Literature In Northern Nigeria: Language And Popular Culture

Project and Seminar Material for English Language

Literature In Northern Nigeria: Language And Popular Culture


This essay delves into the study of literature in northern Nigeria. The study discusses the scope of literature, the region of Northern Nigeria and aspects of its popular culture, and finally goes ahead to examine the socio-political issues captured in Abubakar Gimbar’s Inner Rumblings. It concludes that the literature of Northern Nigeria still needs to be explored to the fullest by the activities of Northern Nigerian writers so as to bring it to the fore of Nigeria and the world at large.

Keywords: Northern Nigeria, popular culture, literature.

Chapter One

1.0 Introduction

According to the online Encyclopædia Britannica (2015: 5), Literature is a form of human expression. But not everything expressed in words—even when organized and written down—is counted as literature. Those writings that are primarily informative—technical, scholarly, journalistic—would be excluded from the rank of literature by most, though not all, critics. Certain forms of writing, however, are universally regarded as belonging to literature as an art. Individual attempts within these forms are said to succeed if they possess something called artistic merit and to fail if they do not. The nature of artistic merit is less easy to define than to recognize. The writer need not even pursue it to attain it. On the contrary, a scientific exposition might be of great literary value and a pedestrian poem of none at all.

The essay was once written deliberately as a piece of literature; its subject matter was of comparatively minor importance. Today most essays are written as expository, informative journalism, although there are still essayists in the great tradition who think of themselves as artists. Now, as in the past, some of the greatest essayists are critics of literature, drama, and the arts. Some personal documents (autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, and letters) rank among the world’s greatest literature. Some examples of this biographical literature were written with posterity in mind, others with no thought of their being read by anyone but the writer. Some are in a highly polished literary style; others, couched in a privately evolved language, win their standing as literature because of their cogency, insight, depth, and scope. One can conceive of Literature as a body of written works. The name has traditionally been applied to those imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the perceived aesthetic excellence of their execution.

Definitions of the word literature tend to be circular. The 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (2007:136) considers literature to be “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” The 19th-century critic, Walter Pater referred to “the matter of imaginative or artistic literature” as a “transcript, not of mere fact, but of fact in its infinitely varied forms.” But such definitions assume that the reader already knows what literature is. And indeed its central meaning, at least, is clear enough. Deriving from the Latin littera, a letter of the alphabet, literature is first and foremost humankind’s entire body of writing; after that it is the body of writing belonging to a given language or people; then it is an individual piece of writing. Thus, every group possesses a literature peculiar to them and which defines the individual writings that make up that group.

But already it is necessary to qualify these statements. To use the word “writing” when describing literature is itself misleading, for one may speak of “oral literature” or “the literature of preliterate peoples.” The art of literature is not reducible to the words on the page; they are there solely because of the craft of writing. As an art, literature might be described as the organization of words to give pleasure. Yet through words literature elevates and transforms experience beyond mere pleasure. Literature may be classified according to a variety of systems, including language, national origin, historical period, genre, and subject matter. Literature also functions more broadly in society as a means of both criticizing and affirming cultural values. This means that the literature of a people spells out the identity of such people. Literature in Northern Nigeria is hinged on the cultural heritage of the Hausa-Fulani people which in a sense is an offshoot of the Arab tradition.

This essay is about the literature of Northern Nigeria, popular culture and the language use. It is noteworthy that Northern Nigerian literature combines various art forms of drama, music, poetry, orature, etc. and such literature aims to communicate values to the audience as well as to entertain.

Chapter Four


Northern Nigeria is a vast tract of landlocked space in the Central Sudan bordered by the republics of Niger, Chad and Cameroun; its furthest southern border is marked by the territories of the Borgu, Yoruba, Nupe, Igala, Fulani and other Kwa-language speaking people. The admixture of an Islamic influence via the trans-Saharan trade route, and the very accommodating policies of the British colonial administration which favoured a propping of the early 19th Century Islamic reformer Uthman dan Fodio’s system of Emirates, resulted in the peoples of the North not being exposed to Western education until about a century after the peoples of the Southern parts of the country. While a rich history of Arabic-based literature existed, the extent of the known world of our fathers quadrupled in the decade starting from 1901. English, not Arabic, became the language of world expression. Consequently, while the people of the North have had their unique experiences, these experiences have hardly weighed in the national consciousness for they are only recently, in the last thirty years really, being expressed in the language that counts – in English.

Perhaps the most dominant mental image that is conjured by the phrase “Northern Nigeria” is that of the Durbar, that traditional panorama of homage to Emirs, a fleeting movie of men ceremonially robed on splendid horses charging down a field and drawing rein before their suzerain amidst the dust – with the exited ululation of crowds of Talakawa (working class) as a necessary backdrop. The durbar is a fitting metaphor for the North.

