On the 17th of November 1993, Sani Abacha executed a bloodless coup and forced Ernest Shonekan to resign. I was born 13 days after. For the next five years, Abacha would turn the country inside out as if it was the lining of his pocket.
I was rereading Ayobami Adebayo's Stay With Me yesterday for a research paper. And because I was reading closely for trails of postcolonialism, some background events stood out to me: the ritual killing of Bukola Arogundade in Ile-Ife and the protests after where the police killed four students (1981), the death of Dele Giwa (1986), incessant armed robberies in the 90s, the killing of three NYSC corpers in Jos (2008). Military rule was also the order of the day (1996/Gowon, 1985/Babangida, 1993/Abacha.)
This is my sixth read of Stay With Me. These events did not stand out to me before. The only that stays with you when you read Stay With Me is how Yejide was having flaccid sex with Akin for years and yet, did not know anything was wrong.
The truth is the best writers write about the human condition. If I am going to be writing a novel about COVID, it cannot be about COVID. It has to be about people and them living out the effects that 2020 had on them. Ayobami Adebayo did such a brilliant job backgrounding these events. In Stay With Me, when Akin had to take his unconscious daughter, Rotimi, to the hospital, the soldiers did not let him even drive. He had to hold her up like a flag for them to let him through. He walked to the hospital. I was so anxious about Rotimi dying. I did not give a second thought to the soldiers and how the events of the time would determine whether this child lived or not.
When I was leaving Nigeria, I was very particular about what went into my four boxes. One thing that was non-negotiable was the letters I had collected over the years anytime I went to my father's village.
The date of Abacha's coup stood out to me in my reread. My mum was pregnant with me. I found two letters from the time period in my archive.
My mum wrote to my grandfather about seventy-four days before I was born:
"We also thank God for the peace of God that is still reigning in the country despite all the wars and problems that people are thinking will happen I hope there was not much tension as there was here in Lagos. We bless God that God has taken control now, we'll continue to pray for God to choose his own president for this country."
You would also read that my parents wanted a boy.
The second letter was written by my aunt to my grandparents. It is dated the day after I was born:
It is written in Yorùbá so I will summarize. She tells my grandparents that my dad called to inform her that my mum gave birth to a girl child in the early hours of the morning. My dad assured her that the mother and child are both doing well. She tells my grandparents that they should expect my dad tomorrow. She tells my grandmother to get ready to leave for Lagos.
Most importantly, she asks my grandparents to not be upset with her, because she does not have money and transport fares are very high. She states that she has not been paid for three months.
My aunt worked with the government.
In a nationwide broadcast following the coup, Abacha cited the stagnant nature of Shonekan's government, and his inability to manage the democratic process in the country as a cause of his resignation.
When I was writing my bio for my incoming students, I stated that I'm very interested in "the (uncontrollable) forces that mold the lives of my characters."
I know some details of my birth. My dad wasn't around. My mum went to the antenatal clinic for a checkup and she was told to go and get her hospital bag because she was in labor. She took a cab. The end.
But now, I have zoomed out and I can imagine the heightened tension in that time. The soldiers at roadblocks. The hike in prices. The anxiety they must have felt every night listening to the news and hearing Abacha take the country apart, piece by piece.
I'm forced to think about the background of my life right now. There is a looming recession. Everyone is in hot soup with money. Gas, rent, and grocery prices have risen. Salaries and wages have refused to rise alongside. The (humanities) job market is in shambles. Russia is waging war on Ukraine. Tinubu wants to be the president of Nigeria because of sheer entitilement. There is fuel scarcity in Lagos and my siblings have not had electricity for four days. Guns are a staple in America and yesterday, I got a mail telling me what to do in case of an active shooter in my classroom. There is a new strain of COVID. Idaho is preparing for forest fires.