Nigerian Literary History at a Glance

Nigerian Literary History at a Glance

This piece is a brief highlight of the history of Nigerian Literature; a rush through the epochs. I wrote it to celebrate the country's monumental literary achievements over the years.

In the beginning...

In the beginning was oral literature, the root of African literature. Nigerian literature, in particular, began with the oral tradition, pioneered by the unsung heroes of our literary past like royal bards, warriors, story tellers, priests and many others. Literary elements like folklore and proverbs were originated by these unknown literary soldiers. A literary work must derive from these basic elements to be adjudged as African literature. Nigeria, therefore, owes her present giant strides in the international literary scene to her rich oral tradition.

Advent of written literature in the North

The written tradition was introduced to Northern Nigeria in the 15th century by Arab scholars and traders. The intellectual and religious interaction between them and the indigenous community led to the adaptation of Hausa into Arabic script; a genre known as Ajami. The subsequent arrival of missionaries in the 1930s with the Roman script further enhanced the written tradition and gave rise to the emergence of many indigenous poets and prose writers like Abubakar Imam and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

Advent of written literature in the South

Sounthern Nigeria owes its literary legacy to missionary activities in the area (around 1840s) which went hand in hand with inculcation of literacy. The need to translate the bible for the new converts necessitated a number of publications by the missionaries. Prominent among such publications were, A Grammar of the Ibo Language (1840) by the pioneer missionary, Rev. J.F. Schon and A Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language (1843) by Samuel Ajayi Crowther, an ex-slave and the first African Bishop of the Niger Diocese of the Church Missionary Society. Such publications eventually served not only the primary religious purpose but also as a sound foundation for the written indigenous literature, in which folklores and other genres of oral tradition were recorded and woven into poetry, short stories and novels, especially in the Igbo and Yoruba languages.

The first literature in English by a Nigerian

Even before the written literature began to take root on the Nigerian soil, a Nigerian had made a literary breakthrough in far away Europe. The Nigerian, Olaudah Equiano, who was an ex-slave, became one of the first Africans to produce an English-language literary work. Published in 1789 and titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustava, the African, it is an autobiography containing how he was kidnapped as a boy of 12 from his village of Essaka near Benin and sold to a white slave trader, and how he eventually obtained his freedom. The book was the first to give the West the true picture of Africa and the evils of slavery. It became an instant best-seller, running into its ninth edition by the time of the author?s death in 1797.

The first English-language literature in Nigeria

The real indigenous literature in English was pioneered by the legendary Amos Tutuola in the 1950s. His The Palm-Wine Drinkard, (1952), kind of served as a monumental link in the transition to the Western literary tradition. Though his dropping out of school in primary five as a result of the death of his father affected his proficiency in the English language, the seeming shortcoming became a plus when critics began to see the uniqueness of the manner in which he captures the way English is spoken by the ordinary people in his community. His other works are, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1952), Simbi and the Satyr of the Dark Jungle (1955), The Brave African Huntress (1958), Feather Woman of the Jungle (1962), Ajaiyi and his Inherited Poverty (1968), and The Witch Herbalist of the Remote Town (1981). Before his death in June 1997, he was a visiting fellow of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife - an honour that confirmed his international recognition.

A literary view of Nigeria by British writers

British imperialists who worked in Nigeria and thought they knew much about the colony produced literary works based on the local setting. One of such writers was Arthur Joyce Lunel Carey (1888?1957), who served as an administrator and soldier in Nigeria from 1910 to 1920. His works, particularly the novel, Mister Johnson (1939), were about his experiences in the British civil service and his views on the African culture; views that were later questioned by the likes of Chinua Achebe. In fact, as Achebe himself admitted, the novel was the motivating factor for his novel, Things Fall Apart, as he sought to correct the wrong impression portrayed in Mister Johnson.

