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Rotimi Babatunde’s Bombay’s Republic: Of Similitude and Verisimilitude

Jurisprudence and common sense agree on the question of burden of proof: he who asserts must prove. Then and only then does the evidentiary burden ever shift. In the field of writing, a presumption of law makes this burden of proof inexorable for the person asserting. It is presumed by law that the person whose name goes as author in any piece of writing is indeed the author. In Nigeria, rebutting the presumption of authorship, as in most of the Commonwealth, is a terribly involved task, one which, like marriage, ought never to be ventured lightly.

So it was a matter of some moment when Mr Ahmed Maiwada, legal practitioner and the legal adviser to the Association of Nigerian Authors, stated on social media, Facebook, thus:

‘The storyline of Babatunde Rotimi’s Bombay’s Republic is too close to that of Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy; it is too close for comfort, too close to pass as an original! So, how did it manage to make it through to the final stage of the Caine Prize? It is either the judges are not critical readers, or they are no wide readers at all, or they cannot tell between an original story an (sic) the plagiarised. Whatever the shortcoming, this is most unfortunate for African writing!’

Who is Babatunde Rotimi anyway? Is he the same as Biyi Bandele?

Social networking tools, into the 21st century, have become extraordinarily potent. They empower protests of otherwise anonymous dissenting voices against entire superpowers, facilitate love matches that just a decade ago would have entailed considerable expense in time and money, allow amateur astronomers to exchange innocent data, lend wings to poetry that may not otherwise travel. But they also have a distinct capacity to wreak havoc in ways which was unachievable up till the end of the last century. A malicious mind can plant a lie and watch it grow viral in minutes. Such is the power of new media.

In one fell swoop, the accuser levied charges against Rotimi Babatunde, author of ‘Bombay’s Republic’, a story on the shortlist of the Caine Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes for African writing and concomitantly managed to cast doubts on the competence and acumen of the Caine Prize judges. The charges are serious. For the shortlisted author, an entirely new and formidable set of obstacles have been created which have nothing to do with Babatunde’s text in relation to other texts on the shortlist. They are ethical and epistemological, teleological and ontological. The metaphysical burdens imposed on Babatunde’s shortlisted work is similarly imposed on the judges. One will be justified in concluding early that the accuser is either extremely knowledgeable and sure of his grounds or a crude savage with no clue to nobility.

An apparent gravamen of  Maiwada’s grievance and charge is that the judges of the process that threw up Bombay’s Republic are either uncritical readers or are otherwise parochial readers. Another apparent grouse is that Maiwada does not know who Rotimi Babatunde is. It has since come to light upon scrutiny that not only are the judges reputable and knowledgeable enough, one of them, Ellah Alfrey, actually was editor of the book by Biyi Bandele, Burma Boy (Author’s note: Alfrey was deputy chair of the Caine Prize Panel and not a judge). So the charge of smallness of mind on the part of the judges is easily laid to rest, leaving the other, germane matter of Babatunde’s identity.

Here I wish to be of immediate help since Rotimi Babatunde, Chair of the PEN Nigeria Centre Writers for Peace Committee, is a man I know well enough to describe objectively. He happens to be a substantial and stalwart artist and intellectual, far outstripping his accuser in artistic standing and longevity of practice. Part of the tragedy is that people like Babatunde, who are the genuine articles, are, because they are often so self-effacing, often little known while all manner of dilettantes, charlatans and impostors are busy hugging the limelight.

In 1996, Rotimi Babatunde was 3rd Prize winner in the North American Open Poetry Competition with the poem Oxbow Lakes. In 1998 he won second position in the 22nd International Student Playscript Competition organized by the World Student Drama Trust, London. The judges on that occasion were Sir Alan Ayckbourn and Stephen Jeffereys. Those who know understand that Sir Ayckbourn is the greatest comic playwright in the English language alive.

In 1999 Rotimi Babatunde was 1st Prize winner with An African Seascape with the Fall of Icarus in the British Broadcating Corporation’s Meridian Tragic Love Story Competition, a one-off international contest organised by the BBC to mark the 400th anniversary of the first staging of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In 2001 he was Resident Fellow at the Ledig House International Writers Program, the literary programme of the Art/Omi Foundation, Ghent, New York, U.S.A. In 2002 he won another Writing Fellowship at The Macdowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, U.S.A.

