No writer typifies the second generation of post-colonial Nigerian writers more than Femi Osofisan. One of Nigeria’s finest playwrights and thinkers, Osofisan’s work evinces a strong, progressive outlook and a keen understanding of Nigeria’s complicated history.
A December 1979 feature article published in the Daily Times, one of Nigeria’s most widely circulated dailies of the twentieth century, described Femi Osofisan as an ‘apostle of social resolution.’ At the time, Osofisan was a 33-year-old lecturer of Comparative African and European Literature at the University of Ibadan. But, beyond the classroom, he also wrote and directed plays and published opinion articles in newspapers and academic journals. Osofisan described himself in the Daily Times as, ‘the playwright from the underprivileged and the downtrodden particularly in our society and the Black world in general.’ More than 40 years since that article was published, Osofisan has scarcely departed from that ambitious mission.
Born on 16th June 1946 in Erunwon, present-day Ogun State, Osofisan lost his father as an infant and spent his childhood across different towns in Nigeria. He gained admission to Government College, Ibadan in 1959 where his lifelong interest in drama emerged. He regularly acted in theatrical performances and was encouraged to pursue theatre as a career by Derek John Bullock, his English Language teacher and principal, under whose guidance Osofisan also became president of the school’s drama society.
After completing his secondary education, in 1966, Osofisan was admitted to the University of Ibadan to study French Language and Literature. During the course of his undergraduate studies, Osofisan spent a year in Dakar as part of a French Language exchange programme that exposed him to the literary culture of the Francophone world. Osofisan continued on this path by enrolling for graduate studies at the University of Ibadan where he earned his PhD in drama. Part of his graduate programme included a stint at the Université de Paris III in France.
In 1971, Osofisan was appointed as an assistant lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Ibadan and spent nine years there before transferring his appointment to the Theatre Arts Department in 1980. He retired in 2011 and was later appointed as an emeritus professor by the University. Throughout his illustrious career, Osofisan has been an active participant in the Nigerian literary and cultural sectors and took part in activism against military rule in Nigeria. During a period when the negative effects of the structural adjustment programme pursued by the Babangida regime in the 80s forced many Nigerian academics to seek economic opportunities abroad, Osofisan chose to remain in Nigeria. He went on to lead the University of Ibadan’s theatre arts department and mentor students there for many decades.
COMMITMENT TO OPPRESSED PEOPLE
One of the most important features of Osofisan’s career is his commitment to the cause of socially disadvantaged people, the unemployed, underemployed and those who have been subjected to bias in many forms. Osofisan’s literary oeuvre cuts across many issues but his commitment to telling humanizing stories about the plight of those who have been marginalized because of their gender, ethnic or social affiliation in Nigeria is a recurrent theme.
Osofisan’s commitment to uplifting the underprivileged includes his support for gender equality in Nigeria. In a keynote address to the Women Writers of Nigeria in 2000, he declared that ‘since I began to write, I have been deeply concerned about the sorry plight of women in our society and elsewhere.’ Osofisan’s creative and critical interventions reflect that commitment to uplifting women. Osofisan regularly challenges and deviates from stereotypical, one-dimensional. Female characters in Osofisan’s plays, for instance, are portrayed as autonomous, complex characters capable of both good and evil. In Morountodun, for instance, Osofisan draws from the story of Moremi, a Yoruba folk heroine who showed unusual heroic courage by sacrificing herself and volunteering to infiltrate the camp of the attackers.
The character of Alhaja in Osofisan’s Once Upon Four Robbers also took up leadership of the robbery group formed by her late husband after he was executed by the state for armed robbery. Osofisan wrote the play as a reaction to the military decree that made armed robbery punishable by public execution. In showing that the public execution might not deter thieves, the character of Alhaja continued her late husband’s robbery venture by leading other robbers after his execution. Summarising this commitment to marginalized people, in 2006, literary scholar Stephanie Newell noted that ‘Osofisan also focuses upon vagabonds, lepers and other social outcasts in his work, exploring the political potential of people on the margins of the neocolonial economy.’
