by S. Su’eddie Vershima Agema

  • Title:                            Devil’s Pawn
  • Author:                        Kukogho Iruesiri Samson
  • Publisher:                    Farafina Breeze
  • Year of Publication:    2020
  • Number of Pages:       359
  • Category:                    Fiction

African literature is largely committed art and its proponents through time have emphasised the need this art to be used in the service of the people. This is what leads the revered Chinua Achebe to state that art for art’s sake is “just another piece of deodorised dog shit.” Thus, the predominance of African writers on the continent, in conformity with this, have stuck to telling tales that are usually more literary than popular. Many literary writers abound, from Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Aminatta Forna, Mariama Ba, Chimamanda Adichie, to Ama Ata Aidoo, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Su’eddie Vershima Agema, Flora Nwapa and Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo – the list is endless. On the other hand, a tradition of crime fiction that one comes across occasionally carries this commitment but adds a tinge of excitement through pulsating tales. One notices this in the works of such writers as Cyprian Ekwensi, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Leye Adenle, Deon Meyer, Toni Kan, Obinna Udenwe, and Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. It is this group that Kukogho Iruesiri Samson comes into with his award-winning thriller novel, Devil’s Pawn.

Devil’s Pawn is set in contemporary Nigeria, most of its actions in the fictional Buscan City University. It is centred onSimon Tyough, a second-year undergraduate who, after lots of bullying from students without appropriate action from the authorities, decides to join Black Cats, an armed gang in his university. This armed gang, called cults in the Nigerian context, is a popular phenomenon that has also been tackled in some works, such as Idoko Ojabo’s classic, Shambles of a Predicament.

Simon is the devil’s pawn, the one who gets more than he bargains for, as is often the case when one makes a deal with the devil. In his case though, he has to contend with more than one devil. He is forced to commit several crimes, from rape to murder and more, things which he disagrees with and eventually puts his feet down on.

The Capone, the leader of the Black Cats, Emeka Ezeani is scorned by his love interest, Ese Preston, who even slaps him to stamp her rejection. To appropriate William Congreve’s words, she discovers belatedly that hell hath no fury as a cultist scorned. He orders a hit on her and she is kidnapped and taken to the cult’s meeting place where she is bizarrely raped in turns by members of the group except Simon, who tries to appeal to the reason of his fraternal siblings. This angers the Capone, who asks him to kill her. He refuses but by some misfortune, mistakenly shoots her through the manipulation of Emeka Ezeani. The premise of the story set, the line of the novel takes shape through certain actions leading to each in other in an intricate chain of activities that might have been a Sidney Sheldon or Tom Clancy novel if the setting and characterisation were not deliberately and distinctly African.

Soon enough, the penises of several Black Cats begin to go missing leaving their fraternity in fear of who would go next, who is behind the act and what would happen next. The easy suspects of such dastardly acts are rival cult gangs and the Black Cats waste no time in exacting revenge to ensure that no one would dare continue such actions. Still, more penises keep disappearing. On the other hand, Simon starts to have supernatural affiliations and other-worldly sexual experiences. With the case of the missing penises, murders and other cases arising therein, complications and implications come up. Soon, the police are on a chase for answers as even top political actors like the President and the Governor get involved in the misadventures and killings.

The story is told from the omniscient point of view giving a 360° view to the characters and their backstories. Kukogho leads readers into the action and violence that comes with cults as they battle rival gangs and terrorise people generally under whatever pretext they have. But the action flows in other directions where kidnap, ritualistic killings and others are made apparent. The depictions are well rendered and obviously well-researched helping to paint vivid pictures in simple diction that would stay in the mind of readers.

While the major geographical setting for the novel is the unnamed campus of the fictional Buscan city, one finds resemblances to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, Nigeria. The description on pages 8 to 9 is comparable to the real-life Sick Bay, Alexander Hall and Queen Amina Hostels. The same place is further elaborated on Pages 13 to 15, where the author takes readers, almost by hand, from Alexander Hall (which is not renamed in the novel), “the basketball court, the Students Affairs office and the three-exit foundation roundabout whose major exit led to the main gate” (13). There is the beautifully lit fountain that is used as a ceremonial ground for events like matriculation and convocation. But Kukogho’s actual geographic borrowings are not restricted to the Zaria campus alone but to places like Jos and Ife, the author’s maternal grandfather’s village. While this depiction has heavy borrowings that people familiar with the areas would realise, Kukogho also tries to mix some other elements to meet his artistic ends.

One easily notices that the characterisation for the novel is not far from what one would expect in a work of this sort. There are archetypal characters led by the hero, Simon Tyough, the naïve-turned-violent engineering undergraduate around whom the novel revolves. One notices the heavy presence of several violent cultists like Skulls and notably Emeka Ezeani, whose heart of stone is legendary as he leads the charge on several evils. A principal character in the book is Ese Preston, a young lady who tilts the narrative in several ways from her innocence, then supernatural essence. She orchestrates the storyline in many directions through her supernatural abilities cascading events in unimaginable directions. Joan is a lady cast in the model lady-in-distress frame with whom Simon falls in love. And what would a crime fiction thriller be without the earnest police officer who stops at nothing to bring criminals to book? Enter Kalu Manulife, the super cop who would stop at nothing to bring to book all the bad guys. He is different from the more typical corrupt police officer one is accustomed to in real-life Nigerian society, some of whom we see in the novel. There are also people like Martha, a housewife who turns out to be a courageous action hero in the face of danger. There are political actors involved, too, like Governor Sylvan, a former Black Cats capone whose past comes vengefully to play with his present realities and the President of the country who the world believes killed Jo Morgan, his major contender in the elections that brought him to power. The character of Jo Morgan sharply brings to mind the personage of Funsho Williams, a former Lagos State governorship aspirant who met a violent death in an unresolved assassination that remains a mystery to date.

Several motifs, symbols and themes across the book are evident in the action and settings. The case of harvested penises after rape seems to be the author’s way of punishing the type of people who might otherwise go unpunished in real life. Corruption on all levels, from the individual to the communal level, is shown with squalor. In this particular regard, Devil’s Pawn resembles many African works like Ayi Kwei Armah in The Beautyful Ones Are not Yet Born, Chinua Achebe in A Man of the People and Okey Ndibe’s Arrows of Rain. The supernatural element is in line with Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc, and the general feel of the work is more closely suited to Nii Ayikwei Parkes’s Tail of the Blue Bird. As a nod to his traditional heritage and to show the power of the supernatural, which most Africans know are a more common part of their existence. In this light, one finds stories of powerful ghosts and demons, charmed people with spiritual bulletproof, bush babies – a popular myth in Africa which some people swear are real, and so much more.

Kukogho Iruesiri Samson’s Devil’s Pawn is a book worth any reader’s time. Going through it, one can easily see why it won the 2018 Guaranty Trust Bank Dusty Prize. In addition to its thrill, there are lessons one would get, a nod to history, different realities captured and a tale that would last with readers for a long time.

S. Su’eddie Vershima is a multiple award-winning writer, literary administrator, editor and noted critic whose works border on post-colonial fiction and poetry. He is also a former curator of Black History Month at the University of Sussex and the founder of the African Writers [Society] at the same university. He blogs at http://sueddie.wordpress.com and is @sueddieagema across various social media channels.

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