In 2004, Babatunde was a beneficiary of The International Residency Programme at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London. In 2005 he participated in Beyond Borders: A Festival of Contemporary African Writing, Kampala, Uganda; participation sponsored by the British Council. Also, in the same year, he won a Fiction Grant from The Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, Shelter Island, New York, U.S.A. In 2006 Babatunde was of the three authors shortlisted for Nigerian Writer of the Year award by The Future Awards alongside the novelist Chimamanda Adichie and the poet Tolu Ogunlesi. In the same year he participated at the Teaterdargana Festival of theatre at Ricksteatern in Stockholm, Sweden. The trip was sponsored by The Swedish Institute and Riksteatern.

In 2007, Babatunde won a Fondazione Pistoletto scholarship award to the Unidee International Residency Program, Universite des Idees/ Cittadellarte, Biella, Italy. In 2009, he was Winner, the Cyprian Ekwensi Prize for Short Stories at the annual national awards of Abuja Writer’s Forum (AWF). For the story collection Houdini and Other Marvels. In the same year he was Runner-up, the Ibrahim Tahir Prize for Fiction. For Houdini and Other Marvels. Also in that same year he won a Rockefeller Foundation’s writing fellowship at the Bellagio Study and Conference Center near Lake Como, Italy. In 2010 Babatunde was co-winner, Churchill Theatre Bromley One Act Play Competition with An Infidel in the Upper Room.

Mr Babatunde has been Chair, PEN Nigeria Centre Writers for Peace Committee since April of 2011. He is a citizen of the world resident in Ibadan. He is not Biyi Bandele.

Now to address the work, ‘Bombay’s Republic’. I have read this story. I have reviewed it. I also read and reviewed Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy a couple of years back. I believe I can speak to any similitude or lack thereof in the ‘storyline’. Burma Boy and ‘Bombay’s Republic’ do share Burma as a theatre of war. But they are in good company in that regard. There are dozens of novels, hundreds of short stories and thousands of comic strips on Burma. It struck me as particularly strange and callow that anyone can even begin to compare the two not to talk of seeing any similarities. Here are seven out of several reasons why:

1. The scope of Babatunde’s work is Homeric. It is a mini-epic. It begins here, at home. It moves to the theatre of war in Burma and then returns home where the denouement of the story plays out.  Bandele’s story begins with a foreigner and ends on foreign soil.

2. Babatunde’s work is sheer joy to those who enjoy mordacious wit. It is a work with edge. It needed to be, it is a short story. Bandele’s work describes at leisure and is not in a hurry to score in the mordant department. It is a novel.

3. Babatunde’s story bears the marks of nanometric research. It is no wonder, this is the fruit of a writing grant made to him in year 2005. Bandele’s work also bears the marks of research —of millimetric research. The difference is clear in the poetics if Babatunde’s work. His story is a world of concentrated time.

4. The protagonist in Babatunde’s story is a man with the sensibilities and heightened instincts of a man. Witness him despatching a berserk white officer with a single shot. He could not afford to miss. Bandele’s protagonist is a boy with instincts and sensibilities entirely appropriate to boys.

5. As a political statement, Bombay’s Republic is momentous. From its very title down into its substance. It is aware, unapologetic, subversive. Burma Boy is as much a political statement as a boy can make. Bombay’s Republic is essentially a series of interrogatories directed at a political order that was both exploitative and deceptive. Burma Boy, at best, is compte rendu.

6. One cannot but feel a slight sense of decapitation and irresolution at the end of Bandele’s novel. One feels it could have gone on to more, much more, if it had allowed the story follow the trajectory of the protagonist’s psychological development. Bombay’s Republic on the other hand goes the whole length of a short story. As a young critic, Biyi Olusolape observed, it is Borgesian in its conception and completion.

7. Burma Boy by Biyi Bandele assays psychological complexity in the specific context of the suicidal in a non-radical way. The novel starts and ends on that note. ‘Bombay’s Republic’ is  radical symbolic representation par excellence  — of survival, adaptation and mutation. It is the thesis of Rene Descartes transmuted into riveting story. If Burma Boy has any philosophical underpinning as such, it managed to elude me.

