Tanure Ojaide: Literary activism and the order of merit

bondageThe historical experience which heralded the birth of modern Nigerian literature was defined by the hostile almost deprecating ambience which colonialism fostered. It was for that reason that the earliest echo of modern Nigerian poetry reverberated in protest. Having experienced the negation of the colonised, the harbinger-poets who were also nationalists championing the cause of Nigeria’s independence did not only rail against the ills of British imperialism and its avowed tendencies of cultural denigration, but they valourised an indigenous world view that was potent and dynamic before the advent of colonialism. The colonial experience in Nigeria was an assault on the socio-cultural and political configuration of the many ethnic nationalities which were cobbled into one political entity through the amalgamation of 1914. Socially, western education and Christianity disrupted the socio-cultural coherence which held the societies together. The net result of these experiences is the devaluation of the indigenous culture.

The Second World War (1939-1945) which drew Africa into the global theatre of armed conflict was to become a watershed for Nigeria and Nigerians. The war not only enabled Africans to fight side by side Europeans, but it exploded the myth of the Whiteman’s superiority, an act which propelled Africans to ask for self-determination and independence. This was one of the reasons that accelerated African nationalism as from 1945. The boost received by the nationalist movement would have been hollow, but for the emergence of cultural nationalism which gave fillip to the struggle for independence. Since, colonialism had both political and cultural implications, its unraveling would also be both political and cultural. Freedom from British imperialism must be complemented with the existence of a culturally valid ethos. This is the gap which the earliest phase of Nigerian poetry filled in the struggle for the nation’s independence.

It is arguable if the earliest poets to have walked Nigeria’s literary space actually set out as poets. What literary historians have so far teased out is that the pioneer poets were predominantly politicians cum nationalists who saw their ability to write poetry as a means of foregrounding the imaginative and intellectual abilities of the Blackman man. A roll call of the pioneer poets is not different from the list of nationalists who spearheaded the struggle for independence. Leading the list are Nnamdi Azikiwe and Dennis Osadebey who were not only nationalists, but were among the new leaders of Nigeria at independence in 1960.

In the poetry of Azikiwe and Osadebey one encounters the most potent rhetoric of cultural nationalism which not only illuminates a way of life, but manifests as a protest, first, against the denigration of the indigenous tradition, and secondly, against the imposition of foreign cultural values. Osadebey’s often quoted “Young Africa’s Plea” remains a telling example of the spirit and tenor of the poetry of that era. Hear the protesting voice of the persona:
Don’t preserve my customs/ As some fine curios/ To suit some white historian’s tastes./ There’s nothing artificial/ That beats the natural way/ In culture and ideals of life./ Let me play with the whiteman’s ways/ Let me work with the blackman’s brains/ Let my affairs themselves sort out./ Then in sweet rebirth/ I’ ll rise a better man/ Not ashamed to face the world.

The foregoing excerpt is a poetic articulation of the nationalist agenda which was geared towards the routing of colonialism and the enthronement of self-rule. Represented in Osadebey’s poem is a protest against colonialism and a reification of indigenous lore and culture. Here then is a confluence of political ideal and cultural imperative. Osadebay’s rejection of colonial caprice and the promotion of cultural ideology invokes much of what constitute the nationalist credo of the time which was defined by activism.

By the time Nigeria gained independence in 1960, a new literature which reflects the reality of nationhood emerged. The literature depicts the harsh socio-economic and political experience which supplanted the euphoria heralded independence. Instead of the Utopia which the people thought independence would bring, what emerged was crass failure of leadership, ineptitude and political misadventures. Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People remains a classic of the experience of the newly independent Nigeria. The many works that were to follow especially some of the plays of Wole Soyinka can be read as satirical representations which protest the neo-colonial order which Nigeria’s independence turned out to be. In this the writers sustained their activist role.

However, the protest strain did not last long as the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) ushered in “a season of anomy” which produced literary texts that begat lamentation. The Civil War gave Nigerian literature threnodic themes, but its end also inaugurated a new literary consciousness. The war’s end and the socio-economic contradictions which manifested in poverty amidst plenty engendered a new poetic tradition which took into consideration the yearning and aspirations of the downtrodden who hitherto found no place of significance in literary representations. A poetry with populist tenor, it inextricably got entangled in Marxist ideology which turns out to be the zeitgeist of much of Nigerian literature for the next two decades.

