Taking Odia Seriously: Honour To The Poet



Last Thursday, I was invited to review a book on Odia Ofeimun, one of Africa’s leading poets and public intellectuals, a committed, “empathetic scholar” as Professor Tunji Olaopa describes him elsewhere. Our own Odia is not a man to be disappointed, he is our “Baba”, our ‘Owalen” as many of his brothers from his Iruekpen clan or Esan West kingdom of Edo State call him. But Lagos, the subject of Ofeimun’s anthology: “Lagos Of the Poets” can be often multi-dimensionally treacherous, the product of the chaos that is built into its structure, sustained by the inability to transform the city to serve the purpose of those who live therein on a sustainable basis. Professor Wumi Raji and Kunle Ajibade had been on my matter, in literal “Yorubanglish.” I promised them I would be there and indeed immediately I stepped off the set of The Morning Show on Arise TV, I started heading out towards Rights Hall, Adeniyi Jones Street, Ikeja, Head Office of the CDHR, the venue of the event. The car was properly fuelled and that is a statement not to be taken lightly in Tinubu’s Nigeria.

But the road laid in wait, not for a sacrifice, but in mischief. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) had served notice that it would embark on “a total and indefinite strike” on Tuesday October 3 in protest over the decision of the Tinubu administration to remove fuel subsidy, which resulted in the pump price of fuel jumping up by over 300%. Organized Labour raised its objections and at negotiation meetings presented a set of demands before the Federal Government. The same Federal Government set up a Presidential Steering Committee and sub-committees but this yielded no results as government officials abandoned the negotiating table, and resorted to appeals to Labour to be patient and understanding. Understand what? Labour issued a 21-day warning notice. The government kept begging.

The NLC later embarked on a two-day warning strike on September 5 and 6.  Government officials including the Minister of Labour and Employment and the Vice President at the last meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC) continued to preach without addressing the issues. By that Thursday when I set out for Ikeja, the entire stretch of Awolowo Road was blocked by queues at petrol stations. People had embarked on panic buying of petrol, ahead of the announced Labour strike, with NUPENG having declared that all petrol stations would be shut down. I had to struggle through the traffic, endure the terrible potholes on the Third Mainland Bridge, which had been shut down on many occasions in the recent past for repairs, but where shortly after the repairs, the same potholes would return, putting motorists on that bridge in a state of prayer with fervent hope that the day would not come when those potholes would become craters and vehicles on that bridge would begin to drop into the ocean below. An imaginable calamity!

I finally made it to Ikeja to meet even more difficult traffic hold-ups. I was lucky it wasn’t one of those days when the rains fell. When it rains in Lagos, it could be practically impossible to travel from one side of the city to the other. By the time I reached Rights House, the book presentation ceremony had begun. It was well attended: Adeyinka Olumide-Fusika, SAN, Chair of the occasion, Professor Kayode Soremekun, former Vice Chancellor of the Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Femi Falana SAN, Professor Mike Ikhariale, my former teacher at the Lagos State University (LASU), Professor Akin Onigbinde, my former colleague at Ogun State University (now OOU), Senator Yunus Akintunde representing Oyo Central, Molara Wood, writer and editor; Managing Director of The Guardian, Martins Oloja, Kabiru Aregbesola, representing his father Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, former Minister of the Interior, who later joined us straight from the airport. Editors. Reporters. Poets. Novelists. Word merchants. I met all the Mainland people already seated. The city of Lagos inflicts psychological terror on residents with its structural divisiveness. I know people who live and work on the Island who will never cross the bridge to the Mainland and vice versa. I was not even allowed to take a glass of water before Professor Sylvester Odion-Akhaine, the compere, announced that it was good I had arrived “in time” or “on time” – I arrived late anyway- and I should immediately present my review. It was an assignment I was glad to take seriously.    