Even though a number of rational voices with robust arguments rose in defence of Rotimi Babatunde,  Maiwada remained adamant in his claim that Bombay’s Republic is plagiarised. This leads me to the next observation. As a lawyer himself, I suppose that Maiwada is aware that a charge thus laid can be exciting in the short term with long term disastrous consequences for the vilified author or for the accuser. At law, to sustain a charge of plagiarism, it is pertinent to show a one-to-one correlation between the ‘original’ and the ‘counterfeit.’ Failure to do this places the accuser in an invidious position, success, of course, makes the accuser a rock star amongst literary James Bonds, complete with a literary license to kill.

Babatunde is understandably outraged by the accusation levied against him. As one who at close quarters has been observing his painstaking rise in the world of writing, I share his pains. Shortly after his name was announced on the shortlist of the 2012 Caine Prize, the poet Niran Okewole and myself did set an evening apart at Ibadan to drink to Babatunde’s rude literary health and to discuss literature. I recall that the age of the story was one subject we broached. I also recall telling him that I was surprised that the story made it to the shortlist at all since it was so acerbic, even on a semiotic level. I thought the judges of new writing from Africa had made a quantum leap forward in this regard. There appears to be new openness to the gritty stuff coming the continent.

When Maiwada’s allegation broke into the open on Facebook, one of my first thoughts, apart from what was clear to my mind as a clear case of confusion on the part of the accuser, was how a work that was already submitted to a literary agent in London as a part of other works in 2005 could plagiarize a work published in 2007. I contributed my personal knowledge of the fact that Bombay’s Republic predates Burma Boy to try and add clarity to the debate if there was to be one. I did not need to see the correspondence between Babatunde and the literary agents dating back to 2005 to know that Bombay’s Republic was a rare original but it helped to be reassured that one was not delusional. The forensics or literary archaeology involved is pretty convincing, in my view, if one were to require it.

Now, Ibadan, being foremost centre of writing in Nigeria, has evolved a writing continuum all by itself. Everyone who is writing knows everyone else who is also writing. Ibadan is blessed that way. I personally know of genuine articles like Rasaq Gbolahan, Rotimi Babatunde, Yomi Ogunsanya, Kunle Okesipe and Benson Eluma. Niran Okewole, Uzo Dibia, Seyi Adigun and a couple of other poets in the same generation once resided in the city before  ‘emigrating’ to other places. I can say I have been extremely lucky to know these young men in my city of the seven hills.

In the case of Rotimi Babatunde, apart from his contributions to PEN Nigeria Centre in the service of peace and freedom of expression, he has  impacted me personally with a taste for literature from the Iberian peninsula. I can say fairly definitively that I wouldn’t be a close reader of Saramago or his distant relative, Fuentes, if not for Rotimi Babatunde. In the course of writing my long work, The Sahara Testaments, I benefited immensely from this young writer’s perceptive insight into the poetics of writers as varied as Neruda, Walcott, Rumi and Imru. Not many cities in Nigeria have them like that. Ibadan is lucky to have him, and Nigeria is.

The company Babatunde keeps is also telling. A radical among radicals, reticent for the most part because of a punishing work ethic which involves twenty times as much reading as he writes, he is at home in his Ibadan haunts with Benson Eluma, Kunle Okesipe and Yomi Ogunsanya. Ask after Babatunde from these or from Ropo Ewenla, Secretary of PEN in Nigeria. If one considers the fact that one of the great influences on Babatunde is Dr Sola Olorunyomi, everything finally falls into place. For unique talent, exemplary work ethic and eclecticism of the kind any renascent artist should possess, Babatunde stands in the front ranks of writers of his generation.

