Hustler-crime culture and subversion in Akubuiros Prodigals

Hustler-crime culture and subversion in Akubuiros Prodigals

decline of the Nigerian postcolonial economy has given birth to all forms of strategies aimed at circumventing socioeconomic misery. The postcolonial Nigerian economy is constructed to favour kleptocrats, those in government who use their political power to loot national resources. Unfortunately, the reconfiguration of criminality in the narrative of power and signification makes its imitation irresistible. The question of what could elevate crime to exalted status despite its menace to society is as important as what sustains its signification. The answer to this question is difficult in a society with crass socio-economic inequality; where the dice seem inexorably loaded against the masses ability to feed themselves. In the dialectics between hustler-criminal and the kleptocrat, the formers inspiration partly derives from the attempt to close the gap by imitating the latter. To be sure, most hustler narratives represent different shades of hustler-criminality involving survivalist criminal activities deployed by the precariat or the vulnerable, as mimicry and subversion of looting by politicians and people in government. The emergence of hustler narratives in the 1960s as a new literary genre that explores the interstices of postcolonial political economy brought about significant attention to characters who position themselves as both victims and villains (Chukwuemeka 2021: 1). In fact, Malcomlm X and Alex Haleys T(1971) are renowned American fictions that pioneered contemporary hustler narratives. Similarly, literary works such as South African Niq Mhlongos(2016), Congolese Alain Mabanckous, and Nigerias Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbosare prominent African examples of hustler narratives that show how people attempt to overcome geographic and economic disadvantages by creating alternative networks(Chukwuemeka 1).

Nigeria is a precarious nation with vulnerable subjects all of whom are standing at the precipice. I borrow the term precarious from Judith ButlersPrecarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence(2004) in which the precariat is associated with vulnerable subjectivity. Butlers characterization could be embodied in ways that echo the ever-growing heap of people marooned in extreme poverty in the midst of looting rulers. She shows that humans sociability is a relational network of various bodies that denies individualism (Butler 2004: 22; Chambers 2020: 1) while showing that we are affected by the experiences and activities of others with whom we share common social spaces. I recast Butlers concept of precarity to encompass the experiences of extremely vulnerable people who are pushed to some criminal activities in the fictional landscape of Henry Akubuiros. These are the unemployed and minoritized identities, the homeless, and those who, although may be engaged in menial jobs, could barely feed themselves in a society where the privileged few individuals selfishly loot dry the resources of the state. This article focuses on those characters who, out of their precarity, deploy micro-frauds not only as smart survivalist strategies but also as means of interrogating kleptocratic ideals in Akubuiros novel. The questions that guide this analysis centre on the ways through which hustler-crime culture is motivated and reinforced by the looting of people in government. How, in fact, does hustler-criminality copy and paste the strategy of survival of the fittest that is curiously embedded in criminally-mediated official discourse? Unfortunately, while most often hustler-criminals risk instant lynching when apprehended, looters in government either go unpunished or are often easily able to purchase their escape with public funds. How does Akubuiro account for the impact of crime culture in a society where both the rich and the wretched are repositories of criminality?

Akubuiro and the narrative of postcolonial decay

Akubuiro has been the Arts Editor ofThe Sun Newspaperfor over a decade where his artistic ingenuity finds its successful outlet inThe Sun Literary Review.Akubuiros essays and creative writings have won various awards including the 1994BBC World Service Young Reporterscompetition and the National Essay Competition by the Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports in 1998. Also, the winner of the ANA Literary Journalist of the Year 2005, Akubuiros juvenilia,Little Wizard of Okokomaiko(2011) won the ANA/Lantern Prize for Fiction, 2009 while at the manuscript stage. Others includeAdventures of Bingo and Bomboi(2005),Prodigals in Paradise(2016),Vershima and the Missing Cow(2019). Unfortunately,Prodigals in Paradise(henceforthProdigals) has not received much critical attention despite the huge ovation that greeted its publication on account of the urgent themes it explores. A few critical comments on it, much of which are available in the blurb address some insightful issues in the novel except how the novel functions as a hustler narrative that interrogates kleptocracy and postcolonial mimicry. Some scholars who read the text from a religious perspective include Emmanuel Egya Sule who, for instance, argues that the novel recreates how the Christian religion is misappropriated by people who know how best to outsmart God (blurb). This religious vision is equally recalibrated by Mazim Uzoatu who compares the text to Cyprian EkwensisJagua Nanain its recreation of modern-day Lagos, of metropolitan poverty and fake religiosity. Similarly, Hope Eghagha observes thatProdigalsexposes the nexus between city and religion as the city itself is a good breeding ground for pastors who leverage big audiences to generate revenue.

