Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Documents from Nigeria: The Self-Help Books of Nkem Liliwhite-Nwosu

In this series, Samuel Fury Childs Daly looks at four legal documents (broadly construed) from Nigeria during its long period of military rule. This is the second of four.

In the same way that a historian might consult Samuel Pepys’ diary on just about any topic in 17th century England, I turn to a little-known self-help writer named Nkem Liliwhite-Nwosu about 20th century Nigeria. She was a sharp observer of her world, and I reach for her books whenever I’m looking for an unvarnished take on a debate or controversy from the 1960s to the 1990s. There is hardly a topic that she did not feel strongly about, nor an event that she did not find herself on the fringes of. She was an autodidact and a natural writer, and it’s easy to get lost in her propulsive, expletive-filled prose.

Liliwhite-Nwosu was not an important figure in Nigerian history. She owned a motel in Surulere, a working-class part of Lagos, and she made a modest fortune by striking a deal with the Nigerian Football Association to accommodate visiting teams when they came to town. But her success did not make her easygoing. She lived her life in a near-constant rage, doing battle with every authority figure who had the misfortune of crossing her path. Her piety did not mellow her, and even though her books are nominally guides for how to be a better Christian woman, they are also unrelentingly angry descriptions of life under military rule. The “jackboots” who controlled the country, she wrote, were “blue-blooded aristocrats who spoke with authority through the nozzle of the gun; ignorant greenhorns who claimed to have the solution to problems which their refined, erudite, old fathers could not solve, and who ended up compounding the problems for us all.” She writes vividly about the humiliations she experienced, and her books are a reminder of how much fury civilians – especially women – felt towards Gowon, Buhari, and other soldier-leaders who are now remembered as “moderates.” 

She was also extremely litigious, which is why I find her writings so useful. She obtained her motel in shady circumstances, and she spent decades in court defending her claim to the property (and hashing out the details of her ever-contentious relationship with the football association). She did not suffer fools gladly. This put her at odds with her neighbors, her rivals, and, as she put it, the “fools in uniform” who ran the country during her lifetime. This stance got her in trouble constantly, so she also became an expert at combating criminal charges. She describes the law from the perspective of someone who lived in it; her accounts of her legal battles show much more about Nigeria’s legal culture than court records would alone. She describes what it was like to navigate martial law as a civilian, and how people wielded it against both the state, and against one another. She tells us not only how she and her lawyers crafted arguments, but which gimmicks worked in front of a military judge and which ones didn’t. 

It is important to think about what law meant to someone like Nkem Liliwhite-Nwosu. In Nigeria’s military regimes, there were few avenues for ordinary people to stick up for themselves, or to criticize the state. There was no legislature that spoke for them, and no constitution that enshrined their basic rights. Petitions usually fell on deaf ears. Publicly shaming soldiers sometimes worked, but it could backfire dramatically if one wasn’t careful. Liliwhite-Nwosu embraced the legal system because she had nowhere else to turn. The courtroom was the only place where she could corner the authorities, and she cornered them whenever she could. She saw life in Nigeria as one long “trial,” as her book titles attest, and she spent a substantial chunk of hers in court. I hope every historian of law has a litigant who left behind as poetic (and exhaustive) an account of her trials as Nkem Liliwhite-Nwosu. 

Nkem Liliwhite-Nwosu’s books, which overlap substantially in content, are Divine Restoration!: Testimonies of Our Motherland on Trial (Lagos: self-published, 2002) and Divine Restoration of Nigeria: Eyewitness Account of Her Trials and Triumphs (Lagos: CSS Bookshops, 2004).