It is understandable how, in a country with fundamental gaps in cultural education and policy, the kind of misapprehension that led to the accusation of plagiarism against Babatunde can be made. A little learning is a dangerous thing, as the poet long ago observed. It is a deadly thing, the kind of brew which pushes one to attempt the destruction of the advantages of a superior example. It is understandable but not excusable, indeed it is perverse to attempt exculpation. In my view, it is symptomatic of the trouble with Nigeria. A neophyte knows or should know that it is hard to compare the form of the novel with the form of the short story. They have different demands and must realize different objectives within different time frames. A novel is a novel is a novel. A short story, in short, is a short story. It is like comparing a pawpaw with lime or strawberry with coconut.

The Sherlock Holmes Syndrome is very much a literary syndrome. It is characterised by a penchant for pseudo-forensic writing, an accusatory bias and an altogether untoward predilection for playing to the gallery. The history of literature, it appears, is throwing up a few sufferers. In one celebrated English case, the accuser was able to get away with nominal damages in court because there was certified mental illness and defence counsel was able to marshal it to the aid of the accuser. Maiwada is not a certified candidate of a mental institution. Indeed he is solicitor and advocate before the highest courts in the land. He is deemed by the very fact to intend the necessary consequences of his actions.

Establishing breach of intellectual property is a precise undertaking. In the field of print publications, the legal standards have been set in, notably, Matthew Umukoro v. University Press, PLC. (2007). In that case, the plaintiff, Dr Matthew Umukoro, won because he was able to show

1. That he was the author of the original work, having expended sufficient intellectual energy on the work to give it an original character.

2. That both word order and sentence structure in the infringing work directly mirrored his work in a demonstrable way, verbatim et ceratim, and,

3. That there was intentionality in the act of the defendant which entirely removed the possibility of error.

Hold on a minute, I hear the reader say, is the standard really that high? Well, in Nigeria, breach of copyright is both a civil wrong as well as a crime. I should know. I was, alongside first rate legal minds such as Mr Dare Oloyede and Mr Opeyemi Okusanya, one of the counsels to the plaintiff. If one is not prepared, one should not dare.

I am writing this defence of Rotimi Babatunde today the 8th day of June 2012, 508 years exactly to the day after Michelangelo’s David was unveiled in Florence to critical acclaim. Not without justification, Bombay’s Republic reminds me of Michelangelo’s Statute of David and I have said so before today. I am assured that like David this story will long be reckoned with as an exemplar of perfection in prose. I am glad that any literate citizen of the world can read it for what it says about the state of mind of the new crop of African intellectuals and artists. I am, I hope, not going to be inordinately proprietorial of the friendship I enjoy with the author in whom I am well pleased and who from the very beginning has been a substantial artist.

It is interesting that Maiwada also has those who vociferously support his theory of plagiarism even now. They cannot substantiate it but it does not bother them one bit, they never had a reputation so do not risk one, never had mind enough to be outraged and will likely sleep very soundly tonight in their superficiality of perception. There is not much that can be done for those, best to let them be. Syllogism disappeared long ago from our educational blueprint.

The great moments that define a people sometimes come unannounced. One such moment is here upon us and it is so clear to my mind that it will mark a point of departure between the old, parochial, conceited and asinine past with a future that is large, liberal, varied and voluptuous in its offerings.

Babatunde may or may not win the Caine Prize now. The issue has since moved beyond the possibility of a prize. We are at a threshold of history and one sterling mind is here with us so great that the past seeks to subsume it. It should be clear to all but the most undiscerning that a mind such as Babatunde’s cannot be inhumed, cannot be silenced or assassinated.

Rotimi Babatunde is every inch a cultural hero, born in Nigeria, born for these times. He does well not to apologise for artistic excellence. He laboured for it.

In closing, I will end with these thoughts put into words and attributed to the poet Melvin B. Tolson, another quiet voice that shook the world:

‘Who is the judge?
The judge is God
Why is he God?
Because he decides who wins or loses, not my opponent.
Who is your opponent?
He does not exist.
Why does he not exist?
Because he is a mere dissenting voice of the truth I speak.’

And, yes, in the background, as ever, I hear Dylan Thomas singing his song
‘I cannot think for you/
you have to decide/
whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.’

– This article was written before the short story, Bombay’s Republic by Rotimi Babatunde was announced winner of the £10,000 Caine Prize for African Writing worth 2012 . It was originally published in The Guardian, Nigeria.