Malami’s Autography: Lessons on telling Compelling Personal Stories of Triumph in the Face of Thorny and Daunting Terrains -By Sam Kargbo, SAN
One of the current trends which has gained traction in the information age, apart from the emergence of Artificial Intelligence is the establishment of a paradigm shift in telling African stories. Years before now, African stories were told by the West, and directed by negative Western opinions and themes. African stories told by the West were inspired by the colonial African experiences and driven in the modern era by the themes prevalent in the USA-for-Africa theme Song, We are the World (1985) – where Africa was presented as a continent needing help from the ravages of poverty, famine, drought and corruption. These concepts helped to entrench certain archetypes about Africa and the African identity.
Around the turn of the millennium, several agitations and opinions around the stories told about Africa and Nigeria began to be challenged by Africans seeking cultural retrieval. In this category we have renown intellectuals like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe. , Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ayi Kwei Armah, Syl Cheney-Choker, Camar Laye, Ferdinand Oyono, Okot P’Bitek and a host of African writers.
Of course, students of Literature who are familiar with the dramatic, poetic and prose themes of Nigeria’s Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, and his contributions to contemporary literary dialogue will appreciate the case he has consistently made about the credibility of African cultures and traditional African religions.
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The younger generation is not left behind in the dialogue of inclusion. During a TED talk on October 9 2009, Nigerian award-winning novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie captured the dangers of a negative narrative about Africa and Nigeria with her exposition titled The Danger of a Single Story. In that treatise, Mrs Adichie said:
like our economic and political worlds, stories are defined by…how they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.
Today, and perhaps as a consequence of the quiet revolution which African writers’ exposition initiated, many Africans are beginning to tell their own stories. They deliberately ignore negative issues of poverty, disease, famine and wars and focus on the innovative solutions that Africans are beginning to put in place to solve problems emanating from internecine wars, avoidable famine, intractable diseases and the promotion of new entrepreneurship. Many of the stories that a new generation of Africans is telling are stories about the triumphs of Africans or Nigerians.
Under very strict literary considerations, most of these stories verily get told either through fictional characters who pass through Shakespearean or Victorian prisms: there is usually a tragic hero with a tragic flaw whose tragic flaw eventually leads him to experience a reversal of fortunes as a hero or heroine. For a hero or heroine to be a hero or heroine he or she is often presented as having risen from grass to grace. The idea is that when such a fictional character ‘falls’, or experiences a reversal in his or her fortunes, the fictional effect which is often didactic becomes very poignant and more overwhelming.
It is the same for dramatic presentations where plays are staged as direct reflections of life itself. We will pause awhile to reflect on the wonders that have taken place with Nollywood – from telling African stories even through analogue methods, this industry has bludgeoned into a behemoth ranking only next to Hollywood and Bollywood. What has made the concept of Nollywood blossom and explode in the face of the negative scenarios that were previously presented by the outside world is that Nollywood tells African stories through drama.
While there’s a lot more focus on telling African stories with old-fashioned delineations of poetry, prose-fiction and drama, there’s as yet no recognition accorded the genre of the autobiography as a critical measure of strong narratives. This is perhaps owing to the perception of the autobiography as subjective rather than an objective narrative technique. Autobiographies lie at the border between literature and the history of someone’s personal experiences. Instead of being a drawback, it is a great incentive to tell stories of triumph through challenges.
Abubakar Malami, SAN, CON with his recent book, Traversing the Thorny Terrain of Nigeria’s Justice Sector – My Travails and Triumphs, 2013, is not an attempt in self transcendence but a bold effort to tell his own story and challenge existing narratives. Even though there would have been other avenues open to Mr Malami, SAN, like the biographical model for telling his own story of his seeming grass-to-grace story, this book delivers compelling narratives of struggle, resilience and doggedness in the face of very intimidating circumstances. Apart from it being an expose and a behind-the-scenes tell-all, Malami’s is an eloquent exploration of the existentialist ideas of Harold Pinter and Albert Camus of the modernist era of literature. A clue to this is from the title of the book. It has such lexical items as ‘traversing’, ‘thorny terrain’ and ‘my travails and triumph’, words and phrases composed of nouns, verbs and adjectives whose connotative imports and content cannot be lost on the reader.
