Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are surrogate fathers that many of us in the literary world are proud to have. Before most of us were born, they had already established their places in their chosen genres of literature. When President Leopold Sedar Senghor, together with Aimee Caesar and Leon Dumas, was in Dakar talking about the Negritude Movement in the early 60s, Wole Soyinka was in Ibadan vigorously asserting that a tiger had no need to convince anybody of its tigritude. What Soyinka was essentially saying was that literature is literature – that is, there was nothing like a black or white poet, a Negro or Scandinavian novelist and an African or British dramatist – and that the themes for poets, dramatists and novelists were basically as universal – if there is hunger anywhere in the world, hunger is hunger – there is no Cuban, Sierra Leonean or Italian hunger – hunger is hunger. In fact in 1965 when Christopher Okigbo was awarded a prize for ‘African’ poetry, he turned it down, insisting as well as Wole Soyinka did that a poet is a poet. Poets, dramatists and novelists are not to be delineated on the basis of their skin or of their geography but on the rhythm, diction and imagery and sound inherent in their lines.
And so, that was the situation before the Nigerian Civil War. There was a literary ferment, an agglutination of ideas and ideals which the poets and dramatists and novelists of that time gave birth to in their works. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart had been written, and it was becoming obvious that he led the way, seemingly specializing with story-telling as an art form. Okigbo wrote romantic poetry like John Keats did. And they were all friends and contemporaries as well – Okigbo, Soyinka, Okara, Achebe – all had studied the rudiments of classics, literature and culture of the West only to discover that Africa’s literary oeuvre was quite as robust as the ones of the West albeit only in the oral mode. So, while the others expressed these traditional oral beliefs in lines as stanzas and fictionalised our traditional experiences as they evolved from the shadow of colonial control, Soyinka eventually appeared the one much more versatile with the three genres of literature – poetry (Telephone conversation), drama (Kongi’s Harvest) and Prose (The Man Died). Not only that – he sometimes gave oral interpretation to his work in music, dance, activism and eloquently expressing himself as ambassador plenipotentiary or unplenipotentiary, perhaps to verify the maxim that art cannot be for art’s own sake. As a matter of fact, when the debate as to why Chinua Achebe did not win a major prize like the Nobel comes up, all I can say in the choice for Soyinka may have been guided by what I have described above. In addition to that as well, it does seem that whatever dignity that poets like Christopher Okigbo brought to bear on the body of literary activism by his refusal to accept a prize for African writing is annually corroded by aspiring writers who zealously covet the Caine – a prize for African writing.
With that ferment in the Achebe-Soyinka era, the international community took notice. For instance, in Uganda’s Makarere University, a scholar, Ali Mazrui began to formulate theories of literature based on the activities of the poets, dramatists and poets from Nigeria. In fact, after the death of Christopher Okigbo in the Nigerian civil war, the professor ‘summoned’ him from the grave and put him on trial. In his book, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, Mazrui outlined the power of the tripod of identity ascribable to any literary scientist. As a poet, dramatist or novelist, are you an uomo universale (a universal person, concerned with universal issues), a social collectivist or an individualist (a detribalised person)? Mazrui ‘summoned’ Okigbo from the dead because in his estimation, Okigbo had tumbled from the highest mountains of universalism and individualism when he turned down the prize for African writing, to wallow at the base plains of social collectivism by picking up an AK-47 as Major Okigbo, to fight on the side of Biafra. That work uses an assegai to stab us unkindly in the ribs today and ironically helps us to make up our minds concerning the situations that confronted our literary fathers in those days. One of the questions is this: because I am a poet who should not be seen as a social collectivist or a tribal jingoist, will history judge me unkindly (the way it is judging Achebe and has judged Okigbo) if I should pick up a gun and fight on behalf of my tribesmen who are being slaughtered? When some zombie drops a bomb in a place of worship where my brothers and sisters have gone to worship, should I just write a poem about it? Or perhaps I should reach out for an AK-47 or a bazooka and use it as a pen to right and write the wrong?
These are hard decisions to make. And these were the difficult conditions and times that our literary fathers lived through, and to the extent that a little of those conditions are playing themselves out today as well. Here we are with a mini Nigerian civil war arising from a dislocation of what has been perceived as the status quo in the leadership equation of Nigeria. What then should be our roles as writers, poets and dramatists? Should we stand aside and be known as universal beings who write only about universal themes? Should we take sides on behalf of our tribe? How many of us would have the courage to do the needful, like a Wole Soyinka who tried to broker a truce but ended up in jail for his efforts? Should we as members of the literary intelligentsia see the problem as Nigerian or see them as Igbo versus Hausa or Yoruba versus South-South or North versus South or Christian Versus Moslem?
I would recommend that we jump in the fray but not in the manner we are doing now. Back then, the issues were ideological. For while the Nigerian civil war brought out the social collectivism, the individual and universal ethos in some of our fathers, we have allowed our ego and base sentiments tear the community of literary creativity apart. Today, we laid Achebe to rest but how we as writers, poets, and dramatists respond to the issues that confront us in future will determine whether or not Chinua Achebe will be put on trial or not.