By Nehru Odeh
Odia Ofeimun is a man of many parts, and substance too. He may not have riches that are measured in monetary terms and property, but his wealth of ideas surpasses everything. He may not have the material trappings that many crave in a philistine society like ours, but his works are imprinted not just in the world of politics and literature but also in our minds and the sands of time.
He may not have all that many believe defines a man in a materialist society, but his interventions in politics and literature have defined the ethos of this nation. Yet at 73 he is still a material any day, any time, still a voice for the oppressed and marginalized and showing no sign of buckling.
This indeed is the intriguing story of Ofeimun, a writer who has given his all, and sacrificed so much, not just for literature but also for the betterment of the country.
Little wonder when the poet, writer, public intellectual, polemicist, essayist, dramatist, and entrepreneur, turned 70 on March 16, 2020, friends, colleagues and family from across the globe converged on the University of Lagos to celebrate him in a two-day conference organized by a Committee of Friends in collaboration with the Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos.
Yet three years on, the ripples of that conference have yet to die down – and does not seem they ever will – as the issues it generated have been published as a book entitled Ofeimun: In Search of a Common Morality- Essays, Tributes, and Conversations.” It was edited by Professors Wumi Raji, Sylvester Odion-Akhaine, and Akin Adesokan.
The book, a collection of essays and tributes that were delivered on his 70th birthday, was presented to the public on Thursday, 28 September 2023. The reviewer of the book was Dr Reuben Abati, journalist, lawyer, and former Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan. The anchor of the event was Professor Sylvester Odion-Akhaine.
Still, the book presentation came in the nick of time, just days before the celebration of Nigeria’s independence, what with the stench of pessimism and despair hovering over the country. And since it was about a man of ideas, the event turned out to be heavy on ideas and on issues bedeviling the country as each of the speakers lamented the morass into which the country has fallen in the past 63 years after it gained independence.
It was indeed an afternoon of tributes, memories, discourse, and laughter sprinkled with despair and angst. Distinguished guests present included the former Minister of the Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola; Human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN); Mr. Adeyinka Olumide-Fusika (SAN); Professor Kayode Soremekun, former Vice Chancellor Federal University Oye-Ekiti; and Professor Mike Ikhariale, former Dean, Faculty of Law, Lagos State University. The guests not only paid tributes to Ofeimun but also discussed the perennial problems facing the country and suggested ways out of them.
In his welcome address, Professor Wumi Raji said the book, which took more than three years to produce, since its production process started immediately after Ofeimun’s 70th birthday, is one of the greatest tributes to the writer.
“As soon as the conference ended, we thought that we should be able to put a book together from that. And that it would be the best way to honour Odia Ofeimun, who himself is a polymath who has published nothing less than 30 books in politics and poetry. He has at least 17 volumes of poetry and several books on different aspects focusing on the Nigerian situation. And one of them being “The Nigerian Agenda.”
Mr. Adeyinka Olumide-Fusika, SAN, who chaired the occasion, did not just pay tribute to Ofeimun but also set the tone for the discourse that day. According to him, he became conscious of the name ‘Ofeimun’ as a 13-year-old in 1979 while reading the set of newspapers his father always bought for them, the children.
“I think he is worth celebrating. He’s been celebrated. And this is a continuation of that celebration. When I look around this hall today, I see us from the various divides of Nigeria – religion, ethnicity, age-wise. But we are all gathered here to celebrate a man of merit. So when we see merit, we recognize it.
“As we celebrate today, I think we also need to appreciate the enormity of our failure as individuals and as a country. When Professor Wole Soyinka described his generation as a failed one, our own was thinking okay we would not fail, we would do better. But I think we can ask ourselves the question, how well have we done?
“When we say let’s come together and discuss Nigeria, that’s when it’s always very difficult for us because we then begin to introduce all sorts of things; people arguing not to solve problems but just for argument’s sake. A lot of us want to be seen as Generals leading no army. Nobody wants to be follower of good ideas. And that’s the bane of our country today. We can’t say we haven’t learnt all the isms, all the political theories, all the economic theories etc. Even right here, if you put these people here together to run this country, I’m sure they would do a good job at it.
“So, that’s a challenge for us: how to redeem our country. Their generation was better. At least they ate chicken in the university, three square meals, ice cream etc. They did. My generation met a bit of it. But when you look around at what is going on in the country today, you feel sad, you feel despondent.
