It is usually argued that historians record and novelists create. It, therefore, requires intent, deftness in fictionalisation, and a diligent writer’s temperament to create a body of work that allows the coexistence of fiction and history, where novelists try to create and record, or create with recorded accounts. Tunde Leye’s Afonja: The Rise is a properly researched novel that narrates the beauty and decline of an empire while looking at its politics and conflict through the life of the protagonist and other characters. The novel enjoys the linguistic peculiarities of precolonial Yoruba society. Laced with proverbs, imagery, suspense, and flashback, Tunde Leye’s storytelling transports readers to the old Oyo Empire.
In over three hundred pages, with a cover artwork that portrays tradition in its aesthetic form, Tunde Leye creatively fictionalises Yoruba history and also reminds intellectuals – scholars, critics, and readers – of the need to preserve and document history, knowing today is not delineated from yesterday. Written with the needed meticulousness and a simple prosaic language, he tells the story of the old Oyo Empire in a way that reminds readers of the place the society was before, the cultural and political shift the society has seen, and the explanation for some major social relations, religious influence, and political interactions.
The novel begins with the politics around the enthronement of Aole Arogangan, a prince who lived in exile, as the new Alaafin after the demise of Alaafin Abiodun. The late-night meeting of the Oyo Mesi and the formation of alliances paint the intrigues and the complications involved in the selection and other key decisions to follow. This is also visible in Nigeria’s political arena. Aremo, the son of the late Alaafin, on one hand, is scheming to take the throne while Bashorun Asamu, on the other hand, is plotting to install a stooge as the new Alaafin. Also, in Ilorin is Afonja whose life and ambition takes the centre stage of the narration later on. He is an eso, one of the generals next in line to the Oyo Mesi. The first few chapters of Tunde Leye’s novel draw images of politics, the conspiracies involved and a familiar structure of godfatherism.
George F. Will in Statecraft as Soulcraft argues that “inevitably, society is, to some extent, an arena where interested parties conflict and compete.” This illuminates Leye’s representation of Oyo Empire as a traditional yet civilised society. It is also a highly politicised empire. Aole Arogangan becomes the Alaafin on the working and manipulations of Basorun Asamu. The enthronement of Aole Arogangan prepares the empire for the installation of a new Aare Ona Kakanfo. Toyeje, a warlord and the eso head of Ogbomosho, and Afonja, a brave warrior and the provincial head of Ilorin, take the centre stage in the fight for the office of Aare. Alaafin Aole Arogangan, Basorun Asamu, Woruda, Toyeje, and Afonja are the key interested parties in the competition for the prestigious office. Bloody conflict ensues while soldiers fight for the interests of their principals, and the machinations of the parties involved fuel the conflict.
Afonja, the eponymous character of the novel, is Tunde Leye’s tool for plot expansion. He portrays him with the spirit and details of the historical Afonja. A leader, a warrior, and an ambitious man, readers see the glory and the fall of Oyo Empire through his life. Accused of being loyal only to power with a distant claim to his throne by Alaafin Aole Arogangan, the depth of his alliance through his collaboration with armies from other settlements explains his ambition. With his reliance on Alimi, a Muslim with a covert ambition of “spreading jihad to the land of the infidels”, the spread of Islam is also seen.
Afonja is determined to become the Aare Ona Kakanfo but things take another turn as the new Alaafin decides to go against the counsel of his godfather. The king’s decision to pick the calabash that denotes war and territorial expansion – a symbol of Yoruba’s rich tradition – comes as a surprise and as a prelude to the war that would later ravage the kingdom due to the king’s decision to pick Toyeje as his Aare Ona Kakanfo. The battle between Oyo’s army led by Toyeje and Afonja’s army affects the empire’s politics and its control of the provinces. With the help of his allies, Afonja wins the battle and he becomes Aare Ona Kakanfo.
As blind ambition drives the actions of Afonja, Tunde Leye powers critical characters who see through the conspiracies and the covert ambition of characters claiming to support Afonja’s ambition. Agbonrin, Afonja’s brother, and his wife Labake worry about invading the empire. Afonja’s attempt to invade the empire with foreigners in his ranks suits the ambition of Alimi and Basorun Asamu who initially rallied around Aole Arogangan and Afonja for the sake of a weak Alaafin and a strong Aare, with his trade interest being a primary drive too. However, blinded by different reasons from the onset, the key figures in the empire fail to see their roles in weakening the empire.
