By Akin Adesokan
(For Larry Siems & Aimee Liu)
The wait would have begun on the line at the British Consulate in Lagos, where dreams collapsed from standing too long in the sun. But the story of standing in line at the AmEmbassy on Eleke Crescent (renamed Louis Farrakhan Street, and re-renamed Walter Carrington Crescent), on Victoria Island in Lagos will have to wait. It is a story that begins sadly at 4:00 am with enough anxiety to drive you mad and ends tragically at 4:00 pm, all confidence drained. A story of losing.
There are borders more absolute in this world than the ones you see on the map. Look closer at the shape of the letters on your passport.
The day he decides to apply for a British visa, he sees a news story on the Internet. The Consulate in Lagos has suspended issuing visas to Nigerians until electricity becomes stable at the visa department. In 1997? If this is true, he thinks, then it is a conspiracy. Everybody in Lagos knows that certain anomalies are what keep Nigeria one. Ensure constant electricity; punish the stealing of oil money; get the soldiers, the politicians, the police, the foreign embassies to behave; the soccer team, Super Eagles, to train before playing; stop Lagosians from rushing to catch a bus; change the name Nigeria; ensure constant electricity, and you have chaos. When the electricity authority was partially commercialized on the watch of the International Monetary Fund, the old name NEPA (for National Electric Power Authority which Nigerians had re-imagined as Never Expect Power Always), became NEP Plc. The following week a newspaper cartoon gave it a new name: NEPilepsy.
He is indignant, but since he’s in Los Angeles, far from Lagos, he can but briefly sympathize with the applicants rotting in the rain at the Consulate. The comfort of distance.
Ah, there is a longer story. The Commonwealth Ministers Action Group meets this week in London over human rights in Nigeria. There will be testimonies by some Nigerians who have just arrived from Lagos. Lawyers and politicians, some of them once responsible for the mess, some of them angling for a say in another dispensation built on mutual lies. It is a week of confounding absurdities. Nigeria’s Minister for Foreign Affairs says that the way the two prime Consulates (British and American) treat Nigerians is racist, but he does not really believe this himself. The treatment has been going on for years, will continue for years.
Does the regime want Nigerians to emigrate? No, but it engenders the terror that leaves very few other options. Does it stop them? Not until the figure gets so embarrassingly scandalous, as it did the year before, when eight million people played the American visa lottery, and General Sani Abacha, head of the dictatorship, preferring home-made scandals, instructed NIPOST not to post the mail. Years ago, when Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Major sat placid over the situation in Nigeria, it was cricket as usual. Gentlemen’s game. Stunned by the movie-like image of the country as a crumbling house, Nigerians began to flee. If they were unlucky, they got deported from Germany, Switzerland, Italy. Otherwise, they surrendered to the logic of the world in whatever hellhole they were stuck. They gathered functional experiences, new tongues, new kinships of the skin, skin-deep emotions. Life in Nigeria had long been suspected to be hardly worthy. After the mid-1980s, when the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida devalued the currency and abolished public subsidies to justify borrowing from the IMF, it lost meaning for the impatient.
Is it of interest to the officials in Nigeria whether there is a link between the coming of Mrs. Reagan Thatcher, the World Trade Organization, and the planetary explosion of immigrants? Do they care what the coming of the current adversary, the Labour government of Tony Blair in Britain, really means? The case is straightforward: any attempt by a government of another country to question the human rights record is squarely an affront, and racism is the ace to deal.
The truth, the notion of nations like Nigeria, Britain, Pakistan, is a laughable lie, but without it there will be no need for passports and borders. Unlike their compatriots standing in Embassy lines and deep-frying in the heat of Lagos rain, the lawyers and politicos going to London to meet Commonwealth ministers got their visas. Multiple entries. They were travelling on allowances provided by the European Union, or some American/Scandinavian foundation.
At the other end of the line at the British Consulate, the Beatles sing to relieve boredom. He waits his turn on a different sort of line. It is comfortable and short, a matter of courtesy. He pushes a button to pick a number, and waits for the woman who looks like the Miss Havisham of his imagination to call his number. Half-dozen copies of Form IM2A are abandoned in various stages of incompletion by the owner of a name that probably belongs to Ethiopia. When he reads the nationality column, he finds the name is Eritrean. A desperate Romanian struggles to cast a spell on Miss Havisham, his voice laden with great expectations. At the breath-giving end of his incantation, a drained Miss Havisham sighs:
“We don’t care!”
