The Warri Crisis of 1997 took hundreds of lives and left more people grieving long after the machetes have been laid down to rest. The crisis was a series of riots and clashes between the Itsekiri and the Ijaw ethnic groups centered in the city of Warri in Delta State, Nigeria between March and May 1997. The crisis ensued after the then Military Administrator of Delta State, Colonel David Dungs, announced in a broadcast to the State that the Headquarters of the newly created Warri South-West Local Government Area was Ogidigben, an Itsekiri Community in Warri.
The Ijaws were not so pleased with this as the Itsekiris were merely an ethnic minority occupying lands containing over 30% of the total oil wealth of Nigeria. The Itsekiris quickly became a threat to the Ijaws and the Ijaws prepared to make them bite the dust, envisaging that they could easily be run over, considering their status as a minority and the fact that they, unlike the Ijaws, were unprepared for war.
Gasp trails the aftereffect of this crisis in the lives of three women – Tonye, Ivie and Imaobong. In over thirty chapters, these fictional characters are brought to life and are given peculiar stories and backgrounds that intertwine over the course of two decades.
War and riot have never been known to occur without leaving casualties. Tonye, Ivie and Imaobong are friends. They attend the same school and while Tonye and Ivie’s parents are well off, Imaobong’s parents are not financially buoyant. The girls are leading their uneventful lives when the crisis punctuates their realities. Ivie loses her family, Tonye cuts off her mother after her father’s brutal murder and Imaobong’s family becomes destitute after the whole unrest. Each of them loses a core part of themselves to death, injury, sexual violence, malnutrition, and illness – some of the most debilitating physical consequences of war. After the crisis, these girls proceed to lead very different lives and make different choices that determine the course of their lives.
There is always the opportunity to choose between two possibilities in life; there is war and there is peace, there is good and evil, and there is knowledge and ignorance. The crisis brings each of these young girls to crossroads where they have to make hard choices. Tonye makes the choice that drives her to an insatiable life. She is beautiful and used to a life of comfort. When that comfort is taken away from her, she succumbs to peer pressure and takes an adventurous and dangerous route to secure this comfort back alongside power. For her, there is always more to be acquired until there isn’t. Imaobong lacks the beauty and femininity that Tonye possesses and uses to her advantage. Her mental prowess is what gives her the shot at tailoring her life the exact way she wants it and she fully maximizes this potential. Ivie’s dream of becoming an astronaut dies a fast death when she is widowed early to become a single mother. Her decision to abandon her search for her father to wed a fisherman set the course of her life. The paths these women’s lives take after the choices they make leaves room to wonder if there could be an alternate universe where the crisis does not happen, and their lives aren’t interrupted just like Anna’s experience in Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Maybe in Another Life. What if Tonye chooses to stay with her mother? What if Ivie does not choose to be with the fisherman? What if the crisis does not cause a hiccup in these women’s lives?
We are sold the story of three friends, but deep into this book, you will discover that these three are not friends in the real sense of the word. Imaobong has always been the recipient of insults and the victim of bullying. Her so-called friends, Tonye and Ivie, are in fact perpetrators of this terrible act, which leaves one to doubt the depth of their friendship. The fact that the author does little to explore the ties between these three pre-Warri Crisis leaves bigger room for doubt as to their bond.
As it is often said, war either brings out the worst or the best in you and whichever it brings out in you is your inherent nature. The crisis further confirms to Imaobong that none of these two is really her friend. There comes an opportunity for Tonye to defend Imaobong and she does not take it. Let’s excuse that as being too petrified to know what to do as is the case in Butter Honey Pig Bread where Taiwo is paralyzed by shock during Kehinde’s attack. But another opportunity presents itself for Tonye to stand up for Imaobong, but she is the one who totally erases her existence. This is no friendship. There are no instances to even hint at the friendship between Tonye and Ivie. Exploring their friendship before the crisis separated them would have left more room to empathize with each of these characters.
Regardless of their failed friendship, the crisis takes its toll on them and continues to do so decades after it has ended. Many of the older generations of the Igbo tribe can still recount their losses long after the Nigerian Civil War ended, as is the case with the tribes involved in the Warri Crisis. Both events are parts of our history as a nation and while there have been many fictional and nonfictional materials on the former, the latter has enjoyed less publication. This, I think, is one of the gaps Gasp has tried to fill. Coupled with the negative physical effects of the crisis on the characters, the psychological, financial and emotional effects are also explored in detail. These girls lose people dear to them and their losses trigger lifelong issues for them. For Tonye, she is not able to emotionally connect with any man after the terrible incident she encounters at the shelter. Imaobong is able to connect with one partner enough to marry him, but she refuses to shed the dead weight of her past even at the risk of losing her marriage to it. Ivie is not able to get her life back together since the crisis. Their reunion towards the end of the story is messy and a confirmation that they are all still smarting from the blow dealt to them by the crisis. The aftereffects of this crisis reverberate throughout their lives in a way that it feels like the dead are in fact the lucky ones. J. P. Clark’s in his poem The Casualties succinctly captures the plight of the casualties of war:
“The casualties are not only those who are dead.
They are well out of it.
The casualties are not only those who are dead.
Though they await burial by installment.”
Those that did not go with the crisis find themselves fighting a slow death in the physical, psychological and financial aspects of their lives.
There is no doubt that Theresa Tobuyei fashioned a brilliant premise for this story, but its execution could have been better. The use of flashbacks in the story does not appear seamless. Flashbacks are most functional in bringing pivotal and defining events in the past to shed light on the current reality in a story. It gives us background knowledge of the characters and when using this technique in a story, one must be conscious not to let it overlap with the present reality so much that the lines between the present and the past get blurry. Also, the narration could do with a lot more cohesion. The story is told from the omniscient point of view with the exception of one chapter told in the first-person point of view. The cohesion could have been enhanced smoothly, leaving no room for confusion if each character’s name begins their narration as used in the novel In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom.
In any case, Gasp tells an important story of war and the devastating effects it has on people long after it is over. It also depicts how our choices affect us as much as it affects people close to us.