Tunde Leye brings forth the truth in his voice by showing Nigeria’s contemporary history through Yoruba history. He accurately projects godfatherism as an inherent component of our political space. Basorun Asamu plays the role of a godfather in the enthronement of Aole Arogangan. Involved in how he was exiled and his enthronement, Basorun Asamu argues for his preference by referring to the bloody days of dictatorial Alaafins and why Oyo should never experience such again. However, he is also interested in having an Alaafin under his control. His godfather personality also shows its face in his preference for Afonja as the Aare. He wants a strong generalissimo that will stay outside the empire as tradition stipulates and will also fight territories that hinder the success of his salt trade and the trade of the empire at large.
This move later plays out against the godfather’s intent and ambition. Political conflict propelled by godfatherism comes to play too. In admitting that “nothing he had ever experienced felt as good as this power,” Alaafin Aole Arogangan, with the help of his wife, slowly becomes uncontrollable. His show of dissent in appointing a new Aare Ona Kakanfo resembles the sourness godfather-godson relationships produce in Nigeria’s politics. Godfathers who have taken up the role of an absolute kingmaker and giver of power mostly fight in the dirt with their godsons when their godsons see the influence and the depth of power.
Historical yet contemporary, Tunde Leye’s narration portrays economic powers for the understanding of readers. Trade and slavery are central to the writer’s depiction of resource control and political relevance. The royal households of Oyo Empire and the rulers of the provinces show their strength and clout through the number of slaves they owned, the strength of their army, and their trade prowess. The slaves are used as labourers without a wage. They also attend to the immediate needs of their masters. Afonja in Ilorin, just like Toyeje in Ogbomosho, and other powerful people within and outside Oyo are given relevance through this.
Slavery and the objectification of slaves, a practice that was normal then, reflects power and resources—major prerequisites for political relevance and dominance for Nigeria’s political class today. The power derived from the ownership of slaves is seen in how slaves are tools of service for the kingmakers of Oyo, Afonja, and Toyeje in their quest for office. Slavery as the corruption from absolute power is also evident in Ladugba’s treatment of Abudu and Jemima – Afonja’s slaves.
Tunde Leye’s portrayal of women is also noteworthy. His major female characters are portrayed with awe and relevance. They are not just mere characters for the development of his plot but figures who play key roles in the projection of Oyo Empire and the narration of politics and conflict. This also aligns with Yoruba’s recognition of women in culture and politics. Adesina’s mother, a queen whose path is usually not crossed, is brave enough to eliminate her son whom she describes as the “enemy of Oyo” and “the one who has thrown Oyo into turmoil by disregarding tradition.” The bravery in this act is acknowledged by Woruda’s appreciation of her act as one that has saved lives.
Alaafin Aole Arogangan’s antagonism of Basorun Asamu’s implied godfatherism is also connected to his wife Abike. From their days of exile in Apomu, Abike’s place in Aole Arogangan’s life is beyond the place of a companion. She advises and provides guidance when the absence is noticed. After Aole Arogangan’s enthronement, she takes the role of Chief of Staff upon herself. She’s quick to remind the Alaafin that Basorun’s counsel is “mere counsel and not a command” after his expression of his dilemma on who to pick as the empire’s generalissimo. Like Aremo’s mother, her characterisation in the rise and fall of her husband is vital to the writer’s accurate projection of a queen’s influence in Yoruba tradition and the place of the woman in precolonial Yoruba societies.
The in-depth research, resounding dialogue and the novelist’s attention to the importance of war terminologies and nuances of Yoruba language – proverbs and praise songs – in a narrative that stretches politics and conflict to an exciting state easily make up for the typographical errors that could have besmirched the fine detailing that elevates this novel. This refreshing novel shows history as one of the pillars the society stands on and as well, critical observers derive explanations for some of our inherent behaviours and style of politics. It also explains an empire’s socio-political might, cultural influence, civilisation, and part of its disintegration and fall. Tunde Leye in this historical novel successfully argues for the documentation of our past. His storytelling leaves readers with a lot to savour, but not enough. This novel deserves a sequel.
Lanre Apata is a fulltime reader of literature, a part-time writer, an editor and a researcher. He also works in Nigeria’s educational sector. His other interests are African prose, African politics, and sport. He resides in Nigeria.
Image Source: the guardianng