Gimba, ‘Patriot of Nigerian Literature’: A Tribute (1) By Olu Obafemi

Abubakar Gimba


I have always argued, in all the occasions of discourse of ethnic national literature, that it is rather reductionist to contextualize and define Abubakar Gimba’s literary output mainly within the ambit of its northernism. Some have in fact referred to Gimba as the ‘Northern answer to Achebe’. This is indeed carrying a speculative business into absurd extremities. And it was quite a pleasant relief that Gimba himself managed to restrain himself from embracing such needless comparison by Delta Publications when he expressed his stupefaction and embarrassment—he called it intimidation and being ‘flabbergasted…not out of fear though; I was disturbed by the North-South colorization’

No doubt, the sociology of a writer—his background, his geographical locale and his functional ambience are important in a total critical delineation of his work but it is not appropriate, in the context of the dominant character of Nigerian literature to define and prescribe a Nigerian writer’s output as representative, in the main, of his the geo-political background or immediate cultural subsoil of his origination. Not the least of this exception is the case of Abubakar Gimba who recently departed from the literary and social world to join the immortals.

By extension of this assertion, I need to refer to the position that I have always canvassed that we need to re-iterate the fact that Nigerian writers forged a nationist, rather than an ethno-national vision for our literature. Our politicians, alas, fifty-four years on, failed to emulate that feature in their practice of politics. This critical uniqueness devolves on the fact of our literature’s its transcendence from origin, from its ethnic back-drop, to assume a national character. A significant illustration of this national, rather than ethnic – specificity of Nigerian literature has been observed in the writing of the late Cyprian Ekwensi, an early writer, who is non-hesitant in claiming responsibility for the national character of Nigerian literature, and who consciously set some of his highly cosmopolitan fictional works in the Sudan and Sahel Savannah topographies of the Islamic cultural fauna of Northern Nigeria. Ekwensi’s novels, like The Burning Grass (1962), Passport of Mallam Ilia (1960) and An African Nights Entertainment (1962) were written, as Ekwensi himself claimed in 1961, to ‘portray … the authentic Nigerian scene’. Indeed, the importance of Ekwensi in the development of the Nigerian literary culture lies, essentially, in the pan-Nigerian character of his writing. He can be said with a reasonable degree of certitude, to be a leading proponent of the authentic national Nigerian literature in English. It also lies in his initiation of the popular literary culture in Nigeria, which was derided at the beginning by the high-cultural Mbari-nurtured literary sensitivity of the late fifties and early sixties, but which flourished in the post-Civil War years. The early works of other writers of his generation like Soyinka, Clark Achebe, and so on, also followed this trend. This is the context in which the universality and national character of Abubakar’s literary oeuvre should, to my mind, be evaluated. Indeed, alongside many of us who may have been fashionably pigeon-hole as writers of northern Nigerian literature is therefore Cyprian Ekwensi, if such northern literary typology is of any value at all.

My depicting the universal and national character of Gimba’s work, is by no means, to undermine or diminish his great contribution to the cultivation and nurturing of generation of writers from above the Niger through his constant gathering of young and old writers in workshops, festivals and writing groups in a way that has been justifiably and aptly said of Gimba by Sunday Ododo as being the ‘arrowhead of modern Nigerian Literature in the north’. Indeed, Denja Abdullahi christened Gimba as the ‘trail blazer in literary fiction (of English expression) up the Niger’ in a manner comparable to what Abubakar did for northern literature of Hausa expression. In a brief critique of the essential fictional creation of Gimba in this literary tribute, it is the over-arching nationist and universal verities implicit in his creative product that we emphasize, both on the formal and contentual parameters of his works as evinced right from his first novel, Trail of Sacrifice.

His life encounters, travails and exploits provided material for many of his fictional works. Babajo has captured this life-to-text penchant of Gimba in his book, The Novels of Abubakar Gimba (itself an outcome of his doctoral thesis. Trail of Sacrifice(1985)  reminisced, in part, Gimba’s experiences during his National Youth Service Corp in 1974-75, as embodied in the hero of the novel, Sadiku. Two of his novels, Innocent Victims1988) and Sunset for Mandarin (1992) articulate his experience as bureaucrat and technocrat in various government establishments. Additionally, materials for weaving Footprints (1992) emerged, to a large extent, from his boardroom activities as a member of the Board of Directors of the Bank of the North Limited and as Chairman of the Steering Committee of Niger Printing and Publishing Company. His frustrations and disillusion as a technocrat under the military government of David Mark is avidly delineated in his fourth novel, Sunset for a Mandarin. The imagery of sunset which captures the blight of hope in the grip of dysfunctional governance is very instructive even in our society today where visions are wrecked through ineffectual, if not totally philistine and darkly cynical leadership.

It should be noted that Gimba’s tendency to ex-ray his life experiences in his fiction has been found to be largely responsible for his evident preference for thematic preoccupations to the detriment or adequate development/cultivation of characters. And this is perhaps responsible for the critical observation that both his style and themes were unable to soar or fly or indeed attain usually desirable aesthetic elevation of profound art (Osofisan). There has been observed a  bent in Gimba for subordinating characterization to message. This is a style which Onokome Okome couched in theoretical terms as the ‘monologic imagination.’   Besides this factional creativity are other novels that have largely appropriated material from oral narratives of his indigenous Niger heritage and backcloth. Other influences on his creative enterprise, besides personal experiences, are those emanating from his Islamic cultural background ( an influence which Tanimu Abubakar aptly described as the factoring  into art a  philosophical liberalism rather than fundamentalism in his article  titled the ‘Religious Paradigm ‘ in rail of Sacrifice); and the large socio-political canvass called Nigeria with its varying false steps and socio-spiritual decadence such as the deep corrosion of the national fabric by the cankerworm called corruption, dysfunctional and unethical leadership, religious hypocrisy and phoniness and other such features of moral bankruptcy  that have impeded the growth and development of the nation in general. This is the dimension of social realism in the fictional work of Gimba. Generally therefore, personal experiences, the oral traditional and cultural heritage, the socio-political landscape, religious and sectarian environment, all converge to paint a literary canvass upon which for Gimba’s carved his creativity in a form and style that is palpably simple and accessible, with an ideological bent towards revolutionary pacifism.

The simplicity of his language, his uncluttered narrative form and the lucidity of his rhetorical strategy in his fiction largely account for the popularity of his novels in colleges and universities. His ideological orientation of non-radical protestation of the disruptive ailments that cripple the fulfillment of the nation’s dreams and aspirations since independence has led to the categorization of his art as pacifist, even with their tinges of revolutionary preferences as social alternative to the nation’s developmental problems.