Songs of the caged bird

Niran MalaoluBehind the brick walls

Nine years after Sani Abacha’s mostly unmourned expiration delivered him from death sentence handed him for “coup plotting”, journalist Niran Malaolu has put together his prison memoir. The book, Behind the Brick Walls, which is a collection of poems written in Katsina Prison is here reviewed by The Nation Group Editor (Arts and Culture) PRINCE SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE

t was a small compound. Its nondescript worn and tattered look blended with the environment. At the junction where it stood by the road side, there were many other compounds that bigger than it. Yet, something about it arrested the traveller’s attention. Observation revealed a dirty and tired looking flag of the country hanging from a short pole. Closer examination revealed the sign post: Nigerian Prison Service. It was actually the Okene Prison. What stood it out was the same thing that made the flag pole appear short.

The walls.

Thick and forbidding, they stood round the small compound as if daring any who perceives himself bold to try entry or escape – which actually was its duty. Walls are like doors. They serve basically two utilitarian purposes – lock out or lock in.

Although only the fence walls remain on the empty lot, one needs no handwriting on the wall nor be familiar with the history of the territory to identify the old Broad Street Prison on Lagos Island for what it is.

A prison is a building in which nobody would willingly seek accommodation. Even a visit there is undesirable, that is except you are a warder or prison supplier. Yet it was not built for livestock. Men are the target.

The prison is supposed to be a correctional facility. It is supposed to reform those who defy the rules guiding acceptable social order. However there are law breakers who deserve special treatment. The Rock was a military fortress and military prison facility between 1859 and 1934. Located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, it served as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Occupied by Indians from 1969 to 1971, it is now a tourist site.

Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years incarceration too has become a tourist site. One of the photographs featured in Bill Clinton’s biography, My Life, is that of him standing alongside Mandela peeping out of the latter’s prison through the window.

But let’s go on a tour of another kind of prison system. Our tour guide is Niran Malaolu. The tour is going through his forthcoming book, Behind the Brick Walls.

The government of late General Sani Abacha is regarded as the most repressive the nation has ever had to endure. Brutally it brought every perceived opposition under the gun boot. The streets were littered by victims of murdered citizens whose lives were terminated either under the guise of quelling protest or through thinly veiled state sponsored assassinations. The prisons overflowed with victims of different kinds whose sins included, as Niran Malaolu puts it in Behind the Brick Walls, “thoughtcrime, viewcrime, speakcrime and even jobcrime if, of course you’re unfortunate enough to be a journalist.

Trained at the University of Lagos, Akoka and University of South Florida in the USA, Nniran Malaolu knew what he wanted to be when he obtained a Masters degree in Journalism. At 37, he was the Editor of The Diet, a Lagos-based newspaper. He was at work on the following day’s edition when Abacha’s goons came calling in the night at the paper’s 62, Queens Street, Yaba, Lagos on Sunday, December 28, 1997. It was the beginning of what he described as “A 15-month trip to hell.”

When Newswatch co-founder Dele Giwa was eliminated through letter bomb in 1986, such an occurrence was novel in Nigeria. By the time Abacha he reached the peak of his satanic rule, even those walking on the streets did not feel save let alone someone taken to the underground dungeon of the Directorate of Military Intelligence. People were being eliminated left, right and centre.

No means of liquidation was considered unusual. While people like 80-year-old was sprayed with bullets in his sleep at his Ikeja GRA residence, democracy activist and wife of winner of June 12, 1993 presidential election, Bashorun M. K. O. Abiola – himself in Abacha’s detention – Kudirat Abiola was wiped of with showers of pellets in broad daylight on the streets of Lagos. Former Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters serving as number two man in the country General Musa Yar’adua died in mysterious circumstances while serving term for alleged coup plotting at the Abakaliki Prison. It was believed that he was administered lethal injection. His erstwhile boss, Olusegun Obasanjo was also in jail for the same phantom coup.

