Onitsha Republic

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu visits the sprawling city of his childhood in the former secessionist Biafra, home to the largest market in West Africa for everything from fake guns and drugs to the literature of self-help and love, cash-awash banks, not to mention the most famous address in Nollywood.

Fact and fiction are Siamese twins, well-nigh inseparable, in Onitsha, the bustling Nigerian market town on the eastern bank of the River Niger. Onitsha is a dangerous place to go to on a good day, so getting into the city at about 10pm takes the cake. One has to make do with staying the night at the Upper Iweka bus park where ill-assorted passengers huddle together in a collective protective shield against the attacks of armed robbers, kidnappers and sundry night marauders. A squat, muscular middle-aged man with multiform scars on his face and bare, broad chest holds court, telling stories perpetually. He is only interrupted in moments when the gathered throng hails his name: Emeka Nwamama.

“Edelu ya na akwukwo!” he almost always answers back in Igbo, which translates to: “It’s written in the book.”

This utterance is meant to lend finality to the truthfulness of his tale. The written word is a deity in Onitsha. He probably views me as the most educated person in the place and readily points at me after finishing each tale, only for me to nod in acquiescence.

“Biafra Republic has finally been approved by the United Nations!” Emeka Nwamama hollers, haughty, swigging at a foamy bottle of Star lager. “President Obama of America and the Queen of England will be coming for the declaration of Biafra next week!”

There is a measure of doubt in the silence of his listeners. Emeka Nwamama points at me and asks: “Is it not written in the book?”

“Of course,” I say, in spite of myself, nodding.

It is indeed a long night, only leavened somewhat by Emeka Nwamama’s many stories on the defunct secessionist republic of the Igbo people that collapsed after the 1967-1970 Civil War (the Nigerian-Biafran War). Onitsha remains a hotbed of agitation toward the revival of the republic through the activities of the group known as the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra.

Onitsha shifts into a higher gear of activities in the morning. The horns of departing so-called luxury buses, the hubbub of the multitudes of traders, the screams of denizens of motor parks and suchlike racket seize the atmosphere.

onitsha2Being what is known as an “Onitsha-brought-up” myself – having attended primary school in the town in the years after the Biafran War in 1970 – I do not find it difficult to navigate the sprawling city that almost runs on its own, independent of the government of the day. It’s in the self-help resourceful vein that the town has developed, out of nothing, the world-famous Onitsha Market Literature that boasts of works such as J. Abiakam’s How to Speak to Girls and Win Their Love; Cyril Aririguzo’s Miss Appolo’s Pride Leads Her to be Unmarried; S. Eze’s How to Know When a Girl Loves You or Hates You; Thomas Iguh’s $9000,000,000 Man Still Says No Money. There are also Public Opinion on Lovers by Highbred Maxwell; Nathan Njoku’s My Seven Daughters are After Young Boys; Cocktail Ladies by Marius Nkwoh; Veronica My Daughter and No Heaven for the Priest by Ogali A. Ogali; How to get Rich Overnight by H.O. Ogu; Rufus Okonkwo’s Why Boys Never Trust Money Monger Girls; Okenwa Olisah’s Money Hard to Get but Easy to Spend and Drunkards Believe Bar as Heaven; Speedy Eric’s Mabel the Sweet Honey that Poured Away; and Felix Stephen’s Lack of Money is not Lack of Sense.

I was once cast as Bomber Billy, a bombastic fellow, in the production of Veronica My Daughter – arguably the most popular play out of the Onitsha Market Literature corpus – at the Sacred Heart Primary School in Odoakpu. I can still remember the lines I thundered on our makeshift stage: “As I was descending from a declivity yesterday with such an excessive velocity, I suddenly lost the centre of my gravity and was precipitated on the macadamized thoroughfare.” The next character then says: “I hope your bones were mercilessly broken.” Then I reply thusly: “Don’t put my mind under perturbation!”

These were lines I always repeated to the amusement of the then Catholic Archbishop of Onitsha (now Emeritus Francis Cardinal Arinze, who nearly emerged as the first black pope), whilst he undertook his evening walks with us children down to the local Ochanja Market from his then residence in Christ the King College (CKC), Onitsha, where I lived in the staff quarters with my uncle, the linguist J.O. Aginam, who was a teacher in the college.

 

Chronic Books - How to Be A Nigerian

This article first appeared in print in Chronic Books, a supplement to Chronic 2 (August 2013).

