The day theater died at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria

John Otim
John Otim is the Editor of Nile Journal and author of the novel Dream Campus



At a corner of the Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria a mud structure crafted in the traditional style of the Hausas encloses a modest open air stage and auditorium. This is the home of theater and the performing arts that campus students playfully call the Mud Theater. Deceitfully simple the place has witnessed many thrilling moments of drama, dance, and music. In the process the theater has produced some of Nigeria’s finest actors and actresses.

Alas, last February 7 in one brief moment of tragedy, the theater of the Ahmadu Bello University died. On that fateful day three faculty members of the department of theater and the performing arts sadly perished in a horrible motor crash along the busy Zaria-Abuja highway. Among them was Jenkeri Okwori. Popularly referred to on campus as Oga Jenks the man had become on campus and in Zaria synonymous with all things theater. A born actor his influence went far beyond Zaria.  Zaria is the ancient city by the gates of which the Ahmadu Bello University stands.

The Ahmadu Bello University Theater that Okwori and his colleagues, who included, Steven Abah, Steve Daniel and Salishu Bappa, worked day and night to build is unique in all of Nigeria. Nigerian theater is large and versatile and now embraces that unique Nigerian brand called Nollywood, which is its world famous cinematic industry. In a continent still under the shadows of its colonial past despite the passage of years, at the core of the Zaria Theater was its anti colonial and anti imperial theme. In the 1980s and 1990s the theater like much of the University came under the influence of Marxism and Marxist scholarship. In the Humanities and the social sciences  names such as those of the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, Algerian revolutionary theorist Franz Fanon, Walter Rhodney the Guyanese scholar, British academic Raymond Williams, exiled Palestinian scholar Edward said, and Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o were important and they appeared in reading lists;

The theater bore a decided pan African outlook and was preoccupied with the idea of freedom and development. This was understandable given the appalling state of poverty that was visible despite the oil money that flowed through the land. In assignments Jenks and his colleagues would dispatch students to the surrounding neighborhoods and villages and bid them research the living situation of the inhabitants, Out of the excersize students  would create a play; usually around the theme of poverty and the imperative for development. When it was done, students would return with the play  to the neighborhoods and to the communities. In a bid to motivate the community to take action against their poverty and backward condition, they would offer the community, for an evening’s entertainmen, drama in which the community could recognize itself.

One critic of the theater, herself a member of the faculty, took issue with this doubtlessly big brother approach to the problems of small people and charged the theater of naivety and arrogance. The theater she said insulted poor people. It assumed that common folks had no idea of their deprived condition or the reason for it and must be told about it. Which she said, was not true.

Be that as it may, we must now take up the story of the Zaria Theater from the nineteen eighties at a time when its anti colonial theme was depeening, following the exodus from the Ahmadu Bello University of the largely white expatriate academics that had from the early 1960s established the University and dominated it and made it a first rate institution of higher learning. Brian Crow and Michael Etherton especially had done much for the theater department. And now they too were leaving.

Once set in motion the anti colonial premise in Zaria persisted. And now the long simmering struggle against apartheid and white rule in southern Africa got heat up and flared into guerrila warfare. And  with it the anti colonialism in Zaria intensified. In West Africa the Ahmadu Bello University campus became the center of the struggle against apartheid and white minority rule. Its theater gave the struggle expression on its stage, which resounded with the cry of amandala, which is the Zulu word for freedom.

In one of the most dramatic stage presentation ever on campus, Jenkeri Okwori together with another young lecturer performed the famous South African anti apartheid play, Woza Albert. Their production was so successful that the duo toured America with the play. Theirs was the only time when actors on the Ahmadu Bello University stage bared it all as Okwori and his co-actor mocked and poured scorn on the folly of the apartheid system that downgraded the Blackman as a sub human. It was poignant that the actors did this against the background of the expectations created in the play, that Jesus Christ was about to parachute into Johannesburg and overturn once and for all the God damn system.  At a moment of acute tension in the drummer during a mock inspection drill by the watchdogs of apartheid, the two actors suddenly exposed their bare bottoms to a stunned audience. In northern Nigeria where proper behavior and proper dress is very important this was carrying audacity beyond audacity. But it worked.

The anti colonial underpinnings of the theater of the Ahmadu Bello University with its Marxist leanings and aspirations for all things developmental soon expressed itself as the struggle for social justice and particularly against official corruption at home.  Such an abrasive and even propagandist stance in an academic department dedicated to research, teaching and learning was for a while inspiring but it was also limiting.

At an evening at the theater, one faculty member buoyed up with the Theater’s own sense of daredevil and audacity, announced that the department had abolished Shakespeare. Luckily the move did not last, and Shakespeare was soon playing again on the Zaria stage. In one of the most memorable evening in Zaria Macbeth was presented on stage as a fully Yoruba play. It had to be Macbeth. Macbeth is the drama that features the three witches and a scene in which the ghost of the murdered King Duncan makes its appearance to his dazed murderer, none but Macbeth himself. That night at Ahmadu Bello, actors and players adorned Yoruba garments and adopted Yoruba speech mannerism. So real was the drama onstage that for a while as you watched the play you thought that William Shakespeare was a Yoruba man, born and bred in a village near Lagos.

For most of the period under review, the theater department at the Ahmadu Bello University found itself turning away from traditional theater and conventional drama, and leaning heavily on the African elements of dance and music. For the most part the Theater created its own plays or improvised them from already existing texts such as novels or other plays. It built them around themes it believed were relevant to Nigeria and Africa. One such improvisation was its stage presentation of Frederick Oyono’s novel House Boy. Those who have read Oyono will recall House Boy as a totally hilarious story that exposes the depravity of French colonial rule in West Africa. It was in this theatrical world that Jenkeri Okwori, a man of great humor who spoke with his whole face, and when he smiled, smiled with his whole body, reveled and thrived.