University of Natal, South Africa
The structure of socio-political development in Africa, in practice, engenders poverty, ethnic strife, underdevelopment and consequently, a kind of backwardness that impedes the positive contributory presence of African countries in the comity of nations. This structure also contributes to the frequent recurrence and insurgence of dictators wielding tyrannical powers and whose hold on those powers has been an enduring affliction to progress in Africa.
My purpose in this paper is therefore manifold. I intend to expose the dictating currents engendering anguish in the African socio-political milieu and in the process, examine the ways and means that the tyrannies of oppression are being questioned. Further, I shall intertextually examine Femi Òsófisan's engagement with these factors of tyrannies, the kinds that pervade the whole landscape of the African continent, using one of his more dialectical plays, Yungba-Yungba and the Dance Contest.
Political systems have proved to be the main source of affective social and economic anguish in Africa. As Achebe says, "our present leaders in Africa are in every sense late-flowering medieval monarchs" (1987: 74) whose selfish interests often go against the will of the people they lead. Consequently, the selfish interests of these leaders engender conflicts in the life of the people, individually, within a community and between the various communities and ethnic groupings. Many countries in Africa are therefore under various dictating factors that have no beneficial bearing on the life of the citizens but, instead, adversely affect their collective existence. The demand for good governance has therefore resulted in different forms of internal strife in countries like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Namibia and Nigeria. The people's agitation is dependent on the craving for what Uzodike has identified as decentralisation, accountability, transparency and the rule of law (Uzodike 1999: 81), all of which translates to a yearning for democracy.
However, the political leadership is not solely responsible for these factors. With them, in their quest for superficial hegemony, are the multinational companies, the world's financial bodies and the creditors whose major interests lie in self economic development. Because of the advantage these organisations derive from the anguish of the people, they serve to perpetuate unpopular African leaders in power. Thus, the tyranny of the multinationals occurs pari passu with the political dictatorships, which in time, erect mythologies of indispensability, of authenticity, of a fraudulent, self-invented immortality. Examples of these 'mythologies' include the regimes of Bénin Republique's Mathieu Kérékou, Togo's Gnassingbe Eyadema, Cameroun's Paul Biya, Kenya's Daniel arap Moi, Gabon's Omar Bongo, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.
These leaders have led their people to conflicts through the emulation of historical figures, like Zulu's Shaka and Efunsetan Aniwura of Ibadan who held absolute power of life and death over their subjects (Okpewho 1998). In 1998, at least twenty-five African countries experienced violent domestic conflicts, primarily through the agency of bad political and economic leadership. Several others were involved in serious disputes that have either resulted in violent interstate skirmishes or have the potential of doing so (Uzodike 1999). Most of these countries operate political systems that do not offer any regard for the existence and survival of the common man within his cultural environment.
During the 1980s, autocrats and dictators came under siege in most parts of Africa. Africans took to the streets in unprecedented numbers and with unusual frequency, not only to show unhappiness about their declining economic fortunes, but also to protest their oppression and to demand political liberation and democracy. The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 effectively heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. Many Africans who had hitherto leaned ideologically towards Communism realised the effects of the collapse and started agitating for democracy in their countries. This demand for democracy made political reforms in Africa unavoidable. It is seen as an option necessary to salvage central control in a political environment that was becoming marginalised by increasing globalisation and application of macro-economic principles (Nyang'oro 1996; Udogu 1996, Uzodike 1999).
I have stated the above to emphasise the political dynamics that exist in Africa. An understanding of these dynamics is essential to the understanding of the structure of Òsófisan's dramaturgy and his mythopoetic quest. The picture I have exposed is that of chaos and disorder, of an anti-Ogunnian type filled with images that could have come only from the brush of The Interpreters' Sekoni. It is a picture that haunts the spectrum of Òsófisan's experiences, for as he says, "this country fashioned me... I was bred and fed on its gangrenes and its fetid sores. I have grown old on its carrion" (Òsófisan 1975: 86). Essentially, Africa's socio-political and cultural influences play a strong part in the dramaturgy of Òsófisan, making him to be one of the more committed and relevant dramatists in Africa today.