Those from Hong Kong come and go, like traffic on the freeway. This is 1997. There are three other Nigerians in the room, and before long he has conspired with one of them. Bisi, cradling a bundle of bawls, used to be based in Brixton, but now she lives in Houston. She is warm and chatty. Her number, 22, has been called by a shouty voice from the far right window and when she goes, she spreads her child’s yells over the room.
He is Number 94. The counter on the electronic screen says 68. It is 11:30 am. He plays with a kid, an Iranian girl who pronounces her name shyly: Tuba. He writes his own for her to read, and invites her to write hers. A woman enters and comes to sit near him. Following his nudge she sweeps to the machine, but the roll of tapes is gone.
She sighs, breaks into a smile and leaves, waving the way people do in America.
Finally, he meets Miss Havisham at the window. After collecting the application form, passport, two photos, travel itinerary, statement of account, letter of invitation from a host in Britain and the sum of fifty-six dollars and ten cents, she tells him to wait.
In what year was the telex invented? With what or whom did it go out of the window?
Miss Havisham returns after thirty minutes. First, she wonders why the American embassy in Lagos had issued him a tourist visa. Then, she tells him that the Consulate will get in touch with Lagos first, and will wait for a word on whether or not to issue a visa. Check back by Friday, she says. Three days away. When he gets home, a message is waiting on the answering-machine. M. has called from London, and says “I’m home all-day and night, feel free to call.” There are a few minutes left on the Pacific Bell pre-paid calling card, so he rings M. who asks him to hang up, and calls instead. The conversation was warm with the exciting prospects of reunion since M’s hurried departure two years ago. Then M. asks when precisely he is arriving in London.
He says, “By the weekend at the latest.”
“You have your visa already?”
“No, but I’ll go back on Friday. I’ve already secured a travel itinerary, and once I get the visa I’ll just go and pay for my ticket. Then pack, and leave. By Saturday morning.”
- is silent. He soon catches his breath:
“Why Friday, why not immediately?”
“They said they would get in touch with Lagos first. I guess it’s a normal procedure.”
“Just forget about coming to London very soon,” M. says gravely.
A year before, M had applied to the Swiss embassy in London for a visa, using his Nigerian passport. The embassy had told him the same story, and thinking his trip urgent, he had offered to pay for the cost of faxing. But no, the embassy had its own means of communication, and it would accept no funds from applicants. When a past victim told him that sending such messages through telex was the common practice among European embassies, M. gave up. Telex in 1997. One would have thought it went out long before Mrs. Thatcher came in.
He is disappointed, but secretly wishes this were another of those benign jokes Nigerians fashion to adapt to the precarious fate of living with eyes on the map. He will give the embassy the benefit of the doubt, and call back on Friday.
First thing on Friday, he is at the Consulate. There’s no word yet from Lagos, says Miss Havisham. He has certainly missed the book fair, which opens on Monday, but hopes to still travel at a later date, when the telex would have crawled to Lagos and back. Outside the consulate, he slips a quarter in the phone-box: A call to the travel agency:
“Please could you suspend my booking? I’m not likely to travel this weekend. I’ll keep it open.”
He takes the Line Two bus to the university. Destination: Reference Library, Encyclopaedia section. Read up on telex and telecommunications.
After four weeks he returns to the consulate to pick up his passport. Only a year later, when he got the passport back from the security agents working for Abacha, did he notice the stamp: PENDING, 1/4/97. UK, LOS ANGELES.
Poor passport! So distrusted by the consulates, so eagerly impounded by the secret police. A prop in the theatre of the absurd.
