- Violent Obsessions:Esiaba Irobi’s Drama and the Discourse of Terrorism
Quite apart from the revelation of the awesome might of the contemporary terrorist infrastructure and the vulnerability even of a superpower, the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States have raised, with burning urgency, political, moral, ethical, and religious questions about terrorism. Crucial distinctions have been suggested between "terrorist organizations" and legitimate "liberation movements," distinctions which only illustrate a conflict in definitions: ideological or religious persuasions as well as complex webs of allegiances and sympathies still play important roles in our categorizations of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, the (Real) IRA, the Basque Separatist Movement ETA, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, November 17, and others. And not only have the strategies of these organizations been recently reappraised, but some of the groups themselves have (at least theoretically) sought to modify their images by minimizing civilian causalities. Moreover, the U.S.-led onslaught against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the even more controversial liquidation of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq have also raised questions about whether some uses of violence are more morally objectionable than others.
Remarkably, these events and the ensuing debates throw a disconcerting light on the career of the Nigerian dramatist, Esiaba Irobi, and demand a reappraisal of his oeuvre. Born on the day of Nigeria's independence, 1 October 1960, Esiaba Irobi has interpreted this striking coincidence in terms of a destiny shared with the Nigerian nation, a shared destiny of agony and pain: "The historical rigor mortis and political epilepsy of the country itself has left cracks on the mirror of the mind. Whatever has happened to the country has happened to me, and the inerasable scar on my mind is the civil war" ("Interview" 11). Irobi's diagnosis of the cause of that "political epilepsy" locates it in the corruption of the Nigerian leadership – politicians and soldiers alike – and, the scar left on his mind by the civil war notwithstanding, his prescription for the ailing body politic is sweeping revolution. Appraising the Nigerian situation two [End Page 60] years after September 11, in the context of that phenomenal terrorist event, Irobi seems largely to endorse the idea of terrorism as a political weapon. He locates the current Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo in the same category as the American president, George W. Bush and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair; such leaders, and the distortion of the truth they advance, invariably reap "September elevens." Irobi's preferred resolution to the Nigerian crisis is presumably an exaltation of 9/11: "What is needed is methodical and strategic insurrections. Insurrections aimed at change. Permanent change. What the Irgun Stern gang did in Israel to the British. What the Mau Mau did in Kenya. Kamikaze pilots. Suicide Bombers. Coups. Against Nigerian leaders" (qtd. in Azuonye 49). Thus, Irobi's continuing theme has been the frustration and marginalization of Nigerian youth; he has been equally fascinated by the psychopathology of dispossession and its violent manifestations.
In the context of the current international discourse on terrorism and political violence, I intend here to investigate Irobi's abiding insight that even for the humane, talented, and creative, material dispossession erodes a balanced personality by destroying personal integrity and self-worth: for the oppressed, violence is cathartic. I also aim to examine Irobi's impassioned advocacy of violence as a weapon for political change, to interrogate his search both in ideology and (in his more recent plays) in traditional rituals for a sustainable justification for violence, as well as to highlight his persistent awareness of the problematic nature of violence itself.
Hangmen Also Die (1989) is a formulaic expression of Irobi's primary thesis: "The unemployment factor will determine the shape and content of the revolution that is brewing, because revolutions do not start in the head but from the stomach" ("Interview" 12). The seven (much later eight) lightly individualized young men who constitute the terrorist gang, the "Suicide Squad," are all graduates of Nigerian universities with good honors degrees and a minimum of seven years' experience in the labor market. Terror is for them not merely a means of earning a precarious livelihood...