AiW Guest Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè
AiW note: Our Guest Reviewer,Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè, reviews award-winning writer Femi Kayode’s debut novel Lightseekers, which was published by Raven Books and released in February 2021. You can find Adégòkè’s recent Q&A with Kayode here.
When four Nigerian students accused of stealing were burnt alive by the community around the university they attended, the horrible incident, which came to be known as ‘The Aluu Four,’ sparked social media outrage. Femi Kayode, who disclosed in an interview that the event affected him psychologically, sets Lightseekers in Okriki, a fictional community that speaks Ikwerre, the same language spoken by the community in which The Aluu Four attended university. ‘Okriki’ is an obvious play on ‘Okrika’, a very popular local government in Rivers State.
Kayode’s adaptation of The Aluu Four forms the basis of the plot in Lightseekers, which opens with John Paul witnessing, and recording, the lynching of three students later identified as Winston, Bona and Kevin:
“The October sun is as hot as the blood of the angry mob. John Paul follows the crowd as they chant and push the three young men. They’ve been stripped naked, their scrotums shrunken from fear as the beatings result in wounds that will never become scars” (p.1).
Jennifer Makumbi’s modern classic Kintu has a similar violent opening. Lightseekers does not have the formulaic opening characteristic of crime fiction; it is not a murder committed in a lonely alley or in the dead of the night; it is not a strangulation of a woman by her lover. It is jungle justice, during which persons caught thieving or thought to be thieves are summarily executed. The day-lit lynching of the three students is by members of their university host community; it is premeditated and faceless – the collective violence of a people united mostly by rage for their dysfunctional society.
The rest of the novel is divided into four suspenseful acts and narrated by two first-person voices, one of which is John Paul’s. The narrative is occasionally punctuated with brief interludes about his past life – as a child, he was sexually abused by his father, who he later killed; he also plans to kill his mother, who is lying in the hospital after many years.
The second first-person voice belongs to Dr. Taiwo, an investigative psychologist who studies and theorises about the motives behind crimes and crowd behaviour from the comfort of a classroom or the police college.
When Kevin’s father, Emeka Nwamadi, asks Dr. Taiwo to investigate his son’s murder, Dr. Taiwo initially declines, thinking himself unequal to the task. He is however finally prevailed upon by his boss, Abubakar Tukur, and his father, who reveals for the first time that he and Tukur belonged to the same confraternity, and that Emeka Nwamadi’s father, Dr. Chukwuji Nwamadi, was a fraternal colleague during their undergraduate days:
“My father’s tone was softened by nostalgia. ‘We were inseparable. Live together as brothers or perish as fools. That was our motto'” (p. 21).
The history and evolution of cult gangsterism on Nigerian university campuses, which is an important theme in the novel, is traced through the troika of Dr. Taiwo’s father, Tukur and Dr. Nwamadi, who espouse the founding ideals of Pyrate Confraternity, which according to Wole Soyinka’s Cults: A People in Denial, was formed to transcend ethnic bigotry and encourage brotherhood in amalgamated Nigeria.
Campus fraternity, which was conceived as a brotherhood club in the 50s, quickly took a violent turn during the dark days of military dictatorship in Nigeria by which time rival cults had emerged. Cult gangs emanated from Nigerian tertiary institutions and unleashed gruesome mayhem on their fellow students, and occasionally on lecturers and townspeople.
Although many have pointed accusing fingers at Soyinka and co., The Magnificent Seven, who founded the confraternity in the University of Ibadan, as those responsible for the evolution of deadly campus gangs, Kayode carefully makes a distinction; he clarifies the ways in which generational gaps have led to confusion about fraternities/cults on Nigerian university campuses. In so doing, he shows how fragile Nigerian unity has been since independence.
That Dr. Taiwo’s father belongs to a cult throws him off-guard; nevertheless, after watching the grueling video in which the boys were necklaced, his fatherly instinct makes him accept the case.
When Dr. Taiwo travels to Port Harcourt, to the remote community of Okriki, he is accompanied by Chika, a driver assigned to him by Nwamadi. The street-smart Chika complements Dr. Taiwo who until recently lived and practiced in the United States, which makes him an outsider in Nigeria.
It is however hard to seek the town’s cooperation, given the attention and condemnation that the murders have attracted via social media. The police, who thought they had caught the culprits, prefer the case closed. Further, the nuances of Nigerian behaviour and society are unfamiliar to Dr. Taiwo; although he is eager to put his skills to practical use, he understands that Okriki is not the US – and that investigating the murders will be difficult:
“If I were in the states, visiting the site of a cold case could still yield previously unknown information years after an incident. Investigators would check whether there were previously unnoticed security cameras on the streets. They would look for buildings around the scene that had windows facing where the crime took place. They will then go into those buildings and speak to possible witnesses, even those that have already given their testimonies when the case was live. However, this is Okriki. The crime scene is a small clearing off to the side of a gravel road, less than twelve minutes’ bumpy drive from the police station. There are no houses around. Or street lights. No cameras. Nothing really” (p. 61).