“But then despondency doesn’t solve problems. We need to put our thinking caps on again. And we need to begin to look at how to rescue this country from the morass that it is currently undergoing. Whether we will succeed or not, I don’t know. But at least if you don’t try, you won’t know whether you will succeed.
“That is what I want us to take away from this event. We are celebrating a person of merit. We are celebrating someone who has been a generational inspiration. He has inspired a lot of people, many of them not known to him. Unless you tell him you are my hero. But nobody would say that. Through your books, through your life, though your activities, through your intervention, you have a lot of people who really admire you and see you as a model to be followed, to be celebrated.
“But as we are doing that, like I said, we should remember that if anybody had told you in 1979 or even before that, that this is what Nigeria would be in 2023, you would say ‘Tufiakwa, it can never happen.’ But that is what it is. I think we need to interrogate that. What happened? Why are we where we are despite efforts of people like you? Why are we where we are today? Why is it that things that matter have been discountenanced and no longer in the front burner?
“It’s all about money, money, money. Not about development nor progress. But it is about this political leader giving me some money he has benefited from. Nobody is asking why is there no pipe-borne water and everybody is digging bore-hole . And the government that would not provide pipe-borne water would still come and say ‘you have to pay me tax for the borehole.’
“I think that that is something we need to interrogate and examine and maybe if we are able to answer these questions, maybe we would begin to see how we can resolve the problems of the country,” Olumide-Fusika averred.
Ms Molara Wood, poet, writer and journalist, was also full of praise for Ofeimun, whom she described not just as a great man but as some one who has contributed so much to her as a writer. She also said since the book is the outcome of the 2020 conference, its importance cannot be overemphasized.
“So, just being here I’m reminded of that great conference, and great conferences live in my memory because we are In a very philistine environment where a lot of people talk about having intellectual arguments and discussions but very rarely is it about that.
“But when I go to a great conference where it is about the intellectual mind of the nation or about the intellectual contribution of the person being celebrated or whose work is being examined, those conferences live on in my memory and they actually become part of my own mindscape.
“It is quite important that when we have meetings, gatherings like that we have a record of that intellectual moment. And that is why it is great that this book is now in existence.
“I read somewhere, someone said why do we write things down? To make them real perhaps. You have a conference, there is no record of it, there is no book about it, then people will forget. And after a while it woud seem like it did not happen.
“Above all, I’m here today to honour of course the great man Odia Ofeimun himself. The chairperson was talking about the enormity of our failure. We’ve had the railways running again in Nigeria of recent, very limited network and not quite the speed that you would get if you are in France or London. But we thank God we have the railways running.
“And it astonished me that a lot of younger people were talking as if this was the first time railway was in this country. I also remember travelling on the railway when I was very young, from the north to the south.
“Books like this also help us to track because we have something almost like a schism, like a gap in societal memory, in cultura memory. Even from say 20 years ago, there is that gulf, people don’t know what happened before. So they are not able to properly conceptualise and contemplate the current moment and to examine it with all information that we ordinarily ought to be able to garner, to call on.
“I honour this great man who has intervened for so many years. He is iconic. If you dare to walk down the road with him, you would just see people, even pepper sellers, saying, ‘I know you, sir’. They might not be able to point to why they know him. Some would say ‘oh we read you in school.’
“But I also don’t think I have come across any book that is entirely about Odia Ofeimun’s poetry for instance. Apart from his own books. Basically, we’ve not had enough or substantial attention on his works. And I think this is a step in the right direction and I hope that more scholars would give proper, considered attention to his works.
“I would like to pay a tribute to him. He is not just a polemicist. For instance, all those long pages we used to read in The Guardian, four pages. I would sit down. I would say how did one person sit down and write all this? The poetry, the drama etc. And also what he does for the creative imagination of writers.
“He has contributed so much to me as a writer that I wouldn’t even know how to begin to describe. And he has contributed so much, And I would like to just pay tribute for without him, we would not have much of the writing, the literary production that we are having in this country. So, I am very honoured to be here, and all honour to this man. And I look forward to all the contributions from everyone here,” Molara said.
Professor Kayode Soremekun, who said when he entered the hall he was besieged with memories of the guerrilla days when he and Ofeimun were on the editorial board of AM NEWS, praised Ofeimun for his sense of commitment, his discipline and his determination to lead a spartan life even when he had many opportunities to enrich himself.
He also congratulated Ofeimun who, according to him, “is a member of the academy who has refused to register formally in the academy. I always say that there are two types of professors. Professor by status and professor by stature. Odia Ofeimun embodies both qualities without registering in the academy,” Soremekun noted.
