Friday, September 22, 2017 7:49 am
By Kole Omotoso
Mbari Club was a natural draw for an aspiring writer. Situated a mere street walk from Mokola Roundabout, past the ancient Palm Chemist and you were there in the midst of Chinua Achebe, Ulli Beier, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, Duro Ladipo and Christopher OKIGBO. Lindsay Barrett had arrived from Kingston Jamaica via London perhaps. Poetry published in their journal BLACK ORPHEUS was available at the counter bookstall. There was a bar somewhere at the back and a small performance and rehearsal stage, again somewhere in the two storey building.
It was my second year as an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan. Student Union activities had been part of the life since my closest friend Ladipo was running for PRO of the student union government. Nigerian electoral politics was boiling over. The Action Group had imploded and the federal government of Ahmad Bello in collusion with SLA Akintola had put Obafemi Awolowo out of action away in prison in Calabar for treasonable felony. Of course, nobody in Western Region believed any of this fable about treasonable felony. Awolowo as far as the region was concerned was still very much in action.
The federal elections of 1964 came and went. It was heavily rigged in Western Region ensuring victory for the Akintola party now in alliance with Ahmad Bello’s Northern People’s Party (jamiatu mutenen arewa). Hubert Ogunde advised the voters of Western Region to hold their anger and vote out the rascal group in the upcoming Western Region election of 1965.
That election came and it was rigged by Akintola’s government. Chaos broke out in the Wild Wild West. Houses going up in flames, sly traditional rulers siding with the wrong side burned in their royal pleasure cars while those who went with their people had their stipends from government reduced to one penny a year.
It is against this background that I met Christopher OKIGBO and wrote a note to him about my not understanding his poetry. I was after all simply used to the grasshopper home of grass covered prose! He quipped that if I could understand the poetry of Imru al-Qais, an Arab pre-Islamic poet, his poetry would be nothing that I could not understand. But not to worry. He would explain his poetry to me.
Over the following months he would pick me up at Kuti Hall, my hall of residence and we would be out and about in his Jaguar car. Restaurants, night clubs, police stations. I will explain the police station just now.
I remember the first night at Esumare Restaurant. I ordered lamb cutlet and chips, my first ever order in a restaurant. Possibly with a cool drink, definitely not beer or wine. Afterwards we could have gone to a number of watering holes in Ibadan. There was Risikatu Bar, for instance, on the road to Ibadan Boys High School.
One night we went to the police station. A young writer friend of Christopher OKIGBO was being detained in police custody at Iyaganku. His name? Wole Soyinka. We went to spend some time with him. There was the usual banter that he was not the one who held up the radio station and prevented the election victory speech of the premier from being broadcast. And, as alleged, at gun point, forced the radio continuity staff to substitute his own tape warning the premier and his goons to get out of the region before the people drenched the streets with their blood. Yes, we would bear witness that he was not Wole Soyinka, in fact.
We know what happened. The Western Region became ungovernable. The military intervened on 15 January 1966 killing many politicians including SLA Akintola and Ahmad Bello. There was a counter coup later and the People’s of Eastern Region were harassed out of the rest of the country back to their region, many arriving sans their heads.
It was in this circumstance that Christopher OKIGBO and China Achebe and thousands of others, our friends and our families left for Enugu and other places in the Eastern Region. Soon, oro lo maa nmoro wa. Eni a bu baba re a gbesan. Every action has consequences and those who had been injured opted out of Nigeria through the instrumentality of Biafra. Christopher OKIGBO joined the Biafran army as major and went to the war front.
Our last telephone conversation was tense. He asked about Femi Osofisan and I asked when was he coming back. He never came back.
Ali Mazrui wrote The Trial of Christopher OKIGBO. I could not bring myself to read the book. It seemed that Ali Mazrui accused OKIGBO, the poet, of abandoning the poetic mission to take up the mission of the soldier. It was a bad case.
It was in this circumstance that Christopher OKIGBO and China Achebe and thousands of others, our friends and our families left for Enugu and other places in the Eastern Region. .. Every action has consequences and those who had been injured opted out of Nigeria through the instrumentality of Biafra. Christopher OKIGBO joined the Biafran army as major and went to the war front. Our last telephone conversation was tense. He asked about Femi Osofisan and I asked when was he coming back. He never came back.
What is the ultimate mission of the poet except to speak on behalf of traduced humanity, banalised humanity, abused humanity. And some times speaking means putting down the drum and the pen and picking up the cudgel to enforce respect to humanity from the traducers and abusers of humanity. That is the mission of the poet everywhere, in every age. That was the mission that Christopher OKIGBO died for, and how can a man and a woman die better than for what we hold dear and treasure?
OKIGBO speaks speaks:
“THE GLIMPSE of a dream lies smouldering in a cave,
together with the mortally wounded birds.”
The dream of Nigeria has been mortally wounded. There was need to fight the dream killers to restore and bring back to health that dream. As Wole Soyinka made clear later in The Man Died, the third force was the force that these poets and writers joined where the power of Biafra would be used to refashion the federal republic of Nigeria. Always, in all ways, that third force, restorers of our dreams, have been frustrated since the founding of Nigeria. First, it was frustrated by the British colonial government. Later, it was frustrated by the Northern political elite and their allies from the Eastern Region as well as the Western Region.
“AN OLD STAR departs, leaves us here on the shore
Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching;
The new star appears, foreshadows its going
Before a going and a coming that goes on forever. . .”
Wole Soyinka calls this “the unending cycle of human stupidity”, or words to that effect? When will Nigeria break that cycle? That’s what remembering Christopher OKIGBO fifty years on is about.
• Prof. Kole Omotoso gave this presentation at the recently held Christopher Okigbo Conference.