Wednesday, 22 May 2013
Chris Abani: Lie$ Of The Truth-Seller
“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 late 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!
(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!