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The slave bride and the kings of Yemen and Ngazargamu: A review of Henry Akubuiro’s Yamtarawala, the warrior king



By Ikechukwu Otuu Egbuta, PhD.


Title:  Yamtarawala: The Warrior King, A Play

Author: Henry Akubuiro

Publisher: Published in the United Kingdom by Fabula/Plays, an imprint of Abibiman Publishing.

Pagination: 109

Year of publication : 2023


Genre: Drama

The drama text is a product of the pressure of the classical, historical and contemporary social forces on the playwright. This pressure is as a result of the tragic dimensions of the experience of Abdullahi or Yamtarawala, the warrior king of Biu that Akubuiro presents, and emphasizes Prince Abdullahi’s perception of anarchy amongst the kingmakers, while also making a statement on the failure of civil order which occasions his decision to flee Ngazargamu in search of a kingdom of his own. This important dimension of the tragic event in Akubuiro’s play is that its tragic essence is traceable to certain autochthonous pre-colonial arrangements within the Ngazagarmu people of the narrative northern Nigeria, arrangements which serve as a signpost to the constitution of who becomes what in the traditional society. The truth, as we intend to show in this review, is that no sufficient discussion of tragedy could be done without reference back to the classics. Over time, tragedy, more than any other branch of the drama genre, has generated the most attention, and consequently raised a lot of polemic and controversy partly because of the exhaustive treatment it receives in Aristotle’s Poetics, and its central occupation in the literary imaginations of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides –the Athenian troika whose writing greatly influenced Aristotle’s treaty on tragedy in his Poetics. Aristotle recognises five broad aspects in tragedy which will guide this review. These are: Exposition –the composition of the tragic universe; Psychomachia –the content of the tragic tale; Peripeteia –execution of vital deed; Agon –period of suffering upon the anagnorisis; and the Denouement.

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Unlike the tragic universe of classical and Elizabethan tragedies, where jealous gods impose a limit on man’s movement upwards, and once man exceeds this limit, the gods regard it as an act of hubris and strike, the tragic universe of the modern or contemporary drama which Henry Akubuiro’s Yamtarawala: The Warrior King represents is a man who has lost his bearing, a disoriented figure who has lost his spiritual attachments to the gods and is thrown into a universe in which he searches for his own meaning and seeks to reassert himself from perishing amidst laws of the signs of the gods and of the voice of the people. The entreaties of those who represent the gods or act as “Deputy Jesus” in the universe of the contemporary drama do not have any effect on the tragic hero as he is struggling at the same time both as a warrior and a refugee, torn between absolute hope and final doubt, yet resolute of taking his destiny by his own hands. What constitutes tragedy in the real sense of the modern/contemporary drama which Akubuiro’s Yamtarawala… unequivocally dramatizes is the right of every individual to gain or recover his rightful place in society. Tragedy arises when a man is prepared to sacrifice himself, to lay-down his life in order to achieve a sense of personal dignity, ownership and self-control as a result of a bruised ego. In the course of this, the hero’s desire is fulfilled. If there arises anything to prevent the fulfillment of the hero’s desire, then there arises a conflict which brings about tragedy.

To show this contemporary tragic situation, Akubuiro presents a society in which Prince Abdullahi is trying to assert his cherished hope of succeeding his late father but is prevented from doing so by the dual forces of the palace servants and the king’s marabout. Abdullahi sees himself as a displaced person, or a person who is wantonly rejected by his society after it has made use of him. What haunts Prince Abdullahi, like contemporary tragic heroes, is the consciousness of a wounded personality, a nostalgic remembrance of his erstwhile important position as a prince and heir to the Ngazagarmu throne, and the stark reality that there is nothing to be hoped for anymore after that throne has been usurped by his younger brother, Umar. In this situation, Abdullahi feels personal indignation, considers himself an ineffectual being, a useless butt of society, to the very extent that he gets angry with the society and out of his indignation departs from this society where he is rejected to reaffirm that the tragic hero in contemporary drama is that person who says yes where his ‘chi’ says nay.

In contrast again to the Aristotle’s recognition of five broad aspects of tragedy in the classical period, which also find an expression in the Elizabethan period is that in the conception of the status of the tragic hero in classical and Elizabethan tragedy there is always the fall of a noble or great man, while in contemporary drama, tragedy is realistic, in that the audience encounters heroes who are true to life, heroes who they can identify among the common run of humanity. Akubuiro has also defiled Aristotle’s five act plot of the classical and Elizabethan drama by writing the play in six acts. Interestingly, however, the tale in Akubuiro’s play can be viewed and reviewed from two different dimensions:

~The dimension of a nobleman, Prince Abdullahi, who falls from a high place to a low place in classical dramatic style; and

~The dimension of a slave girl, Queen Asga, who ascends the thrones of both Yemen and Ngazagarmu from her low status.

This review adopts the latter dimension, for it contains the fabrics of the very unique artistry that makes Akubuiro’s play interesting. This unique artistry finds expression to the very fact that in the classical and Elizabethan period, nothing is usually said about the background of the queen while also being silent on the two kings that married Asga in the play. Apart from mere mention of the Kings of Yemen and Ngazagarmu, the event of the tragedy of Prince Abdullahi revolves around the queen. Here, the audience is provided with the background information of the queen. Prince Abdullahi is not like the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet, or an Oedipus, Macbeth or even King Lear sort of, although there are nuances and suggestions here and there that could make one view the play from the first dimension, but Akubuiro’s play provides a valuable insight into the cultural and traditional setup of the Ngazagarmu people by the interesting combination of the features of the classics/Elizabethan and modern/contemporary drama along the narrative line.