He continued: “Onigbinde was talking to me this morning. And he was saying something. That being at the barricades in those days, what was it all about? That at the end of the day we had the democracy in formalistic term and our mouths, so to say, are still sour. Which goes back to what the Chairman of the occasion said about a fundamental like pipe-borne water lacking in Nigeria. By saying this, let me just offer something by way of response to the Chairman. And that is that it looks as if most of us have not paid enough attention to aspects of Nigerian history, especially if we haven’t read someone like Kole Omotoso of blessed memory.
“Having said that, we are here to celebrate a man who, I would say, runs against the grain. In the sense that he is not a poor man, as Biodun Jeyifo said in this book. But that he has chosen to virtually impoverish himself. And that is rare in a society where the material trappings count for much.
“Odia belongs to the fringe. If you’ve read Ayi Kwei Armah, Odia is more or less like that nameless man in Ayi Kwei Armah’s book, ‘The Beautiful ones Are Not Yet Born.’ He epitomises that. How many people can be counted like that in this country?
“I do remember that in the Second Republic, he pushed a lot of resources into supporting one of the candidates who eventually became Governor of Kwara State. He could have used that for himself. He could have been a rich man today, But no.
“So, what’s the way forward? I think the way forward is continuous struggle, education, as regards how things should be and not as they are. Unfortunately, the debate in Nigeria today I must say is still very sterile. You open your newspapers, social media, you would see things about one dollar used to be one naira in those days. Why is that so? And that the Central Bank Governor would say he is doing some tinkering. The point is that the fundamentals of the economy are wrong. Any country that prides on consumption without production is going to be in this kind of hole. We need to reset our lifestyles.
“So, what’s really wrong? As long as we are steeped in this various series of stinking opulence which an Odia Ofeimun has repudiated all his life, then this country is going to be like this for a very,very long time. I hate to be so pessimistic. But I have seen the insides. It is a cause for worry because the gentleman here, Fusika, SAN, ‘you said you were 13 in 1979.’ I was 26 then. This is not to put you down please. And I have been writing since then all the way and you then say has anything really changed?”Soremekun lamented.
Reuben Abati’s review, the title of which he coined from one one of Ofeimun’s collections of essays, “Taking Nigeria Seriously” was entitled “Taking Odia Seriously: A book in Honour of the Poet.” In his review, Abati spoke eloquently about how Ofeimun took everything that he did seriously. He also described him as one of the most impactful, productive and influential public intellectuals that Nigeria has produced in the past four decades.
“Those who know Odia -the title of the third part of the book, ‘The Odia We Know’ – know him to be a man who takes everything that he does seriously. It is this single-minded devotion to his craft and to his environment, to society, that has been a defining characteristics of his polyvalent genius committed in every virtually facet of his persona as a poet, writer, polemicist, journalist, dramatist, producer, essayist, publisher, literary critic and entrepreneur.
“The last title may seem odd to many. But it is true as Odia has had a long experience running an enterprise even though the main substance of that enterprise is literature and ideas. While Odia takes what he does seriously, it is noteworthy that this publication is an affirmation of the man himself being taken seriously.
“The editors have done a remarkable job of putting a good fence around that 2020 event. And whereas they claim that the readers will be encountering for the first time what represents more or less a sustained critical engagement with Ofeimun’s writings, I doubt if indeed this is the first effort of his kind. But what can be seen at first glance is the extensive scope of the content, the depth of the analysis and the array of scholars and admirers taking Odia Ofeimum seriously.
“It is not difficult to see why this is so. Odia Ofeimun is one of the most impactful, productive and influential public intellectuals that Nigeria has produced in the past four decades. That is with his contributions to poetry, journalism, literature and stage presentations forming a formidable part of the canon. His influence is cross disciplinary, multi dimensional, and as a person he remains one of the most actively engaged citizens of our time.
“What even stands him out is his courage, his conviction and the sheer dare-devilry with which he reinvents himself. Long before the Labour Party became such a movement in contemporary Nigerian politics, Odia Ofeimun had made an attempt to become a governor on the platform of that party.
“It would appear however, that the common morality it refers to underlies the humanistic temper of Odia Ofeimun’s writings. That is, his deep interrogation into what makes us human, what makes us less human and what would make us more human across all these spectrums of human experience,” Abati maintained.