One can hardly put it better than Dr. Olatunji Dare, one of Nigeria’s most outstanding veteran journalists. He said when one is in incarceration with a very high probability of not coming out alive, the concentration becomes extremely sharpened. Aleksandr Solzhentsyn’s Gulag Achepelago, Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Detained and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom readily come to mind of what such a sharpened mind can produce. The captive, especially someone in solitary confinement, becomes ingenious in putting their thoughts down. Sylvester Odion Akhaine for example wrote books on empty packs of anti-malaria drugs and toothpastes while in detention – of the same Abacha.

In spurting flow, Niran Malaolu churned out lyrics after lyrics in the months of October and November, 1998 while in Katsina Prison awating execution. The only exception is For Kongi which was written in July of that year as a birthday present to Wole Soyinka.

Yes, he had been sentenced to death alongside military men for coup plotting. One question he keeps asking even up till today is how can a man conspire with himself. In his words, “They said I made a comment that the army might react because Yar’adua was among those who had been arrested over the coup. Having tapped my phone, they said I was saying that to an American. After reading the offence, they did not give me any opportunity to say anything.”

This bizarre experience produced the poems that now appear in Behind the Brick Walls.

Divided into three sections, the book is made up of a 12-page opening section and 111 pages of poetry and comments. It is published by Spectum Books Limited based in Ibadan in association with United Kingdom-based Safari Books.

The book is not your typical prison memoir. It is more in the tradition of Wole Soyinka’s Shuttle in the Crypt and South African poet Dennis Brutus’ prison outpouring.

The first section is entitled My Ordeal and is made up of 31 poems. The second, The Fluid of Hope has 13 while Between God and Man comprises of 16.

My Ordeal narrates the different experiences the poet passed through while in detention. The poems are not arranged according to the sequence of what he passed through. Rather, they are arranged according to dates they were written thus allowing the normal flow of creative impulse to be felt by the reader.

Situation in the four by four cell in which he was chained are spoken about just as he wrote songs for the Dornier jet in which he and his co-travellers were transported wrist bound and feet chained to the military airplane. In this section, the reader will encounter different characters such as warder in Strange Fellow, Wicked Warder whom the poet asked, “Are you a sibling of Sani-the-terrible?” The dilemma of the prison physician whose heart and professional commitment demanded he be humane while his employers are bent only on destroying their captives is the subject of The Physicians’ Task. The Fair Sanni compares its subject with the hated general, “Sanni, you’re so different/In your thoughts, in your deeds/Unlike the other Sani, I know”.

From Lagos to Jos and Katsina, songs are written for otherwise beautiful cities that had not become torture movies locations. As the poet poured out his pain and agony, he still has time to salute his heroes – Nelson Mandela, Beko Ransome Kuti, Wole Soyinka. Ever the journalist, Malaolu lets his reader into the happening in the lives of fellow detainees in A Tale of Two Phoebes. It is about two women, the lanky one taking care of “an asthmatic” believed to be Colonel Fadipe while the “rotund Phoebe” was “Good company to a diabetic”, believed to be General Diya.

Rolex Watches! reduces handcuffs into a mere joke – laughing that we might not cry, you might say. Telephone Conversation With God speaks about an engineer in detention loss of mental balance! This section closes with A Cry For Justice.

Section two, Fluid of Hope is a celebration of relationships that sustained Niran Malaolu while in detention. From immediate family members to church leaders and members and professional colleagues, he has a word of appreciation for everyone.

Between God and Man is where “pastor” becomes a David and Paul rolled into one. As the former he wrote songs of praise and appreciation to God. As the latter, he preached to the sinner to repent.

In Behind the Brick Walls, Niran Malaolu displays a high level of creative skill using different poetic tools to achieve his aim in each poem. Lyrically, one can easily imagine the poems being presented as chants in a performance.

In addition to the poems, each section contains an introductory note. Apart from about five, each of the sixty poems is accompanied by a note written by Akeem Lasisi. Any obscurity? That is the solution.

Well written, edited and printed, Behind the Brick Walls is definitely going to find its level among great titles produced by poets who had had to sing from inside the cage. Its coverage of different tendencies the human soul is capable of conceiving and executing makes it a handbook for living. 

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