The inaugural place of Akubuiro’s artistry is on the plot of the play: the very framework upon which the narrative is constructed. Here, it is read that Asga was a beautiful slave put up for sale in a slave market. The son of the Yemeni king saw her and liked her, and bought her. But when he presented her to his father as the girl he would like to marry, the king snatched her, and she became the king’s wife. It was not long before the king of Egypt attacked Yemen, putting the kingdom into disarray. Queen Asga escaped and wandered into the bush from where she was captured by the roving slave hunters of the king of Ngazargamu, Kanem-Bornu, who brought her to the palace of Ngazargamu. On seeing the captured Asga, the king of Ngazargamu remembered what his marabout had earlier told him that he was going to marry a slave girl, and decided to marry her as a second wife (his first wife had no issue). Before long, the new wife announced to the king she was pregnant, and the king was overjoyed; but the king’s bodyguards and courtiers suspected she must have been impregnated in Yemen before her arrival in Ngazargamu, but they didn’t want to tell the king to incur his wrath. So, the new wife bore a son named Abdullahi, who was to become Yamtarawala, and the second son, Umar. The two lookalike princes lived together peacefully with their parents until the king of Ngazargamu died. Which of the two princes will be the new king of Ngazargamu? There is tension in the land. Midala reports that Queen Asga was at the early stage of her pregnancy when she arrived Ngazargamu from Yemen as she gave birth to prince Abdullahi seven months after. And the palace guards didn’t want to tell the king of that bitter truth, because he was overjoyed with the arrival of the new baby, his first offspring ever—: “We were at this palace when Queen Asga arrived as the second wife of the king twenty-three years ago. Everybody was happy when she bore the first child, but we know that child doesn’t belong to the king” (7). The kingmakers summoned a marabout who told them that each of the two sons should be given a cow to slaughter. And how each of them slaughters the cow will determine who the new king becomes. The second son, Umar slaughtered the cow in the traditionally accepted manner, and he was made the king to the surprise of his elder brother, Prince Abdullahi. As you can see, this is the story of a great warrior, Yamtarawala/Prince Abdullahi, who was schemed out of the kingship of the Kanem Bornu Empire and the Ngazargamu palace as the first son. He didn’t stay behind to fight his detractors, but he took 72 men from Ngazargamu and headed for the Mandara Mountains to begin an empire seeking adventure that lasted many years. He came across many tribulations, but he never cowered. He was determined to found a new empire where he would reign supreme towards Mandara Mountains. He encountered stiff oppositions as he proceeds to Limbur, Gujba, Mandaragrua, Miringa, Mumba until he didcliplaced the king of Diwar and went on to settle in Biu area, where he was crowned a king. He suddenly grew suspicious of his children: his four sons, Marivirahyel, Pachang, Diriwala and Pihtum– and his two daughters – Purkwa and Awa. After testing their potency with a stone being cooked in a pot, Marivirahyel is the only person who passed the test, and this makes King Yamtarawala to send assassins to kill him with the fear that he knows what he, the father knows, and may kill him to reign in his stead. After the failed assassination, Yamtarawala died as the story draws to its end. The end where the palanquin bearers appear on stage, carrying the wrapped body of the dead king, followed by members of the royal family, Kingmakers, royal warriors and locals.

The form and structure of modern/contemporary drama is thus often a reflection or manifestation of individual artistic idiosyncrasies because the modern age offers no unified system of belief. And Akubuiro’s Yamtarawala: The Warrior King emerges from this absence of a unified system of belief. His artistic freedom consists in a certain excellence and distinction layers of remote and historical meaning that exert an irresistible force and mastery, and get upper hand when compared with his contemporary playwrights in a very fine and unique manner. The implication of this is that the tragic protagonist in modern drama, like Abdullahi/Yamtarawala, is situated within a successful effort to contend with inimical forces very much beyond his control, and his attempts to carve for himself a niche in an apparently watertight autochthonous system that has no place for him, and in which he is therefore an unwelcome squatter. This existential determination is what pervades modern tragedy, and it is interesting that it is in Akubuiro’s play that everything modern about the modern drama is most alluringly determined. When Abdullahi in Yamtarawala insists:

I can’t believe my eyes. Today, I have seen justice denied. I have seen an unusual conspiracy against an innocent man. My inherited crown has been taken away from me. But I can’t stand this daylight robbery. I can’t bow down to Umar as my king – a boy I knew the day he was born; a boy I helped to learn how to take the first steps and say the first syllables. I won’t stay here anymore to endure this show of shame. I am a child of destiny, born to be great. No man can stop the sun from shining. So I am leaving Ngazargamu with my last words: Youman teram wallahianasultan, insha Allah (one day, you will see that I am a chief, God willing). And I add to it: Yau ma tara wal (one day, we will meet again) (16).

He is asserting the essential humanity of the common man who is guided by the consciousness of a bruised ego. This is a feature of the modern tragic hero, and this is also a factor that makes him deserve a better treatment than he seems to have got. Because he is a human being, he has the right, not only to existence, to living beyond the entreaties of the marabout and palace workers, but also to a full release from those shackles that limit and prevent his life from being meaningful. That former Prince Abdullahi, now, Yamtarawala, the warrior king breaks away and established his own kingdom by conquest and by the power in his arms is, however, the essential ingredient that underlies the modern idea of tragedy which find full expression in Akubuiro’s play, Yamtarawala: The Warrior King. shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature, 2023.

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