TROPES IN OSOFISAN’S OEUVRE
Although Osofisan actively participates in virtually all the major genres of literature, he is best known for his plays, many of which have gone on to be performed all over the world. Osofisan’s plays typically feature the use of artistic devices like folk music, spectacle, folktales and regularly discuss themes of freedom and the dichotomy of good and evil. Osofisan also introduced new techniques into his playwrighting and directing, drawing extensively on African cultural practices like folk singing, dancing and masquerades. Analysing Osofisan’s drama, literary scholar, Abdullahi Abubakar, has for instance highlighted that Osofisan is one of the first playwrights and theatre directors to ‘reposition modern African theatre in a way that suits the African context.’ Innovations like audience involvement and his more accessible language went on to influence several other playwrights including Wole Oguntokun, Biyi Bandele and Segun Adefila.
Osofisan’s close relationship with Nigerian history and culture is evident in his extensive reinterpretation, reworking and adaptation of local history, folktales, and myths. Osofisan’s Who’s Afraid of Solarin? is a Nigerian adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector while The Chattering and the Song is a fictional re-enactment of King Abiodun’s emergence as the king of Oyo empire in the eighteenth century, and his subsequent tyrannical reign. Women of Owu also dramatizes the decimation of the ancient Owu kingdom in the 19th century. Meanwhile, Another Raft is his parody of J. P. Clark’s The Raft, while No More the Wasted Breed reworks Soyinka’s treatment of the communal scape goat in The Strong Breed. Like Soyinka in Death and the King’s Horseman, Osofisan’s The Chattering and the Song also draws from the history of Oyo. Tegonni is his adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, while Wesoo, Hamlet was inspired by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Some of his plays also recall European dramatic styles like Samuel Beckett’s absurdism.
Osofisan also publishes poetry under the pen name Okinba Launko. His poems bear resemblance to his plays, in their keen engagement with historical events and social themes, and they are typically written to be adapted into plays. Collections like Ire and Other Poems for Performance and Commemorations: Poems for Performance, Ire ni Temi feature poems that are to be performed. Osofisan’s poems also adopt the same features as his drama. Some of the themes his poetry explores include his native Yoruba culture, pan-Africanism and the treatment of myth and revolutionary ideals.
Across all genres, the strength of Osofisan’s work lies in his ability to create a distinct voice from varied sources. The influences on Osofisan’s creativity can be categorized into three main areas: his native Yoruba culture, his graduate studies in France and the first generation of post-colonial Nigerian writers, writers such as J. P. Clark, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Zulu Sofola. The combination of these elements reflect the social milieu that Osofisan’s works represent.
Osofisan’s work also demonstrate a commitment to pan-Africanism, idolizing African political figures like Nelson Mandela and Kwame Nkrumah in poems and plays. In a 1999 interview with the theatre scholar, Gbemisola Adeoti, Osofisan advocates a pan-African approach to solving Africa’s development challenges. ‘Whether we like it or not, we are still a society in crises, and we’ve got to deal with these crises,’ he explained. ‘Personally, I am more convinced that these problems can only be solved in a more global scale, on a Pan-African scale rather than through a nationalist or individual struggle.’
Additionally, Osofisan is a conscious historian. His 1980 essay, ‘The Alternative Tradition : A Survey Of Nigerian Literature in English Since The Civil War’, continues to serve as an important source material on the history of Nigerian literature. Written from the perspective of an insider and participant, the essay provides an informed view of Nigerian literature during the civil war and the social conditions that led to the war. In a 2005 lecture at the University of Ibadan, ‘The City as Muse: Ibadan and the Efflorescence of Nigerian Literature’, Osofisan discussed the decline of Ibadan as the literary headquarters of Nigeria and by extension the decline in Nigeria’s reading culture. Osofisan cited the civil war and the demise of the Mbari movement as the factors that ended the first season of literary efflorescence in Ibadan. Additionally, he noted that censorship, the military regime’s inability to tolerate dissent, and a lack of a devoted patronage as some of the factors that led to the decline of Ibadan as Nigeria’s literary capital.
LEADER OF THE SECOND GENERATION?
Nigeria’s post-colonial literary history is often grouped into generations, wherein writers are classified according to their age range and the year they published their first work. In spite of the ambiguity of categorizing writers by generation and the occasional overlapping, the writers who wrote actively in the decade before Nigeria’s independence until the end of the civil war in 1970 are generally thought of as the first generation while the generation following them are the second generation. The third generation are those who launched their careers in the 1980s, and according to Adesanmi and Dunton, were among ‘the first in Africa to be temporally severed from the colonial event.’
