T. M. Aluko: 50 Years After One Man One Wife
By Reuben Abati
It is 50 years since Nigerian writer, T (imothy) M (ofolorunso) Aluko published his novel, One Man, One Wife; the celebration that has been organised around the event reminds us again of the growth of the novel form in post-colonial Africa and the place of the novel in the definition of the African experience. Although Aluko had been writing short stories since the 1940s, winning a British Council short story prize in 1945, it was the publication of One Man One Wife, initially under the imprint of Nigerian Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd in 1959, that first brought him considerable public attention. In 1967, One Man One Wife was re-issued under the Heinemann African Writers Series, the series edited by Chinua Achebe, which more than anything else provided a platform for the promotion of writing and literacy in Africa and the growth of the African literary form and aesthetics.
Last year, Achebe's classic offering, Things Fall Apart which ranks as one of the most successful novels written in the 20th century also reached the golden age of 50. Aluko's literary oeuvre may be less celebrated than the works of Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, Ayi Kwei Armah and may not draw the kind of excitement that is associated with the current offering by the grandchildren and great grandchildren generation of African literary artists, but his remains a significant contribution to the development of the African novel. Born in 1918, now 91, T. M. Aluko in celebrating 50 years of One Man One Wife in his home at Ladipo Oluwole Street, Apapa, Lagos on Monday, November 9, also celebrates invariably more than 50 years of hardwork in the literary vineyard. This has produced such works as One Man, One Matchet, Kinsman and Foreman, Chief the Honourable Minister, His Worshipful Majesty, Wrong Ones in the Dock, Conduct Unbecoming, My Years of Service, First Year at State College, and The Story of My Life.
To mark the 50th anniversary of One Man One Wife, T. M. Aluko, this
week, also presented to the public his latest work of fiction titled Our Born Again President (HEBN, 2009), which is the subject of the remaining part of this commentary. Originally an engineer, retiring in 1988 as a Consultant Engineer, after decades of service as Director of Public Works in the Western Region and Associate Professor of Public Health Engineering at the University of Lagos, Aluko reports in The Story of My Life that "growing the crops... and fiction writing (p. 312)." are his hobbies. It is for the latter, not farming, not engineering definitely, that he will be most remembered. His continuing productivity in his 80s and 90s (he published The Story of my Life, in 2006 when he was 88 and now Our Born Again President at 91) should inspire the younger generation of writers who across Africa are now confronted with a long list of elderly writers whose literary imagination remains active (Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, John Pepper Clark, Nawal el Saadawi, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gabriel Okara, Elechi Amadi etc).
T. M. Aluko's novels present a certain thematic consistency in terms of the author's pre-occupation with issues of conflict between tradition and modernity, identity, religion and the individual in society, corruption and value systems. His societies are transitional societies (One Man One Wife, One Man One Matchet, Chief the Honourable Minister, His Worshipful Majesty) but his bias is on the side of change and modernity, although ironically even when his females appear strong and influential, they are nevertheless victims of unreconstructed traditional chauvinism. The same trend is sustained in Our Born Again President. In the 60s and 70s, many African writers focussed on the challenges of the post-colonial state as the novel became the vehicle for analysing new realities, leadership challenges and the crisis of expectations.
Our Born Again President follows the same pattern decades later with a more contemporaneous edge. There are no radical departures, no startling surprises, or sleight of hand. It is typical Aluko. The setting is Riviera, an African country, looking forward to independence from British colonial rule within six months. The protagonist is David Tanbata, the Premier of Riviera, and leader of the Independence for Riviera Now Party, who is accused of conflict of interest, corruptly enriching his wife and uncle and is asked by the British Governor to tender his resignation. American-trained Tanbata, nursing and espousing an ingrained disdain for all things British, manages to outsmart the British establishment relying on extended family sentiments, Old Boys Association network, blackmail, and the rigging of elections in which the crookedness of the local elite is well displayed.
Tanbata ends up as President, Riviera gains its independence, Sir Angus MacFarlane, the representative of Her Majesty's Government learns a few compulsory lessons about power, but the future of the newly independent nation is uncertain as it grapples with a conflict of values between the past and the present and an unknown future. It is well known that the set of African elites that took over power immediately after independence proved to be worse than their colonial predecessors, creating in the African continent, a dilemma: freedom brought the people little or no progress with the new ruling class interested in power for its sake. The Tanbata administration upturns the British legacy only to replace it with a system-wide acceptance of corruption as a mode of life. This essentially, is what the novel deplores.
