50 Years On: Remembering Christopher Okigbo, The Poet With Distinction

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Gbenro Adesina/Ibadan
The nation’s foremost tertiary institution, University of Ibadan, UI, was agog; all roads led to the apex institution. Between 20 and 21 September 2017, the school was beehive of activities, academics, writers, poets and several others thronged the institution for a common purpose and goal. That was to celebrate a poet, a literary icon, Christopher Okigbo who passed on 50 years ago. Okigbo lived between August 16, 1932 and September 1967, he was a literary giant whose works live on despite the fact that many of those who terminated his life 50 years ago had long been forgotten.

The event in form of a conference was the golden jubilee anniversary of the demise of Okigbo. The conference was organised by Okigbo Foundation, COF, in collaboration with UI, through her Departments of English and Classics, Faculty of Arts. In attendance at the opening ceremony held at the institution’s Trenchard Hall were renowned literary icons, scholars, publishers, traditional leaders, academics and socio-cultural groups, family and friends of the deceased.

The conference has the theme: “Legacy of Christopher Okigbo-50 years.”

Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academic, UI, Prof. Yinka Aderinto; Prof. Olutayo Charles Adesina, Prof. Olu Obafemi, Prof. Oluwatoyin Jegede, Prof. Babatunde Omobowale, Prof. Mufutau Temitayo Lamidi, Prof. Ademola Omobewaji Dasylva, Prof. Dele Layiwola, Prof. Ayo Ogunsiji, Dr Doyin Aguoru, Dr Kazeem Adebiyi, Dr Tunde Awosanmi, Governor Abiola Ajimobi of Oyo State represented by his Deputy, Chief Moses Adeyemo Alake; Ambassador Judith Sefi Attah, Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor of The News Magazine; Chief Joop Berkhout, Chairman, Safari Books Limited, and Bankole Olayebi, Director, Bookcraft Limited were among the participants.

Setting the agenda of the day, COF Chairman, Okey Okuzu, said that the goal of the foundation was to restore to Okigbo the place he deserved internationally and to further his humanist vision and ideal through the promotion of contemporary creation in Nigeria and cultural exchange worldwide.

Addressing the conference, the Vice Chancellor, UI, Prof. Abel Olayinka, who was represented by the institution’s Deputy Vice Chancellor, DVC, Administration, Professor Emilolorun Ayelari described Okigbo as a literary giant, and icon of African literature, who was famous for his exploits in the genre of poetry.

“He was one of the early African writers who later came to define what is today known as modern African poetry. As a member and pioneer of what literary critics today refer to as the Ibadan School of Poetry, Okigbo is unarguably the crest bearer of his generation of poets, the generation often described as the modernist or obscurantist. The University of Ibadan is proud of his contributions to the evolution of this school.

“Though simultaneously famous and notorious for his style of versification, some of the major strengths of Okigbo as a poet were his prophetic vision and capacity for myth-making. As a poet with prophetic endowment, intimations of the political crises and the Nigerian civil war had been foreshadowed in his poetry long before the events actually happened. This prophetic vision is one of the qualities that continues to endear his works to generations of literary critics and readers of his works. Even his most inveterate critics recognise this gift of his”, he said.

Olayinka explained: “Perhaps, Okigbo’s significance as a literary icon is best measured not just by what he did as a poet, but by the effects of such deeds. His works have continued to inspire many poets of succeeding generations. His works have also continued to generate enduring bodies of criticisms, which also continued to enrich African literary scholarship. There is no African anthology of poetry devoid of regional, national or temporal limitations that does not feature Christopher Okigbo. Okigbo has been listed in Encyclopedias, yearbooks and has been the subject of many conferences, dissertations, doctoral theses and book length studies. There is no doubt that UI shares in these achievements since Okigbo was a product of our prestigious university. This is why the university will always be interested in sustaining his legacy”.

Delivering a paper titled, “Why Okigbo Matters,” Prof. Dan Izevbaye provided a description of the poetry of Okigbo. According to him, Okigbo’s earliest poems, lyrics in ‘The Horn and Black Orpheus’ published between 1958 and 1961, are modelled mainly on Igbo musical forms, as well as elements of Latin and Italian poetry. This shows that Okigbo was not deracinated but cosmopolitan, and also firmly rooted in his culture of origin. It also shows the central role of music in his composition.”

