Henry Akubuiro is an award winning journalist, novelist, playwright, biographer, children’s literature author and Jury Chair for 2023 James Currey Prize for African Literature. He is the winner of the ANA Literary Journalist of the Year, BBC World Service Young Reporters’ Competition, National Essay Competition, ANA/ Lantern Books Prize for Fiction, among others. Currently the Assistant Editor of Saturday Sun, his play, Yamtarawala – The Warrior King, has been shortlisted for The Nigerian Prize for Literature 2023
By Anote Ajeluorou
Yamtarawala – The Warrior King explores themes of ambition, power, and leadership. What inspired you to delve into the historical context of 16th century Kanem-Bornu Empire for this play? How did you approach the research and creative process to bring this era to life?
I am glad I wrote this play which has been on my mind for many years. We must appreciate positives from other cultures. Nigeria is a country riven along religious and ethnic lines. Writers should be immune from all that. Respect for me has increased since I wrote this book. From all parts of the country, I have heard people say I have the spirit of a colonial officer, who goes into new environments, explores and brings out the beauties in them selflessly. What I have done with Yamtarawala… is akin to what Prof Ola Rotimi did with the play, Ovaramwem Nogbaisi, a Bini story, which turned out to be a classical drama.
I also think our writers haven’t done justice to our past compared to what European writers have done with theirs. I am not saying we haven’t done anything. Of course, we have. But much still needs to be done in this area. Look at the Roman plays by the greatest playwright of all time, William Shakespeare! Till date, we still study Julius Caesar and The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra in schools, historical works written many centuries ago. Look at what he did with King Lear and Macbeth from his Scottish and British heritage! This is a writer who knows the importance of history.
Literature and history are Siamese twins. Historical literature is one of the dominant genres in literature. Some of the greatest writers in history have written literary classics based on history. In drama, this is common, especially Western drama. Don’t forget, the greatest work of literature in Africa, Things Fall Apart, is a work of history.
What Yamtarawala – The Warrior King does is to go back in time – a forgotten past — when Africans were masters of their own destinies, though the Arab civilization has made incursions into Northern Nigeria. The plot begins in Yemen when the Egyptian army attacked the palace of the Yemeni king and the wife of the deposed king, Queen Asga, was captured by slave raiders from Kanem-Bornu. You could see how far Kanem-Bornu went to claim this important queen who was to produce two different kings in Kanem-Bornu and Biu in the Northeast. The story then moves over to Ngazargamu, the capital of Kanem-Bornu, one of the greatest empires in Africa, comprising Northeast Nigeria, Northern Cameroon, almost all parts of Chad, southern part of Libya and Southeast part of Niger Republic. In the play, you can see the traditional society and an Islamic society juxtaposed. Culture clash is also evident, though not the major kernel of the play.
Author of Yamtarawala – The Warrior King, Henry Akubuiro
In the play also, there is a leadership tussle in Kanem-Bornu that produces a loser in Yamtarawala – but not a bitter one where he had to fight his younger brother, Umar, to wrest power. His ambition to become a king himself sees him move away from the capital of Kanem-Bornu to found his own kingdom. You can see conflict and resolution here.
This ambition, however, comes with a high cost – bloodletting. His bloated ego and fear of the unknown after assuming the reins of power also lead to his eventual tragedy, which is a big lesson for today’s leaders.
Lest we forget, the history that is replete in Nigerian literature today is mostly the encounter between the Europeans and our forefathers. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, for example, have echoed this narrative. Yamtarawala – The Warrior King goes farther back in time to depict a society without European incursions, yet one having a historical intercourse with the Arab civilization and African overlords. A story like this makes us appreciate the task of nation-building which the Yamtarawalas and our ancestors did centuries ago. It also makes us understand his society better. Much of this society is hidden in obscurity – from the purview of popular literature. Literature makes you appreciate the sacrifices of heroic figures and put groundbreaking historical developments in perspective. Of course, our national anthem says “The labour of our heroes’ past shall not be in vain.”
