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1.1       Background to the Study

In the words of our eminent African novelist, Chinua Achebe:

The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmark of true leadership (The Trouble With Nigeria, 1).

Without doubt, this perfect observation by Chinua Achebe, arguably one of the world’s most erudite literary scholars and social commentators, captures the cankerworm that has consistently plagued the Nigerian and, indeed, the African political landscape since the various countries got their independence from colonial rule. Ours is a continent with a teeming and resourceful population, abundant natural, agricultural and mineral resources, yet mired by misrule and glaring mismanagement.

In fact, leadership, in all its ramifications, has actually been the bane of our collective existence, such that today, most African countries are reference points of tyranny, oppression, power mongering, official corruption, electoral malfeasance, intolerance, victimisation, betrayal, sabotage, exploitation, ritual/wanton killings, and all kinds of humiliation and human degradation of the citizenry, especially the poor masses and those who advocate a functional model of society. Thus, everywhere in the post-independence African society, there is oppression, hunger and starvation, and the looming shadows of unmitigated greed and egregious ostentation in the face of crushing poverty, tyranny, betrayal and alarming insecurity have reduced Africa to everyone-for-himself and God-for-us-all society.

There are loud grumblings about the yawning gap between the rich and the poor. Serial failure of leadership has crippled the continent on the race-track of global competition for development. Unfortunately, there is conspiratorial silence on what is to be done with power so as to make the conditions of the vast majority of the people better, especially in the search for an egalitarian society, a society where resources are evenly distributed. The leadership class has not thought it wise to woo the masses—the oppressed, the deprived, the exploited, the wretched of the earth—on the strength and conviction of their vision for their societies to be optimistic of a better future.

To them, the African people should be quite easily exploited and oppressed, as the whites did to them under colonialism. Power failure, oppression, exploitation, indifference, betrayal of hope, bad roads, poor healthcare, inadequate housing, declining standards of education, massive unemployment, corruption, disillusionment, lack of basic necessities, safety, etc. have become the bane of the continent. In fact, this systemic rot is an urgent reminder of things to do in post-independence Africa. And the very first things to do are to change the way we have been doing things.

The African novel from this time on acquires a revolutionary ardour that aims to enthrone just and egalitarian system in place of the current inefficient and parasitic structures. But as Chidi Amuta states, there is a consciousness on the need for drastic social changes, differing and conflicting views have arisen on the kind of ideological base on which the emergent society should be launched. While some novelists seek social change in the idealistic resurrection of some traditional African social systems, others turn to socialism (169). The position of the first group is attributable to a non-dialectical understanding of historical and social process. They tend to regard revolution in the idealistic terms of Frederick Engels noted in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, as inventing a new and more perfect social order” (52). For the other group, however, revolution revolves around the overthrow of the existent capitalist mode of production for a socialist mode, thereby effecting a change in the relations of production.

Even though these novelists are pursuing similar ideologies, they are from different nationalities and social backgrounds. While Habila and Ojaide are Nigerians, Ngugi wa Thiong’o is from Kenya. Of course, the differences in backgrounds have contributed to fashioning out their different approaches. This is in line with Louis Althusser’s observations in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, that:

What art makes us see, and therefore gives to us in the form of “seeing,” “perceiving” and “feeling” is the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art and to which it alludes (222).

In this research, therefore, we shall examine the issue of sociopolitical and economic alienation in Helon Habiba’s Waiting for an Angel and Oil on Water.

1.2       Statement of the Problem

Post-independence African novels are replete with portrayals of suffering, denials, oppression, dejection, inhumanity, nonchalance, bribery and corruption and subsequent disillusionment of the masses whose hopes of a better life after independence were dashed. To highlight the denigration of the people by their own brothers, the novelists in each of the societies in the novels realistically explore the subhuman situation of the people, especially the proletariat. The novelists now used this medium as a means of calling attention to the predicaments of the people under neo-colonialism. To them, they ruling class has betrayed the hopes of independence as they still remain appendages to the colonial overlords. Thus, the novelists not only highlighted the subjugation of the people but went a step further to advocate that the oppressed should rise and redeem themselves from their oppressors.