Tanure Ojaide who had taken a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Ibadan in 1971, a year after the Nigerian Civil War ended was in the vanguard of the new poetry. His 1973 debut poetry collection Children of Iroko and Other Poems is not only remarkable and enchanting for its musicality and freshness of themes hitherto unknown in Nigerian literature, but pointed at the direction which Nigerian writing would follow for some decades. Ojaide’s Children of Iroko and Other Poems when it came out marked him as an emergent poet of promise. Unlike many first works which fall into the orbit of juvenilia, Ojaide’s first collection depicts early poetic maturity as evidenced not only in his mastery of poetic craft, but in his configuration of what is to become the thematic preoccupation of Nigerian poetry in the decades ahead.

The tenor of protest which gave way to lamentation in writings coming out of the Civil War resurfaced more strident in Ojaide’s new poetry. In fact his mediation of protest remains so exuberant that it approximates agitation. This posture of protest and agitation is better described as activism. The activist tendency Ojaide brings to bear in this collection and subsequent ones amount to a critical and radical engagement with the many contradictions bedeviling the Nigerian polity. Children of Iroko. . . remains very significant to the extent that although, it is a first work, its canon entry is assured. This is so because the poems in it actually illuminate the theme and style not just of post-Civil War Nigerian poetry, but even drama and prose.

The collection engages the new experience which the end of the Civil War offers. However, the poems espouse a new aesthetic sensibility which inheres in preoccupation with native aesthetics that the poetry of the next generation of poets imbibed. The unflinching allegiance to the common man which was to dominate the poetry of the 1980s is also present in Children of Iroko.

Themes of deprivation, exploitation, corruption and military adventurism in the nation’s politics which define the collection turned out to be the thematic anchor of not just poetry, but also the drama and prose that followed. Hence, reading the collection without reading the poetry of Niyi Osundare, the plays of Femi Osofisan, novels of Festus Iyayi and the works of other writers of the 1970s and 1980s would not give a holistic engagement of the period in question.

Children of Iroko. . . for thirteen years remained Ojaide’s sole poetry collection until he published Labyrinths of the Delta in 1986. If the first collection interrogated the permutations arising from the Civil War, the second collection is a long almost interminable and critical engagement with the entire gamut of Nigerian history from primordial to the contemporary. It is through this collection that Ojaide establishes himself as a poet that has come to stay. Another significant feature of the collection is its inauguration of the poetry of environmental engagement which focuses on the denigration of the poet’s Niger Delta homeland, a theme for which Ojaide has become famous.

Many critics still consider the 1980s and the 1990s as the halcyon decades of Nigerian poetry. These were the decades that saw the maturation of poets who poetized the hopes, aspirations and impediments of the period of military dictatorship. Tanure Ojaide, Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Femi Fatoba and a host of others wrote poems which stand out as testimonies to lived experience of that turbulent era of the nation’s evolution. Significant in the poetic testament of the period is the identification with the plight of the masses which reinforces the diatribe against military dictatorship and the many ills it bequeathed the nation.

The poetry of Tanure Ojaide maintains an avant garde position in the poetic representation of that period till date. What further marks out his poetry is his activist engagement in collection after collection with the environmental issues of the Niger Delta region which oil exploration and exploitation continue to exacerbate. Yet, as profound as hiss preoccupation with the Niger Delta crisis is, he considers Nigeria and Africa his main turf of engagement. His poetry is combative and at each point calls to question the historical experience of the nation space called Nigeria. His aversion to and tirade against bad leadership has a revolutionary ring. For him poetry remains an alternative means of mobilization for individual and national rebirth.

Ojaide remains Africa’s most prolific poet and to his credit are twenty collections of poetry. After the first two already mentioned, Ojaide has published The Eagles Vision (1987), The Endless Song (1989), The Fate of Vultures (1990), The Blood of Peace (1991), Daydream of Ants (1997), Cannons for the Brave (1997), Delta Blues and Home Songs (1998), Invoking the Warrior Spirit (1998), When it No Longer Matters Where You Live (1999), In the Kingdom of Songs (2002), I Want to Dance (2003), In the House of Words (2006), The Tale of the Harmattan (2007), Waiting for the Hatching of a Cockerel (2008), The Beauty I Have Seen (2010) and Love Gifts (2013) and Song of Myself (2015).

His poetic oeuvre which has been translated into ten foreign languages can conveniently be divided into three phases which are however knit into one holistic engagement with Nigerian history and human experience. The first phase is occupied by Children of Iroko… which is his introit in the poetic vocation. This collection is significant in that it anticipates all the motifs of his later poetry, from corruption, bad leadership, environmental issues and metaphysical cum abstract preoccupation to other themes of universal import. So much has been said about the collection’s indebtedness to the poetry of Christopher Okigbo, but a familiar reader of Ojaide’s later works would trace the bold lyrical sweep and unpretentious commitment to an advocacy for the cause of the downtrodden in the poems, a strain which has remained consistent in Ojaide’s poetic practice.