To write this book, I worked with the magnum opus, A History of Biu, written by the legendary Dr. Bukar Usman, which recounted the implosion in Kanem-Bornu when Abdullahi (Yamtarawala), the prince of Ngazargamu in Kanem-Bornu, fell out of favour with the Ngazargamu establishment and decided to go his own way to found a kingdom in Biu, south of Borno. It’s also a story about the place Biu and the Northeast in our national conversation. It’s also about the founding of Biu Kingdom, a strategic place in the Northeast with an emir that never fled his palace all through the Boko Haram onslaught in the Northeast. Of course, this is a warrior tradition from the Yamtarawala days.
Also, the locals see Yamtarawala in the same light as King Shaka of Zulu, Queen Amina of Zazzau, Oduduwa and Queen Moremi of Ife and Yoruba. These are great personages who have fared well in modern Nigerian literature, compared to King Yamtarawala.
My travels to Biu Emirate in Borno State, amid risks, while researching for this story, opened my eyes to the hidden gems in that part of the country. I went to a distant community called Viukuthla in Biu where Yamtarawala used to go hunting more than 500 years ago. I also visited historical sites that have been preserved for centuries. I met the Emir of Biu and saw what his palace looks like with vital artifacts – sight for sore eyes. I met custodians of culture, who taught me the art of traditional warfare. I visited four different local governments in the Biu Emirate, including the popular Marama town in Hawul LGA, which is the centre of Bura culture.
The Yamtarawala dynasty’s exploits really compelled dramatic attention the more I ventured into the emirate itself. In the play, the culture of Bura people of Borno, dances, and language feature prominently. This part of Borno has succeeded in maintaining its culture despite the influence of Islam. And you would be amazed how similar some of their traditions are with what we have down south, especially the folklore. Some of their rites are in the class of their own – exotic.
The play addresses subjects such as love, deception, family, and war. How did you balance these diverse themes within the narrative? Could you elaborate on the significance of these themes in the context of the story?
The first time I took the manuscript to the National Troupe of Nigeria at the National Theatre, Lagos, three of the most senior people there screamed, “This is the kind of play we love to stage. This is a total theatre with historical significance.” I have watched a lot of boring plays on stage where the audience sneaked out 20-30 minutes into the performances, sighing and full of grumbling. So, in writing Yamtarawala – The Warrior King, I didn’t want to make the same mistake. Therefore, the storyline incorporates love, especially unrequited love. During his conquests, Yamtarawala, in the play, messes up with many hearts. He falls in love, gets what he wants and zooms off, sometimes killing the women. The love tonic in the play serves a useful purpose in calming down tension caused by wars and devastations.
Wars in the play function to enliven the spectacle of the performance, because there are clashes here and there, from the Egyptian army pillaging Yemen to the Yamtarawala army conquering territories on its way. There is also a great deal of pantomime to vary the emphasis and excitement. Deception is a tool Yamtarawala deploys effectively in the play. It’s not as if his victims are gullible, but he exploits their weaknesses to get by whenever things come to a head.
Your play seems to bridge the gap between drama and ritual, offering a rich narrative experience. Could you share how you balance the dramatic elements of the play with the ritualistic aspects? What techniques did you use to immerse the audience in the world of the Kanem-Bornu Empire?
Drama, right from time, has incorporated rituals. The Ghanaian writer, Kofi Awonor, once said: “African religious beliefs, such as propitiation, cleansing, sacrifice, thanksgiving and initiation, are all extensions of the African real life into an area of make-believe, which expresses a religious reality. Similarly, one of Nigeria’s greatest playwrights, Prof. Ola Rotimi, affirms that ritual drama is a microcosm of contemporary African drama; ritual is a byproduct of an ancestral oriented society – a society that aspires to have a constant communion with the Supreme being.
