From one day to another Chibok, an area in northern Nigeria was suddenly in the international spotlight. The reason: Boko Haram, one of the most brutal terrorist groups in history, kidnapped hundreds of girls. The hashtag #bringbackourgirls went around the world. One thing became clear from then onward the north of Nigeria was: scorched earth, explosions, kidnappings and executions.
In his new book Born on Tuesday Elnathan John, a novelist from Nigeria contrasts the one dimensional media coverage of the Boko Haram conflict in Northern Nigeria with a humanist narrative. The result is a powerful book about the coming of age story of a young men and his encounter with Salafism.
JournAfrica!: In your new book Born on Tuesday you describe a narrative of Northern Nigeria which is fundamentally different from the western narrative which focuses on violence, bombings and kidnapping. What do you want to achieve with you writing?
“For me story telling has the capacity of changing perception and building different perceptions. I think the way people are treated in a society largely derives from the way they are portrayed in cultural mediums. I want to tell proper, nuanced and multidimensional stories which remix skewed narratives about ideas, people, places and demographics.
In what ways do your narratives differ from what we already know and why are different narratives important?
“My new book Born on a Tuesday is set in Northern Nigeria on the backdrop of the Boko Haram conflict. All you hear about this conflict in the international media is violence, bombings and kidnapping. In my book I wanted to portray the humanity which exists despite every conflict because if people are simply portrayed as victims it dehumanizes them. I hope the reader will understand the multiple layers of existence of people living in a conflict zone.”
In Northern Nigeria the political situation is tense. How about the rest of the country?
“The governments in Nigeria are not working since the 1960s. We have a complete disrespectful rule law, the army is undertaking massacres and the economy is on its way to crash. That means people are looking for parallel governments for support whereby the two most powerful institutions are religious and ethnical communities. These institutions often absorb the effects of social injustice in Nigeria while at the same time reinforcing them.”
What about the economic situation?
“While Nigeria is the strongest economy in Africa and there are around 10.000 millionaires living in Lagos alone, about 60% of the population is living below the poverty line. In Nigeria like everywhere else in the world there is no solidarity between the rich and the poor. Generally speaking economic injustice is tied to the political injustice because politics is what creates the economic situation.”
The new president Buhari has been in power for a year now. Has something fundamentally changed with the new administration?
“No I don’t think there’s been any change. The only thing that changed is how people feel about the government. Buhari won the 2015 election because he build up a reputation as an anti-corruption fighter. But in the end, the Buhari government, just like any other government, is basically run like a dictatorship. This is one of the most dangerous presidents to criticize in a long time because he is a cult figure, people fiercely support him because they believe he saved them from the previous corrupt government.”
This all does not sound very laughable and yet you have a humorist approach in your writings. How does that fit together?
“You have to find a way to mock the system to avoid collapsing. Nigeria is place where satire does not affect social change per se because shamelessness is deeply entrenched in Nigerian society. People just do not care. The best you can do is make people think about the situation by providing a different approach. Satire is like making people swallow a bitter pill coated in sugar.”
Is satire a powerful tool for social change?
“Satire allows me to say things which cannot say be said otherwise. It is definitely a tool to deconstruct social hierarchies in Nigeria. When I mock about ethnical or religious communities, which are very important institutions of power in Nigeria, people will laugh about it but something will be stuck and eventually may alter the situation.”
What current issues do you satirize?
“Nigeria is facing dangerous times because of a lack of opposition and public debate. The current president enjoys great support by the international community and political activists and is regarded as the messiah who saved the country from the corrupt last government. He is definitely one of the hardest presidents to criticize. All opposition is silenced and discredited on the grounds that critics on the current president is understood as support for the old government. That´s why my theme of satire at the moment is how opposition and civil society has been destroyed.
In cooperation with the German Africa Foundation.