all have the same theme. They told stories of a Nigeria then that was corrupt and where bribery reigned. They showed a picture of a political class that was inept, incompetent and corrupt. Many organs of government where exposed as being infested with this evil. Twenty five years ago they said Nigeria was a place where there were the social infrastructures were not working; where electricity, good roads, good affordable housing and heath facilities were lacking. That was over twenty years ago.

In 1983 the tenants in If were so poor that they were resisting a mere ten Naira increase in house rent. Today nothing has changed. Poverty is rife in Nigeria in particular and Africa in general, and it is the abject type at that.

In 1983, Onyema; the little asthmatic boy in If died as a result of the inability of the hospitals to provide medical care. Today our public hospitals are mere consultation rooms. Those who are lucky enough to patronize the private ones or be flown abroad for treatment are luckier.

Opera Wonyonsi exposed bribery and corruption in Africa. That characteristic has not left us. Today Africa as a continent still provides a major part of Transparency’s corruption first eleven. Nigeria is one of the few places on earth where a policeman can stretch out in hand in broad daylight to demand for and forcible collect bribe.

To remind ourselves, these stories and others told during the period reflected a society that had a myriad of problems such as:

• Pervasive poverty
• Bribery and Corruption in all facets of the society
• Unemployment
• Armed Robbery and crime
• Smuggling and other economic crimes
• The negative approach of the political ruling class to the needs of the electorate

Twenty odd years after, the stories told then are still with us in flesh and blood today.

Any one in doubt only needs to look at Zimbabwe and appreciate the problems of history in Africa. We do not learn anything from our past.

The playwrights told us that in the 1970s and 1980s, Africa was bedeviled by a general air of political misrule. Today things are no better in many parts of the continent. Unpopular governments still hold sway and elections are a means of legitimizing an unwanted regime.

We can only pray that these stories will still not be real in Africa in the next decade. The sighs today are ominous but Africans have always been known for our faith in God to come to our aid. Faith is all that we have to hold onto.


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© 2005 Adesola Orimalade
April 2005

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