Thus, the clamour for freedom which started in the former Soviet Satellites in Europe and spread to Africa also affected the literary landscape with a variety of ideas, each promising an alternative to the political situations and "the dance contests" on the various African spaces. Many of these literary and dramatic creations have consistently questioned or challenged political construct in the various pockets of power in Africa. However, because of the successive regimes' agencies of repression, some of these dramatists have also developed, to paraphrase Wole Soyinka, orisunitis millenicus, a malady not unlike the people's mass protests. They have developed this through an intertextual engagement with mythopoetic materials. In essence, they use traditional myths to counter the erected or popular versions of the prevalent hegemony. For the primary concern of these writers -- and I include writers and dramatists such as Saleh Tayyib, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Fatima Dike, the late Sony Labou Tansi, Femi Òsófisan, Nagoub Mafouz, Atukwei Okai, Jack Mapanje -- is the issue of individual and collective freedom on our continent, not as an intellectual discourse, but as committed agitation to counter all hegemonies imposed by force of fiat, coercion and cunning. Their use of myths (in various forms), especially, lies in the ability of myths to become material force against the force of the State when it seizes the imagination of the masses. After all, "no hegemony is sacrosanct to the probing impertinences (sic) of art" (Òsófisan 1997: 7).
This recourse to myths and history to question the political tyranny serves to distance and shelter the dramatist from the menace of present terrors, from the tyranny in the corridors of power on the continent. One of the leading African dramatists whose radical ideological stance and commitment to a just and free society manifests in a continual questioning of societal anguish against the background of an endemic mythopoetic construct is Femi Òsófisan. Writing presently, Òsófisan has emerged clearly as a revolutionary ideologue and the most consciously intertextual Nigerian playwright, basing his work on the idea of cultural renaissance and nationalism. He has often "adopted a free wheeling iconoclastic attitude to antecedent texts and authors from which/whom he constantly borrows materials" (Garuba n.d.) which he then subverts to satisfy his creative impulse. This inclination of Òsófisan towards challenging and questioning previous plays, orthodox historiography and conventional wisdom, pursues Garuba, also appears to hold that the most effective way to discuss serious socio-political problems is by way of engaging contemporary historical facts in an intertextual debate. In the process, he couches his dramaturgy in a web of music, dance, songs and rich dialogue to evolve an aesthetics he has often referred to as "surreptitious insurrection", especially in his constant 'dialogue' with the social-political hegemonies in his universe. This abrogating and appropriating of the works of other writers and cultures and for which he offers no apology (Jeyifo 1995: 131), sometimes lends a postmodern consciousness to his dramatic engagements.
His dramaturgy draws heavily on African myths and ritual forms whose repertory he has dialectically raided and subverted to propose an alternative ideological position. He advances this position instead of the accepted historical function of legitimising political and religious orthodoxy. In the words of Olaniyan, Òsófisan's plays are "characterised by deft appropriation and re-interpretation of indigenous performance forms, a fine-tuned materialist vision of history and a consummate dramaturgic sophistication and openness" (1999: 74). In essence, he has taken drama away from the shrine, metaphorically and symbolically and brought it to the public square -- the market (as in Once Upon Four Robbers) or the junction (as in Esu and the Vagabond Minstrels --, to the gathering of the masses. He has removed theatre from the space of A Dance of the Forest "to the area of the psychic and cerebral, not political" as a covert means of speaking the truth to power and denying "consolation to the manufacturers of our nation's anomy and at the same time, to stir our people out of passivity and evasion" (Òsófisan 1997: 25, 30). In the process, Òsófisan has continued to question the treachery and the travesties of the ruling class.