One of Odia Ofeimun’s famous books, the product of a 2003 lecture at the University of Ibadan, is a collection of essays titled “Taking Nigeria Seriously” in which he reflects on issues about the making and the unmaking of Nigeria, the contradictions that have turned an otherwise promising country, of enormous potentials, into the very opposite of its original value, or perhaps something dangerously close to that due to the absence of enabling leadership opportunities, and an inevitable descent into the lower depths.  Those who know Odia, the title of the third part of the book under review: “The Odia We Know”, know him to be a man who takes everything that he does seriously. It is this single-minded devotion to his craft, and to his environment, to society that has been a defining characteristic of his polyvalent genius, encountered in virtually every facet of his persona as a poet, writer, polemicist, journalist, dramatist, producer, essayist, publisher, literary critic and entrepreneur. The last definition may seem odd to many but it is true, for as Chairman and Founder of the Hornbill House of the Arts, Odia has had a long experience running an enterprise, even if the main substance of that enterprise is literature and ideas, not money. Hornbill House has nonetheless produced profit in that regard: it published Tade Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testaments, winner of the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature, 2013. It is also the publisher of Obari Ogomba’s Grit, a play that has been shortlisted for the 2023 NLNG Literature Prize, both a firm confirmation of how Odia Ofeimun takes literature seriously too, not just as creator but also as promoter of the genres.

While Odia Ofeimun takes what he does seriously, it is noteworthy that the publication under review is an affirmation of the man himself being taken seriously. Essentially, the book – Odia Ofeimun: In Search of a Common Morality – Essays, Tributes and Conversations (Ile-Ife: Obafemi Awolowo University Press, 307 pp.)  is the product of a conference in honour of the subject, on March 16, 2020, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, held at the University of Lagos. Three years later, the presentations at that conference and other materials have now been put together for posterity in a book form by a troika of editors and scholars: Wumi Raji, Sylvester Odion-Akhaine and Akin Adesokan. The editors have done a praiseworthy and remarkable job of putting a fence around that year 2000 septuagenarian celebration, and whereas they claim that “the readers will be encountering for the first time what represents more or less a sustained critical engagement with Ofeimun’s writings”, I doubt if indeed this is the first effort of its kind. I refer the editors to an earlier book: Vicky Mnguember Sylvester (ed.) Critical Perspectives on Odia Ofeimun (Lagos, Ibadan: Malthouse Press, 2012, 271pp) with contributors including Kole Omotoso, Onookome Okome, Tanure Ojaide and Effiok Uwatt. But whereas this earlier book focused mainly on Odia Ofeimun’s texts, what can be seen at first glance in the latest appraisal is the extensive scope of the content, the depth of the analysis, the array of scholars and friends taking Odia Ofeimun seriously, and the focus on not just the literature, but also informed portraits of the man and his life and times, that is a near-balanced coverage of the literary and the biographical.

It is not difficult to see why this is so. Odia Ofeimun is one of the most impactful, productive, influential public intellectuals that Nigeria has produced in the past four decades, with his contributions to poetry, journalism, literary criticism, public affairs and stage presentations forming a formidable part of the canon. His influence is cross-disciplinary, multi-dimensional – politics, literature, drama, activism, journalism, culture, and as a person, he remains one of the most actively engaged citizens of our time. What further stands him out is his courage, his conviction and the sheer daredevilry with which he reinvents himself. Long before the Labour Party became such a movement in contemporary Nigerian politics, Odia Ofeimun had made an attempt to become a state Governor on the platform of the same party in pursuit of his oft-stated optimism that Nigeria can be rescued and saved through direct involvement of the “right persons” in the governance process.

The book is divided into four parts, with a total of 18 chapters. The reference in the title to common morality is extracted from Akin Adesokan’s “The Fragmented Poetics of a Common Morality” in Part I titled “Critical Essays” – seven in total in this section. It would appear however that the common morality that is referred to is the humanistic temper that underlines Odia Ofeimun’s writings: his deep interrogation of what makes us human, what makes us less human and what could make us more human, across all the spectrums of human experience. These seven critical essays examine Odia’s writings, not the entire oeuvre but his essays, his poetry infused by what Idaevor Bello and Lizzy Onyeiwu call “the tradition of resistance writing”: “The Poet Lied”, “A Handle for the Flutist”, “Under African Skies”, “London Letter,” “Go Tell the Generals”, “I will ask questions with stones if they take my voice.” The city is a central symbol and referent in Odia Ofeimun’s writings. In “A Melting Pot: Representations of the Lagos Imaginary”, Professor Wumi Raji examines Ofeimun’s book of selected poetry, “Lagos of the Poets” (2010).

