By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
Saturday, August 18, 2012.
The death of writers like Cyprian Ekwensi and Kalu Okpi left a big gap in the thriller fiction genre in Nigeria. Readers who are old enough will recall thrillers of yesteryears like Kalu Okpi’s ‘Crossfire!’, Dan Fulani’s ‘No Condition is Permanent’ and Louis Omotayo Johnson’s ‘Oil Pirates’. The 1980s and early 1990s are probably the golden age of the Nigerian thriller.
With the exception of a handful of intrepid ones, the contemporary generation of Nigerian writers have largely consigned popular fiction like thrillers and romance to the pit toilet in their bid to be labelled ‘serious writers’ by literary critics - the gatekeepers who exclude such works from the literary firmament. The result is that lovers of such genres with a peculiarly Nigerian flavour must subsist on a diet of Dan Brown, Frederick Forsyth and other foreign authors.
'Debayo Adelaja-Olowoake is one of the new generation of Nigerian writers who successfully swam against the tide with his first thriller novel. ‘Thunder, Lightning and Storm’ is a 247 page offering divided into 24 chapters and an epilogue. The story of the fictional character Flight Lieutenant Aminat Zechariah - Nigeria’s first female combat pilot and her effort to destroy the enterprise of Lang en Chi, the brilliant, renegade Taiwanese scientist bent on setting up a nuclear fiefdom in sub-Saharan Africa is striking. And this is not because of its subject-which may strike some chords of familiarity with readers of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series and viewers of action movies, but the way in which it is presented. The reason for this lies on Adelaja-Olowoake’s beautiful packaging of a good product. There is a fine blend of flashbacks and chronological narration. The glossy cover and binding are as eye-catching as anything out of a big Western publishing firm.
Interestingly, the protagonist Aminat, does not come off the pages as a superwoman despite being named after the legendary Queen Amina of Zaria, although like the legendary Queen Amina, she is beautiful, bold and brainy. Her response to Dr. Manuel Ajayi’s gift of P-Square’s CD ‘Game Over’ indicate that romantic feelings are also a part of her make-up (pp.226-228). Some readers may wish the ace aviator of the Nigerian Air Force committed one or two human screw-ups, especially up in the skies, but that would have wrecked the story. Aminat is the Red Amazon because she gets the job done.
Rarely do you get a Nigerian thriller fiction writer who writes outside his immediate realm of experience with such unwavering accuracy. Unlike Kalu Okpi who gained the combat experience that came in handy in his novels as a Biafran soldier, Adelaja-Olowoake is a civilian. But his mother was a longtime staff of the Nigerian Ministry of Defence and this forms the foundation for his in-depth study of the Nigerian military and their operations, especially the ECOMOG adventure which is the background for the story.
‘Thunder, Lightning and Storm’ idealizes the contemporary Nigerian professional: Nollywood (represented by Ada Makoju); the military (represented by Aminat, Wing Commander Daniel Alara; Squadron Leader Kelechi Nnamani, among others); intellectuals (call in members of the Ramat Academy ) are among the bold and the beautiful. I applaud the scientific skills of the Lieutenant-Colonel Omayeli Ighado-and Professor Madeline Adeniyi-led team that unravelled Lang en Chi’s communications and weapons systems with a homegrown, hypertech virus called ikirunmi.exe (pp.193-203). But at the end of the tale there is a creeping doubt that this portrait is over-idealistic. Our professionals are undoubtedly among the world’s first eleven, both in fact and fiction but must an admittedly imaginary depiction portray them as error-free, given the largely Nigerian and African setting of the novel? Maybe if such shortcomings were portrayed, my admiration for their resounding victory would have quadrupled.
Written in accessible English, the novel fulfils a fundamental criterion for the thriller genre: it pulsates and carries the reader along into a world of nerve-tingling suspense, shifty cloak-and-dagger activities and seat-shaking military action. I was a co-pilot in Aminat’s L-59 as she rained thunder and lightning on Lang en Chi’s complex and the glorious balls of fire and cordite filled my eyes.
But ‘Thunder, Lightning and Storm’ is also an introductory guide to modern Nigerian and African politics, economics, international relations, women’s studies, moviedom and intelligence as well as military capabilities. Even as the reader enjoys the story he soaks in complex knowledge devoid of tedium. I sat with the Nigerian spy, Ilya Dankaro, and saw a modern and prospering Equatorial Guinea; I was with Aminat and her mates at their lectures at the 301 Flying Training School, Kaduna, and I enjoyed every minute of the experience.
However, if the novel must take its rightful place alongside globally acknowledged masterpieces like Tom Clancy’s ‘The Hunt for Red October’, subsequent editions will require a revision of the diction’s structure. Nigerian English is not yet standard fare and Debayo made ample use of it. The first chapter should be titled ‘Proof of the pudding’, not ‘A taste of the pudding’ (p.7). In some places concluding parenthesis after a character’s speech is not indicated (such as in pages.25, 28, 136, 137, and 196). Perhaps the plot should be reconfigured to give more insights into the development of Lang’s diabolical venture. The novel is about heroic Nigerian military officers eliminating a threat to Africa, not a biography of Aminat. And we see our heroine taking a backseat in major aspects of the operation against the Taiwanese scientist until the final airtrikes. This may be excused by the complex intelligence and military enterprise set up against the villain. The novelist probably did not want to project Aminat as a gung-ho lone ranger. A few chapters seem choppy and at times I get the impression that the Ramat Academy who blew the whistle on Chi’s organization is little more than a discussion panel.
In spite of these negligible shortcomings ‘Thunder, Lightning and Storm’ is a refreshing outpouring of rain on Nigeria ’s parched popular fiction terrain. The novel will go places if it comes to the attention of a major publisher within or outside Nigeria . Although there has been no public declaration to that effect, I believe that the novel‘s portrayal of a female combat pilot-which the Nigerian Air Force recently commissioned-is prophetic given the current introduction of combat officer training for women at the Nigerian Defence Academy. In an article titled ‘Girls at the Nigerian Defence Academy’published in ‘Vanguard’ newspaper (December 8, 2010) the author made this comment: “Following the recent announcement by Mr. Adetokunbo Kayode, the (now former) Minister of Defence… that female candidates will now be admitted into the NDA with effect from the 2011 academic session, many of those who read my book ‘Thunder, Lightning and Storm’ have made contact to express ‘solidarity’ with me. While I do not think I should share in the glory of a momentous and long overdue decision, I feel elated enough to want to situate this policy decision within the backdrop of what my novel espoused. Admittedly, authors simply write their thoughts and leave every other thing about their work to the imagination of critics.”
He may be right but the novel also showed that a gifted writer can spearhead change even as he entertains with ‘unserious literature.’
Title: Thunder, Lightning and Storm
Author: Debayo Adelaja-Olowoake
Publishers: Manny Aydel and Partners
Year of publication: 2010
Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema is a Nigerian writer, historian and teacher. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org