Òsófisan thus delves into the realm of myths, history, as well as the contemporary clime to commit himself to an ideological stance about his society in a manner that is both revolutionary and subversive. According to Richards, Òsófisan "subjects tradition to scrutiny and reinterpretation, using its own modes of thought and structure" (1987: 288) to proffer a counter-official version of myths and history. In virtually all his plays, he advocates radical social changes based on this ideological position. Yet the society fears radical changes as can be seen from a reading of his Once Upon Four Robbers (1984) and Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen (1992) and in fact by taking a cursory look at the political agenda of most countries on the African continent. History provides for him a clarifying agent for the present, the critical exposition of which suggests ideas for a positive alternative future by unmasking the anguish created by the unmediated ancient formalistic myths or rituals in the society. So, as Chidi Amuta states,
Many studies and critiques have been done on the theatre of Femi Òsófisan. In some of these studies, his work, especially The Chattering and the Song, Once Upon Four Robbers, Morountodun, Aringindin and the Nightwatchmen and Yungba-Yungba and the Dance Contest (1993) are described as revolutionary, not only in terms of language but also in their commitment to an "alter/native" ideological perspective (Obafemi 1979: 119). Two particular features noted by Chris Dunton as being the bulwark of Òsófisan's work are,
The features pointed out by Dunton are apparent in the structure of most of the plays by Òsófisan. In The Chattering and the Song (1973), the play-within-a-play technique is used in exposing the fallacy of the received history of Alaafin Abiodun who reigned in the Oyo kingdom in the 19th century. Alaafin Abiodun is always portrayed as a benevolent monarch who brought peace and prosperity to his kingdom but Òsófisan, in Chattering, suggests that Abiodun was a despot who suppressed the voice of opposition by force. Òsófisan uses role playing to link the radicalism of Latoye, the son of the deposed Prime Minister under Abiodun, with that of modern day revolutionaries fighting for a better life for the majority of the people, exemplified by the Farmers' Movement. Role playing is also used to effect in Farewell to a Cannibal Rage, a play on the theme of reconciliation, written shortly after the Nigerian civil war of 1967 - 1970.
Further, a substantial number of Òsófisan's plays probe the socio-political and economic injustices in the society. In Once Upon Four Robbers, which is centred around the debate on the public execution of armed robbers in Nigeria, Òsófisan advances the argument that it is really the whole society that is criminal in intent and act. He suggests that there is no rationale behind executing armed robbers while neglecting fraudulent civil servants, corrupt law officers, politicians and profiteers, but he stops short of prescribing an alternative solution. Instead, he throws the argument back at the audience to resolve, a device he uses also in Esu and the Vagabond Minstrels (1991).
In all the plays however, Òsófisan places the underprivileged in the centre of his dramatic creations. He engages them in an excursion to find meaning into the contradictions endemic in the society, or as in Twingle Twangle, A Twynning Tayle (1995), to reveal the conflicting identities of communal aspirations. Though Dunton sees a contradiction in the two features he highlighted, in terms of identification with the subjects of the plays, the features are in fact complimentary and serve to advance the agenda of societal re-awakening.
To understand how Òsófisan questions the authorised tyranny in his socio-political environment and intertextually engages the myths of his people, I turn now to the appraisal of one of his most accomplished dramas to date, Yungba-Yungba and the Dance Contest.
Yungba-Yungba and the Dance Contest: An Intertextual Study
Òsófisan's Yungba-Yungba is an investigative rite of sociological rebellion. It is also a deliberate revision of popular theatrical forms of surreptitious insurrection. Furthering the agenda of surreptitious insurrection starts with the title itself. "Dance Contest" symbolises "the troubled situations" (Òsófisan 1988: 5) of our countries. It expresses the intoxicating orgy of election carnivals celebrated in almost every country in Africa, not as a conscious electoral duty to improve the life of the citizens, but as an exercise to further the pseudo-imperialistic wishes of the leaders. Taking the metaphor further, a contest, to be adjudged free and fair, must have parameters of fairness, must have clear rules, "Because unless the rules are clear / Every crook has a bright career / And, when cunning enters the race / Merit and hard work have no place" (Yungba-Yungba, 84). The question then is, how do you dictate fair parameters that will be acceptable to all for a "dance contest" without generating rancour and bitterness among a cultural group who share the same experience, if we accept that dance forms do indeed come from a shared experience? Africa and its perennial problem of conflicts and misunderstanding are therefore likened to a dance contest with no clear winner in sight.
