It is often easy to forget Nigeria’s history, especially in an era filled with contemporary narratives. The Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG), is a beacon of hope for authors seeking to unearth history’s hidden gems. Recently, The Guardian newspaper published an interview with Henry Akubuiro, a seasoned journalist and creative writer whose play, “Yamtarawala, the Warrior King,” has earned a coveted spot on the longlist for the Nigeria Prize for Literature. In the captivating interview, Akubuiro took readers on a journey through time and culture, unveiling the inspiration behind his play and its significance in rekindling the embers of history in the hearts of Nigerians and beyond.
In the course of the conversation, it was evident that Akubuiro views Yamtarawala as more than just a character in history. Akubuiro acknowledges the prestige of being longlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature award, describing it as “the biggest literary prize in Africa and one of the most prestigious prizes in the world.” In a country steeped in literary tradition, being longlisted from a pool of over 140 entries is undoubtedly a nod to the quality and significance of one’s work.
Yamtarawala, the Warrior King: A Tale of Resilience and Intrigue
Set in the northeast of Nigeria, this historical drama revolves around the larger-than-life figure of Yamtarawala, a man born to rule but whose fate takes a different turn. Following the death of his father, the former king of Ngazargamu, a bitter struggle for succession ensues. Despite being the elder son, Yamtarawala loses the throne to his younger brother, Umar. Feeling wronged and fuelled by ambition, he embarks on a daring conquest southward, eventually establishing his own kingdom, the Kingdom of Biu, which stands strong to this day.
The play intricately weaves a tapestry of intrigues, power struggles, and the complexity of human ambition. Through Yamtarawala’s journey, the audience is transported into a time when empires clashed and the fate of kingdoms hung in the balance.
A Call to Rediscover History
Beyond its compelling storyline, “Yamtarawala, the Warrior King” carries profound social relevance. Akubuiro is a passionate advocate for the revival of history education in Nigeria. He laments the alarming ignorance of Nigerian history among the younger generation, as evidenced by the startling gaps in knowledge exhibited by some participants on popular reality shows like Big Brother Naija.
In his words, “Nigeria, the giant of Africa, is now breeding ignoramuses? This is unacceptable.” Akubuiro underscores the importance of understanding the rich history of different regions within Nigeria to break down prejudices and foster unity. He sees his play as a vehicle to bring history back to life, to educate, and to bridge the gap in understanding between Nigeria’s diverse regions.
Unearthing a Forgotten Legacy
Akubuiro emphasises that the play aims to shed light on the often-overlooked history of Northern Nigeria, especially the Northeast. While regions like the ancient Hausa civilization have found their way into Nigerian literature, the Northeast remains largely unexplored. “Yamtarawala, the Warrior King” seeks to rectify this imbalance by celebrating the heritage of the Kanem-Bornu Empire and the Biu Kingdom.
He draws parallels between his work and iconic literary creations like Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “A Season of Crimson Blossom,” which ignited interest in the North and showcased its hidden treasures. Akubuiro believes that the abundance of untapped stories in Northern Nigeria presents fertile ground for writers to explore and share.
Yamtarawala: A Nation-Builder and Hero
In the course of the conversation, it becomes evident that Akubuiro views Yamtarawala as more than just a character in history. He perceives him as a nation-builder, akin to figures like Igodo, the first Ogiso of Igodomigodo, and Queen Amina of Zazzau. These historical figures played pivotal roles in shaping the destiny of their people, and their legacies deserve to be celebrated and remembered.
The play, therefore, serves as a tribute to the heroes who laid the foundation for Nigeria and as a reminder that their stories should not fade into obscurity. It is an exploration of the past that impacts our present, echoing the sentiment captured in the words of the playwright and Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, in “Death and the King’s Horseman.”
Conflict Resolution and the Legacy of Yamtarawala
“Yamtarawala, the Warrior King” also delves into the realm of conflict resolution. When Yamtarawala faced adversity and lost his bid for the throne, he chose not to engage in a destructive battle with his brother. Instead, he embarked on a journey to establish his own kingdom, a testament to his resilience and strategic thinking.
In a world where conflicts often escalate, the play offers a valuable lesson in diplomacy and peaceful resolution. It showcases an alternative path to power and leadership—one that prioritises unity over discord.
Revisiting a Forgotten Era
Akubuiro takes us on a historical journey to the 16th century when Northern Nigeria experienced two forms of colonisation—the Arab and the British. While the British colonisation is widely documented, the Arab influence on the region’s history and culture is less known. “Yamtarawala, the Warrior King” immerses the audience in the complexities of this era, highlighting the clash of cultures and the interactions between North African and South Asian civilizations.
The play stands as a testament to the need for contemporary Nigerian literature to explore and document these historical periods that have shaped the nation’s identity. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of Nigeria’s cultural heritage and offer a fresh perspective on a time often overshadowed by more recent history.
The Depth of Research and Personal Sacrifice
Akubuiro’s commitment to his craft shines through as he recounts the extensive research that went into bringing “Yamtarawala, the Warrior King” to life. Despite not being from the Northeast, he ventured into the region, braving security risks to immerse himself in the culture, landscape, and history. He paints a vivid picture of his experiences, describing the warmth of the people, the breathtaking landscapes, and the wealth of historical monuments.
In his quest to unearth the history of the Bura/Babur people, he left no stone unturned. He scoured “A History of Biu” by Dr Bukar Usman, which served as a valuable resource and engaged with the custodians of culture, visiting various local governments within the Biu Emirate.
A Commitment to Cultural Preservation
Akubuiro’s dedication goes beyond the pages of his play. He envisions taking “Yamtarawala, the Warrior King” to IDP camps in the Northeast and theatres across the country. He aims to change the literary narrative by introducing Nigerians to their rich history and cultural heritage.
The Future of Historical Dramas
With the success of “Yamtarawala, the Warrior King,” Akubuiro is inspired to continue exploring the realm of historical dramas. He recognises the untapped potential in Nigerian history and the need to capture the stories of unsung heroes and pivotal moments. As he contemplates the future, Akubuiro’s passion for history and literature shines through, promising more captivating narratives that will transport audiences to different eras.
The James Currey Prize for African Literature: A Pan-African Celebration
As the Jury Chair for the 2023 James Currey Prize for African Literature, Akubuiro acknowledges the significance of the prize in celebrating African literature. He lauds the James Currey Society for creating a pan-African award that has ignited excitement among writers from across the continent. The prize offers recognition and valuable opportunities, including a cash reward and a trip to the African Literature Festival in Oxford.
Conversations with 50 African Writers: A Literary Treasure Trove
As if his literary accomplishments weren’t already substantial, Akubuiro is working on a book titled “Conversations with 50 African Writers.” This book promises to be a treasure trove of insights and discussions with iconic writers and scholars. The goal is to showcase the rich tapestry of African literature and culture through interviews with literary giants, providing a valuable resource for scholars and enthusiasts alike.
Henry Akubuiro’s journey through the pages of “Yamtarawala, the Warrior King” and his endeavours to preserve African history through literature is a testament to the power of storytelling. As we eagerly await the outcome of the Nigeria Prize for Literature, we can only hope that “Yamtarawala, the Warrior King” continues to inspire writers and readers alike to rediscover the treasures hidden within the annals of history.