The Trials of Chris Abani and the Power of Empty Words

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

I write this for Nigeria, beautiful but troubled land that houses my umbilical cord…

So, the other day I was watching a video clip of a Nigerian caught in the claws of the UK immigration. He had just alighted from a plane, clutching a fake passport and a detailed script for responding to pesky questions by UK immigration officials. The interview with the UK officials is at once funny and sad. If you have the time, you may watch the tragi-comedy here. When he is told he would be sent back home to Nigeria he breaks down in copious tears, kneels down and begs for relief. This warrior truly doesn’t want to go home for reasons different from the tissue of lies he has offered. The terror in his eyes hurts to behold. He looks like he is in his early thirties but he has definitely been schooled in the immigration laws of the UK; he loudly claims to be fifteen – a vulnerable minor in need of protection. He is clearly not fifteen but skeptical authorities decide to take him to a home where he would stay until his age is determined. He absconds and disappears into the catacombs of London never to be seen again. You cheer for this warrior until you realize that lacking any discernible skills his life is not going to be much better in London (English subtitles mock his halting English, humiliating hints of an abusive Nigerian educational system). Who knows, maybe his offspring will live a better life.  Our leaders should be shot. Yes, our leaders should be shot. I am not only referring to our political leaders. When the history of Africa’s troubled journey is accurately chronicled, the world will come to realize the horror of the self-serving perfidy of Africa’s intellectual leaders. We are the new self-serving colonialists perpetuating black-on-black crime on our own people. Ask the underclass of South Africa now attending to the narcissism of their black elite.

The degree of narcissism and self-absorption is mind-boggling. Many of our intellectual leaders are, like their political brethren, indifferent to personal responsibility. For them, flowery words are perfect substitutes for good character. Many will forever remember how the great fraud Philip Emeagwali wormed his way into credible history books as the “Father of the Internet.” Why, his face is permanently etched on a Nigerian postage stamp as a great son of Africa, this man who defrauds thousands daily by claiming that his graduate term paper makes him the founder of the Internet. His lies and exaggerations are copiously chronicled here by Sahara Reporters. If you need only the abridged Cliff notes, click on this. Please do not google “Emeagwali fraud,” your computer will crash from the e-rage. There are extremely reliable rumors that this trickster was set to receive Nigeria’s highest honor in 2010 until news of his hoax went viral on the Internet. Using his sordidly self-serving website here,  Emeagwali continues to ply his sick trade in America as a Black History Month pimp where folks desperate for black heroes uncritically accept his daring lies and obfuscations. By the way, whatever happened to the Nigerian government’s vow to investigate Philip Emeagwali?

When it comes to matters of immigration, I must concede that it is complicated; I generally make no judgment about how and why folks move from place to place. Right now, young people are doing daring things to escape what are admittedly harsh conditions in Africa. Hundreds die annually crossing roiling seas just to escape the disastrous consequences of their leaders’ perfidy. What they are doing is no different from what the colonialists did in coming to America. The face of immigration is browning, that is the only difference. This earth belongs to all of us, and you live where you can afford to.

The eighties and the nineties were particularly brutal years for Nigerians. Waves of murderous dictators took turns making life miserable for the people – and enriching themselves and their families in the process. Writers and artists were vulnerable. Many fought ferociously and were just as ferociously attacked for their beliefs and words. Many lost their lives and many are forever broken by the savagery that was visited upon them. The books of these brave warriors document their harrowing experiences in the hands of dictators. It is the truth. Well, not all of it is the truth. As in every instance, there are those who would take advantage of situations for self-serving reasons. Every now and then, a celebrated writer gets caught in the web of lies and exaggerations.  There is the sad case of Ishmael Beah, author of the memoir, A Long Way Gone, a bestseller about Beah’s days as a child-soldier. That book ran into difficulties when some dogged researchers did some homework and came up with the compelling conclusion that the book is mostly reams of lies and exaggerations (see some links here).  What is particularly tragic here is that Beah’s book is, in my humble opinion, a very good and important book; it could have been marketed as fiction, but no, I imagine that Beah and his agent concluded that the only way it would sell would be to claim fantastic adventures that have spurious basis in fact. The West’s hunger for child-soldier stories is insatiable and many alleged child-soldiers are wailing all the way to their suburban banks in Europe and America.

So the other day, I was doing some research on the acclaimed Nigerian writer Chris Abani and I came across these comic howlers on his Wikipedia page:

“Christopher Abani (or Chris Abani) (born December 27, 1966) is a Nigerian author. Abani’s first novel, Masters of the Board, was about a Neo-Nazi takeover of Nigeria. The book earned one reviewer to praise Abani as “Africa’s answer to Frederick Forsyth.” The Nigerian government, however, believed the book to be a blueprint for an actual coup, and sent the 18-year-old Abani to prison in 1985. After serving six months in jail, he was released, but he went on to perform in a guerilla theatre group. This action led to his arrest and imprisonment at Kiri Kiri, a notorious prison. He was released again, but after writing his play Song of a Broken Flute he was arrested for a third time, sentenced to death, and sent to the Kalakuta Prison, where he was jailed with other political prisoners and inmates on death row. His father is Igbo, while his mother was English born.”