On the other hand, James Tsaaior offers a postcolonial perspective noting thatProdigalsreconstructs the quotidian realities that define postcolonial Africa. And for Benjamin Kwayke, the novel is an ambitious urban narrative whose pages bristle with incredible characters trapped in the complexities of a big African city as they unscrupulously but fruitlessly seek to attain self-reinvention. In a review of the novel titled, This is Lagos, Adeojo Mosunmola argues that in a place where hope is fleeting, dejection and misanthropy reign supreme, resignation to a wretched fate is not an option as a diehard spirit, whether for positive or negative ends must be adopted (City Voice Newspaper, March 20, 2018). She further notes that Akubuiro tells a tale of masses who have always exonerated themselves from being identified as the ills in society. The novels harsh landscape embodies both those living below the poverty line and those living on the expensive lane; a town that points to the abiding discrepancies between the wealthy and the wretched, where the unemployed just have somewhere to stay (Braide and Mpamugoh, The Sun Literary Review, 22 July 2017).

Tanure Ojaide also indicates that the varying categories of characters inProdigalsincluding the religious charlatans, whore, molue driver, coffin maker, impostor beggar, church pilferer, and baby-sellers enable the author to beautifully paint the reality of subaltern life with pain, laughter, and duplicities in a Lagos slum (blurb). Akubuiro himself defends the novels depiction of the decay and filth in the Nigerian socio-political landscape. For him, the African writer cannot look away from the prevalent tooth and nail struggles for survival in Africa as well as the obsession with materiality by the wealthy few. He argues that contemporary African writers are unrepentant in their stereotypical depiction of Africa because those things they write about have not changed: They keep occurring every day, and our writers have to write about them A writer cannot write in isolation because he is a product of the society that produces him, and has to depict what happens in that society (qtd in Braide and Mpamugoh, The Sun Literary Review, 22 July 2017). This article then examines Akubuiros depiction of these vulnerable subjects who resort to deviant means of survival in postcolonial Nigeria. Centrally relying on Homi Bhabhas theory of postcolonial mimicry as a theoretical tool, it opens up critical conversations on postcolonial Nigerian society and its values, its voices and its agency, its capture and its defeat. It argues that hustler-crime culture in the novel serves as a means through which the precariats seek both self-regeneration and subversion of kleptocracy. Rather than viewed as an exaltation of deviant behaviour, hustler-crime culture in the novel functions as a counter-discursive strategy against the epistemology of economic sabotage troubling postcolonial Africa.

That mimicry is a form of imitation that generates hybrid identities has been noted in Frantz FanonsBlack Skin, White Masks. Fanon argues that the imitator is fully aware that he is constructed not as a real person with real history but an image (ibid xiv). For him, this form of imitation leads the imitator to self-destruction. But for Homi Bhabha, mimicry could be both a positive and negative tool of modernity when it functions as the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other which is at once resemblance and menace (86). That is, the imitator maintains a partial vision of the presence of the imitated (88). In his mastery of some of the norms and values of the imitated, he becomes a threat to the authority of the latter. Bhabhas thesis shows that mimicry could have an impact on the discourse of oppression, creating its own language of freedom and producing another language of disruption. As a subversive strategy, it interrogates contemptuous and illegitimate exercise of power as well as the imagined difference between the stench of corrupt body-politic and its survivalist other (see Lockes Second Treatise).

