Celebrating legacies of Okigbo 50 years after
‘…Christopher Okigbo Died A Martyr’
Academics, writers, literary critics, culture aficionados, friends and members of Okigbo family converged on Trenchard Hall, University of Ibadan, Oyo State, to celebrate the golden jubilee of the death of Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo, one of Africa’s greatest modernist poets, musician and teacher. Born August 16, 1932, the cerebral poet was struck down at the battlefield during Nigeria Civil War in 1967, while fighting for the independence of defunct Biafra.
Fifty years after, Christopher Okigbo Foundation (COF), in conjunction with the University of Ibadan, his alma mater, celebrated the life and times of the poet-soldier in a two-day conference, which had as theme ‘Legacy Of Christopher Okigbo; 50 Years On.’
First to present a lead paper was foremost African literary critic, Prof. Dan Izevbaye, who spoke on ‘Why Okigbo Matters at the 50th Anniversary of His Death.’ Izevbaye noted that the status of any poet could be judged by the fullness and variety of the critical attention his works have generated after his death. He added that the critical reception of Okigbo’s work has been of such variety and degree of intensity that a personality cult has grown around the author, producing a yet-to-be resolved distance between the poet and his persona in his poems, especially because some critics complain that not much is known about the personal life of the author himself.
Izevbaye noted that the celebration was an opportunity to revisit the two primary levels at which poetry matters in the country, especially now that a hierarchy of preferences and privileges was being officially established, adding that the relevance of poetry is generally measured by the amount of pleasure and moral value it provides. He added that the primary sources of these functions are the social and cultural roots of poetry or its transforming role in these areas, the renewal of the dialect of a community or race, and as a spring from which poetry readers and listeners could draw aesthetic, emotional and psychological satisfaction.
According to him, poetry took on an extra-psychological and spiritual function in societies just emerging from the colonial experience, like Nigeria in the 1950s, saying that the poet is one of the guides to the individual’s recovery and reassertion of the cultural self after a period of subordination by the colonization of a people’s culture.
On Okigbo dropping the pen for the gun on the part of Biafra, the don stated that it was an act of heroism. He said: “Okigbo’s entry into the field of conflict was an act of heroism. But a modern battlefield is more often a field of slaughter and sacrifice than a field for heroes. Sadly, modern warfare and weapons of war cannot differentiate between the poet and the ordinary soldier.”
The university teacher observed that Okigbo’s poetic development was a progression from the personal exploration of the self in the early poems, to a re-connection with his community in form of the religious sacrifice to his domestic gods, followed by a concern with the fate of suffering heroes like Obafemi Awolowo of Nigeria and Patrice Lumumba DR Congo in the lament, ending with his political engagement in the last poems that prepared him for his heroic sacrifice.
While speaking at the second session on ‘Okigbo, The Friend And Colleague,’ moderated by Molara Wood, Prof. J.P. Clark noted that 50 years down the line, the social injustice and marginalisation the poet fought against were still prevalent in the country, adding that the Nigerian Civil War has not really changed the situation.
Clark observed that many ethnic and social groups are now clamouring for the restructuring of the country because only a very few people are benefitting from the system. The poet and playwright stated that Okigbo was not a chameleon that took power to protect himself, but instead went to war to take away soceity’s traumas and sufferings.
Also speaking on the same topic, Prof. Wole Soyinka stated that Okigbo lived a life of conviction, saying that he was not just an activist, but also someone who puts his life on the line. Describing Okigbo as a multitalented and renaissance person, the Nobel Laureate said it was not enough to talk of ‘Python Dance or Crocodile Smile,’ as Nigeria’s military has perfected a new style, or borrowing other people’s language. He observed that the country is now confronted with a choice brought up by mis-governance, leadership alienation and lack of opportunities. He added that while Nigeria was moving slowly out of the menace called Boko Haram, she was faced with cattle rearers, who feel they own every square inch of the country. While describing the whole situation as ‘the unending cycle of human stupidity,’ Soyinka asked ‘when would Nigeria break this cycle?’
Soyinka called on the president to check the military boys terrorising members of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and those sympathetic to them, saying the sense of military security is beginning to have a negative impact on the people.
“It is time we tell government to keep the boys in order,” he charged. “We cannot afford to stay silent when the military is humiliating citizens or supporters of Biafra. We need to call the military to speak on some of its activities, especially as it concerns the video going viral of where some IPOB members were humiliated in a marshy land.”
On ‘Okigbo, The family Man,’ Prof. Kole Omotosho noted that the poet was a family man in the real sense of family of letters, adding that he mixed very well with the aged and young, aside having the ability of taking on a young person and making him better.
He summarised Okigbo’s character with a query: “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?”