At the head of the charge of men from the North on the field of Nigerian literature is the figure of Abubakar Imam Kagara who is recognized as a paterfamilias. His works, primarily Ruwan Bagaja and Magana Jari Ce, published in 1934 and 1939 respectively, were a bridge between the old tradition of Northern literature and the new western ways. Seeing that his times were swiftly changing, he had the vision, quite radical, to write neither in Arabic nor in the popular Ajami (Hausa language in Arabic script). He chose Hausa written in the Roman script for he felt that the Hausa language, with its remarkable adaptability as a Sudanese pidgin, would be the lingua franca of Nigeria. This assumption was of course frustrated by the Western educated, ethnicist-leaning, positions of Chief Awolowo rooted in personal ambition and a political fear of the mega-sized Northern Region. Thus was Imam’s contribution overshadowed two decades later by Chinua Achebe in 1959, with his famous novel Things Fall Apart written with the same sense of cultural identity, but written in English. After Imam’s experimentation, a lull in Northern writing occurred until the late 60’s which saw the contributions of Labo Yari as well as those of Mohammed Sule whose The Undesirable Element remains one of the classics of African literature. Abubakar Gimba became the leading light of northern writing in English in the late ‘80’s and through the ‘90’s. Perhaps recovering from trauma, or simply in recognition of the importance of writing in English, the ‘90’s saw the emergence of many Northern writers ranging from Abubakar Othman, Ismail Bala and Ahmed Maiwada in poetry to Maria Ajima and Victor Dugga in drama. However, with the exception of Abubakar Gimba’s contributions in prose, which while noteworthy are hardly stratospheric, there have been no important novels in English from Northern Nigeria since Yari and Sule’s contributions in the mid ‘70’s. Neither has the poetry or drama been exceptional. Contemporary northern writing is now centered on four towns (Minna, Jos, Kano and Kaduna). Among the older contemporary writers in the North are B. M. Dzukogi, Ismail Bala, Yusuf Adamu, Musa Okapnachi, Razinat Mohammed, and E. E. Sule who has also been the pre-eminent literary critic. The younger contemporary writers include Gimba Kakanda, Abdulaziz Ahmad Abdulaziz, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Awaal Idris Evuti, Elnathan John, Binta Shuaibu Abdallah Abubakar, Adam Ibrahim and Alkasim Abdulkadir.

Writing goes beyond stringing words together, even if this is done skillfully; a sense of self in writing is the individual interpretation of a larger social experience untainted by the opinions of the experience of other individuals and of collectives of individuals especially. It is something you do not know how to but which you are putting into your words. This sense of self is absent in Northern Nigerian writing almost as much as it is largely absent in Southern Nigerian writing, only the absence is more felt here – for while the Southern Nigerian writer can with moderate effort assimilate into his milieu of a pseudo-European “self”, the Northerner is in this respect painfully odd. Yet this sense of self can be found in the examination of a dominant cultural legacy, and the dominant cultural legacies of Northern Nigeria are Arabic influenced forms; social conservatism, the primacy of dignity, the demand for justice. We should not advocate the writing of pseudo-Arabic poetry and prose, for that would be the animation of a corpse, a waste of time that is ultimately of no intellectual or material value. But we could reinterpret, replacing the corpse with a new body given life by the breath of our individual additions to a distinct corpus. The outdated old becomes the fertilizer of the distinctively new. The Kano soft literature written in everyday Hausa has shown that this is possible and a receptive audience does exist. Northern writers in English need to take this experiment to the next level.

Literature is a reflection of society. The literary writer according to Achebe is the seer and custodian of regenerative wisdom in traditional society. Literature serves the corrective function of conscientisation whereby social contradictions are x-rayed and brought to the consciousness of the people with the aim of inculcating morality and enhancing positive change. Whether through fiction, drama, or poetry, the literary writer stands as a constant reminder of the need to reshape society from its corruptive tendencies. Today poetry has become a vital tool for the reconstruction of society.

In the light of post – colonial literature, Abubakar Gimba’s Inner Rumblings explores some of the socio –political issues affecting the Nigerian society in relation to the external communities. In this collection, issues like the deceptive snares of international politics where he draws the inequality and political imbalance between the so called first class nations and the underdeveloped world and the lopsided relations that exist between them; the manifold faces of racial intolerance where he throws stones at racial tendencies in international politics, Domestic woes of marriage and divorce, justice and injustice, subtleties of love and hate, life and death, were discussed.
Abubakar Gimba through his poetic collection has been able to reconstruct society by focusing attention on some of the socio – political issues affecting the Nigerian society and the outside world at large, in relationship to politics. The poet concludes that this relationship is one sided as it favors only the western world. Africans must therefore redefine her place in the body of nations in internal politics. It is hoped that some of these issues raised will be addressed by the government and its agencies, if need be, in the course of making the country’s international policies.

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