He said that Okigbo’s poetry and poetics were shaped by historical necessity in the form of the cultural encounters that produced the translation of African cultures into their modern forms. “With the approach of independence in the 1950s and ‘60s, the new African elite had a choice – to continue from a colonial to a neo-colonial status, or to seek a distinct identity by re-examining the cultures in which they function and the institutions that regulated their lives. The translation of their European experience into new forms of identities and institution was the necessary solution to the alternatives of a subaltern status for colonised cultures, which included their imperfect control of the vehicles of communication between the cultures of the colonised and the colonisers, with particular regard to language, worldview, institutions and lifestyles”, Izevbaye said.

Izevbaye further noted that this activity of adapting the two sets of inherited forms and institutions into new ones was evident, not only in the language and worldview of the emergent African language literature by the generation of Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, John Pepper Clark and Wole Soyinka, but also in the enabling cultural and institutional contexts of the literature. This context includes the formation of new forms of knowledge that were similar in composition to the syncretism of African Christianity.

Izevbaye pointed out that Okigbo’s form of poetry was distinct: “The form of his poetry was distinct from those of his contemporaries with whom he shares many features of this mixing of the modernity and traditional, only because the process of translating his sources into the final product was more explicit than usual. The generation and incubation of his creative forms, an early stage of the creative process, was stamped on the final product for the reader to see”.

Izevbaye added that Okigbo maximally utilised ‘The Horn,’ the student creative writing magazine of the English Department of the University of Ibadan, which was edited by Clark where the early poems were first published and ‘Black Orpheus,’ an organ of black cultural awareness and creative edited by Ulli Beier, Soyinka and Ezekiel Mphahlele, as well as the Mbari Club to bring out his poems out of their privacy to the knowledge of an audience that was being weaned from the literary culture of the West. He added that Heinemann was the other important publishing resource for Okigbo’s poetry, which fulfilled his wish for an international audience.

He pointed out that Okigbo’s entry into the field of conflict was an act of heroism, but noted that some did not see it as such. “But a modern battlefield is more often a field of slaughter and sacrifice than field of heroes. Sadly, modern warfare and weapons of war cannot differentiate between a poet and the ordinary soldier. The response by the literary community to Okigbo’s death ranged from unbelief and grief culminating in the tributes collected by Achebe in ‘Don’t Let Him Die,’ to the now infamous fictional trial of the victim set up by Ali Mazrui. Mazrui, was not, of course, the only dissenter to Okigbo’s choice. Heinemann’s James Currey, who understandably had a corporate interest in the matter, described Okigbo as a Biafran major who “went off and got himself killed in Byronic style, at a road junction”, the scholar added.

According to Izevbaye, “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 Awolowo and Lumumba, ending with his political engagement in the last poems preparing him for his heroic sacrifice. The poetry finally incorporates the heroic element that had not been prominent in the earlier poetry because it was the product of an age where the heroic ethos was lacking, bringing out the satirical elements in the last poems”.

Speaking on Okigbo, Prof. Wole Soyinka said that he was happy when he was told about the programme which would feature huge feast, lot of talks, reminiscences, and serious literal analysis, stating that he was equally happy at the aspect of Izevbaye’s paper which touched on the music aspect of Okigbo.

“Chris used to accompany me on the piano right here. Chris used to compose musical pieces, short pieces. Chris was a multivalent person. Chris was a musical person. The soul of Chris was music and I am glad that aspect of him has been expressed this afternoon”.

He said, “One of the things that was not known about Chris was that he was a teacher. He was an assistant principal of Fiditi Grammar School at one time. Chris was one of the genuine renaissance people of our generation. He was a Poet, musician, gregarious, an activist and at the same time, a great introvert. I remembered a lot of times we would be downstairs at Cambridge House, maybe his steward has prepared lunch or snack.