There is a new arrest in Lagos, but on the morning of March 20, I’ve no time to read the news. Must catch the bus to downtown Santa Monica. There’s a meeting at the public programming unit of the Getty Research Institute, and I’m part of a panel on exile and literature. In Los Angeles, 1997 was the year of the exile, and since February, an exhibition had been mounted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to mark the fortieth anniversary of the flight of German artists from Nazi Germany. The panel co-sponsored by the Getty is part of the fiesta, and it is titled “The Written Word: Narratives of the Émigré.” Each panellist will discuss his or her experience of exile and “examine the complexities of the émigré experience which are deeply rooted in the diverse political and social systems in which they are born.”
In an exploratory session before the panel, I make it plain that I am not an exile, that I will not discuss the topic as an academic exercise, that I don’t want to succumb to the luxury of personalizing the political situation in Nigeria. My listeners are baffled; if things are as bad as I claim, and if I consider myself a writer, why wouldn’t I oppose the situation from the point of view of an exile? That is the whole point. There are many ways of engaging any issue; as a flesh-and-blood issue the idea of exile is not an exception. Each participant is expected to read from authors who had influenced his or her understanding of the idea of exile.
Returning home later that night, I find a message waiting: agents of General Sani Abacha’s regime have arrested someone close to me. L, wife of a friend and former colleague, is detained in Lagos. The details of her arrest aren’t clear, but soon it will be established that she has been taken as ransom for her husband whom the security agents want very badly, but who crawled out of the country the winter of the previous year. This is a difficult thing. L is a working mother, her kids aged seven and four. Ever since the husband’s departure, she had lived alone with the kids and her two female cousins. The pattern of political arrests in Nigeria lacks logic, or rather, it has an Abacha logic. As Wole Soyinka puts it, the logic is of an entity that, unable to grasp the complex dimensions of any problem, seeks only to destroy it, and everyone else who thinks otherwise. The pattern of arrests, detentions, assassinations, purges, and retirements that characterize the reign of terror over which Abacha presides is based on this logic. Concomitant with this is the idea – if one could speak of something as grand as idea in Abacha’s purview – of the elasticity of guilt. That way the wife of a political dissident is equally culpable in whatever offence her husband is presumed to have committed, and must be thrust in jail.
One of my arguments at the meeting with the organisers of the seminar is that I do not consider myself directly in danger of political arrest because I do not belong to any political group, and only do my job as responsibly as my circumstances permit. I have written about the political repression, but that is common enough, and many other people are doing that. I have not come to America as a political exile. Now, with L’s arrest, I am beginning to see how idealized my notion of political association is. I have spoken valiantly of the need to return, but as I sit on the table at the LACMA, I am not so sure any more.
Aimee Liu spoke before me, of her migrant grandfather, whose rich memories of China and odyssey in parts of the United States continue to feed her creative imagination. She shows us slides that tell the story of the progenitors’ progress, and reads from Isabel Allende about the uses and tricks of memory.
My turn. I begin by citing the honours thesis that I wrote as an undergraduate: “The Writer in an Alienating Society.” I had written the thesis on the drama of Amiri Baraka, and prefaced it with an epigraph from “For You, Nigeria,” a poem by a young Nigerian poet, Olu Oguibe:
Every exile is a hornbill
The homeland is buried in his head
When I began working as a journalist in Lagos in the early nineties, I had a romantic idea of living in exile. It may seem ridiculous to conceive of exile as a convenient decision, something one does on impulse, but my experience was not unique. Oguibe wrote the poem cited above during his time in London, but there was a streak of desperation in the verses he wrote when he was still living in Nigeria. Another poet, Esiaba Irobi, has a series of exile poems in Cotyledons, his first volume published with five others in Lagos in 1988. The poems speak of a traveller going through Western airports, but in 1988, Irobi had never been to Europe. These were young men who felt let down by their countries – one feels in their work the hopelessness that had driven and continues to drive thousands of Nigerians into every imaginable place on earth. They went to grand labour camps like England, the U.S., France, Germany, Canada, but they also went to ridiculous ones: Hungary, Jamaica, El Salvador, Libya, Israel, Papua New Guinea. Anywhere but home. I had always wanted to write, and it seemed in 1991 that only outside the country could one pursue that dream meaningfully. There was a good deal of confusion in that presumption, but generally it was a valid gesture. I recall an encounter with an Italian professor of African literature who thought I would better understand what it meant to be an exile if I became one at an older age. He believed that could they help it, writers should not become exiles until they were past thirty, when most of their beliefs had been formed.
