Heroes of bygone days: A review of Ahmed Yerima’s Attahiru

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This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series Reviews Season Three

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes that Ahmed Yerima’s eponymous play Attahiru is based on the singular heroic act of Sultan Mahammadu Attahiru I who died on the battlefield fighting against colonial conquest and domination.

King Jaja of Opobo, Nana of Itshekiri, Oba Ovonramwen of Benin, Ameh Oboni of Igala Kingdom, and Asantehene of Gold Coast all have something in common; a similarity in the stories of their lives, all were uncommon leaders of men brought down by the barrel of the gun with the white man standing at the safe end of it. These men’s tales are not that of the conqueror but of the conquered, yet their position on the pages of history is maintained and venerated for displaying acts of resistance, even against a more powerful force.

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Before now, our history teachers made us believe that northern Nigeria yielded itself to British rule, that there was no resistance because the Fulani oligarchy felt that the system maintained their rights to rule, unlike what transpired in the south and East. But today I know better, I know that even the north was not comfortable with colonial rule and one ruler, at least, shunned the road of fear to embrace the path of resistance, even if it meant paying the ultimate price – death. That ruler was Sultan Mahammadu Attahiru I of Sokoto whose reign lasted no more than six months but whose efforts towards resisting colonial rule should never be forgotten. Ahmed Yerima’s eponymous play Attahiru is based on this singular heroic act of this ruler who died on the battlefield fighting against colonial conquest and domination.

Mohammadu Attahiru I of Sokoto emerges the sultan at a time when history stood in a delicate balance, a time when Sir Frederick D. Lugard goes about planting the seeds of British rule all over the area that is to become Nigeria and he desperately needs to acquire the north before it fell into the hands of the French. Yet, the Sokoto kingdom and its ruler are not just an ordinary kingdom and king, the Sokoto kingdom is the seat of the caliphate, it is the base that controls all other kingdoms under the almost century old Usman dan Fodio empire, and he who rules Sokoto is the Sarkin Muslimi of all these kingdoms, including that of Kano and kingdoms in part of the old Niger Republic. Considering the position of Sokoto in the Islamic north therefore, it would be unacceptable for the sultan of Sokoto to subject himself under the control of a foreign Caucasian woman sovereign, it is this scenario that makes war an inevitable option in the play.

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Sultan Mahammadu Attahiru I has the loyalty of his men, as well as that of other Muslim kingdoms, they see the war as a Jihad (holy war) between Muslims and infidels, and are prepared to fight standing by him till death. But the Sultan fights against a more powerful force, he faces guns and bullets with mere arrows and spears, how is he supposed to win? He dies and his brother makes a pact with the British government, ascends the throne and finally brings the kingdom under colonial rule. And thus was history made.

My first encounter with Ahmed Yerima (the playwright) was with another of his play published in the present millennia and titled Ameh Oboni the Great and I must say that I find the play quite enchanting, not just because it told of a history I know too well but because he composed the play in a way that excites the audience and draws sympathy towards the major character.

It is either Ahmed Yerima has reached full maturity as a playwright as at the time he wrote Ameh Oboni the Great or he was in much hurry to write Attahiru. Like the playwright himself posited, even in keeping with history, the playwright has no obligation to play out the story with exactitude; as would be expected of an historian, he is at liberty to call his imagination to play. Ola Rotimi has done something similar with his Ovonramwen Nogbaisi and Kuruimi and Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Gicere wa Mugo exhibit similar experimentation with historical material in their Trial of Dedan Kimathi. As in the above examples, I expected a flurry of such imagination but was disappointed when the part that should have been most scintillating was quickly glossed over – the war. By this, I do not insist that the playwright ought to depict people killing each other but I expected to see a little violence and also witness the death of the protagonist (Attahiru), hear his last words even as he falls, a direct encounter rather than a war report! That there, would have had the audience hooked but the part was rushed.

In addition to this, the plot is not convoluted, if the playwright assumes he has employed imagination, he did not employ it well enough, I desperately wanted to see the hero alone, I wanted to see that moment of indecision and doubt that plagues most heroes, hear his thoughts and taste of his fears, but I am denied that opportunity to empathise with the protagonist by the playwright. Compared to Ameh Oboni the Great, Attahiru ranks lower.

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Nonetheless, we must applaud Ahmed Yerima for calling our attention to the heroism of Sultan Mahammadu Attahiru I of Sokoto, we now must include his name on the list when we speak of men as Jaja of Opobo, Nana of Itshekiri, Oba Ovonramwen of Benin, Ameh Oboni of Igala kingdom, and Asantehene of the Gold Coast (Ghana).

I have come to discover also that Ahmed Yerima has a penchant for weaving plays out of historical materials (especially that of heroic kings) and forsooth, he weaves such beautiful plays out of them, even while not running too far from the actual historical events. I should like to hold another of his plays soon in my hands.

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2018

Read Eazy’s reviews on Memorila every Saturdays!

Series Navigation<< Sterility of the new African middle-class and post-independence disillusionment: a review of Sembene Ousmane’s XalaAbubakar Gimba’s Witnesses to Tears: An indictment on our moral order >>

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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist. He teaches English as a Foreign Language in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

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