“I would go upstairs and say Chris, we were all ready now. And I just found Chris in one of those very contemplative moods, out of that mood, marked down one line of a poetry, which he would then later on read to me or to us and say I had been busy working on that particular line at that time. He was not just an armchair activist. He arrived at a certain point of conviction. I meant putting his life on the line and not many of us do that. It was the most important legacy”.

Soyinka confided that Christopher was a chicken thief, stating, “He was a chicken thief. I ate out of it. When he was teaching in Fiditi, and I used to drive out of campus to go and stay with him, Chris never had food in his house. He had a little backyard. Chris would spread grains of corn on a side of the fence. He made a little hole in the fence. Those chickens would come through the hole and Chris would catch the chicken, dinner. I confessed, I participated in the eating of the stolen chicken but I swear I never killed one chicken”.

Speaking, Prof. J. P. Clark, said that Nigerians were seeking restructuring because there was a need for a genuine system that would make everyone to have a true sense of belonging. He said that by joining Biafra army, Okigbo was just asking for the restructuring of the nation, stressing that ever since the death of Chris, nothing had changed.

In his paper, titled, “Okigbo, the Martyr”, Hon. Chudi Offodile lauded the University of Ibadan for nurturing the most creative and most talented of Nigeria’s post-colonial generation, including Christopher Okigbo and Prof. Wole Soyinka.

Describing Okigbo as a martyr, as he died fighting for the freedom of his people of Biafra, Offodile pointed out that he was relying on the comments of Chinua Achebe in his book, “There was a Country” and Soyinka’s “The Man Died.” According to him, Achebe described Okigbo as the finest Nigerian Poet of his generation, noting that he conjured up for the world, an amazing, haunting, poetic firmament of a wild and violent beauty.

Achebe, according to Offodile, wrote that when Okigbo decided to join the Biafran army, he went to a great length to conceal his plan, making up a story about a secret mission to Europe and that by the time he saw him two weeks later, he had become a major by special commission in the Biafran Army.

“On his own part, Soyinka, who was detained by the Gowon regime on his return to Nigeria wrote from prison: “Of the many ghosts that haunt me here, the most frequent and welcome are the ghosts of dead relations, grandfather and the two ghosts of Christopher Okigbo, Adekunle Fajuyi… Banjo and Alale also visit, but hardly as ghosts”. Soyinka also recounted an encounter with Okigbo in a police cell in November 1965 which lasted several hours discussing poetry.”

Offodile noted that because of what Okigbo considered to be grave injustice suffered by Easterners, with the declaration of Biafra in May 1967 and the war that followed in July 1967, he joined the army and headed to the battlefield. Two months into the war, in September 1967, he was killed in active combat in Nsukka sector and thus, he was a hero and was honoured posthumously with Biafra’s Medal of Honour.

He contrasted Okigbo’s act with that of another alumnus of the University of Ibadan, Ukpabi Asika, who was opposed to Biafra. In his reminiscence, he said that Asika joined the federal side and accepted the role of Administrator of the defunct East Central state and he lived and died a Nigerian. Offodile, however, posed some rhetorical questions: “What if Asika had died in active service during the war, would he have qualified for martyrdom in the eyes of Nigerians? Is Asika a Nigerian hero? By the way, who are Nigeria’s heroes?”

Offodile stated further, “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 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 his part, Chief Alex Olu Ajayi reminisced on how, as principal of Fiditi Grammar School in 1958, he brought on board Okigbo as his vice. This move, according to him, provided the turning point in Okigbo’s life and was the launching pad from which his poetic soul leapt, liberated and unbound into the freedom of the muse’s and prolific productivity of the avant garde he became.

In his address titled “Memories of Chris Okigbo”, His Majesty Eze Chukwuemeka Ike, who chaired the occasion, recounted that he knew Christopher in January 1945, some 72 years ago. Recounting some memories he had with Christopher, he said, “One Sunday, after morning worship in the admin block, Christopher pleaded with me to accompany him to our principal’s office. There I was stunned to hear him offer to drive the principal home in his car, mentioning that I had consented to come along. Bewildered, Mr. Simpson went red momentarily. To my surprise, he handed the key to Chris, who started the engine professionally, and drove us smoothly to the principal’s official residence. While thanking me as we walked back to our dormitory, Chris mentioned that he had taken me along because I was one of the principal’s boys”.