Mimicry, Bhabha insists, repeats rather than represents and from this act of repeating emerges the endlessness of civil strife where folly seems harder to bear than its ignominy (Conrad,Nostromo) leading to ungovernable community. In AkubuirosProdigals, some characters are portrayed as parodists of history who hold up to public view the menace of kleptocrats who while pretending to be in the service of the people disrupt the possibility of their survival. And in seeking to keep abreast with the norms of postcolonial economic imaginaries, the hustler-subject, emasculated, deprived, and at the brink of collapse, becomes a partial imitator (Grant), or translator(Macaulay) or play-actor(Decoud) and a doubling of the looter-politician in a scene dominated by mass manipulation. If this metonymy of the inordinate hustler-subject is opposed by the kleptocrat whom he parodies, it is because he disrupts by producing a partial vision of the criminal-politician. Thus, hustler crime culture sits precariously between subversion and perversion, serving both as a revolutionary weapon and a model of socio-economic emancipation.

The rich and vast canvass of AkubuirosProdigalsencapsulates the diversity of vulnerable subjects in tooth and nail struggle despite the huge wealth the country claims to possess. Job the protagonist is endowed with a philosophical mind-set that represents an alternative epistemology to the corrupt political culture in his country. Adorned with a wide array of fraud and crimes, manipulations, and manoeuvres Lagos where he finds himself is a city of charm and regrets. The country itself to which Lagos proudly belongs is a place that foregrounds his helplessness as a hustler-subject who has no link to power. Many theories have been advanced on the causes of the socio-economic disaster confronting the land. While some argue that it was the colonizers that had ruined its political economy, others contend that its suffering is compounded by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Yet, others insist that Africans are incapable of governing themselves; they are excessively tribal and innately given to corruption and violence (Tom Burgis 3-4). Across the Niger Delta, the home of Nigerias oil industry, the agro-rich fields of Northern Nigeria, and the commercial hearts of Southern Nigeria, there is evidence that the interplay between political looting and hustler crime culture would turn the resources of the country to its curse rather than its salvation.

InProdigals, the collection of illegal garage tolls by desperate area boys and the unconcerned disposition of passers-by (p. 1) show that human struggle is individualised rather than collective. But it also shows that crime has been normalized as a tradition into which all must key. What surprises the newly arrived Nichodemus the more is not that his money has been stolen but that the news does not move the unruffled conductor or his co-passengers for that matter. The conductor barks at him to pay his fare: Omo, I no wan hear story o. His innocent but pitiable scream that my pocket has been picked only elicits a threat from the conductor who must account for every seat on the bus: If you no get money, why you come enter bus nah (p.3). The conductor is a symbol of both societal cruelty and human wilfulness; a product of a society whose failure could be read on the lips of its helpless victims. Twenty-two passengers are cramped into a fourteen-seater bus and nobody complains (p.2) even though it makes pick-pocketing easier. Beggars tugging peoples shirts in the quest for alms and the absence of civility and the picking of pockets are part of normal life. Lagos drivers and their conductors themselves have seen the dark side of the subterfuges of a decadent postcolonial world and often wear cruelty like a badge of honour.

Sympathy is one word Lagos bus conductors and drivers are not sold to. If you cant pay your fare, you have no business entering the bus in the first place: simple. It is easier for a conductor to owe you a change than you owing him (p.3)

Lagos, like its inhabitants, is always in a hurry. Lagos would neither stop nor wait for you. You wait for Lagos, a city that by the early years of the twenty-first century, became established as one of the most fictionalized cities of the world (Dunton 1). Akubuiro himself offers the background to the narrative noting that it emerged from his personal experience as a new visitor to Lagos in 2000:

My father once lived in Lagos and, when he retired, he relocated to his state. Everywhere had changed, and I had to stay with a kinsman, who lived in an uncompleted two-storey building called Aso Rock. It had all manner of characters who lived there, and some of the characters in the book are similar to the area where I stayed. I witnessed and heard stories from some of the residents there about how they survived living in Lagos. Unconsciously, I took note of what they told me and when I set out to write the book, I had to make it more realistic (Braide and Mpamugoh, The Sun Literary Review, 22 July 2017)