The next phase comprises poems published from around the late 1980s to the 1990s. The period coincided with the advent of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), the economic policy that was adopted by the nation in the late 1980s . The poems here constitute a significant diatribe against military dictatorship and its vagaries as well as economic exploitation and its attendant poverty. The poems also coalesce into a revolutionary framework against the background of the ecological crises in the Niger Delta which peaked with the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Niger Delta environmental rights activist in 1995. The tone of the poems is unmistakably militant reflecting the prevalent mood of acute anger in the Niger Delta region. There is no doubt that the intensity of feeling, mood and language deployed by Ojaide helped in no small way in drawing the world’s attention to the grave ecological situation in the Niger Delta. In fact so intense and preoccupied are some of the poems in this phase that many critics tend to see him principally as a poet of the Niger Delta condition. But such a reading negates his pan-Nigerian poetic engagement.

The third phase of his poetry spans the years 2000 till date. The beginning of this phase of his writing is unique in that it was the beginning of a new century which also coincided with the end of military dictatorship. Since the main target, which is military rule, has been dislodged, the poet has to rethink new themes and directions. Ojaide did not have to look very far. The vestiges and memories of the preceding decade still provided matters and materials for his contemplation just as his eco-conscious preoccupation remains an abiding motif. Yet, an unmistakable new direction evolved in his poetry. Ojaide rethinks and privileges the many nuances of the rich oral poetic tradition of udje of the Urhobo people. Some of the titles of the collections carry such key words like “song”, “dance”, “words”. “tale”, etc to foreground the character of the indigenous heritage of poetry. A number of the poems here reflect Ojaide’s personality as a global citizen as they capture his travels and experiences thereof. While they can be described as travelogues they bear the mark of his Niger Delta homeland even as they reflect the scars which the Nigerian nation left on his psyche. The poems also lean towards metaphysical and abstract tendencies which very much differ from the earlier ones.

Ojaide’s literary career is also remarkable for his highly successful cross-generic experimentation. Although, he is better known as a poet, he was to venture into the domain of prose fiction weaving significant narratives that portray his comprehension of the anatomy and craft of fiction. To his credit are the following novels and short stories: The Old Man in a State House & Other Stories (2012). Stars of the Long Night (2012), Matters of the Moment (2009). The Debt-Collector & Other Stories (2009). The Activist (2006). Sovereign Body (2004), .God’s Medicine Men & Other Stories (2004).Ojaide’s fictional narratives resonate with the concerns of his poetic representations. His engagement with the prose genre has also seen him writing two memoirs in the realm of non-fiction namely: Drawing the Map of Heaven: An African Writer in America (2012) and Great Boys: An African Childhood (1998).

Tanure Ojaide has also distinguished himself as a literary scholar and critic of the first rank. He epitomizes the Nigerian tradition of scholar-poets as his critical submissions in books and journals have become touchstones for literary scholarship in Africa and beyond. Among his full length critical studies on African literature and culture are Indigeneity, Globalization, and African Literature: Personally Speaking (2015).Contemporary African Literature: New Approaches (2012).Theorizing African Oral Poetic Performance and Aesthetics: Udje Dance Songs of the Urhobo People (2009).Ordering the African Imagination: Essays on Culture and Literature (2007).A Creative Writing Handbook for African Writers and Students (2005).Poetry, Performance, and Art: The Udje Dance Songs of the Urhobo People (2003).Poetic Imagination in Black Africa: Essays on African Poetry (1996). His robust critical output has continued to enrich and update literary scholarship on African aesthetics.

An evaluation of Tanure Ojaide’s place and contribution to literature, culture and society puts him in the front row of the global stage. It is for this reason that he emerged as the recipient of the 2016 Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) which is Nigeria’s highest accolade for intellectual accomplishment. Before this however, Ojaide has won many Nigerian, African and global prizes and honours in recognition of his remarkable imaginative and intellectual prowess.

Ojaide’s winning of the NNOM once again rekindles national interest in the role literature has played in Nigeria’s evolution. This is probably why since the NNOM was inaugurated in 1979, it has been won by twelve writers, the first having been clinched by legendary novelist, Chinua Achebe! Once, there was the discomfiture that literature was not appreciated in Nigeria, and there was even the fear expressed about the death of Nigerian literature. However, the literature remains resilient, vibrant and reflective of the nation’s historical trajectory as it was in the beginning when the pioneer poets used poetry as a combative tool against colonialism.
• Awhefeada teaches literature at Delta State University, Abraka

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Tanure Ojaide
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