Prisoners of Jebs: Satire and the Clichés of History

By Benson Eluma


  • Title: Prisoners of Jebs
  • Author: Ken Saro-Wiwa
  • Publisher: Saros International Publishers
  • Number of pages: 178
  • Year of publication: 1988
  • Category: Fiction

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Prisoners of Jebs does not spare anybody or anything. In the finest tradition of satire, Saro-Wiwa does not spare himself. His dramatis personae make up a bewildering gallery. Figures of world-historical stature share a platform with puny potentates. Stock characters taken straight from Nigerian life jostle for a place alongside sheer monsters conjured up by the fertile and unforgiving imagination of the writer. First appearing in Vanguard, from January 1986 to January 1987, in weekly instalments of mocking guffaws at events of the day and of recent history, the publication in 1988 of Saro-Wiwa’s yearlong offering of jibes at the failures and foibles of Nigerian society, its leaders and citizens alike, must have been the occasion of much laughter at the time, and, needless to add, much offence, more than doubling the effects of instantaneous reactions that had earlier followed in the wake of his Vanguard column.

Today, after all that has happened in Nigeria and to Nigeria – indeed to the Prisoners of Jebs and our author – do we dare laugh without anger? Should we not revise Marx, and declare that history repeats itself also as chagrin?

In this situation of spirit-sapping déjà vu, a sense of vexation and disappointment is appropriate, and must be voiced, the vexation and disappointment that animate Saro-Wiwa’s satire, motivating him to pummel all comers, including his unlikely hero in this work, Pita Dumbrok. For such is his commitment to mockery that Saro-Wiwa first makes his hero suffer a prolonged ordeal of scorching caricature before redeeming him in an act of seemingly superfluous magnanimity. Leaving no work for the analyst or literary historian, he explains in the ‘Author’s Note’ why he makes his own hero a cuspidor for his scorn:

My plan was altered somewhat when a young “journalist” on Vanguard wrote an incompetent and rude review of my award-winning novel, Sozaboy. A Novel in Rotten English. Pita Dumbrok became a character in the story, alongside Chief Popa and the worthy Director of the Prison.

In the tenth chapter, where Pita Dumbrok makes his entrée into Jebs Prison, Saro-Wiwa lambastes him and the newspaper he writes for, the same newspaper publishing the instalments of Saro-Wiwa’s satirical column. But that will not do, of course – Saro-Wiwa has to body-slam the entire journalistic sector in Nigeria:

The Nigerians were short of journalists. Most of their best journalists were either very busy writing themselves into the hearts of the new humane regime or writing themselves into jail for criticizing the judgement which kangaroos (blessed animals) hand down to men. So short of good journalists were the Nigerians that their newspapers began to hire all sorts of semi-literate hacks to fill their pages with trash which was said to be good enough food for the Nigerians. One of the men said to be in the vanguard of these hack-writers was sent to Jebs to report on the debate in the elite prison…. (Italics added)

And that will not do, of course. Pita Dumbrok’s name must collocate with ‘hack’ and ‘vanguard’ a few more times in the story, and our author, his satiric spleen brimming, must provide us an endnote that identifies the original model for his hero, and explains the sickening refrain – ‘silly plot, silly plot!’ – with which Dumbrok disturbs the peace of the prison. Thus endnote 10 in the ‘References’: ‘Pita Okute wrote a “review” of the author’s award-winning novel Sozaboy characterizing it as having a “silly plot”’.

A satirist becomes unfaithful to the genre when sham forgiveness is allowed to dilute and weaken the bitter chalice which society has to drink from for its edification. Friends and associates will not be allowed to go unbruised, and the satirist actually indulges in self-bruising, the better to let the real enemy know that the arsenal of sarcasm and wit will definitely be overworked in the inevitable engagement. Saro-Wiwa’s self-mockery appears here and there in Prisoners of Jebs. At one juncture, the narrator (Saro-Wiwa often strips this fictive veil to reveal his gleeful face) tells us that a certain man, who strongly disapproves of his daughter’s desire to marry Joromi, the kangaroo character in the story, allows, however, that ‘the only thing he liked about the man was his height; he did not want a short son-in-law because short men were always troublesome’. Saro-Wiwa here wears his pint-sized build with giant pride. He demonstrates what Maria Plaza argues: ‘When carefully employed… self-directed humour can strengthen the authority of the persona and help to win the audience’s sympathy’.