In traditional African drama, the advent of rituals was informed by the necessity to acquaint the general public with the mysteries of hitherto confined ritual codes, proven taboo and sacred rites. Yamtarawala – The Warrior King combines elements of traditional African drama and the modern. Suspense abounds. Soyinka holds the view, too, that drama originated from ritualised activities, hence it cannot be separated from its communal significance. In his drama, he has consistently used ritual archetypes, such as Ogun, Obatala and Sango, to drive home his point, which reverberates in theatre till date.
Let’s not forget, this primordial phenomenon isn’t restricted to African drama. In Greece, where drama originated, rituals abound in the yearly Dionysian rites. So drama partly developed in reaction to the period of barbarism from which Greek society was emerging. This explains why the religious mission of Greek tragedies have often led to immolation.
Abdullahi, who metamorphosed into Yamtarawala in my play, Yamtarawala – The Warrior King, also committed self-immolation. It’s a tragic work. Remember this play is set in the 16th century, and a bit of it contains sacred ceremonies from a part of Nigeria – Northeast – we haven’t paid close attention to as writers. These rites, myths and history shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. It’s our role as writers to tell untold stories through literature. Thus, you will encounter rituals of kingship, wars, defiance, as well as rites of passage. When you watch this in live theatre, it blows your mind instantly. You probably haven’t seen anything like it in recent Nigerian theatre.
It reminds me of what Esiaba Irobi did with rituals in his plays, Nwokedi, The Fronded Circle and The Other Side of the Mask or what the great Wole Soyinka did with rituals in Death and the King’s Horseman, The Road, or what Isidore Diala did with The Pyre, just to mention a few
The judges praised your play as having movie potential. How are you exploiting this?
They were apt in the assessment. The play has both theatrical and screen potential. It was deliberate on my part. I knew I was writing a big story that affects not just Nigeria and Africa but the world. All over the world, archeologists are digging into the past – from Egypt to Jerusalem – and each discovery reverberates worldwide. Growing up, we were taught a little about the Kanem-Bornu Empire in school, but that civilization hasn’t been accorded its deserved place in our literary canon. The valour of the great Yamtarawala also isn’t celebrated in contemporary Nigerian literature. Put this play on stage with all the Northeastern aesthetics deployed in the in it, and you will have thousands of tickets sold each time. Put it on screen, too, and you will have a potential box office hit. It’s that huge.
I am optimistic that both the stage play and movie will surely add more prestige to The Nigeria Prize for Literature, and excite the world of letters and movie lovers all over the world. The National Troupe of Nigeria is highly interested in staging this play and taking it to places. I am also looking at the options available from private and public interests to make an epic movie we all should be proud of.
What plans do you have should you win the USD$100,000 prize money?
As I said in the Arise TV interview the other day, I don’t like counting my chickens before they are hatched. However, there are many things one can do with USD$100,000, especially for a writer like me writing with candles in Nigeria. Number one should be popularising the play through live theatre performances nationwide and beyond. Interestingly, universities across Africa are showing interest in staging the play. We are also thinking in that direction. We must bring drama to the stage by all means. It’s all on the card to collaborate with filmmakers to see how this play can hit the screen and transport it to a wider audience. This is an important African history that should be recreated on the screen, too. There are other things on the card for writers and journalists in terms of capacity development. But let’s leave that at the moment until we cross the bridge. I think writers like us living in Nigeria and writing with candles will naturally make the most of a lifeline like this.
How, in your opinion, has The Nigeria Prize for Literature impacted writing in the country?
One of the biggest things to have happened to African literature is The Nigerian Prize for Literature. It’s a prize everybody in Africa looks forward to each year – who’s going to be the next winner? The high standards of the prize and its prize money are part of what makes it unique. It’s also encouraging that we have passed the stage of controversies, which affected the prize a bit whenever it wasn’t announced for obvious reasons. Prose, poetry, drama and children’s literature were all affected, at least once, when they weren’t announced. Some of the past winners of the prize have done well for themselves by taking their crafts to the next level. These are the kind of success stories that encourage the prize organisers, Nigeria LNG Ltd. If you win this prize and relax, you have not only done a disservice to yourself but also to literature. It ought to spur you to do more.