He notes also that he set the story in an era when Nigerian society was transiting from military to civilian rule to explore the disillusionment that accompanied the expectation of Nigerian democracy. Like the Nigerian Independence which finally came with aborted dreams, the third Nigerian democratic era was equally disappointing. Some nationalists fought for a better Nigeria, but with democracy, nothing had changed. I used paradise to depict what a symbol of great expectation that went awry. In Paradise, theprodigalsfind it absolutely difficult to survive for lack of better opportunities (qtd in Braide and Mpamugoh The Sun Literary Review, 22 July 2017).

Thus, Lagos in the novel is a place where the poor are locked up in aggression and theft against one another. Passengers, conductors, and drivers curse and fight themselves. Like its moral economy, the environment stinks; the horrid stench of open gutters that ooze out is not a problem to the inhabitants or the passers-by. Living in Lagos for a decade and a half, Job is still unmarried and childless. He has neither a decent accommodation nor any savings. The O level certificate with which he came to Lagos could not secure him his anticipated white-collar job. Engaging in such menial jobs as serving as a bus conductor, mason, wood-hewer, newspaper vendor, ice cream hawker, beggar, and labourer, Job is still unable to feed well much less afford other human necessities. With his current profile as an okadaman- commercial motorcycle transport business he is still not able to take care of a cousin Nicodemus, who comes knocking from the village. His visit cost him a heartbeat or two.

Job the hustler-subject resorts to crime as social capital not only to keep afloat but also as a disruptive weapon to decentre the corrupt rich. He resists the laws of the land which seem to protect and insulate the greedy looters in government. If these rich and powerful looters maintain themselves with criminal acquisitions, the hustler-criminals actions become mere mimicry of the culture of looting. The result is the blurring of the boundary between the lawgiver and the lawbreaker. In line with postcolonial discourse in its dialectic and circulating effects (Ashcroft 5),Prodigalsdeconstructs this social space where acute inequality reigns. But the paradise where Job lives offers catharsis through which the hustler-subjects can cope with the bites of their misery. On Nicodemus arrival at Jobs house, the former is utterly embarrassed with the state of the environment he meets:

The hall is messed up. The place is shrouded with the air of life and death, incense and marijuana, cooking flavour and debris as well as nauseating bric-a-bracs. The foully air wafts into the visitors nose, turning his system upside down. He wants to spit, but, under the full glare of the crowd, discretion becomes the better part of valour (p.7).

But his host and uncle, including the little boy that gave him the direction to the premises, are as unperturbed by the scenario as the woman vendor sitting and selling her foodstuff beside the smelly open gutters nearby. The pangs of hardship do not allow for the logic of the consequences of an unhygienic environment. He soon discovers that his visit adds to, and in fact, worsens the already excruciating experience that his uncle is going through. His earlier opinion of Lagos as the New York of Nigeria with decent accommodations and social infrastructure is shattered by the gloomy image of a bedlam space where mice and rats contend for right of occupancy with humans (pp. 8 9). As he soon discovers from Job,

Graduates dont come to Lagos to look for a job; they come to eke a living. It is not easy as you think to get a white-collar job in Lagos. There are millions of graduates like you and o level certificate holders like me in the streets, jobless. If you dont have strong connections in high quarters, forget it (p. 27).

Sadly, eminent academic qualification does not guarantee jobs in Akubuiros Lagos since First Class graduates and even most Ph.D. holders find it extremely difficult to secure jobs. So, Nicodemus Second Class Upper degree in Mass Communications does not possess any extraordinary potency to land him a job.