Our author is quite serious about this aspect of his vocation as satirist. This is evidenced by his giving Pita Dumbrok the chance to throw a punch at him when the hack is asked by the Director of the Prison (who has called Dumbrok ‘stone-stupid’ in an authorial intrusion of a merciless pun) if he knows Saro-Wiwa who ‘has been watching this prison for a long time’. Pita replies: ‘He is a mean, spiteful little wretch, and so small you wouldn’t find him among a colony of soldier ants. He is learning to be a satirist’. To this the Director exclaims: ‘I’m finished. The man is dangerous!’ Dumbrok agrees, supplying further details of the job description of our satirist:

[H]e spends his time picking holes in everything under the Nigerian sun: a chief’s foolish cap, a thieving governor’s walking stick, Customs officers’ uniforms, University professors’ hoods, a journalist’s pen, a wrecked naval boat’s deck. The Nigerians in and out of prison are sick of him. He’s giving them sleepless nights.

A university lecturer accused Saro-Wiwa of resorting to ‘clichés and high-sounding verbiage’ in one of the Vanguard stories of Jebs. Expectedly, Saro-Wiwa retaliated in a rejoinder in which he ‘offered Mr Agulanna twenty naira for every cliché or example of verbiage confirmed by the Professor of English at his University’. And he duly starred the lecturer in a ridiculous instalment of his column. But at the end of the day, history seems to have justified the accusation as to cliché.

For Prisoners of Jebs seems a cliché of Nigeria right now – if not since time immemorial – even with two of its portentous characters dead, Saro-Wiwa and Abacha. It says something about our social dynamics that the ethnographic present of the Jebsian age can be substituted for this moment, and we would all more or less feel at home in it, devising coping strategies as ever before and as ever hereafter. Saro-Wiwa writes:

With oil selling at low prices and the Nigerians determined to import everything on earth from abroad, while owing everyone on earth, Nigeria was stony-broke…. Many of the Nigerian States were broke too. They had to rely on loans from the Federal Government which did not have enough sense to dissolve such States. What was the use of a State if it could not pay its way? If it could not pay its corrupt and incompetent civil servants?

The chagrin, the ressentiment we must succumb to in this horrid vicious cycle! Howbeit, we have to give it to Nigeria – it has a way of turning its imaginative writers into prophets of the doom to come. Consider this other example, how that pathetic paranoiac, the Director of Jebs Prison, conceives of an insurrectionary plot against the Nigerian state, and then seeks the help of Muammar Ghaddafi to bring this project to fruition. Ghaddafi is dead today and never met Shekau, but we know the role being played by Libyan arms in the Boko Haram terror. This resonance between past fiction and ongoing history is invested with an uncanny dimension when, in response to the Director’s expression of fear for Nigerian armaments, Chief Popa, the most eminent Nigerian denizen of Jebs, says to him:

I have told you not to fear. They don’t maintain any of these equipment. Even the men are not in battle-ready shape. And they have no money to buy new equipment should in case the war starts. Don’t fear, my Director. Let us go and play football.

Saro-Wiwa’s criticism of military incompetence is a motif that runs through the length and breadth of the book; he widens and heightens it, he lets it ramify in all directions. Ojukwu, particularly, is made the receptacle for a load of runny invectives, almost as though the Biafran War were his private enterprise. But by the time you begin to think that perhaps the motivation here is Ibophobia, Saro-Wiwa inserts the following tongue-in-cheek indictment in the mouth of the Director of Jebs, who informs the Jebsians that ‘the Nigerians were determined to destroy the Prison of Jebs, and to exterminate all the prisoners just as in the war of genocide against the Biafrans’.

Saro-Wiwa wagged his tongue so much at the military top brass that the Chief of Air Staff had to write a complaint to Vanguard, the vexing statement by our satirist being this one: ‘In Nigeria, in particular, the Air Force was so determined not to fight that each time they were sent on training missions in expensive planes, they crashed the planes’. But was Saro-Wiwa demoralised by the complaint lodged by that juggernaut of the Nigerian firmament? No. A couple of months later, he would make his semi-demented Director observe that many pilots in the NAF ‘were overweight’. Does that not remind us of some Air Marshall from the recent past, not the past of Jebs?