"Yungba-Yungba" translates to a season of plenty and contentment, or 'sweetness'. The idiom is that of hope, of liberation ideologues whose aspiration is to forge a universal understanding in an age of anomy. Joining the two metaphors in the title is a window into the intention of the play to intertextually challenge the political status quo with a message of hope. The sub-title of the play -- A parable for our times -- strengthens this position. A parable after all is another way of speaking unpalatable truth to the power elite.
In Yungba-Yungba, Òsófisan applies the theme of the sufferings of the poor under ruthless tyrants to the African countries' long history of oppression. In the process, he foregrounds the popular demands for democracy on the continent in the characters of the young girls who are agitating for the freedom of expression and choice. The girls are agitating to be re/membered into their cultural experience and responsibility against the political schemes of a leader. Òsófisan uses traditional rituals, myths, storytelling and praise songs as part of his dramatic idiom in the grand discourse of the use of 'uncommon sense' to advance the argument of the play.
The plot of Yungba-Yungba is simple and derives partly from folktales and partly from contemporary issues, especially the yearning for democratic ideals in the governance of most African countries following the collapse of Marxism. A community exists where dance contests are held, primarily between girls from the three founding families, Mayesoge, Arooroton and Jeosunwon. The winner each year wins the most handsome man for husband. However, the annual contests had not always been to choose husbands alone. The winner also became a priestess and served as the representative of the youth in the council of elders for the period of one year. Nevertheless, the current priestess has been in the post for ten years and is not ready to surrender the privilege, until a group of young girls, who named themselves Yungba-Yungba and who do not belong to any of the contesting houses, challenges the status. Through a stubborn, resolute and eloquent articulation of the will for freedom and responsibility, the Yungba-Yungba, led by Ayoka, force priestess Iyeneri to accept the dictating current and allow the election of another priestess. Rumbles of democratic yearnings underpin the slant of the play's dialectics. As Laboopo, one of the Yungba-Yungba, implies, the demand for democracy, for things to be done with the consent and knowledge of all is no disruption of social ideals (21). And Ayoka adds: "...we must reclaim our rights, re-establish the principles of merit and free choice!" (26). Basically the girls want the competition and the selection process for the priestess to be thrown open once again; for a credible voice to represent the youth at the council of elders, serve as the priestess and look after their interests.
Using superior historical knowledge and tradition, Iyeneri, however, engages the Yungba-Yungba in a discourse for democracy. She paints a picture of past chaos created by the bitter rivalry among the three founding families caused by the contests and which she had cleared by holding on to power.
After a while she gives in, though with the intention of scuttling the democratisation process in a script that echoes the political chicanery in many countries in Africa where political leaders seek to perpetuate themselves in power for 'life'. The girls are however more than her match. They introduce the principle of deliberate deception into the dialectics to counter the scheming of Iyeneri. Despite the warning of the author against the temptation to read the play as a purely Nigerian phenomenon, the facts are just too bewildering to neglect. The play was written and performed in 1990, three years before the political activities that threw Nigeria back into the dark ages, but the play could have been based on the later political events. The Nigerian president then, General Ibrahim Babangida, annulled the 1993 presidential elections in a bid to perpetuate himself in power, just like the action of priestess Iyeneri in the play.
In Yungba-Yungba, Òsófisan uses folktales, myths, rituals and contemporary history to weave a plot around the life-presidency syndrome common with African leaders, taking a Nigerian example, political zealots, military apologetics, corrupt intellectuals and 'madmen and specialists', after the symbol of Wole Soyinka's war play of the same title. Iyeneri, with the connivance of her assistants, Aro Orisa, a herbalist at the shrine, and Aperin the interpreter and storyteller, decides to attack the agitation of the girls where it is most effective. So she contrives to make Ayoka go mad, hoping that the others would believe that the gods are angry with Ayoka for trying to go against the wishes of the priestess. However, Aperin warns Ayoka of the priestess' intention, an act that prompts Ayoka to devise another strategy to defeat Iyeneri in her game. She pretends to have really become insane, hoping that Iyeneri would show remorse and allow the contest to go on, but the priestess attributes her insanity to the effect of the impertinence of youth.