The question of the persistence of socioeconomic misery in a country with huge natural resources finds some answers in the novel. Macartan Humphreys, Jeffrey Sachs, and Joseph Stiglitz have argued that paradoxically, despite the prospects of wealth and opportunity that accompany the discovery and extraction of oil and other natural resources, such endowments all too often impede rather than further balanced and sustainable development (4). Indeed, it is estimated that sixty-nine percent of people in extreme poverty live in countries where oil, gas, and minerals play a dominant role in the economy and that average incomes in those countries are overwhelmingly below the global average:

The sheer number of people living in what are some of the planets richest states, as measured by natural resources, is staggering. According to the World Bank, the proportion of the population in extreme poverty, calculated as those living on $1.25 a day and adjusted for what that wretched sum will buy in each country, is 68 percent in Nigeria and 43 percent in Angola, respectively Africas first and second-biggest oil and gas producers. In Zambia and Congo, whose shared border bisects Africas Copperbelt, the extreme poverty rate is 75 percent and 88 percent, respectively. By way of comparison, 33 percent of Indians live in extreme poverty, 12 percent of Chinese, 0.7 percent of Mexicans, and 0.1 percent of Poles.

But this does not seem to suggest that huge deposits of natural resources breed poverty. For instance, while Kenya which does not own large deposits of oil resources still suffer from menacing economic woes, Norway which has huge natural resources enjoys large-scale economic benefits. It is, therefore, obvious that other issues account for this economic malaise in Nigeria. The misery and socioeconomic inequality in Akubuiros Lagos city suggest that the pouring of petro-dollar distorts the economy as the economic rent received for licensing foreign companies to extract these natural resources is unearned and does not make for good management. Instead, it creates a pot of money at the disposal of those who control the state (Burgis 5). At extreme levels, the contract between rulers and the ruled breaks down because members of the ruling class think that they do not need their consent. The resource industry is thus hardwired for corruption, giving room to kleptocracy in which there is little incentive to depart once in power.

Lagos is an incredible city in its duplicitous image. Despite its prestige as the most sought-after city for worldwide opportunities in Nigeria, the city appears to be the most challenging place to settle. The citys real image could be read from the horrid picture of the toilet which Nicodemus must use if he must defecate at all: A pool of reeking urine and grungy mucus commingle on the floor, with a battalion of maggots swimming excitedly in the pool, as a swarm of minges buzzes cheerfully around the mess (p. 11). Now, penury drives Job into begging which he has to carry out through a dubious means by disguising as a blind man. Justifying his action, he tells Okon his accomplice that we ve to survive (p. 13), and then, See how it works: Ill dress in tattered beggarly wears, and all youve to do is to lead me from school to school telling them that I am a blind man (p. 13). He is not oblivious of the danger of getting involved in this criminal act. He is guided by the social reality that the richest men weve today all took some risks before they became wealthy (p. 13). Robert Mertons (1968) discourse on anomie offers a perspective for understanding why individuals sometimes end up as criminals. Merton argues that there exists a dysfunction between a societys dream that is dominated by a cultural value of success and the social structure that creates the means of achieving that success. Showing the strain between aspirations and achievements that lead to criminal activity, he insists that class and ethnic structures offer different access to achievement. In a society that judges social worth based on apparent material success, attaining that success is only available to those who work hard and seize every available opportunity. But given that those means and opportunities are not available to all, in reality, the extolling of cultural values that are essentially unattainable for certain segments of the population due to social and institutional restrictions usually produces crime. He further notes that the discrepancy between goals and means produces various modes of personality adaptation. His theory takes into account the socially mediated circumstances that lead to criminal behaviour from which emerges the dysfunctions of society.