“He spent some of his prison time in solitary confinement, but was freed in 1991. He lived in exile in London until a friend was murdered there in 1999; he then fled to the United States.”

Kalakuta prison! Who knows of such a prison? Based on these tales, in 2003, Abani is offered and happily accepts to be a recipient of the Hellman/Hammett grants awarded to 28 “brave” writers from all over the world. Here is Abani’s citation:

“Chris Abani (Nigeria), poet and novelist, was arrested in 1985 and again in 1987 when plots of his novels were said to be plans for attempts to overthrow the government. He spent six months in prison in 1985. In 1987, he was held in Kiri-Kiri Maximum Security Prison for a year and tortured. On his release, Mr. Abani entered Imo State University. Inspired by Wole Soyinka’s use of theater as protest, Mr. Abani formed a theater group that wrote and performed anti-government sketches. In 1990, he wrote a play, Song of the Broken Flute, for the University’s commencement exercises which the military head of state and military governor were scheduled to attend. The play, a series of monologues that decried government corruption and its effects on the people, landed him back in prison on treason charges. Released after 18 months, he graduated from Imo State University and joined the national service. Several attempts on his life while in boot camp prompted him to flee to England. He lived there quietly until publication of his prison memoir in 1997, when he began speaking out. As a result, the Nigerian government applied to have him extradited to stand trial for treason again. In December 1999, following the doorstep murder of his next-door neighbor, the only other Nigerian in the building, Mr. Abani left England for the United States. He now lives in California and is a doctoral student in literature at the University of Southern California.”

The story gets hilarious and changes with each re-telling. No one bothers to check. To be fair to his fellow writers, this award caused quite an uproar on krazitivity an online listserv of writers. He was put to task and he offered some defense of sorts before promptly disappearing out of sight. In the defense he pointedly avoids mention of the alleged death sentence. There were many responses, restrained, polite but expressing robust incredulity. The artist and poet Olu Oguibe asked for independent verification pointing out accurately that as an activist and student union leader himself he did not remember these tales; he did remember the late Chima Ubani who suffered eerily similar travails in the hands of the Nigerian government.  He has since expanded on his skepticism, with even more profound analysis on my Facebook page. The writer Nnorom Azuonye offered a compelling deconstruction of Abani’s 2003 defense here.

It is one thing for Abani to tell a lie and then move on with his life. It is another thing for him to continue to perpetuate the same lie at the expense of Africa. It is obnoxious and offensive, and if he was white, it would be considered racist. Since the confrontation/intervention in 2003, Abani has gone on to conduct moving interviews and given speeches expanding in graphic detail his alleged experiences. As I said earlier, the details get more fantastic in the re-telling and details and dates change each time. It is comic really. Watching Abani in 2008 here on TED, you wonder if he has delusions of grandeur, the man really believes all this stuff. You have to read this piece and watch the video clip. There is this piece of brilliant fiction where Abani talks about ending up in solitary on Nigeria’s “death row” and witnessing the execution of  “John James,”a 14-year old prisoner. “John James didn’t really understand death row and believed they’d get out. “They killed him. They handcuffed him to a chair, nailed his penis to a table, and let him bleed to death. That’s how I ended up in solitary, because I made my feelings known.” So many questions: How come no one has publicly called him on these lies? THAT is the real scandal. And the damage to Nigeria is needless. Such a brilliant writer, weaving unnecessary lies! Where is the outrage? Read this and marvel at Abani’s abilities to weave utter fiction. And yes, I have made up my mind, Abani is lying through all his teeth; he definitely lives in pure fantasy-land. Google Abani and there are all these Westerners fawning over him, they did not even bother to check the facts – reverse racism feeds some of our African intellectuals’ wallets. Read this interview and be royally teed. And here is another load of bullcrap. Abani ought to offer apologies for doing this to Nigeria and Africa.

These are questions I pose directly to Chris Abani: Were you really sentenced to death in Nigeria for your involvement in the Mamman Vatsa coup? Do you have copies of the extradition documents from the Nigerian government? Produce something, a newspaper clipping, anything and I will personally apologize to you for doubting you. It is amazing that up until now, no one has ever seen fit to call Abani on his lies and exaggerations. His appalling conduct threatens to distort permanently Nigeria’s already tortured history. There have been private complaints about his narcissistic behavior, yet no one has seen fit to come forth and complain about this outrage. The simplest explanation is that Abani is a hugely talented and influential writer; people, especially his peers are reluctant to confront him publicly because they do not want to be seen as raining on a talented writer’s parade. Words are powerful. In the hands of the gifted they can move armies to awesome destruction. It is not always a good thing. Words woven into lies can do major structural damage and trust becomes collateral damage. It is truly very simple; Abani should go to Nigeria, visit Kirikiri prisons like the writer and activist Ogaga Ifowodo recently did, show the world his cell and ask the authorities to give him copies of his incarceration documents. They are all there waiting for him. Failing that, he should shut up and keep writing. We will buy his books and love him regardless. Yes, will the real Christopher Abani stand up? In the name of Africa, I say stand up, speak the truth and sit down.