This lack of compassion for the supposed insanity of Ayoka finally convinces her and the girls that Iyeneri was beyond being persuaded to vacate the office gracefully and as Ayoka puts it:
Aperin adds, to Iyeneri:
The role of Aperin in this play is very interesting. As the interpreter and storyteller, she acts as the conscience of the community, subtly guiding it on the path that is in the best interests of the land. Her stand on issues sometimes seems equivocal, prompting Iyeneri to remark:
Aperin's character however furthers this agenda that comes closest to the role of the writer in Africa. As stated earlier, this is the concern with the issue of individual and collective freedom committed to agitation against all hegemonies. Although Ayoka comes out as the leader of the girls against the machination of the priestess, it is Aperin who emerges as the revolutionary ideologue. She is the one who consciously probes the wounds of the community with her stories and riddles. While visibly part of the "State" as Iyeneri's interpreter, she also sympathises with the democratic yearnings of the community to which she belongs and, in the end, she serves as one of the judges presiding over the contest to elect a new priestess. She, more than Ayoka, is the pivot of the play, fashioning a route towards democracy through subterfuge, just like Ijapa the Tortoise in this brief tale, with which Yungba-Yungba and the Dance Contests intertextually engages.
Ijapa the Tortoise in "No-Argument Town"
Even small children were not allowed to argue among themselves. And Ijapa, like other strangers, was warned that the penalty for entering into argument with anybody, was death. Ijapa said he had heard.
And then came the day of the annual festival. As was the custom, the chiefs and elders gathered in the town square, to celebrate the eating of the new yam. And then, suddenly, to everyone's surprise, Tortoise rose up to challenge the chief priest -- yes, the ritual priest, the one who was second only to the king! Why, asked Ijapa, did he break the pod of alligator peppers before the kolanut? And why did he bless the elders first, before the children?
Abomination! The whole place broke up in uproar. The unheard-of had happened. Well, no matter, the law had to take its course. There and then, the king and his cabinet sentenced poor Ijapa to death. He was to be executed the following morning in the town's grove across the river.
And do you know what happened? Throughout the night Ijapa did not sleep: instead, he was dancing and singing merrily, as if it was the eve of his wedding! "It's the execution," said the people, "it has turned his head!"
Well, the following morning, Tortoise was tied with a strong rope and carried by the Executioner, accompanied by some chiefs and warriors. Then, when the procession was crossing the river, Ijapa suddenly cried out -- A shark, he screamed, a shark was biting his toes! At this, the Executioner who was carrying him shouted back at him to shut his mouth at once. "How can a shark bite you?" he asked in irritation, "when you are riding on my shoulders and I am at least five feet above the water's surface?"
Then Tortoise immediately drew the attention of everybody around to the fact that the Executioner had broken the town's taboo by arguing. Ah, what is this? Ijapa was right of course. And so, the chiefs in the group were left with no option than to order that Tortoise be returned to the palace for a retrial.
As soon as they got to the palace, Ijapa shouted again that the shark which bit him in the river was sitting there behind the king, laughing at him. And of course, the king lost his temper and when the Tortoise would not stop, he shouted back at him angrily, warning him to desist from causing trouble. Whereupon Tortoise promptly accused the king of arguing, against the law which he and his cabinet had laid down.
That was it: The choice now was for the king either to sentence himself to death or to repeal the law. And of course, you know what happened: Ijapa won the day. He was set free, the law abandoned and henceforth the citizens got back their right to argue whenever they wished.
This is what Yungba-Yungba is about then -- the struggle, all over Africa, between self-perpetuating regimes and democratic forces, between blind acquiescence and surreptitious insurrection. It calls for a new generation with a vibrant and restorative ideology to step forth, not only to question the tyranny of the dictators, but also take charge of the current and direct its flow "in order to demystify the Terror and help [my] people in their struggle for survival" (Òsófisan 1997: 29).