InProdigals, Job has, since coming to Lagos lived an honest life. But he now must throw away his O level certificate having realised that it cannot fetch him any job and settles for honest menial jobs including being an okadaman and serving as a mortuary attendant. I am a veteran of hardship (28), he tells Nicodemus. But the society in which Job and Nicodemus find themselves is such that rewards material success rather than the means to success. It does not, therefore, matter how wealth is made. The wealthy, irrespective of their sources of wealth are the instruments through which the people measure their struggles. The keyword is risk taking, a term that is subject to multiple interpretations. InProdigals, risk-taking involves resorting to crime and ensuring that one is not caught. Jobs business idea is easily sold to Okon who has discovered to his chagrin that this society denies honesty but rewards dishonesty. He has been a man of conscience who once picked and returned the sum of fifty thousand naira belonging to a passenger that boarded their molue bus when he was a conductor alongMile 2 Orileroute. To his neighbours at Paradise, the reward of mere thank you gratitude by the owner of the money does not fully justify the selfless act of steadfastness that he has exhibited. Rather than looking at the blessings that accompany such an act of piety, his friends blame him for throwing away such a life-changing opportunity.

Although Okon resolves against what he calls starting the New Year on a criminal note, the Presidents disgusting New Year Address is a compelling reason to accept the criminal option. Okon finds President Mathias Anjos appearance on the television screen much more nauseating than the fake promises in his address. Nicodemus is quick to ask:

Why should I waste my time watching this ugly old man Nicodemus sighed. He is responsible for our woes.

I agree with you totally, Okon concurred.

He promised us heaven and earth five years ago when he won that controversial election, but ordinary people like us havent felt the impact of his so-called dividends of democracy, Job lamented.

We are better off during the military era, Okons voice was bluesy (p. 14).

The anger generated by the Presidents spurious claims of having increased the nations foreign reserves to thirty billion dollars from the twenty billion of the previous year and the creation of one million jobs through government ministries and public companies forces them to switch off the radio half-way into the address. Even if the claims were true, what would be the justification for keeping money in reserve in a country where the majority of the citizenry could hardly afford their daily bread? Who got the jobs that were said to have been created. Okon is disappointed and regrets voting for him during the election. But for Job, there is no wisdom in participating in the election anymore: You can call me an unpatriotic Nigerian, and I dont care. I stopped voting when it dawned on me that politicians no longer had plans for you and I (p. 15).

Okon reconsiders Jobs survivalist but criminal alternative given his realization that the new business brings them, the President, the politicians, and other people in government together into a common family as criminals: We are all in the game, The president cheats; the senators cheat; the policemen on the roads cheat; why cant we cheat? (p. 16). In a country where a vast majority of people are suffering, government employees accumulate huge resources for themselves and their families. Thus, looking at this and other realities in the country, Okon and Job conclude that even in their dubious project of defrauding the unsuspecting public, they are still more saintly than those they imitate. For both of them also, living a wretched life has a way of insulating the victim from family and social obligations. Having no wife and children, and then having relatives who already know that they are poor, Okon and Job see themselves as exonerated from financial responsibilities to their families. This explains why the loot from the business is easily squandered by commercial sex workers in hotels. After a successful trip that generated huge proceeds, they spend their money whoring all night:

Day by day, the blind beggar and his partner made good money from the business going from school to school. They bought new clothes, ate good food, drank beer to satiety, and womanised to their liking, splurging the money with pride (pp. 20 21).

Armed with the epithet man must wack as a survivalist strategy, Job is quick to argue that the business is a means of earning their unemployment benefits which developed countries pay regularly to their unemployed but which are not available in Akubuiros Nigeria. Keziah also is forced into the commercial sex industry when her chastity, rather than helping her achieve the best in life becomes an impediment to her fulfilment as a human being. But the deployment of her body as capital is not an easy lifestyle as she is not even a successful whore. Thus she is compelled to stand at lonely spots at night, waiting for her clients who sometimes do not show up, and when on a bad day one shows up, she is forced to bring down her price by half the price just to be able to eat.

Henry AkubuirosProdigals in Paradisebelongs to the fast growing genre of African hustler narratives which seek to represent different shades of survivalist criminal activities deployed by the precariat or the vulnerable poor as an imitation and interrogation of the looting by the people in government. The emergence of the genre in the 1960s brought about some significant attention to these characters who pose as both victims and villains. To simultaneously imitate and adopt an oppositional stance against the imitated is characteristic of postcolonial consciousness. For this reason, postcolonial discourse sees the im