Monday, October 01, 2007

Nigeria must Stop Killing Poets and other Citizens

On October 1, 2007, Nigeria celebrates 47 years of independence from British rule. Many in Nigeria and elsewhere will be asking themselves what the independence has been all about. If Nigeria were a man who had set forth from home at the age of twenty-one to lead an independent life, should he, forty-seven years later appear unable to function with maturity, certainty and fairness? More importantly, should he have the blood of his offspring on his hands?

Many have wondered why Nigeria leads Africa in the proliferation of writers of poetry. This question reared its head at me recently when I edited the Christopher Okigbo Special Edition of Sentinel Poetry (Online), and I found myself quoting to at least two people a comment in forum at the Common Sense Common Ground web forum where in 2005 I had chanced on a thread titled ‘Voices of Africa’ which featured my poem ‘Giant on a Tightrope’, Olu Oguibe’s ‘House of Hunger’ and Kwame Dawes’ ‘A-Sea’ among others. The comment stated that, “A land where they kill poets, seems to just spread poetry!” stuck in my head and has been there for a little over two years, initially because I assumed the statement referred to some lines from ‘Giant on a Tightrope’: “Fractured, their future mocked by oversized berets / Whose nooses and bullets have in a decade / Of brazen bloodletting, so silenced finer hunters / And poets, that they who were once men, / Can only smile passive kolanut smiles in fatality.” I later realized that the reason the statement stayed with me was because it was completely true.

Let us assume that the generation of poets who wrote in 1960s Nigeria wrote because of their love of words, and or because of the immediacy of poetry as a vehicle for the snatched observation or comment, certainly the violent and premature deaths of some of Nigeria’s poets have not only impacted in providing a subject sources for many poets over the last 40 years, they have also driven Nigerian poetry way beyond her shores. Therefore in a bizarre kind of way, Nigeria’s killing of her poetic children has been responsible for a large part of international spread of Nigerian poetry.

The most celebrated of the prematurely-killed poets is Christopher Okigbo, killed in the Biafra-Nigeria war in 1967, fighting for the freedom and dignity of the Biafran people who were butchered in Northern Nigeria. Remembered in a big way at Boston, USA in September 2007 via and international conference, he was first sung in the book Don’t Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo (1978: Achebe, Chinua and Okafor, Dubem. Eds). There have been several books, book chapters, scholarly essays, and poems written about the life of Okigbo and there does not seem to be any end to those inspired by him who continue to write poetry because Christopher Okigbo lived and because he wrote poetry that has refused to die.

Mamman J. Vatsa was executed in 1986 on the count of participating in a coup against the Nigerian military government then led by General Ibrahim Babangida who was infact the Best Man at Vatsa’s wedding. Vatsa published eight poetry collections for adults and eleven for children. His titles include Back Again at Watergate (1982), Reach for the Skies (1984), and Verses for Nigerian State Capitals (1973). Tori for Geti Bow Leg (1981). Sadly, Vatsa has not been celebrated in death as some of the others. As it turns out, General Domkat Bali – the army chief under whose watch Vatsa was killed has stated in an interview with TheNEWS 22 May 2006 that he was not sure he ought to have been killed supporting the long-held view that Babangida willfully murdered the poet. I am looking forward to a time the life of this wrongfully-executed man will be acknowledged and lifted from the stain of that coup. As the years go by, Mamman is the one that is still alive and will live forever through his creative output, and Babangida though living it up in Nigeria cannot be said to be alive, not with the stain of the blood of the innocent on him.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed in November 1995 alongside seven others as part of the ‘Ogoni 8’ by the Nigerian military government then led by General Sani Abacha for the murder of four tribal leaders. He has been remembered and celebrated in the book Dance the Guns to Silence: 100 Poems for Ken Saro-Wiwa among other publications and poems in literary journals across the world.

In April 2007, Ebereonwu died in an automobile accident. Although this was an accident, many still blamed Nigeria for his death, especially on the state of the road and the lawlessness on it. Apparently, Ebereonwu drove into the back of a broken down truck around midnight. The truck’s hazard lights were not on to warn oncoming drivers of its presence. Ebereonwu was the author of Suddenly God was Naked (1995), Cobweb Seduction (1997), Insomniac Dragon (2000) and Unpublishable Poems (2004). A prolific film-maker as well, his movie titles include The Intruder, Sweet Sixteen, Fishers of Men, King of the Jungle and Piccadilly. Ebereonwu’s life is to be celebrated in a book of poetry and prose Monuments for Ebereonwu edited by Uduma Kalu.

And if I sing not of roses and riversIt's because I see rivers of bloodI look through the holler of the crowdAnd I see blood on the groundI see blood on the rockslabsI look over the mangrove swampAnd I walk through fields of groundnutAnd I see nothing but bloodI see blood in the face of the farmerOn the palm of the school childI see blood on the statueOf the Immaculate Mother
I walk through the streets and I see puddles of bloodI see blood on your shoes on your underwearI see blood on the hands of menAnd if I raise my voice to hollerIt is because the grasses wither in this deluge of bloodFishes float on their bellies with their eyes coveredBy the sanguine flood

- From Olu Oguibe’s ‘I am bound to this Land by Blood’

The current Nigerian president must among other things make a conscious decision to avoid any form of murder by the state, not just of poets, but of Nigerian citizens. Poets are a passionate lot and will invest their creative energies writing hard-hitting poems in honour of the murdered. Hopefully, just a review of the four lives mentioned in this piece – just a handful of many murders committed by the Nigerian state between 1967 and 2007, will make the leaders say, ‘our nation must stop killing her children, even it means that these killings would create literary ambassadors for the country.’

- Nnorom Azuonye