The first call Dr. Taiwo and Chika make on arrival in Port Harcourt is to the police station. It doesn’t take long to discover that the police might be complicit in the crime – there was a policeman present at the crime scene who might have done nothing to stop the lynching – or that the dead students are thought to be cultists.
Still in search of a lead, Dr. Taiwo approaches more witnesses that were previously questioned, including Godwin Emefele, who is said to have raised the alarm that doomed his fellow students. Godwin is a privileged child who vacations in the UK and buys stuff for resale on his return trip. According to him, the boys were cultists who had been ‘obtaining’, i.e., extorting him all the while. But what is clear to Dr. Taiwo is that Godwin’s drug use makes him an unstable and unreliable witness; Godwin’s insistence that he doesn’t know Kevin, or how he got into the picture, is another loose end that Dr. Taiwo must tie up.
Amidst the religious and ethnic tension brewing in the town, and fuelled on by social media, Dr. Taiwo finds out that the uncooperative Police inspector is, in fact, a son of Omereji, the Chief of the town. Chief Omereji’s resistance to Dr. Taiwo’s quest to investigate his town amplifies ethnic mistrust and puts the uneasiness of the Biafran civil war into perspective.
Dr. Taiwo eventually discovers that John Paul is Godwin’s supplier and that on the day of the lynching Kevin had gone to town to meet his friend, Tamuno. Tamuno, who turns out to be an impressionable young man, confirms the scheduled meeting; he and Kevin were working together on a project about the effects of the anti-gay law in the country. Kevin’s friend, Momoh, who was supposedly gay, had died in police custody. Kevin and Tamuno had planned to confront Godwin because he tipped off the police about Momoh.
This information complicates Dr. Taiwo’s investigation when he begins to consider the possibility that Bona and Winston had a dispute with Godwin, when they went to buy drugs from him, and that Kevin got caught in the crossfire; it also confirms his suspicion that Godwin is a drug user. Unfortunately, Godwin is discovered dead in his hostel on campus before Dr. Taiwo can speak to him.
Things come to the head for Dr. Taiwo and Chika when there is an assassination attempt on Chief Omereji; their hotel rooms are vandalized, they are attacked by angry youths almost on the same spot where Winston, Bona, and Kevin were lynched, and Chika turns out not to be the person he claims to be.
Kayode merges the sub-plot and main plot towards the end of the novel, and his handling of the denouement is commendable. Likewise, the development of character in Lightseekers is notable. But, from time to time, the author falls into the trap of stereotyping characters. For instance, with the character of Abubakar Tukur, Kayode creates a stock character that many Nigerian writers have previously parodied. This is especially evident in the character’s speech mannerisms, for example: ‘When Abubakar is excited, his Hausa heritage betrays him. His p’s turn to f’s and r’s roll into l’s.’ (p. 14) Certainly, not every Hausa man speaks like that. Also, Dr. Taiwo’s first encounter with the femme fatale, Salome Briggs, is an unnecessary happenstance that seems to be smuggled into the plot for a purpose – Adewale Maja-Pearce once observed that this arises too often in too many Nigerian novels.
Nevertheless, Lightseekers is a fast-paced, genre-bending novel that recalls the social commentary of Henning Mankel’s novels, and through which Kayode asserts his creativity and elevates the crime fiction genre beyond formulaic violence. According to Carli Coetzee, who came up with the term ‘campus novel’, which was later broadened by Temitayo Olofinlua to refer to ‘a novel that captures the realities of students in the 80s/90s Nigeria’, there’s need to encapsulate the social psyche of the contemporary Nigerian university campus and its attending trauma on the Nigerian university student; Lightseekers is therefore better-described as ‘campus noir’ – a category which also accounts for Eghosa Imasuen’s Fine Boys and Segun Akinlolu’s Citadel Blues. Lightseekers is a novel that brilliantly captures the violence and tragedy of a Nigerian university campus.
Femi Kayode grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. He studied Clinical Psychology at the University of Ibadan and has worked in advertising over the last two decades. He was a Packard Fellow in Film and Media at the University of Southern California and a Gates-Packard Fellow in International Health at the University of Washington, Seattle. His writing credits include several award-winning works for the stage and screen. In 2017 he was awarded the UEA Literary Festival Scholarship, which helped to fund his MA in Creative Writing Crime Fiction. Kayode lives in Windhoek, Namibia with his wife and two sons.
Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè is a traveller, literary critic and writer from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tọ́pẹ́ is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and Africa in Words. He enjoys travelling and cooking. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.
You can buy Lightseekers in hardback or as an eBook from Bloomsbury here.
Lightseekers is also available from Mulholland Books here.