Osofisan belongs to the second generation of writers, the generation that broadly speaking, had the first generation as their university lecturers. The second generation of writers typically wrote about the disappointment that they felt after independence and the crises that rocked the 1970s and 1980s in Nigeria. Talking about this period of Nigerian history, Osofisan once said Nigeria ‘was thus a nation which had undergone a terrible bloodbath, and was now subsumed under military might, that provided the backdrop for the work of my generation when we came to young adulthood and began to write seriously in the early 1970s.’
Many, if not most, of second-generation writers were socially conscious and left leaning in political orientation. This was largely because of the failures of the post-colonial capitalist economy and the disappointment they felt with the political and military elite. These writers were critical not only of authority figures in Nigeria, but also their predecessors, with whom they had significant differences. The second generation made literary texts more accessible by adopting simpler language; Osofisan claimed that his generation turned ‘away from the fascination of cults and Negritudinist exotica,’ focusing instead on ‘present society, exploring experiences taken directly from mundane, quotidian life and from the stress of living in a difficult neo-capitalist economy.’
No writer typifies the second generation of post-colonial Nigerian writers more than Osofisan and he readily acknowledges himself as ‘one of the leading voices’ of the generation. However, Osofisan is more than this: he is the most prolific of his era, and perhaps Nigeria’s foremost discussant of inequalities and class tensions. His class analyses drew from the real world and his understanding of the issues affecting the common man are lucid, making the issues relatable. Underscoring Osofisan’s influence, historian and African Studies scholar, Toyin Falola, once remarked that ‘Although he is not known to have actively participated in politics by contesting for any post, Osofisan is of the order of very few Nigerian literati who significantly influenced national affairs, especially during the military era.’
After writing plays, Osofisan often stages and directs them. Unsurprisingly, in 1979, he formed a theatre production company, the Kakaun Sela Kompani.
One of Osofisan’s major distinguishing abilities is the consistency of his ideas in all the genres he produces in, his essays, for instance, draw heavily from his other creative outputs. Osofisan also remains one of Nigeria’s longest serving and most productive public intellectual. Apart from his extensive career as a newspaper columnist, he was also a founding editorial board member and the first literary editor of Nigeria’s The Guardian. His editorial direction gave the newspaper a strong literary footing, which it was reputed for with columns such as the Guardian Literary Series.
THE INTELLECTUAL HISTORIAN
Osofisan’s commitment to history is evident in his building stories around historical mythical figures like Moremi, and his referencing of literary figures like Antigone and Hamlet. He wrote what is publicly acclaimed as the authoritative biography of J. P. Clark, as well as that of businessman and politician, Gamaliel Onosode. He has also memorialized Tai Solarin, the educationist and humanist who was the public complaints commissioner of the now-defunct Western Region.
In the play, Who is Afraid of Solarin?, Osofisan includes a 2004 lecture he delivered at the Tai Solarin Memorial Lecture. These kinds of paratextual features are also present in his poetry collections, serving to provide context for the creative works and spurring readers to action. Osofisan claims to have written Who’s Afraid of Solarin? ‘both to celebrate and immortalise his name, and also call attention to the gross corruption that was rampant in public life at the time.’ The relationship between Osofisan and Solarin goes beyond the immortalizing that Osofisan did with Who’s Afraid of Solarin?. The humanist ideals that Solarin was reputed for also exist in Osofisan’s public interventions. Both men were also committed to educating people beyond rote learning; Solarin, through his newspaper columns and the school he founded and Osofisan through his plays and in his classroom engagements. Solarin’s public interventions also gave impetus to activists like Osofisan, each person acting as the conscience of the society in unique ways.
Osofisan is one of Africa’s most important living playwrights, having written more than 50 plays, as well as multiple novels and poetry collections. His awards include the Western Nigeria Broadcasting Service prize for Independence Anniversary Essay, the Association of Nigerian Authors’ Poetry and Drama prizes, the Thalia Laurel for Drama, and the Fonlon-Nichols Award for literature and the struggle for human rights. Osofisan has received national honours including France’s Officier de l’Ordre Nationale de Mérite as well as the Nigerian National Order of Merit in the Humanities. These accolades point to his vast cultural significance and impact, which has been equally recognized by his numerous former students and mentees, through initiatives such as the Femi Osofisan Society.
In his essays and speeches, Osofisan’s gentle but forceful voice is unmistakeable. One of Nigeria’s finest thinkers, the originality of his work evinces a keen understanding of history and current affairs. Osofisan has not only contributed to Nigerian literature, activism and history, our society is also better as a result of his interventions⎈
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