The abuse of the press as an official megaphone and its rather contradictory role in society is further exposed. However, the only voice of reason is Peter Bolade, Pastor of the Mount Carmel Pentecostal Church who turns the pulpit into a stinging forum of reason, condemning the new Government's attempt to change the official oath to reflect an invocation of local gods: Shonponon, Sango and Ogun rather than the Christian God that the British left behind. This conflict of choice between tradition and modernity, between traditional worship and Christian religion bears echoes of T. M. Aluko's One Man, One Wife, and His Worshipful Majesty as much as it describes the conflict between religion and the state that has been a major subject in post-colonial African societies and literatures.
But the story suddenly changes when David Tanbata, drug dealer, election rigger, womaniser and the foxy leader of Riviera decides to give his life to Christ, at the same Mount Carmel church led by his arch-critic. The rest of the narrative is devoted to his life after the sermon at Mount Carmel, doubts about his Saul-like conversion, his decision to return ill-gotten wealth to the state, the rebellion by his party members in parliament and their attempt to send him on compulsory leave to purge him of his newly acquired madness, his victory at a referendum, and surprising efforts at reform which includes a return to the same old colonial and Christian values that he had rejected.
But the novel soon falls flat as the rest of the narrative begins to focus on a review of Tanbata's past dalliances, the disappearance of his mistresses and their incoherent letters, and his embrace of Christian piety celebrated in the return of his estranged former wife and the son he didn't know he had: David Tanbata Jnr. In due course, the novel ends with the statement: "My dear people of God, this is the Lord's doing and it is marvelous (sic) in our eyes". One Man One Wife, whose 50th birthday coincides with the release of Our Born Again President had also ended with similar religiosity: "For the doings of the Lord our God are mighty wondrous." In addition, strikingly, the high point of David Tanbata's redemption is his embrace of the "one man one wife" Christian doctrine. Other leads that had been suggested in the story about the fight against corruption suddenly disappear, loose ends in the plot are left unresolved, and not much is heard again about Michael Atobatele, and the MD of Modern Finance Ltd., or the resolution of the students protest. The product is an uneven story, which nevertheless scores high in its portrayal of the uneasy relationship between state and civil society, corruption, the failure of the emergent African elite and the leadership system that produces them.
Tanbata's being born again is slightly overdone as it smacks of evangelism. The author also appears too optimistic. The likes of Michael Atobatele, Josiah Akindiji and Stephen Craig, the thieving, double-faced hypocritical elements in the corridors of power and particularly Littleman John, the thug and kidnapper, share greater resemblance with reality than the less convincing David Tanbata, the born-again President. The born-again phenomenon is one of the key features of many post-colonial states in Africa, but in the real world, most leaders use being born again only as shield for greater recklessness. The change that is made possible in Our Born Again President remains elusive in the real world, a subject that had been explored at length in Aluko's Chief the Honourable Minister, which also examines the crisis of leadership and corruption in post-colonial Africa.
Tanbata appears to be alone in his crusade. Long after the arrival of his true First Lady and son and his promise that he will not stray again, it remains to be seen how his reforms will play out, and whether the battle can be won by one man. There is an underlying hint though that Tanbata is a manipulative trickster, relying on popular gestures to win endorsement, but it is a possibility that is left unexplored after his conversion at Mount Carmel. T.M. Aluko's characters are easily recognisable if not his optimism. He demonstrates once more, his ability to tell a story that sustains interest. He offers great insight into the emerging role, influence and contradictions of the Students Union Movement, the civil service and Pastors of the Pentecostal variety in post-colonial Africa in much the same manner as the Pastors in One Man One Wife and One Man One Matchet are spiritual and political figures.
But the production of the book to be fair is atrocious. The collapse of standards is the bane of the publishing industry in Nigeria. Careless editing and poor production pose a serious threat to the development of Nigerian literature. Heinemann Nigeria, the publishers of T.M. Aluko's Our Born Again President do much disservice to the writer's eminent stature by releasing in his name a book that is full of so many spelling errors. The name of the hero, Tanbata is mis-spelt in at least one instance, same with Riviera, the country. All through, the word cacophony is spelt as cocophony, gimmick as gymic and so on. The cure for this should be an immediate reprint.
In 1987, T. M. Aluko suffered a stroke, which left him paralysed in his right leg and right hand. In his The Story of My Life, he says, "this meant that I could no longer write...This was a frustrating experience for me particularly as a writer. There was no alternative but to start learning how to write with my left hand like a child learning how to write the alphabet for the first time. (p. 304)" He has since then published two books: the autobiography from which this quote is taken, and now Our Born Again President, and yet he uses neither a Dictaphone nor a laptop. Aluko's doggedness is a statement in courage; the latest novel is a product of that strength of character in the face of adversity.