Writing in Africa isn’t as profitable as it is in the Western world or India. Stories of African writers earning royalties in six digits are almost a fantasy. So, to be rewarded with a lump sum for writing, which Nigeria LNG-sponsored prize does, is next to manna from heaven
I have personally followed the Nigeria Prize for Literature since 2005 as a journalist. So I am a witness to its success story, too, having celebrated the winners and the longlisted writers several times, interrogating the process, critiquing books of writers involved in the competition and promoting the prize itself. From the aforementioned, one can say Nigeria LNG has lifted the quality of writing in Nigeria with The Nigeria Prize for Literature. The spirit of competition it has introduced among writers is second to none.
Can you tell us more about your journey as a writer, from your days as a campus journalist to becoming an Assistant Editor at Saturday Sun? How has your background in journalism influenced your approach to writing literature?
Journalism and creative writing have always been part of me. My late dad was a lover of books and newspapers. In his shelf, you would find assorted magazines and newspapers, like Drum magazine, The West African Pilot and Daily Times dating back to the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. So I grew up immersed in journalistic writings and books. Little wonder, I wanted to study journalism in the university, but he objected on the grounds that it was a risky job. I had to choose English and Literary Studies rather, which I knew was a related discipline.
Even as a student of English and Literary Studies, that journalist in me still showed. It was destined, kind of. I was very active on campus as a student journalist. First, I became the Editor of ELSA, changing the departmental notice board to a platform for creativity, with students from other departments trooping in every morning to read the poems, short stories and articles we were publishing.
Within a short time, the media revolution had started on campus, with students from the Sociology, Law, Mass Communication and History departments replicating what I started on campus. Within a short time, I graduated, alongside my team, to publishing a weekly news magazine called FrankTalk pasted on a big board and covered with glass to prevent vandalisation. It was situated in the middle of the popular Love Garden at Imo State University, Owerri, where everybody came to socialise. We were running stories of bizarre happenings on campus and in town. When students with skeletons in their cupboard saw us coming, they melted into thin air, because nobody wanted to appear in Frank Talk for the wrong reasons.
By the time I got to my third year, I was chosen by the entire Department of English and Literary Studies to be the Editor of Elite, the creative writing magazine of the English and Literary Studies Association. It was the first ever printed magazine on campus. It made me and my team more popular. Based on that feat, I was approached by the Student Union Government of the university to be the Editor of The Imo Star, the official newspaper of the university union. I created the concept of the newspaper and, together with other students drawn from different departments, the first newspaper was born in the university. It was modeled after ThisDay newspaper, which was the rave of the moment then.
It wasn’t a surprise that when I graduated, I chose journalism as a career. In my first year in The Sun, I won the ANA Literary Journalist of the Year. A few veterans cried foul, because they didn’t know me well. It was like a rookie coming from nowhere to win the only available prize for literary journalists in Nigeria. Unknown to them, I had already developed myself as a journalist during my undergraduate days. Therefore, covering literature in a national paper was a continuation of what I was doing in the university – it was a familiar terrain.
What I did differently was to popularise profile interviews, whereby I used the simple present to write the interviews in a conversational style, recreating the atmosphere around the writer being interviewed, which was similar to reading a novel. The column “Literati”, published in Sunday Sun, edited by Louis Odion, soon became a favourite for many Nigerian and African writers, old and young, plus undergraduates in universities, because it was also available online. We were getting reactions from the US, UK, France, Netherlands, Ghana, Turkey and beyond. I made new friends from all over the world. The pages also included regular reviews, poems and event reportage. Above all, the names we were featuring on the pages were writers everybody was looking forward to reading. It was at a time Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie burst into the scene, and we fed on her writings and her literary trajectory. We made Nigerians see that writing could make a young writer who wasn’t a professor a big literary brand worldwide.