Mr Femi Falana, SAN, commended the editors of the book for the compilation of essays, saying that having listened to Abati’s review he is eager to read the book in a society where people rarely read books. He also use the opportunity to thank them for honouring a man who deserves all the honour one can give him while he is alive. “But I want to thank our people and I do hope that we can have regular fora to discuss our heroes as well as our country,” he noted.
Falana also decried the dollarization of the Nigerian economy, which, according to the distinguished lawyer, is telling on the masses majority of whom don’t know how the American dollar looks like.
“Let me say, without any fear of contradiction, that majority of Nigerians have nothing to do with foreign exchange. It’s the business of the elite class. And so when you unleash violence on our people because you are looking for dollars, please think all the time that majority of Nigerians have no contact with the dollar, have never seen it in their lives.
“I’m saying today that there is no provision in our law for the dollarization of the Nigerian economy. Under their own Central Bank Act, Section 20, the legal tender in Nigeria is the naira, not dollar. In fact, it is a criminal offence to reject the naira and embrace the dollar.
“And so when these guys in Abuja allow rents to be collected in dollars, property to be sold in dollars, school fees of some schools in Nigeria are collected in dollars. And even professionals, people of our calibre, now demand for payment of their professional fees in dollars
“But the point I’m making and we must demand here today that this government should apply the projections of section 20, subsection 5 of the Central Bank Act which has criminalize the refusal to accept Nigeria as the legal tender in Nigeria.
“Let me also enjoin you to assist Nigerians to mount pressure on the government in Abuja to think of alternatives to the policies they have embraced, ” Falana averred.
However, responding to Falana, Senator Yunus Akintunde said everyone, and not just the politicians in Abuja is to blame for the dollarization of the economy
“We don’t have to play to the gallery. If we desire to consume what we produce, naira would be strong enough. There is nowhere in the world where your production is in a weak currency and your consumption is in hard currency and the equation will balance up. It will never be. That’s the system here and we just have to realize that.
“All of us have to buy the idea that we have to grow this country together, whether someone is a lawyer or not. A lawyer would request for dollars because he too probably is paying for whatever he buys in dollars,” Akintunde said.
Professor Akin Onigbinde went down memory lane reminiscing about how he met Ofeimun for the first time time “in those hectic days of AM NEWS.” He also used the opportunity to remind Ofeimun about the book on Awolowo he had promised Nigerians, saying that the people are waiting for him to write it, adding that he and his colleagues would sit down one day to write the book and put Ofeimun’s name on it.
“When I got a text message and Odia’s name is connected, I said I must be there, if only to ask a simple question. And I did ask that question. And I am happy that Reuben also made an allusion to it. Kunle Ajibade was there when I said when are you going to write this book? He said which book? I said this Awo book, and that some 10 years ago, between me and Reuben I could remember in his house in Oregun, we said we would just sit down one day and write this book. We would write this book and we would just put your name because you are a hostage to that book. And we are waiting for it,” Onigbinde said.
Professor Mike Ikhariale described Ofeimun as an international figure and ambassador of the Esan people to Nigeria and the world whom they are proud of. He however said Ofeimun is living his name, which in Esan language means the fearless one because he had demonstrated an uncommon boldness and courage in the face of mounting challenges.
“You guys anglicized a very powerful name ‘Ofeimun’. At our level we see him as our ambassador to Nigeria and to the world. Because actually he is an international personality.
“The name ‘Ofeimun’ is probably what Dr Abati was trying to say in English when he said he was a literary giant. Ofeimun in Esan land is a man who does not fear. So, sometimes we live our names. Because he is an epitome of boldness. Even when it was dangerous to stand up in this country and say something, he was like ‘here I am,’ Ikhariale noted.
Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, who was initially represented by his son Kabir, later flew into Lagos to be part of the celebration. In his speech, he bemoaned the rising poverty in the land relating it to Nigerians’ dependence on foreign goods.
“I grew up in a Nigeria where everything was virtually normal, normal in the sense that to get a person that would not be able to eat three square meals in any part of Nigeria was difficult. No matter your status or class position, food was taken for granted. Strangely, as we are advancing in growth, we started realizing extreme poverty. People could not eat.
“And of course we’ve gotten to almost an impossible level now, where a large number of Nigerians can not even feed at all. Eating is now an illusion to so many people. And I asked myself why is this so?
“I came to a conclusion. Simple. In the 60s when I acquired the portion of the place I live, majority of Nigerians live averagely on our local production. We never ate anything in my house that was imported.”