Against the background of acting in Ogali’s play, I can now situate myself in the context of the audio-visual age of today. What Onitsha lost in its market literature it has more than gained in the production and marketing of Nollywood films, especially at the celebrated 51 Iweka Road. The most famous address in Nollywood resonates across Africa and indeed the world. It is as though no home video comes out of Nigeria without the ubiquitous address on its jacket. Owned by the famous Modebe family, it used to be a house where electronics were sold. Not anymore. The Nigerian movie industry has meant a shift of focus by the importers: the business these days is the production and marketing of home videos.

 

The building is some 60m long and three storeys high, with more than one thousand shops, mini-shops and sheds scattered across its entire length and crannies. Makeshift staircases lead to some of the shops in the backyard. Crowded, almost bursting at the seams and stuffy, the house is definitely not an architectural masterpiece. A major tenant in the building, Ugo Emmanuel, a proprietor of Emmalex Associates Ltd, comes to the building’s defence, stressing that “the oyster that produces the beautiful pearl happens to be very ugly.”

Emmalex was registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission as a limited liability company in 1994, a year in which it also got its certificate from the National Film and Video Censors Board. The company started out as a movie distribution and marketing outfit before embracing core moviemaking in 1996 with the production of Compromise, starring Bob-Manuel Udokwu, Kate Henshaw and Sandra Achums. Emmalex has since produced about 40 movies, scoring its first major hit with the 1998 production of Confusion, starring Liz Benson, Kanayo O. Kanayo and Sandra Achums. It sold 150,000 copies in a matter of weeks.

Impossibility is quite absent in the lexicon of the Onitsha entrepreneur. A wannabe Onitsha movie producer once breezed into Lagos with a briefcase filled to the brim with money, insisting that he wanted to produce an urgent movie in which Richard Mofe-Damijo (RMD), arguably then the most sought-after leading man in Nollywood, would star.

I was in the company of my about-to-be-wedded bride, Chidimma, when I ran into RMD – who, incidentally, is an old friend of mine – late in the morning in front of the Surulere, Lagos office of the movie producer Zeb Ejiro. We exchanged cursory pleasantries, but I became curious when I still saw him hanging around the one-storey house late in the evening as my intended and I were walking back home. It was then RMD told me the story of how the Onitsha man came with cash to make an instant movie named Scores to Settle, starring RMD and Regina Askia, with the prolific Chico Ejiro as director. The man had chosen the cast and director all by himself before setting foot out of Onitsha. He knew who and what he wanted! No beating about the bush. The director, actors, and technical crew had to drop other jobs they had at hand to do the movie of the Onitsha man who paid upfront. When I travelled to Onitsha barely a week later to distribute my wedding invitations, I saw the now-deceased ace Nollywood marketer, Azubuike Udensi, at 51 Iweka Road, holding a movie sleeve bearing the title, Scores to Settle.

“But that’s the movie RMD told me they were shooting just the other day in Lagos?” I wondered aloud.

“The film has sold out already,” Azubuike said. “There’s not a single copy left in Onitsha. This one I have here had to be borrowed from somebody.”

My wife, who was brought up in the more sedate civil service town of Enugu, seriously believes I used Onitsha magic to win her hand and that I was schooled in the love arts through Onitsha classics, such as How to Write and Reply Letters for Marriage, Engagement Letters, Love Letters and How to Know a Girl to Marry by J. Abiakam. In short, which girl will not fall for an Onitsha-fangled letter that reads thus:

Darling Sunshine: I hope you are swimming in the ocean of good health. If so, doxology! You are the only sugar in my tea, the only sum of all my arithmetic, and above all else, the only apparel in the portmanteau of my heart….

Bla-bla-bla.

But not all Onitsha writers are lady’s men. Nkwoh’s Cocktail Ladies is a strident attack on Nigeria’s early brand of feminism. Unlike most of the Onitsha Market Literature authors who could not boast of university education, Nkwoh was among the early graduates of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in the early 1960s. He then had a distinguished career in the civil service and broadcasting. Cocktail Ladies is a compilation of broadcasts he made over the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation network under the generic title, “Facing the Facts Around Us”. He published these in 1962 as a pamphlet of 21 pages, printed by Freeman’s Press and titled Cocktail Ladies. After the initial print-run ran out in the selfsame 1962, he added other chapters on various topics, such as night marauders, hypocrites, road accidents and superstitions to shoot up the pagination to 51.