When Chief Popa announces to the Director that ‘the Nigerians do not like anyone who conquers them—civilian, military, you name it. they are an unruly lot’, you could almost swear that Saro-Wiwa had a hand in Buhari’s Independence Day Speech in 2015. You see the throwaway ‘stealing is a human right’, and you want to accuse Jonathan of plagiarism. Fayose’s contribution to political discourse begins to look like a rehash of what the Nigerians say in Chapter 20: ‘they did not practice politics in their country, but “bellytics”. And since everyone had to eat, all Nigerians were “bellyticians”’. Chapter 5 is titled ‘The Disappearing Millions’.

Saro-Wiwa’s sweeping analysis of the relationship calculus among the inner core of power holders in Africa reads like a script for the Obasanjo-Atiku vaudeville and, indeed, all other variants of that show, sadly also including the violent murder of Thomas Sankara, another of the personages in Prisoners of Jebs.

And that was that. Yes, that was that. This is why no one likes to be No. 2 in Africa. No. 2 is expendable, Number 1 is indispensable. Which is why all number twos spend their time trying to be number one and number ones spend their time watching number two. Fear the number 2.

The uncanniness of it all stares you blatantly in the face when in Chapter 51, at the ‘special lunch’ prepared by the ‘elegant, well-dressed wife of the Nigerian President herself’ to celebrate Soyinka’s Nobel prize, Saro-Wiwa notes that ‘Wole, who had not eaten soup cooked by a wife for a long time, had the meal of his life’. That section, which also parades Shagari, Buhari and IBB, is an extended burlesque worthy of extended quotation; and it carves out an impression in high relief when considered in the light of Soyinka’s own statement in a recent outing: ‘[C]heck with my entire family—I made my last omelette when we were living in Ebrohime Road, University of Ibadan—in the early seventies’. However, it is the extra-gastronomic concerns shared by both chapters, though separated by well-nigh three decades, that is a boon to literary sleuths with the quantum of resources in funds, talent, and social network that the investigation would require.

The courage to ventilate his caustic opinion in what can easily be characterised as the Dark Ages of Nigeria’s political history made Ken Saro-Wiwa a hero of Nigerian letters. In this work, his ability to wring the necks of his flawed characters, while recruiting and putting them to service in his ventriloquist cabaret, makes him an incarnation of the Juvenalian spirit. He flings cocaine and a parcel bomb at that President with the ‘famous smile’, ‘famous for his photographic memory’; in point of fact, he showers him in millions of naira obtained from illegal forex trading. Perhaps Abacha read, or had somebody read on his behalf, that passage where Saro-Wiwa lampoons his inability to distinguish between military hardware and ‘laces, damasks or chandeliers’, or that other passage where the Director laughs ‘Te-hee, te-hee’ at the picture of darkness-goggled Abacha placed opposite that of the legendary Black Scorpion.

Often Saro-Wiwa’s style is to lead the imagination down some tortuous path of humour, leaving it to continue on its own when it is clear what road has already been taken.

As is well known throughout the world, Nigerians do not like to pay tax. Because everybody knows that taxes go to swell government coffers, which in turn swell certain people’s bank accounts, which in turn swell certain people’s cheeks, their pockets and their egos and finally lead them to elegant ladies’ boudoirs, and you know what swells next!

Hmm.

But his tribulations were not yet over. Next to him sat a large lady in the tradition of Madame Kokane, equipped with the inevitable basin of food. Soon after take-off, the lady removed the lid from the container and the acrid smell of oil and peppers stung him in the nose. Then the lady fell on the food with her fingers. You should have heard the noise as she munched away, oblivious of the turned-up noses of her neighbours. Then she belched. And did worse.

Lord have mercy.

On the matter of our national pastime, football, Saro-Wiwa is simply venomous in his ridicule. He knows how the special opiate stuffed into that round leather works on the Nigerian psyche. Yet the issue is not just the narcosis that Nigerians suffer from on account of their bingeing on an unrelenting regimen of football, something which even the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, calls attention to in Prisoners of Jebs. At issue is also how Nigerians have constructed around football a formidable edifice of corruption. Only an extended quotation will suffice at this juncture:

Just before kick-off, it was noticed that there were twelve Nigerians on the field. The Director quickly intervened to say that the football constitution, sorry, rules, allowed only eleven persons in each team. All reserves were required to stay outside the playing field.