In questioning the tyranny of oppression and the hegemony of power, the success of Yungba-Yungba is advanced through its identification with the current intricacies of socio-political rebelliousness on the continent as well as its exploitation of the traditional tropes. As a political play, it engages the issues that foster tyranny in Africa, especially the problem of 'sit-tight' leadership that has plagued Africa since the wave of independence blew across the continent in the 1960s. The play also re/presents the main source of anguish as the leadership in Third World countries and the perennial battle of the progressive forces against this tyranny of oppression. The identification is not limited to issues alone, it also embraces the experiences of the participants -- performers, audience members, readers -- thus resulting in a drama that recalls a critical awareness of the participants' socio-political milieu. In conclusion, Yungba-Yungba successfully and dialectically engages the authorised tyranny of hegemonic leadership and other forms of tyrannies in Africa.
 Uzodike elaborates on his choice of these four critical elements against the backdrop of United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan's four principles that form the pillars of good governance -- peace, democracy, human rights and sustainable development. He concludes that while the merits of the four principles are irreproachable, the principles are ends of good governance and not the instruments necessary to achieve the objectives.
 See Soyinka, Wole. The Interpreters. London: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1965.
 Wole Soyinka states of this incurable disease as the survival tactic employed for the various successes of both the 1960 Masks and The Orisun Theatre in Nigeria in the 1960s, especially in the protection of the interests of the skits and sketches that later metamorphosed into texts such as The Republican and Before the Blackout, but that was 'feared' as a form of social critique then. He coins the term orisunitis to describe the spirit of performance at the production of The Beatification of Area Boy in Jamaica in 1996.
 This is the thread of the discourse that Utudjian 'abandoned' in the chapter "West Africa: Ghana and Nigeria" when he states that "the new West African drama focuses on the common man..." See especially page 191.
 Harry Garuba lists as among Òsófisan's "displaced and disfigured" texts and historiography John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo's The Raft (Another Raft), Wole Soyinka's The Strong Breed (no More the Wasted Breed), the myth of Moremi (Morountodun), the life and times of Alaafin Abiodun of Oyo Kingdom (The Chattering and Song). And we can also add Òsófisan's adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone (Tegonni, An African Antigone - 1995), his reconstruction of the Rwandan genocide (Reel Rwanda - 1996) and his adaptation of Max Frisch's Andorra (Andorra Goes Kinshasha - 1997). For Garuba's seminal discussion of Òsófisan's intertextuality and the apt inscription of his dramaturgy into the whole post-modern discourse, see "The Album of the Midnight Blackout and the Aesthetics of Levity" (unpublished).
 Surreptitious insurrection -- the manipulation of the mechanics and metaphors of playmaking and of performance in such a way that they do not directly expose themselves to immediate repression. Or, to render it in Olaniyan's phrase, "uncommon sense", "a concept that retains the dramatist's subversive agenda as well as its stealthy coding but is more descriptive, more accessible, less evaluative and therefore infinitely more pedagogically resonant" (Olaniyan, 1999: 77).
 Òsófisan suggests elsewhere in the interview that the dramatist re-invents his history each time the objective truth of 're-discovering history' occurs to him. See especially page 121.
 A term used by the poet Funso Ayejina to describe the writings of the second generation of Nigerian writers.
 All page references are from Yungba-Yungba and the Dance Contests: A Parable for our Times. Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria) PLC, 1993.
 See Wole Soyinka, A Dance of the Forests. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.
 The version of this Yorùbá folktale is from Playing Dangerously: Drama at the Frontiers of Terror in a "postcolonial" State, Femi Òsófisan's inaugural lecture, delivered at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria in 1997/98 session, pp. 26 - 28
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Solá Adéyemi is a Doctoral candidate in the School of Language, Culture and Communication, University of Natal (Pietermaritzburg), South Africa. His MA's research was on a comparative study of the use of Yoruba myths and ritual in the performances of Femi Osofisan and Bode Sowande and the use of Zulu myths and ritual in the performances of Mbongeni Ngema and Gcina Mhlope. The title of his doctoral thesis is "The Revolution Revealed: Re/Configuring History and Re/Membering Identity in the Drama of Femi Osofisan (A post-Colonial and Post-Negritude Study)".
|Paper presented at the African Studies Association of Australasia & the Pacific 22nd Annual & International Conference (Perth, 1999)|
New African Perspectives: Africa, Australasia, & the Wider World at the end of the twentieth century