“Umuahia taught us to play the game of cricket with a straight bat. I earned a place in the 1st X1 cricket team by excelling in the straight bat. When, however, I scored a “pair of spectacles” in one of our annual cricket matches with Government College, Ibadan, I lost my place in the 1st X1. Chris, who played the “cross bat”, swimming his bat as the spirit moved him, became the top scorer. He not only remained in the 1st X1 but proceeded to win his colours in cricket! Because of his hatred of the subject Geography, Chris had difficulty finding enough subjects to fit into the available International Bachelor of Arts (London) programmes then available at University College, Ibadan. Inspired by the spectacular performances of Mr. Charles Low, our Australian teacher who was a Classical scholar as well as a poet and playwright, Chris registered for Latin, Greek, and ancient History. His brawn and brain saw him through”, he added.

Eze Ike also pointed out that Chris as an undergraduate published a cyclostyled newspaper which he called ‘Varsity Weekly,’ which turned out to be a weekly only in name, adding that Chris was the proprietor, editor, correspondent, marketer and accountant for the newspaper. He added, “He took copies to the halls of residence. His eyes quickly scanned each room he entered, and he unobtrusively pulled out the cost of one copy from any wallet in the room, dropped a copy of the weekly, and left for the next room”.

The monarch said they were both pioneer staff of University of Nigeria, Nsukka stating, “The African Writers Association soon emerged, involving both of us and others including Obi Wali, Mike Echeruo, et cetera. UNN saw the emergence of Chris as a talented poet with a unique, unconventional style. He would knock on my outer door at the crack of dawn, hand my wife an empty beer bottle and spoon, and instruct her to keep the rhythm, and thereafter invited both of us to listen to what came last night, namely his latest poem”.

The monarch noted that the outbreak of the Nigeria/Biafran War in 1967 so touched Chris that he could not resist the urge to enroll in the Biafran Army, without military training. “I was at Stanford University, California, USA, from January to December 1966 when, as a result of the tragedy that befell Eastern Nigerians, Chinua Achebe, Chris, and many others fled home primarily from Northern and Western Nigeria. Chinua, Chris, Arthur, named Citadel Press, at Enugu, with Chris as manager. I was to join them on my return from Stanford. When I learnt that the first enemy air raid on Enugu had dropped a bomb in the premises of Citadel Press, I drove to Enugu to size up the situation.

Providentially, Chris, taking a short break from the war front, was in his office. After giving me a hug, he described his unconventional troop formations which usually confounded the enemy. The watch on his wrist belonged to a white mercenary fighting for Nigeria, killed with a hand grenade lobbed by one of Chris’ courageous boys into the Nigerian armoured vehicle the mercenary was driving. I noticed your uniform has no rank, I observed. Yes, Chris replied with a smile. I’m a Major. If I wear my rank I will be obliged to salute a Lieutenant Colonel for whom I have no respect”.

 

Also in a short address, Professor Kole Omotoso who spoke on “Okigbo, the family Man”, described Okigbo as a family man in the sense of the family of letters, and the family of writers. “I was nobody and yet he took this interest in me. He used to talk to me. Sometimes, he would read a couple of lines in his poetry and go to something else. He lived in this incredible house in Jericho where the carpet was totally white and fluffy. Then your fist hesitation is: do you go with your miserable tyre soled shoe/slippers on this beautiful thing or do you take them off? He was something close and something distance. He was that kind of person.”

According to Omotoso, the last discussion he had with Chris was when he asked him when he would be coming back to Ibadan from the East, “He said he would come back. Of course, he never came back”.

Former Dean, UI Faculty of Arts, Professor Remi Raji who spoke on “Okigbo, the Poet”, pointed out that Okigbo’s name would live for many generations that people would continue to read, stressing that he remained one of the few poets who have been honoured by his peers. “He was a highly influential poet whose imprint is seen everywhere”, Raji added.

The conference was rounded off on Thursday September 22 with paper presentations on the conference sub-themes with three panels chaired by Prof. Ayo Banjo, Prof. Dan Izevbaye and Prof. Abdulrasheed Na’Allah.