Continuing, Omotosho noted that the dream of Nigeria has been mortally wounded, saying “there was need to fight the dream-killers to restore and bring back to health that dream.”
According to him, as Wole Soyinka made clear later in The Man Died, the third force was what those poets and writers joined, where the power of Biafra would be used to refashion the Federal Republic of Nigeria, adding, “always, in all ways, that third force, restorers of our dreams, has been frustrated since the founding of Nigeria.” First, according to him, “it was frustrated by the British colonial government, and later, by the Northern political elite and their allies from the Eastern Region, as well as the Western Region.”
Prof. Alex Olu Ajayi, who spoke on ‘Okigbo, The Teacher,’ said Okigbo’s versatility enabled him to fully participate at the highest level in sporting, poetic, intellectual and social activities at Fiditi Grammar School, Fiditi, Oyo State, without the pretensions nor inhibitions of civil service, nor the marketing distractions of boisterous Lagos.
While adding his voice to the growing accolades heaped on the man of letters, Prof. Remi Raji stated that the late poet decide to carry the gun when words failed him!
FORMER Chairman, Public Petitions Committee, House of Representatives, Chudi Offodile, while speaking on ‘Okigbo, The Martyr,’ queried Okigbo’s rational for not just supporting the cause of Biafra like other intellectuals did in other ways, perhaps, as an administrator, a diplomat, teacher or propagandist, but rather choosing to go to war. Why did he opt for military duties, combat duties?
In finding answers to these questions, the author of The Politics of Biafra and the Future of Nigeria revealed that the history of the events of the 1960s that led to the declaration of Biafra should provide a guide. According to him, the coup and counter-coup of 1966, the pogrom that followed, the exodus of Easterners from the rest of Nigeria and the collapse of the Aburi agreement had a telling effect on the late poet. He noted that having different versions of history emanating from the same set of facts contribute to the failure of Nigeria’s march to nationhood.
According to him, “Nigeria’s complicated history frustrates the march to nationhood, as different sections of the country see things differently and oftentimes interpret the same set of facts very differently. There cannot be two sides of truth. An account of events is either true or false. Our different accounts of historical facts cannot all be true and that makes the teaching of history rather problematic. The solution is not to remove history as a subject in our school curriculum or to engage in the dangerous dance of pythons with needless fatalities, but to commit to the universal ideals of justice and fairness.
“So that even with all our differences, applying the universal standards of justice, we can begin to pull closer, begin to see some things the same way and begin to forge a common worldview with the same heroes. Not different heroes for different ethnicities.”
On the Nigeria Civil War, Offodile noted that Soyinka predicted the country’s present national quagmire and the possibility of re-occurrence of the same events that led to the war in the following words: “What is clear, miserably, humiliatingly clear, is that a war is being fought without a simultaneous programme of reform and redefinition of social purpose. A war of solidity; for solidity is a far more accurate word than unity to employ in describing a war, which can only consolidate the very values that gave rise to the war in the first place, for nowhere and at no time have those values been examined. Nowhere has there appeared a programme designed to ensure the eradication of the fundamental iniquities, which gave rise to the initial conflicts.”
Ofodile noted that Okigbo fighting on the side of Biafra has drawn different opinions on his place in history, maintaining that the poet-soldier was a hero: “A hero need not be perfect, but a martyr is a perfect hero, for there is no better way to die than for a cause you believe in. Christopher Okigbo died a martyr!”
With Prof (Eze) Chukwuemeka Ike, as Chairman, Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe, as the Royal Elder of the event, guests witnessed the launch of a book, Christopher Okigbo: Moonglow And Other Poems, a re-launch of Okigbo Prize for Poetry, and the unveiling of UNESCO Plaque at Cambridge House, the house Christopher Okigbo lived from 1962 to 1966, before relocating to the east to join the defunct Biafran Army.
The current owner of the house, Chief Joop Berkhout, who organised a soiree for guests said: “Christopher Okigbo refused to be labeled as an African, Nigerian or black poet. He was simply a poet of the world, whose tasks and sensibility were made in any colour or climate. He was, indeed, universal, a man of the world. I share his philosophies. Just like the late President of Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, said in 1960: ‘Any form of discrimination based on gender, colour, religion or ethnicity is a crime against humanity.’ History is important; we should never forget the past. Today’s celebration or remembrance is a proof that there is hope for the future. Christopher Okigbo, the poet, has set the path!”
President, Christopher Okigbo Foundation (COF), Obiageli Okigbo, said the foundation over the years has been propagating the ideals of Okigbo, which include truthfulness, fairness, justice, equity among others. She noted that the Okigbo Prize for Poetry would kick-off next year and shall not be limited to Nigerian poets alone.
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