Through Nigeria’s four republics and interludes of military rule, waves of civilian protest have echoed through the streets to confront state violence and power. Regardless of the regime, critiquing the government is arguably a national pastime. It infuses into each domain of daily life, from animated political discussions around newsstands and relentlessly playing the subversive songs of Fela Kuti, to vibrant university student movements and organized demonstrations. Particularly striking moments of Nigerian protests and state brutality have captured international headlines, such as the slum demolitions and the execution of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in the 1990s. Yet what happens after the protest is crushed, when the activists are gone or imprisoned, the soldiers go home, and street life resumes? How does state brutality endure beyond one moment of violence and continue to re-traumatize different generations, decades later?
Set in the tumultuous 2000s of Nigeria’s fourth republic, Jumoke Verissimo’s first novel A Small Silence (Cassava Republic Press, July 2019) explores these questions through the ghosts that continue to haunt an activist, released after ten years of imprisonment and torture. The novel explores the psychic afterlife of protest through the distant intimacy forged between an unlikely pair—the formerly imprisoned activist professor (“Prof”) and Desire, a bright young woman determined to know him. Through the eyes of Prof and Desire, the novel moves through major contours of Nigerian political life in the 1990s and 2000s. Yet the depictions of vivid activism, political uncertainty, infrastructural precarity, municipal slum demolitions, and vibrant university protests resonate with Nigeria’s news headlines to today.
The novel begins after a decade of Prof’s imprisonment for political activism during Nigeria’s 1990s military regime, when he is unceremoniously released back into a society where much has changed and moved on without him. Yet much has also remained the same; the familiar daily rhythms of Lagos residents breathe through the streets and university students continue to boldly protest injustice into the 2000s.
Haunted by his years of torture and isolation, Prof finds refuge in the familiar voices in his head and in the darkness of his home, unable to be coaxed back to normal life by his mother and childhood friend. Prof’s sworn solitude is interrupted by Desire, a young woman who has been dreaming of Prof since their encounter during the Prof’s activist days and her precarious childhood in the slum of Maroko in Lagos. This encounter from Prof’s activism against the infamous 1990s slum dwelling demolitions impresses in both of their minds and drives Desire to seek Prof upon his release from prison. Together, they sit in the darkness of Prof’s room and grow to know each other through tendrils of conversation and shared silences.
Desire is part of a new Nigerian generation, who recall living through the slum demolitions of the 1990s military regimes but come of age in Nigeria’s new democratic era, the fourth republic. Beyond Desire’s relationship with Prof, Verissimo paints a young woman’s graceful navigation through a childhood wrought by socio-economic struggles, domestic violence, and mental illness, along with her brilliant ascent to university life. Desire’s intimate friendship with her roommate and confidant, Remilekun, and her awkward exploratory encounters with a university classmate, Ireti, are a careful exploration of the transition between girlhood and womanhood. Through Desire’s eyes, Lagos’ dense vibrancy reaches through the novel’s pages, and street scenes of its neighborhoods like Maroko, Oshodi, and Ojo are felt through the senses: “Against a faded signpost, Desire watched as young boys and girls sold bread, sachet yogurt, biscuits and other sweets about the streets, while men in suits and women in high heels rushed everywhere. There were also streams of school students fooling around and chatting in twos and threes, while the lonesome ones dragged along looking lost….Car honks belted out a incongruous tune that travelled into her eardrums, beating the sanity from her head.” Verissimo’s characters wittily banter in pidgin, Yoruba, and English, while acutely observing and experiencing Lagos’ material and metaphorical deterioration as they traverse the Nigerian megacity.
Although life continued and political regimes have changed since the Professor was imprisoned, the cyclical tides of Nigerian politics and dissent are relentless. The novel is set between the early 2000s with flashbacks to the 1990s, yet the political dissidents, historical psychic trauma, slum demolitions, and disillusioned university student protestors featured in the novel certainly strike a chord as Nigeria continues into over twenty years of its fourth republic today. Old generations of activists give way to new ones, whose slogans eerily echo the past. Without a substantive reckoning, Nigeria continues to be haunted by the same political figures from decades past: “Obasanjo of the 70s contesting against Buhari of the 80s, and this is 2005!…How can this country move forward when it seeks the dead to bring revival?”
A Small Silence asks readers to consider what healing might look like in the aftermath of state brutality. Moments of state violence against protest are not simply flashpoints in history, but instead moments that spawn afterlives that continue to haunt and re-traumatize those involved. For Prof, sitting in darkness serves as a space of refuge, while Desire’s patience with his silence creates a space of generosity. As one of the voices in Prof’s head reminds him, “Home is where your body settles even in the dark.” In the darkness, time appears suspended, and Desire and Prof can truly listen to each other’s voices without other distractions. In the darkness, it does not matter that power outages are a constant fixture in Nigerian daily life. Through a series of flashbacks, we also learn that darkness was Prof’s only rest between torture sessions during imprisonment. Yet as Prof and Desire eventually learn, as much as darkness and silence can enable the healing to begin, they also can obscure as much as they illuminate. The same darkness that enabled a fruitful companionship and a psychological reckoning with the past also left too much to the imagination; ultimately when the lights are turned back on, it is difficult to face what was there all along.