As you already know, the literary/arts beat is a specialised beat in journalism. You need to be an artist most times to function properly, which is why journalists on this beat are the least to be moved around, compared to other journalists in our media houses. So I have been on this beat for almost my entire journalism career before I was promoted last year as Assistant Editor, Saturday Sun. But I still handle the arts and literary pages of the paper, maybe because there is a chemistry that has been forged with that community overtime.
I think journalism has helped me as a writer. Journalists are particular about details and in building a story to a crescendo to make the reader immersed. I have heard some people say each time they read my work that it’s ‘unputdownable.’ Of course, that comes from journalism – you have to draw the reader’s attention from the beginning. Journalism makes you investigate and research well. When you read my works, you won’t miss that influence, even when they may be works of fiction.
Your forthcoming book of interviews Conversations with 50 African Writers is in progress. Could you share some insights or memorable experiences you’ve had while conversing with these prominent writers? How has this project impacted your own writing?
That book has been long in coming. So many writers and scholars who have followed my journalism for over a decade have been pressuring me to publish this book. Odia Ofeimun, Profs Tanure Ojaide, Niyi Osundare, Ernest Emenyonu, to mention a few have persistently told me many times to bring out the book for posterity. Also, some of these interviews are missing online. Prof. Amanze Akpuda of Abia State University reminds me all the time about the book project. He said what I had done with some of the biggest names in African literature should be compiled in a book. Prof. Ernest Emenyonu, in particular, has volunteered to find a publisher for it in the US. He was startled by the names in the book when I discussed it with him recently. Of course, he has read some of the interviews himself before now, because he keeps records of literary publications as the Editor of African Literature Today and a literary scholar
Over the years, I have interviewed some of the biggest names in African literature. Talk of the Nobel laureate, Nadine Godimer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kofi Awonor, Kofi Anyidoho, Atukwei Okhai, Elechi Amadi, Eustace Palmer, Lewis Nkosi, Gabriel Okara, Abiola Irele, Theo Vincent, Ama Ata Aidoo, Charles Larson, Ilyas Tun, Manthia Diawara, Femi Osofisan, Ernest Emenyonu, Okey Ndibe, Pius Adesanmi, Biyavanga Wainana, Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila, Veronique Tadjo, Dan Izevbaye, Charles Nnolim – the list is endless.
Surprisingly, Professors Kofi Awonor, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Lewis Nkosi, who I met at the African Literature Festival in Ghana in 2006 in my early years as a literary journalist, were some of the simplest writers I have encountered. So humble. Listening to them share their stories and thoughts about literature was a most rewarding experience for me. I also know some of these great writers closely, from Elechi Amadi, Gabriel Okara, Chukwuemeka Ike, Ernest Emenyonu to Odia Ofeimun. These are some of the writers I have visited more than once to interview them at home.
One of unforgettable encounters I have had interviewing writers and scholars was one with Prof. Omolara (Lesley) Ogundipe, the legendary feminist. I was interviewing her with Sola Balogun, the former Arts Editor of The Sun, in Port Harcourt during the Garden City Literary Festival, sometime in 2012 or 2013. In the interview, I reminded her of Prof. Charles Nnolim’s essay on “Feminism and the Scandalous Path” in which he pointed out the discordant beats feminists like her were dancing to. So I sought her reaction to that.
Instantly, Prof. Ogundipe flared up. She accused me of forging that narrative but attributed it to Prof. Nnolim, and threatened to walk out of the interview. She actually stood up. Try as much as I could to prove my innocence of her accusation, she kept shouting, that I was one of the haters of feminism. I was shocked. Eventually, Balogun apologised on my behalf for a crime I didn’t commit (laughs). When the interview session returned, I now asked her to explain how she made a first class result at Ibadan in a class that contained Prof. Wole Soyinka, and her face lit up with smiles and fond memories. She was now willing to continue the Interview on a friendly note.