When literary scientists intend to look at whether a book has a ‘story’, they are likely to consider a critical element known as ‘conflict’, the eternal struggles between man and man, man against himself, man against society, and sometimes man against spectres, the winds and the elemental forms. In most cases, a book can have a story without a conflict; and many can have a conflict with so many stories. When a book has a story without conflict, pundits are usually hesitant to adjure and adjudge seriousness to it as a work of art. What makes a literary work a work of art is in the ability of the author to use conflict as a thread with which to weave a labyrinth through the kernel and subplots, through characterization, mood & tone, narrative point of view and through constructive manipulation of the setting of the work under consideration.
In this work, Traversing the Thorny Terrain of Nigeria’s Justice Sector – My Travails and Triumphs – every page seems to drip with conflict after conflict after conflict (the term used here is a purely literary perspective rather than the conventional semantic indication). In 283 pages, with 14 chapters, and photographs of the author’s beginnings and right through being Honourable Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr Malami’s book comes off as a veritable cliffhanger.
While the narrative point of view could not have been anything less than an omniscient point of view, readers could perhaps have gotten a sense of the dramatic third-person narrative point of view if the author had included certain dialogues, repartees and interactions with some of the several antagonists and situations which the author described in his work. For instance, in chapter 2, From Legal Practice to Political Limelight, page 27, the author recounted an encounter of his being accused of dereliction of duty by a colleague. In the course of being given a fair hearing by the committee of the institution set up to look into the allegations levelled against him by his accuser, it was found out that those allegations were spurious, made up and were a calculated attempt to injure the reputation of the author. The author says in that chapter:
I was summoned by the Senior Staff Disciplinary Committee to respond to the allegations. At the sitting, I presented my evidence countering the allegations including the attendance sheet of all my lectures signed by the students who attended the classes and results of test sheets, assignments, presentations and marks of all the assessments conducted.”
What happened next, (we will leave it out of this review to enable curious readers to pick up the book to get a glimpse), in our estimation was an opportunity for the author to cross-examine his accusers. The author did, but readers were denied the opportunity to participate in the fireworks by the author’s seeming inadvertent omission of how he fired back at his accusers and traducers. But this is just an example of what regular literary renditions are made of. Biographies are usually not written like works of fiction, with all of their appurtenances of artistic dexterity. The cited instance is not a flaw, especially as the narrative process in autobiographies often runs along a linear mode of narration.
Readers will find the tale in Chapter 3 (Destiny Beacons on Me as Chief Law Officer), and the encounter in Chapter 12, (Media and Public Perception) very interesting. While the tale in Chapter 3 presents readers with the overarching theme or leitmotif of Mr. Malami’s autobiography when he said on page 55 thus:
‘as the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice and in recognition of the onerous responsibilities and public trust bestowed upon me by my appointment, I have been guided by the overriding public and national interests since my appointment in 2015 in advising or guiding Mr President and other public officers on constitutional and other legal issues, as well as in the general discharge of my statutory duties’.
it was in Chapter 12 (Media and Public Perception) that we get a very good idea of the lesson that the book attempts to establish. In that chapter, the author highlights several instances where most of the diligent work he carried out in the interest of Nigeria was mostly misinterpreted, and misconstrued and in many cases, his character was maligned by the press. It is under this circumstance that we get an inkling of the need to ascribe importance to Mr Malami’s autobiography as a bold initiative at telling compelling personal stories of triumph against the inevitable travails to be encountered on any thorny terrain in life.
In the end, therefore, Mr Malami’s is a compelling read and a chronicle of sterling service to his fatherland as Honourable Attorney General and Minister of Justice of Nigeria 2015 – 2023. Even though readers would have been happy to see Mr Malami’s pictures as a young man growing up in Kebbi and studying law afterwards, and even though there are bits and pieces of spelling errors (page 52 beacon instead of beckon), Traversing the Thorny Terrain of Nigeria’s Justice Sector – My Travails and Triumphs has raised the bar, has successfully set many controversial records straight, highlighted the significance of the rule of law and set the foundations for the promotion of transparency, accountability and good governance in Nigeria’s march to a stable democracy.
Sam Kargbo is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.