I might as well admit it at the beginning: I am no poet. Although I have scribbled some lines over the years, whether they stand up to poetic standards is in the lap of the Muse. Going by the parameters of the Nigerian literary environment where a single stone thrown in the sky will land on the heads of a thousand poets, I may not pass muster. I prefer wrestling with Wole Soyinka’s JERO PLAYS, THE MAN DIED, YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN and AKE to his poetic offerings.
So what am I doing with the lord of African poetry himself, Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo? A lot even though I do not stand naked with him before Mother Idoto; though I hear his bell ringing as the poet affirmed that he would go to hell unless he shut up; though he said he was a shrub among the poplars, needing more roots, thirsting for sunlight.
My first encounter with Okigbo was in a 1997 edition of THE SOURCE magazine where I read snippets of the then unpublished biography of the poet by Obi Nwakanma. I was hooked. Later, when an American friend sent me a copy of THIRSTING FOR SUNLIGHT following e-mail exchanges about the fireworks ignited by Okigbo’s soul-brother, Chinua Achebe with his last book, I felt like a junkie who has graduated from low-grade coke to highly concentrated crack. I devoured all I could lay my hands on about Christopher Okigbo. But in spite of all these intellectual adventures I remain poetically unsaved.
Okigbo…What a man. He was many things: a civil servant, teacher, librarian, failed businessman, musician, womanizer extraordinaire (kai, the guy loved the daughters of Eve die), gun-runner, liar (boy, he told some of the craziest fibs that would have become a bestseller if he had turned them into fiction), scholar, and when it mattered most, a hero. Maybe all these feats or misdeeds, depending on what you think of his thirty-seven years on earth, would have paled into nothingness if he had not drunk the ambrosia and eaten the nectar of the gods and become a poet. But other aspects of his complex life shaped his talent and made him the voice of his generation, to paraphrase Odenigbo in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s HALF OF A YELLOW SUN. Interestingly, Odenigbo used that phrase to describe his poet-friend, Okeoma. But I dare not interrogate Okigbo’s poetry for obvious reasons.
Okigbo was bound up with the Nigeria of his time in a way few of his literary contemporaries were. A case in point was the January 15 1966 coup. Okigbo did not carry a gun that bloody Saturday but he had foreknowledge of the plot and actively supported the plotters. Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the leader of the coup in Lagos, was his close friend and political soul mate right from their days at the University College, Ibadan, and later as secondary school teachers before Ifeajuna joined the army. When General Ironsi knocked the bottom out of the coup, Okigbo smuggled Ifeajuna into safety across the Nigeria-Benin border to Ghana. Interestingly, Okigbo was instrumental to Ifeajuna’s return to Nigeria when Ironsi was striving to handle the volatile situation unleashed by the coup. In pages 219-221 of THIRSTING FOR SUNLIGHT, Okigbo’s agony at Ifeajuna’s arrest after he returned from Ghana and his clearly idealistic and pan-Nigerian orientation in resolving the contradictions thrown up by Ironsi’s emergence as Nigeria’s Head of State are portrayed. For instance, Okigbo used his influence in the new dispensation to oppose the bid by Francis Nwokedi, then the most powerful Igbo bureaucrat, to take over the non-Igbo, Stanley Wey’s position as the government’s Permanent Secretary. Okigbo’s large-hearted nature made him incapable of living in a narrow ethnic cocoon. This inability to pigeonhole identity apparently made him reject the labelling of his art as ‘African,’ a point he powerfully made when he turned down the 1966 Negro Festival of Arts prize for his poetry collection ‘Limits.’ Although too cosmopolitan to be tied down artistically or politically, Okigbo had a profound bond with his roots reflected in his identification with the deity Idoto, and the mores of his Ojoto hometown.
Why did this supposedly broadminded poet of the world choose to fight and die for apparently ethnic convulsions? Did Okigbo sacrifice himself and his art on the altar of primordial ideology? Put it bluntly: was he a fake all along till Biafra emerged? When Wole Soyinka met the soldier-poet in Enugu in the office of Biafra’s chief spook, Bernard Odogwu, he wondered why his bardic brother was fighting, instead of using his undenied influence to stop the war. Professor Ali Mazrui’s book THE TRIAL OF CHRISTOPHER OKIGBO took the poet to the cleaners in a posthumous trial for sacrificing his art for tribal considerations.
The facts may not convince diehards. Okigbo is no longer here to defend his position. But this great son of Nigeria and Africa was, from available records and recollections by peers, the most unlikely man to deliberately tear apart Nigeria’s fabric unless something earth-shaking happened. Before the July 1966 coup plotters chased him and other Eastern intellectuals across the River Niger in their mindless orgy of violence, Okigbo lived and loved across Nigeria, including the North. The 1966 massacres and experiences of Eastern Nigerians at the hands of other Nigerians seared his soul. Georgette Okigbo, the European wife of his brother, the illustrious economist, Dr. Pius Okigbo, gave an insight into why, against all odds, Okigbo threw himself headlong into the Biafran cause. In her words, as recorded in page 241 of THIRSTING FOR SUNLIGHT:
‘He (Chris) was selfish in his relationship with his women and he would lie! But Biafra changed all that. There was a spiritual transformation which I noticed; there was the very considerate Christopher. The suffering of the many he saw pained him physically. I will tell you this: Christopher didn’t get involved in Biafra for any ideological reason, no, he fought to protect his land, the desecration of the land which he felt was his root as a person and he was prepared to die for that! He didn’t fight because he hated anybody. He was incapable of hate.’
Okigbo was not the first pen-master who became a gun-master. Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist and 1954 Nobel Prize winner, was on the battlefield in World War 1 and as a journalist during the Spanish civil war, he wielded more than the pen. Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet and Okigbo’s role-model, was shot by the Nationalists during the Spanish civil war for roles that went beyond deflowering virgin pages; highly political roles not unlike Okigbo’s for Biafra. Okigbo was not a military professional but his at times hare-brained exploits on the battlefield became the stuff of legend. Maybe he was successful because he threw the military manuals into the bush!
I wish he published a novel. I wish his Citadel Press, which he co-founded with Achebe, survived the war. I wish he and Achebe published Ifeajuna’s manuscript and refused to listen to Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu’s perhaps justified assertion that the said manuscript by his co-plotter was a tissue of lies. Above all, I wish the world did not stop turning for Nigeria between 1966 and 1970. It may be argued that Okigbo contributed to the mayhem by backing the first coup, but the British and Nigerian politicians laid the foundation for Nigeria’s disequilibrium between 1945 and 1960. Okigbo and like-minded young radicals of his generation felt obliged to change the status quo.
There was a Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo. When cometh another?