The emergence of Chinua Achebe and his contemporaries

The emergence of Achebe and his contemporaries in the 1940s/60s marked a milestone in the Nigerian literary history. The most outstanding writers of this era were Wole Soyinka,Gabriel Okpara, Christopher Okigbo, John Pepper Clarke and Cyprian Ekwensi. Generally referred to as the first generation writers, this crop of writers gave African literature focus and direction. They addressed basic African problems like colonialism, neo-colonialism and propagated African values to the outside world. Speaking on the political values of this literary generation, M.J.C. Echeruo, observed that "it was in Achebe and his generation that the political agitation (and) the philosophical speculations of 1940s bore their first fruit, long before the actual independence in 1960."

Achebe himself confirmed this when he said, "I had to tell Europe that... Africa had a history, a religion, a civilisation... We reconstructed this history and civilisation and displayed it to challenge the stereotype and cliche." He further explained the combative posture of writers of this era thus: "Europe conceded independence to us and we promptly began to misuse it... So we got mad at them and came out brandishing novels of disenchantment."The disenchantment was poured out in works like Soyinka?s play, A Dance of the Forest (1965), and Achebe?s A Man of the People (1966); dark prophecies on the fate of independent Nigeria.

A legacy of protest

Rather than abating, the evils against which the first generation writers preached multiplied by the day, generating poverty and diseases. So the next generations of writers had no choice but to carry on the campaign, using similar angry themes. Prominent among such writers are Festus Iyayi, Ben Okri, Femi Osofisan, Labo Yari, Odia Ofiemun, Abubakar Gimba, etc. A typical example of the protest works of this era is Iyayi?s novel, Violence (1979), which portrays violence not only as a physical phenomenon, but as a circumstance in which a man is denied the opportunity of being the real man he is supposed to be. Femi Osofisan?s Kolera Kolel (1975), Niyi Osundare's Songs of the Marketplace (1983), Labo Yari?s Climate of Corruption (1978), Abubakar Gimba?s Innocent Victims (1988) and Ben Okri?s The Famished Road (1992), Emman Shehu?s Questions for Big Brother; Helon Habila?s Waiting for an Angel (2004), Chris Abani?s Masters of the Board (1985), all speak with the same angry voice.

The civil war literature

The issue that became a major concern to the Nigerian writers in the sixties and seventies, apart from the multiplying societal ills, was the Nigerian Civil War which took place between 1967 and 1970. The war, which is said to have claimed the lives of over 100,000 soldiers, affected the Nigerian literary scene in many ways. It claimed the life of one of the country?s most celebrated poets, Christopher Okigbo, and caused untold hardship to other writers like Wole Soyinka, who were detained for crying out against the attrocities perpetrated in the war.

The bright side of the ugly incident, however, is that the war provided inspiration for many writers, particularly those directly involved. These writers poured out their frustration, anger and memories in considerable quantities and qualities. For instance, Amadi wrote a powerful novel, Sunset in Biafra (1973), depicting his war-time experience. Other testimonies to the madness of the era were Soyinka?s The Man Died (1972), Chukuemeka Ike?s Sunset at Dawn (1976), Ken SaroWiwa?s Sozaboy (1985), Flora Nwapa?s Never Again (1976) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie?s Half of a Yellow Sun (2007).

Women writings

All along, Nigerian women were not left out of the literary race. They made tremendous contributions to the country?s literary development in all the literary genres. It all began with Flora Nwapa, the first published Nigerian female novelist and the first woman in Africa to have her work published in London. Her first novel, Efuru (1966), redefines the place of woman in the scheme of things. And that set the tone not only for her subsequent works but for those of other feminist writers like Zaynab Alkali. Zaynab, who is one of the first female writers to emerge from the North, made her debut in 1984 with her novel, The Stillborn. This was followed by The Virtuous Woman (novel) (1985) and Cobwebs (short sdtories) (1977).
Other female writers who have attained prominence include Buchi Emecheta, Zulu Sofola, Mabel Segun and Catherine Acholonu.