Therefore, the oppressed in the African environment tend to rebel against the pains, sufferings and hardships inflicted on them by their leaders as they face the depth of the oppression they live in, which is painful, angering and debilitating. In fact, leadership failure has robbed the African continent of the best brains it has in diverse fields of human endeavours. Today, most of our seasoned medical personnel, information technology experts, scientists and engineers are abroad in search of greener pastures due largely to unpatriotic and visionless leadership at home. Is it not shameful that today our leaders spend fortunes on medical trips overseas when these stupendous amounts can build state-of-the-art hospitals in their countries? Is it not shameful that today our roads are death traps and our schools are poorly funded and equipped? It is ironical to observe that a country like Nigeria and, indeed other African countries, endowed with human and natural resources cannot adequately feed, educate, train and care for their citizens, while the vast resources of the continent end up in the pockets of few avaricious individuals whose visionless and corrupt leadership is the problem.

It is for the reason of correcting the ills of the society that literature looks into the problems inherent in a society. These problems manifest in all aspects of African life, ranging from the political, social, and economic to the cultural; the most prominent of them all is the political exploitation and oppression as recurrent themes in contemporary African novels.

It is the aim of this research, therefore, to look into the treatment of these problems of sociopolitical and economic alienation, leadership, oppression in the two novels and explore the novelist’s portrayals of post-colonial leadership problems of oppression, exploitation, deprivation, inefficiency, corruption, squandermania, sectionalism, dictatorial tendencies, etc.

1.3       Objectives of the Study

The purpose/objective of this study is to examine and evaluate the works of Helon Habiba who advocates an end to oppression and alienation. It aims at uncovering the relative degrees of the novelist’s commitment in advocating an alternative ideological-cum-aesthetic leadership pattern for post-independent African countries. The following questions will therefore serve as guides to exposing the social bent of these novelists:

1.      What are their preoccupations and their relative levels of ideological and aesthetic commitments in terms of their avowed egalitarian postures?

2.      Of what relevance are the preoccupations of the writer to our contemporary African society?

3.      Is there any dialectical, historical, thematic or aesthetic continuum in the novels of the writer’s, individually and collectively?

4.      How could the oppressed in these two novels liberate themselves from such oppression in their societies?

1.4       Significance of the Study

The study is considered significant because it will be of immense benefit to scholars, artists, researchers, students and the society at large, especially those aspiring to be leaders in various capacities. To scholars and literary writers, it will help illuminate their ideological and aesthetic concerns, as regards the situations of the oppressed, and also help them clearly perceive their true bents and contributions towards ending the oppression.

To researchers, it will form a set of critical canons for the proper evaluation of works considered to be anti-oppression in content. The research will provide resource materials for students and general readers interested in the objective appreciation of literatures which advocate change and patriotic leadership in Africa.

1.5       Scope and Limitation of the Study

This study is based on, as well as limited to, the two selected novels of Helon Habila, namely: Waiting for an Angel and Oil on Water. References could also be made to some other works that throw extra light on issues or themes of sociopolitical and economic alienation in African literature.

1.6       Definition of Terms

Exploitation: Tilly Charles in Contemporary Sociology defines exploitation as “powerful, connected people deploying resources from which they draw significantly increased returns by coordinating the effort of outsiders, who they exclude from the full value added by that effort” (98). Any search for exploitation in real life must keep alert for seven elements: power holders, their coordinated efforts, deployable resources, command over those resources, returns from those resources, categorical exclusion, and skewed division of returns as compared with effort. A standard Marxist definition of exploitation, according to T.B. Bottonmore in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, is that it “occurs when one section of the population produces a surplus whose use is controlled by another section . . . Under capitalism, exploitation takes the form of the extraction of surplus value by the class of industrial capitalists from the working class, but other exploiting classes or class fractions share in the distribution of surplus value” (133).

Oppression: The Latin origin of the word has “oppressus” as the past participle of “opprimere,” which means to press down. Thus, Webster’s Third International Dictionary defines it as “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power especially by the imposition of burdens; the condition of being weighed down; an act of pressing down; a sense of heaviness or obstruction in the body or mind” (1138). R.L. Barker in The Social Work Dictionary defines oppression as:

The social act of placing severe restrictions on an individual, group or institution. Typically a government or political organization that is in power places these restrictions formally or covertly on oppressed groups so that they may be exploited and less able to compete with other social groups. The oppressed individual or group is devalued, exploited and deprived of privileges by the individual or group which has more power” (200).

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