Omatseye’s Tribe and Prejudice is poetry in service of country

With a title sharing affinity with 19th century British writer, Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Sam Omatseye has delivered yet another politically charged poetic offering. His last one was Scented Offal that traces Nigeria’s convoluted historical trajectory that is perennially headed for uncharted waters, turbulence and uncertain destination. Now, however, Omatseye laments fierce clannish inclinations and sundry prejudices that have continued to dodge the affairs of his country and why it seems forever mired in underdevelopment. The inescapable caveat is that until the vicious cycle is broken and the strong bond of brotherhood entrenched, the merry-go-round will continue to be the staple fare.

In this collection of poems, Omatseye, as poet persona, laments the many self-inflicted ills that have bedeviled his native land and sues for oneness even in the troublesome diversity. Tribe and Prejudice is delivered with the stridency of a muse running out of time for a salvation for his country.

In the title poem ‘Tribe and Prejudice,’ Omatseye locates the different tribes converging on a city centre (Lagos) and living together happily, a people who are united by a foreign language, which they have bent to their will to suit their purpose even if to the consternation of the English owners. But politics and election came and ‘…in that poll the cosmopolis/came apart one part at a time.’

The Yoruba and Igbo are worse hit by this new political virus that sunders a people who once bonded ‘as/foes feinting as friends… Suddenly all our past no longer met/In the Pidgin English’ and then ‘We no longer convene in/one tongue/But long for moth-eaten lores.’ Rather than forge greater unity, each and everyone fell back to his ‘moth-eaten lores’ of primordial cleavages and roots from which they had come to the city and ‘…ringed ourselves in trenches/In the new liberty to be…’

The poet persona blames this new turn of affairs on the antics of the big politicians, especially Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe, two political gladiators of Yoruba and Igbo descent, when he notes, ‘A candidate championed the charade and/Charmed us to be the tribe we loved…/And set one hearth against the other.’ Here the poet is thinking of the cross-carpeting in the Western House of Assembly in 1964 or thereabout where Azikiwe election looming victory in Ibadan was truncated. ‘One candidate/—Yoruba Igbo—/saw double/Yoruba his root/Igbo his ruse.’

But it is ironic that Omatseye also pens a most moving poem for Awolowo ‘The Statue’ that eulogises the sage’s singular genius in bringing development to his region, especially his free education programme after he chased away Azikiwe to his Eastern Region.

Again, the poet extends the electoral fiasco metaphor to a recent pronouncement by the Oba of Lagos who sought to drown non-indigenes in Lagos Lagoon. These are grim realities that will continue to render the union apart – the terrible incidences of indigenes versus settlers. Jos, Kaduna and other places have indelible scars to show for the spirit of intolerance that so easily destroys trust. It was what led to the civil war in the 1960s and other similar feuds, which continue till date in parts of the country.This continuing antagonism prompts the poet to write, ‘In wars between peoples/Whose bloodlines had dovetailed/On village borders and/Wielded into fragile urban legends.’

The poet is a witness to the manifestation of this madness amongst a people united by blood among his own people – Itsekiri/Urhobo/Ijaw – in feuds that left so many dead over ownership of parcels of land said to be rich in crude oil. The Ife and Modakeke in Osun, Aguleri and Umuleri in Anambra, and Emede and Igbide in Delta all tell stories of orgies of bloodletting among people linked by inter-marriages. From then on to Boko Haram insurgency, the poet laments the unrestrained barbarism lodged in the veins of the people who inhabit the Nigerian space.

He goes back afield to 1967 and sings a sorrowful dirge for Asaba people, who were cut down in their prime by Nigerian soldiers in a mad moment of irrationality after retaking Asaba from Biafra soldiers. ‘Asaba Massacre, 1967’ is a poem that tugs at the most at the human heart in its sheer inhumanity and uncommon brutality. How could soldiers murder in cold blood a people who had come out to welcome them in songs and dance for liberating them? The poem ends with a plaintive wail, ‘They should have told us/It was not a welcome party/But a farewell/We should have come prepared.’ It was the most dastardly, unprovoked atrocity of the war for which a contrite Yakubu Gowon had to render apology to Asaba people many years later.

‘Indolent beauty,’ ‘Girl Bomber,’ ‘Corruption’ ‘The Sham I Am’ and ‘Wretches’ are poems that confess to another sickening side of the shame that so characterises Nigeria. With oil boom at the heart of the rut, those running the country (wretches) continue to slip on the oil’s slippery sweetness (indolent beauty) to plunge the country further into abject underdevelopment (corruption).

Underlining Omatseye’s lament and cry for the deep wound inflicted on his country is his intense passion for her healing that can only come from a mental shift. The poet persona is deeply hurt that his country that is so blessed has remained a curse to the black race and not the foretold beacon.

The poet becomes a little ambivalent when he writes, ‘But never have black people/Come to carnage/From grudge and greed/Like the heroes who called themselves/Militants…’ The heroism or ‘villainy’ of these militants, as the poet regards them, is debatable. Would the region have got anything from the behemoth federal government if a little threat from the militants had not been applied? Debatable, indeed!

However, the poet’s immense passion for his homeland that is always steeped in blood is revealed in the lyrical poem, ‘Faraway Love,’ where he sings to a lover in some faraway land, ‘I sing for you, Love/…Feel my passion tremble/With my lyrics, as waves/Through hills and forests/While slaughter and death/Stalk this place/And families are dismembered/Father from son/Mother from child/In the feast/Where blood cried against blood.’The poet’s love for his land is as strong as the love he has for his faraway lover. In spite of the carnage at home, he still won’t let go, as he concludes thus, ‘Know/Thoughts of you/Bring joy to my soul/in spite of the rapine/In the land.’

Tribe and Prejudice is a bold poetic offering that distills a people’s failings in lyrical lament. Omatseye has charted the socially conscious path as a writer with acute social vision, who takes on the political malaise in his country and gives them urgency. This poetry speaks to the soul of country in distress.

In this article:
Sam Omatseye
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