The discursive, research-oriented tone of the critical essays is sustained further in Professor G.G. Darah’s “Odia Ofeimun and the Dialectics of Nigeria’s Long Revolution” and Sylvester Odion-Akhaine’s review of “the Politics of Odia Ofeimun” both drawing attention to and exploring his interventions with regards to issues of nation-building, federalism, national conference and the centrifugal tensions in the Nigerian process. It may be said that this first part of the book for deliberate, obvious reasons is the more rigorous part given the academic, research-based flavour of the contributions. Two poems follow – by Professor Niyi Osundare and Okinba Launko – Professor Femi Osofisan’s nom de plume.  The editors describe this section of the book “as an interlude”. Osundare and Okinba Launko are Ofeimun’s contemporaries, members together, with Kole Omotoso, Bode Sowande, Tanure Ojaide, Funso Aiyejina, Abubakar Gimba, Festus Iyayi, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Tunde Fatunde, Zaynab Alkali, Buchi Emecheta…of the second generation of writers who helped to shape the ideological character of what came later. 

A much easier offering is Chapter III of the book titled: “The Odia We Know”, a collection of friendly, appreciative tributes to the subject by Owei  Lakemfa, Rauf Aregbesola, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, Yewande Omotoso, Omowunmi Segun, Chris Dunton, Ogaga Ifowodo – presented in form of personal encounters and relationships with the poet, revealing how in the course of his career within the community, Odia as he is fondly called, or Uncle Odia as Yewande Omotoso and Chris Dunton refer to him, has been a source of inspiration and a mentor to many not just through his craft but also his example and generosity of spirit.

In Chapter 5, Professor Biodun Jeyifo’s keynote address during Odia’s 70th birthday is reproduced, an even-handed, first-hand portrait of the subject by a fellow-traveller through the decades titled “When Poverty is Wealth – in Connection with the Word (for Odia Ofeimun at 70).” Chapter IV is titled “Conversations” and here in three Chapters: 16-18, we hear directly from the celebrant himself in three major interviews: his romance with the word, his life, literature and struggles – a more directly biographical section of the book which lends it a fresh momentum and appeal through story-telling and the vehicle of reminiscences.

There is no doubt that apart from documenting an important milestone in the life of Odia Ofeimun, a poet and writer of the first rank whose love for literature and language is in a class of its own, this book will generate further discussions about his art and thoughts as well as interest in his entire oeuvre. Few writers have been as prodigious and as compelling. It is important that the essays in the book do not convey any hint of hagiography or undeserved praise – for although it was Ofeimun’s 70th birthday, the commentators and critics know him well enough to understand that he could not be swayed by any form of flattery. Ogaga Ifowodo tells him to write the long-awaited, long-promised book on Awo, otherwise “Nigeria would not forgive him.” Omowunmi Segun’s portraiture of Ofeimun at poetry reading sessions in a critical but humorous tone, is right on point, a well-pointed jab below the belt, but it speaks more to the man’s passion for the word, written or spoken.   

Adesokan, one of the editors, tells us that Odia Ofeimun is a writer that we will continue to encounter deep into the future. He is right. Ofeimun’s place in the world of letters is more than assured. After more than 40 books of essays, poetry, criticism and public affairs analysis, we can only look forward to a feast and a harvest of more words from his fecund imagination. The present book does not in any way, comprehensive as it may seem, exhaust the many possibilities for analysis that Odia Ofeimun’s work offers: his unionism for example as Secretary General and later President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), and the many battles he had to fight; his journalism before and after the military era as columnist/member of the editorial board of The Guardian and later as Chairman of The News Newspaper, and of course his practical involvement in politics either as Private Secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolwo, or as a Labour Party Gubernatorial aspirant who had progressive ideas about how society could be organized for growth and development but was limited by his own idealism in a political environment where commerce and vainglory prevail.

As we look forward to Odia Ofeimun’s continued service in the literary vineyard, the editors have enriched our libraries and the growing bibliography on Odia Ofeimun’s writings by publishing this book that should be of interest to students and teachers of literature, culture and politics alike. People like Odia are hardly ever remembered when national honours and other diadems are given out, mostly to the undeserved, but it is his kind who speak and write truth to power who represent the vanishing oases of sanity and humanity in this land where the people’s hope for a better tomorrow is stained by the blood of the innocent and the wickedness of persons in high places. It is about time Nigeria and Nigerians began to take themselves seriously.

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