Children literature

Women writers like Christee Ajayi, Remi Adediji, Teresa Meniro and Mabel Segun also played a prominent role in the promotion of children?s literature in Nigeria. Each of them has produced over 10 books in this genre from 1973 to date. The antecedent, however, goes as far back as the 1960s when writers like Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi produced story books for primary and secondary schools. Most famous among the titles were Chike and the River (1966) by Achebe, The Passport of Malam Ilia (1960), An African Nights Entertainment (1962), and How the Leopard Got His Claws (1972) by Ekwensi and Eze Goes to School (1963) by Onuora Nzekwu.

Pacesetter series

Between the late 1970s and early 1980s Nigerian young writers were given the opportunity to have their works published curtesy Macmillan Publishing Company. Through the company?s young writers? series, known as Pacesetters, hundreds of youths across Africa were published, with Nigerians forming the largest percentage. Among the lucky young writers to be published were Mohammed Sule, author of The Undesirable Element (1977) and The Delinquent (1979), Helen Obviagele, who wrote Evbu My Love (1980) and Dickson Ighrini who authored Death is a Woman (1981) and Bloodbath at Lobster Close (1980).

Today, the series has become history and the novels could hardly be found in bookshops. But, those who were fortunate to have been published have made their marks and some have even gone further to produce more serious works. Among such writers are Mohammed Tukur Garba (author of The Black Temple -1981) and Muhammed Sule, who published Eye of Eternity and The Devil?s Seat, respectively, in the 90s.

Onitsha Market Literature

In the 1940s to 1960s a vibrant literary genre emerged around the commercial nerve centre of Eastern Nigeria; Onitsha. Aptly christened Onitsha Market Literature, the main characteristics of the movement is that most of the writers were amateur and of modest educational background. And the books, which were in form of novels, plays and inspirational materials, were more or less pamphlets. The most popular titles include How to Write Love Letters, How to become Rich and Avoid Poverty and My Seven Young Daughters are after Young Boys. The books were highly patronised, especially by youths. For instance, Ogali A. Ogali?s play, Veronica My Daughter, published in 1956, hit a record sale of 250,000 copies.

Though the genre has since died in the hands of the ever changing Nigerian literary climate, some of the authors, like Ogali and Cyprian Ekwensi, eventually became famous writers.

Kano Market Literature

Presently the history of the Onitsha literary phenomenon is repeating itself in the North. Known as Kano Market Literature, the genre, written in Hausa language, began in the 1980s. And so far over 700 novels/novellas have been produced. Writers of this genre, numbering over 300, are spread all over the North, but production and sale of the books are done mainly in Kano. About 40 percent of the works are on love, which is why they are also called Soyayya (love) novels. Most popular among the writers are Balaraba Ramat Yakubu whose eight books include Budurwar Zuciya and Bala Anas Babinlata who authored, among others, Da Ko Jika? Though some literary critics, like Dr. Ibrahim Malumfashi, are of the view that the genre may eventually be phased out by the flourishing Hausa film industry, the fact is that the genre is currently at its peak.


In spite of all the numerous problems bedevilling the Nigerian literary scene, it could be said that Nigerian literature has come a long way, considering the achievements of writers like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Achebe?s legendary Things Fall Apart has been translated into 50 languages globally. Soyinka, on the other hand, has done Africa proud by winning the Nobel prize in 1986.

Beyond setting international literary standards, Nigerian writers have also succeeded more than any group in the country in exporting our culture and tradition to other parts of the world. This fact was eloquently stressed by the renowned literary critic, Professor Charles E. Nnolim. According to him, "Nigeria today stands tall before the international community because of the collective endeavours of her writers... While our politics and the shenanigans of our business deals often sell the country?s private shames in the international scandal market, it is through the collective endeavours of Nigerian writers that Nigeria stands redeemed and enhanced in the eyes of the world."

(c) Sumaila Isah Umaisha

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