The introduction to the booklet, written by V. C. J. Mbah, an early graduate of the University of Ibadan who eventually retired as a permanent secretary in the civil service before taking up a career in law, discloses that Nkwoh’s broadcasts, a combination of an editorial and a talk show, were regarded as controversial at the time. It’s easy to see why. Even as Nkwoh displays his store of information on the issues at stake, the reactionary dimension somewhat rankles. The eponymous “cocktail ladies”, forming the second chapter of the book, are those who have chosen career over family. These women of the modern day, argues Nkwoh, would rather be kept women of older men – sugar daddies – instead of settling down under husbands. For the cocktail ladies, marriage is of no importance. In the biting words of Nkwoh, the women are “human parasites, lazy drones and good for nothings”. Nkwoh sees feminism as the ultimate deception of the women. He avers that the women ought to understand that beauty is fleeting and can quickly fade. He is unrelenting in stressing that feminism is a misleading belief that a woman can do whatever a man does. Nkwoh hits quite hard, dismissing the cocktail ladies as “birds of passage or changelings to every big man”.

The lifestyle of the women, which he sees as being radical and therefore wasteful, leads to the contracting of sexually transmitted diseases. This way, the women cannot keep hold of serious partners, let alone husbands. As far as Nkwoh is concerned, the proper role of a ‘lady’ in society is to serve as a dutiful assistant to man. According to Nkwoh: “Women are made to help and not to nag, sap or impoverish men. They should not be a burden, nor nuisance, nor articles of commerce.” The consolation though, in his view, is that “there is still plenty of time for our women to think twice”. Arguing that nobody can cheat nature, Nkwoh counsels the women “that are youthful enough and still marriageable to go and marry”.

In our new age of political correctness and gender equality, Nkwoh would be eaten raw by the feminists he dismisses as ‘cocktail ladies’. But this is Onitsha, and like the late, maverick musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic in Lagos, Onitsha is a ‘republic’ where anything goes. The Onitsha Main Market, reputed to be the largest market in West Africa, stocks everything from fake drugs and guns to the most sophisticated of modern technological gizmos. Piracy of films and books are the rule such that the many pirated Onitsha versions of Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country may have sold more than the original copies published in the US and Britain put together. The Onitsha Markets Amalgamated Traders Association rules the roost and remarkably in 1978 ignited the “Boys O Ye” riots, a day of blood and fire for the burning to death of all alleged armed robbers and criminals in the town, together with their homes, hideouts and brothels even as the law enforcement agents deigned to look the other way!

While planning to depart from Onitsha, there’s the need to visit a bank in the Fegge section of the town to make an urgent withdrawal. Stacks of cash are all over the floor, in the doorway and on the staircase, with only very narrow gaps separating the heaps to demarcate the ownership: the owners of the monies happen to be very busy offering bribes to the overworked bank cashiers to help count the cash! Onitsha obviously holds pride of place as the city of cash in Nigeria. When banks in major cities such as Lagos and Abuja run short of cash, all it takes to replenish their vaults is to make a cash call to their branches in Onitsha.

The commercial city on the bank of the River Niger forever captures the imagination of the world, for only recently Onitsha was rated among the five fastest growing cities in the world by United Nations Habitat (the UN’s Human Settlements Programme), alongside four others in Morocco, China, Malaysia and Brazil. For a city that is already way past bursting, the fear remains that the fast growth of Onitsha may lead to an implosion. No, make that an explosion.

 

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is a Lagos-based journalist and is a regular contributor to Premium Times in Nigeria. His fiction has been published in Wasafiri.

 

CHRONIC ISSUE 2This piece features in Chronic Books “How to be a Nigerian”, a supplement to the August 2013 edition of the Chronic, as part of “Overcoming Maps”, an exploration of artists’ projects centred on pan African travels and encounters.

The issue also features reportage, creative non-fiction, autobiography, satire, analysis, photography and illustration to offer a richly textured engagement with everyday life. In its pages artists and writers from around the world take on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states.

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2 Responses to Onitsha Republic

  1. Hannah November 5, 2013 at 11:27 pm #

    This was insightful and, oh, so humorous! You created vivid pictures in my mind about the bustle and industry in Onitsha, especially concerning the movie industry in Nigeria. I remember Scores to Settle, although not the story line. Amazing that the speed with which movies are shot and produced has only improved marginally.

    I really cracked up with the section on writing letters back in the day…’doxology’! I remember some of those lines from secondary school letters…”I pick up my golden pen…”, etc, etc. So Onitsha was the birthplace of those creative letters!

  2. Edge January 20, 2014 at 11:40 pm #

    Lovely! I’m an Onitsha brought up too. It’s one of the most unique and energetic cities in the world.

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