The phrase “unsung heroes” is not a label that should be associated with Chukwuemeka Ike, a man whose stories influenced the childhood of many Nigerians and whose words have a lasting impact on contemporary Nigerian lexicon. Yet Ike’s novelistic excellence does not enjoy the extent of acclaim that it merits. “Expo”, the Nigerian parlance for exam malpractice, comes from the most unexpected source. The term originates from Expo ’77, a novel based on the actual events of how top-secret school-leaving exam papers were leaked twice in 1977.
he story is, of course, by Chukwuemeka Ike, and the inspiration was his frustration with the cycle of exam malpractice sustained by students and their parents. Ike had been chief executive of the exam board when these leaks happened. In post-colonial era literature where many authors focused on the conflict of cultures between the West and Africa, Ike’s stories reflected the socio-cultural realities of ordinary Nigerian citizens. Re-reading Ike’s works, one can always hope to read stories interspersed with covert humour and casual criticism of the faults and tensions in modern Nigeria.
Born in Ndikelionwu, eastern Nigeria in 1931, into the royal family of Ndikelionwu, Ike was well-educated from early education to University. He studied for a bachelors degree in English, History and Religious Studies at the University of Ibadan where he schooled alongside canons like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. He also earned a Master’s Degree from Stanford University. His royal lineage and Igbo cultural upbringing fashioned the parody, humour and satire associated with his works. Eventually becoming a king of Ndikelionwu from 2008 until he died in 2020, Ike was a prolific achiever across spaces. His works featured stories filtered through his standpoints as a writer, traditional ruler and academic administrator.
In his first literary writing attempt, he served his readers Toads for Supper, a book which explores the theme of love within the tensions of multi-ethnic Nigeria. It tells the story of Amadi, the first from his eastern village to go to a university, capturing the essence of what it meant to be an Igbo student in western Nigeria just before the Biafra war. Amadi falls in love with Aduke, a Yoruba student, and the conflicts between ethnic groups around that period were odds to their union. With this ethnic tension leading to their psychological breakdown, Ike lends a necessary lens to the senseless conflicts between ethnic groups in Nigeria. In real life, Ike himself blended this gap of ethnic difference by marrying Adebimpe Olurinsola Abimbolu, a Yoruba woman, creating an unexpected precedent of an Igbo King with a Yoruba wife.
Ike reacted to the Nigerian-Biafra war in Sunset at Dawn, in a subversive story which reflected the casualties on both sides of the warring factions. In a tale about northerners who were also fleeing enemy planes, the characters, Fatima and Halima learn to let go of exclusive performance of cultural identity. In doing this, they bridge the gap of cultural differences by befriending the Biafrans and making a home with them.
Millennials and post-millennials will most probably relate to the influence of novels like Potter’s Wheel and The Bottled Leopard on their childhood imaginations. The former centres Ike’s educational antecedents by reflecting the varied world of education in Nigeria. In a tale about the birth and upbringing of Obuechina and the abusive treatment he endures at the hands of Teacher and his wife, Ike seems to leave an open-ended conclusion to readers. Should education come at the price it did to Obuechina or should parents take up the task of raising their children with acceptable amounts of care and discipline? The latter, a magical-realist story explores the tale of Amobi, a schoolboy. He, upon his uncle’s death, gains the mystical power of his lineage, the ability to morph into a leopard. Many readers shared the wide-eyed wonder reaction of Chuk with this story, which is arguably the magnum opus of Ike’s writing career. This story of men transforming into leopards was an extraordinary recreation of indigenous knowledge that presented traditional African mysteries in ways that were not biased or reductive of African realities.
In attempting to celebrate Ike’s work, Achebe’s influence as a catalyst to his writing ventures is significant. Ike reveals in an interview that he would never have thought of writing novels if he had not read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1958. However, a case can be made for the influence of Achebe’s canon on writers around that period, in which Ike and many other writers like Mabel Segun and Cyprian Ekwensi were not as celebrated and did not receive the kind of audience that Achebe had.
Still, Ike’s legacy continues to ring true even in recent times, his precedent of building and maintaining bridges between cultures is very critical with the tensions of ethnic structuring that still plagues the Nigerian nation. Even though he was a writer who centred tales and influences from his indigenous descent, Ike’s stories explained the Nigerian experience in a way that anyone, regardless of tribe, could undertake an exciting, insightful journey into narrations guided by Ike’s voice. His death on January 29, 2020, opened up further considerations for the essence of unity within multi-ethnic Nigeria, and the extraordinary beauty and complexities of stories about ordinary Nigerians.