The Nigerians said they had already lined up their reserves outside.

‘Then how come you have twelve men on the field?’ bawled the Director.

Because, answered the Nigerians, ‘we have calculated the heights of the eleven players on the Jebsian side, and together they add up to the total height of twelve players on our side.’

‘Nonsense!’ said the Director in disgust. ‘Since when did football start being played by total height? The regulations are clear.’

‘Nonsense!’ replied the Nigerians. ‘A constitution can be suspended at any time. In fact, many portions of the Nigerian constitution are beautiful phrases written by lawyers. We can’t be bound by such. We have suspended many parts of your football constitution just as parts of the Nigerian constitution have been suspended at this time.’

Believe me, there is more that surpasses this quotation in humour and in ridicule in Chapters 48 and 49, titled respectively ‘A Game of Football’ and ‘A Different Ball Game’. Let everybody reread Prisoners of Jebs if only for just these two chapters. The whole world of reason and logic, the world of justice and common sense, implodes in a whimper when

The Wazobians towards the end played the ball into their own goal and claimed and were awarded the goal. Three zero. Not to be outdone, the Others also netted the ball into their own goal. The Kangaroo awarded the goal to the Wazobians. Four zero. And so the match ended.

Amen. ’Biyi Bandele-Thomas has made a case for rechristening IBB Platini, but Nigerians insist that his baptismal name can only be Maradona. We know our football as well as we know our politics.

Prisoners of Jebs is not a roman à clef as such. Saro-Wiwa, in his commitment to satire, dispenses with the courtesies of disguise. Whatever is lost to us must be attributed to the passage of time. For there was a real Jebs Prison, the Ita-Oko penal colony established for political prisoners by the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo on an island in Lekki, totally secreted from civilisation but supplied with the luxury safari of crocodile-infested waters. Needless to add, OBJ has a starring role in Saro-Wiwa’s narrative, caricatured, yes, but not really lampooned, a courtesy that our sleuth will have to explain. Nevertheless, our sense of historical cliché in the present becomes heightened when Saro-Wiwa assigns the ultimate task of destroying Jebs Prison to who else but Wole Soyinka, who, in addition to his Nobel prize, is also appointed to a naval command by our author. Soyinka’s role in the discovery of Ita-Oko is part of Nigeria’s history in the late 1980s. So, we can confidently argue that since the time of Jebs, Soyinka has been waging that war against OBJ. And Saro-Wiwa rescues Pita Dumbrok from destruction – after investing him with a symbolic burden for Nigeria’s future – by invoking the words of Professor in Soyinka’s play, The Road.

It is not only Nigeria that Saro-Wiwa arraigns in the book. Jebs Prison is for elite inmates drawn from all over Africa. Or, as OBJ tried to explain it away when the matter blew up in his face:

Ita Oko was established as a farm settlement during the implementation of Operation Feed the Nation, which aimed at the increase of food production. It was provided with boreholes, an electric generating plant and a medical facility. It aimed at decriminalizing people—Nigerians and non-Nigerians—who refused to work, even though work was available.

Well, as in the song by Tracy Chapman, there is fiction in the space between, as well as satirical faction manufactured by Saro-Wiwa.

Ghanaians, with whom Nigerians share a natural joking relationship, especially need to reread this book and see how their own history has become a cliché, too. The Ghanaian contingent at Jebs consists largely of judges, and Saro-Wiwa tells us that the Ghanaians

accused these judges of terrible crimes: drunkenness, idolatry, corruption, bribe-taking. In short, the whole canon of sin in the doomsday book. This time, they did not shoot the judges. They decided to send all of them to the alleged headquarters of judicial corruption in Africa—Nigeria.

Justice Ibrahim Auta, who sentenced Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni compatriots to death over twenty years ago, is today Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Abuja. Hameed Ali, a member of that kangaroo tribunal in 1995, is the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS). Is it not painful Jebsian déjà vu that in November 2015 the NCS should, on account of its ‘political value’, seize a monument shipped from the UK to Lagos to mark the anniversary of the state murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots? Plus ça change….


A shorter version of this essay won the inaugural Ken Saro-Wiwa Critical Review Competition, organised by the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA)/ Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF).


Photograph: ‘Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Memory Lives On!’ by Friends of the Earth International


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Benson Eluma, Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan

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