Aregbesola, however, pledged his continued allegiance and loyalty to the bond between him and Ofeimun, saying “my commitment to Odia is eternal, sacred and permanent.”
“As to my commitment to Odia, it is eternal. I said I must come because Odia must not find me wanting, wherever he is being celebrated. How he qualifies for that for me is simple. When I was in school, Odia was already tied to my own hero, Baba Obafemi Awolowo. So even at that time, I used to write Baba. Whether he got to him or not I wouldn’t know.
“But Odia was a constant face. The first day that we met and we talked it was a dream come true. And we have had a relationship ever since. From Oregun, where he stayed forever I never knew he was not the owner until he came to me one day and said he was packing out. ‘Odia I thought you were the owner of the house,’ I asked. He said no no no.
“So Odia is a toast to those of us who have had some interest in society and how to tweak it to be better. So, for those who are yet to know who he is, Odia represents the best in all of us, to chronicle what is it that we all adore and want for our nation. To Odia, my commitment is sacred, eternal and permanent. I am with you,” Aregbesla said.
Odia Ofeimum, whom the distinguished guests had gathered to celebrate, expressed his appreciation for their commitment to the progress of the society as well as the friendship and loyalty they had shown him over the years
“I’m glad to be in the midst of friends whom I don’t meet on an everyday basis: but who, even when I don’t see, I can count upon. That is, people whose names I can swear by even when I don’t see them, “ Ofeimun enthused.
“I do wish that every friend of mine who is a contributor to the progress we are making in this society is defended by the anointing of the presences they offer to the rest of the world. Here I’m not just anointing. I’m not just celebrating my friends because they have come to celebrate me. But I’m genuinely celebrating everybody because even when we do not meet, we know them wherever they are, even when they are not being heard by everybody.
“We defend the values that you believe in, values that will defend other human beings, values that are not selfish, not self-energized but socially introjected in such a manner that whatever they do is a blessing to those who hear about them.
“When I was coming here I was genuinely frightened of entering a social occasion. I looked around and I’m genuinely glad. When you want people to do great things for society, the first thing you should wish for is that when the good people meet, they recognize themselves enough to be able to pursue common goals.
“We may not all be Marxists or socialists or whatever, but there is something about us as a people. The good people in society are knowable. And they are knowable not just because they sprout some ideologies but because between ideologues, they know what is good for everybody.
“The governors who began recognizing their own people as Omoluabi were tapping to the very root of the social impassion that our cultures believe in, that we are born into, that we may not be living by but conclusively wish to pursue and help grow.
“The way we are growing in our society may appear to be throwing sideways or throwing away some of the great things we’ve believed in. But I also want to say this. Irrespective of where we say it, we are genuinely contributing to the building of a society that will save the rest of us and will save the children who come after us.
“If a child has heard the word Omuluabi before and does not live in accordance with its principles, that child would be considered a non member of a progressive future. But being a member of a progressive future is a factor of what we are doing here today.
“I am happy because people who relate to you fundamentally are responding to you intrinsically. We all genuinely wish for a better society. I have seen everybody here doing their own thing in their own way. But for God’s sake, let’s face it. If there were not people like us in the Nigerian society, much of what we call the Nigerian society would not exist.
“i don’t have a special premium on what is right for the society. But I’m convinced that everybody who is here has introjected, has entered into that unfailing ride to progress that begins with the ideas we express and the ideas we share.
“Two things I want to do here. I want to say that one thing that unites all of us is that we were brought into society where knowledge is considered a central issue.
“A society that has no free education cannot have a good economy. That is why all the problems that America is facing today arise from its attitude to knowledge. Americans believe so much in knowledge but they do not provide it at a rate that ensures pereniality of purpose.
“In our society we must create one in which evey child who grows up knows that education is not something to be paid for. Education is something we must have. And if we manage to think along those lines we would be able to build the factories that would transform our local foodstuff into manageable commodities and so on.
“For God’s sake, we don’t have a poor society. It is good to state it clearly. What we have is a society that is being undermanaged and mismanaged. How to ensure that we move out of that state is where we still are.
“And when I look around me, I am happy that almost everybody I see, whether a journalist, a lawyer, a professor, a general seeker after social good, all of them had appeared to arrive at the same conclusions. The question is: why can’t we hold together in a way that whatever our differences might be, our sense of social purpose never changes and would always remain something that is above partisan politics,” Ofeimun maintained.