The Arts

June 20, 2009

Tribute: Iyorwuese Hagher: Thespian-technocrat @60


IYORWUESE Hagher is undeniably a household name in the African literary establishment because his writings (especially the plays) are curiously and quintessentially rich both in terms of aesthetics and thematic preoccupations.

In most of his writings, Hagher is passionately concerned with the issue of leadership and  in play after play the dramatist is preoccupied with the search for true leadership and other solutions to Africa’s socio-political problems.

Born and bred in Nigeria (Tiv land precisely), Hagher carries the culture and world view of the Tiv people of Benue State. One of his best plays Swem Karagbe(1996) is a very good specimen.

Swem Karagbe tells the story of the people of Awuna who have been bedeviled by an endless cycle of bad leadership.  Elections are fast approaching,so the traditional ruler of Awuna , after due consultations with his council of elders,decides to send three  chosen illustrious sons of Awuna on some kind of spiritual cum political pilgrimage, the essence of which is to ascertain who among the contestants will  be the first to visit Swem Karagbe and return to Awuna.

The three contestants set out for Swem Karagbe with Akpan, the only son of one of the elders of the land, as their guard. The journey to Swem Karagbe is a long and tortuous one. As a matter of fact, the journey is a long trial  of  both the flesh and the spirit. When the contestants finally arrive their destination, the god of Swem Karagbe generously ask them to make their demands.

All the contestants demand for wealth and prosperity for themselves and misery and pain for their subjects. Only Akpan, the guard, demands for wisdom to rule the people of Awuna. Back home, it is the eve of elections and the entire constituency is impatient because the contestants are yet to return. At the end of the day only Akpan(the guard) returns home jaded with the news that the three contestants all perished because they could not stand the rigours of the journey. The traditional ruler of Awuna then decides to crown Akpan the governor of Awuna.

In this play, like in many others, Hagher has shown considerable interest in Tiv culture and the African world view. Swem Karagbe is actually a hill around the north-south-eastern Nigeria-Cameroun boundary. The hill is believed to be the ancestral and spiritual home of the Tiv people.

The land is fertile and full of spiritual powers. Historically, it is believed that Tiv people in search of wealth, prosperity and other earthly things  would visit the hill of Swem Karagbe. The analogy here is obvious. Iyorwuese Hagher is making the point that since it is difficult (almost impossible) in Nigeria/Africa to get leaders who will rise to the responsibility and the challenges of personal example, anyone aspiring to lead should take some spiritual lessons in selflessness.

For Hagher, therefore, the African world view is synonymous with the Tiv world. Swem Karagbe is a play that speaks eloquently and movingly of a whole generation. Hagher is not only influenced by Tiv culture alone he is also acquainted with Christian and Western literary traditions.

In the play Swem Karagbe, the spiritual journey undertaken by Akpan and the three contestants calls to mind the temptations Jesus Christ went through before the devil. Besides, the character Akpan himself could be considered to be a Christ-like figure because of his selflessness and sacrifice. Closely related to biblical allusions is Iyorwuese Hagher’s deep knowledge of Western literature.

The god (Aondo) in Swem Karagbe is similar to Prometheus (the Greek god) because he has the power to bring forth both good and evil. The implication of all these is that in Hagher’s plays there is usually a synthesis of African and European cultures in which the local is universalized and the universal simultaneously localized.

By and large, the play is anchored on the ancestral wisdom that success comes through sacrifice, selflessness, dedication and hardwork. His other play which dwells on the issue of leadership is entitled Camps of Segbwema. Apart from the issue of leadership, Hagher’s theatre is also concerned with many other themes.

They range from drug abuse, sexual immorality, HIV/AIDS, female genital mutilation, corruption and many other ills.These themes find memorable expression in plays like Aishatu, Anti-People and Lifetimes. Hagher is a playwright who has devoted his energies to a particular programme of reform both for the individual and society..He also has the ability to enter chameleon-like into the milieu of society.

For example, as a University teacher, Hagher closely studied student’s behaviour on campus and this experience gave rise to the play We Protest. Later as Nigeria’s minister of power and steel, Hagher wrote the play Comrade and Voltage in which he  talks about the issue of massive power outage in Nigeria . His other play The Prisoner’s Dream(2002),written in just fifteen pages, is a demonstration of the amount of matter a truly creative hand can pack into a very brief space.

As a literary critic his works include Beyond Hate and Violence, Leading Africa Out of
Chaos, Leadership and Governance in Nigeria , The Tiv Kwagh-hir and The Development of Community Theatre. In very broad terms, Hagher’s theatre partakes of and is carried along with the contemporary realities of our age. He seems to be concerned with an egalitarian restructuring of society where man will live under the principles of equality, fairness, brotherhood, justice and peace.

In all his plays, Hagher imbues his creativity with the positive qualities of sparkling intelligence, wit and humour. The language of his plays is also devoid of allusive phraseology. It is simple and laced with African proverbs. This clarity of expression breathes through all his writings.On the whole, Hagher’s plays have the competence and easy flow to be expected of a shrewd theatre entrepreneur.

He stands tall as a forward-looking playwright whose desire is to remake society in a new and better form. This literary general and theatre practitioner turns sixty on June 25, 2009.  Happy birthday to our teacher, mentor, statesman, former minister and (presently) Nigeria’s ambassador to Canada.
*Jeff is of the Department of English, University of Jos.