Fast-forward to 1993, the chaotic year of broken promises and underground journalism. This was the time of June 12, date of the presidential elections which General Babangida had annulled. But what was more interesting was what two authors told me during those months. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ayi Kwei Armah were not new to me in ’93, but I hadn’t read some of the Colombian master’s shorts, and Armah’s essays were generally scarce. In Montiel’s Widow, Garcia Marquez tells of the unhappy lot of the abandoned widow of Montiel, a ruthless man who had killed many during a dictatorship. Lonesome and harassed by the relatives of her husband’s victims, Montiel’s widow gets letters from her children now living in Europe, who do not think of returning home because at home people can be shot for their political views.
In one of his essays from the 1980s Armah, author of the peerless The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born discusses a reissue of George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile. Lamming, the Barbadian writer living in England, celebrated his condition as an exile, even in what he called the racist ambience of London. Armah considers this incredible, but believes that Lamming’s understanding of exile was peculiarly Western. If he were familiar with other traditions (African, for instance) dealing with the theme, Armah argues, Lamming would know that exile was not a one-way travel. Next to the idea of exile sits the dream of homecoming, return. Reading the ancient Egyptian text of Sinuhe, Armah points out that exile as a fact of existence is as old as it is inescapable, but to meaningfully experience it, the exile must also explore its opposite.
I had found this insight very liberating, and coming only days after I had read Garcia Márquez’s story, I began to see its point. Situations – economic, political – might necessitate relocation in a different society, but for those who, unlike Montiel’s children, had no money stashed away in Swiss bank accounts, whose fathers had not murdered thousands and poisoned the land with the blood of innocents, returning could be as compelling. One had to have the intellectual maturity to comprehend this, and be willing to confront it. In March 1997, Abacha was at the height of his tyrannical rule. Kunle Ajibade, a journalist and former underground colleague, had been jailed since July 1995 by a secret military tribunal that tried coup suspects. Wole Soyinka, in self-imposed exile in the US, had been charged with treason in absentia, with several others. Two of Abacha’s former superiors, Generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Shehu Musa Yar’ Adua had been jailed along with Ajibade; Dapo Olorunyomi was in exile in the US. This didn’t seem a place to want to return to; with L’s arrest, the situation just got scarier.
That’s what I say at the LACMA. I add a call to all people of conscience to press their local and national governments to impose oil sanctions on Nigeria. In 1997, there is nothing radical in this call. Everyone is saying it.
The last person to speak, a writer who is at once Moroccan, French, American and Jewish, dwells on the complexity of his experience, and declares that identity is now outmoded, there is nothing like identity any more. Of all the other presentations, I find this the most intriguing, and I can’t help feeling that there’s something shaky about it. This speaker’s resume speaks of excerpts from his acclaimed novel appearing in the issue of a journal dedicated to “Sephardic American Voices”. Could I get an excerpt of my novel published in this journal? Could any writer who is not “Sephardic American”?
It is Thursday, November 27, 1997, late afternoon in a stuffy room in the forbidden metal-and-mortar of Number 15A. He had left home, he’d come to believe, in order to return to it. His body now hugged the rank air of home, but after four weeks he was not yet at home. Stuff had happened. The man who chose not to be an exile had become something else he hadn’t chosen – a detainee. The consulate’s waiting rooms, the attentive audience at LACMA, the leisurely crowds along the Promenade in downtown Santa Monica, those now seemed utterly inestimable. In a sense they felt like home, habitable moments made real by longing and the desire to escape present captivity.
The female spy knew how to be nasty. She ransacked the sheaf of papers; carefully pushing Passport B957848 aside, she picked up another piece of paper. It was titled “Haunted by Hunger,” an old newspaper report on the state of Nigerian literature.
“So this is the kind of report you write, hen, Mr. Writer? Nigerians are haunted by hunger?”
“Madam,” said the weary detainee, “one only needs to read the first paragraph of that article to know what it’s about. Look at the date.”
“But you carried it to America so that you can use it to ask for exile, not so?”
“If I’d wanted to live in exile, would I be sitting here before you?”
“Write!” Orangutan yelled again.