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Odia Ofeimun: Warrior-writer of Nigerian literature

By Rotimi Fasan

‘Though blood runs in idioms of terror/and Master drums command our tears;/let there be no mourning in our house…’– Odia Ofeimun

THOUGH the police tells us 150 and not 500 died and became part of the increasing casualty of Nigerians, latest victims of both ethnic and sectarian crises in Jos, there shall be no mourning in our house.

And as we saw them being buried in mass graves like victims of some unnameable disease and the knowledge strong in us that once more the Nigerian state has failed its own people, we knew we shall yet again travel down the same road.

But let there be no mourning in our house. For as long as those who claim to rule in the name of the people have different sets of rules and laws governing people who are supposed to be equal and the same- for as long as we have given room for impunity to be the order of things, so long will human life be subjected to the predatory instincts of mass murderers as those who invaded those Jos villages in the early hours of March 7.

We are by choice a deaf people and have failed to listen to our prophets. Bob Marley sang of a ‘natural mystic’ blowing in the air and many more will have to suffer; many more will have to die- ‘don’t ask me why’, he warned. Like Marley, Odia Ofeimun also warns that we let ‘none hunt their kind to hang skulls as trophies…//[and should] hold a common rule for the lyre in very hand’ (I will ask questions with stones if they take my voice).  It is this failure to hold a common rule for all, what Ofeimun elsewhere calls a ‘common morality’ that will make Nigeria continue to wash in the blood of her children.

But whether the police or the army turns a blind eye when assassins walk our streets freely and innocent Nigerians are mowed down in their sleep; whether armed robbers now control bank vaults and bankers help themselves to depositors’ funds and we are all silent; whether a woman locks up our President in a room, daring anyone and everyone to enter and both the National Assembly and the Presidency watch on helplessly- let there be no mourning in our house.

This is the time to celebrate life and the living- time to remember those among us who dare to lead that others might follow- travel in milieus angels dare not tread-those unafraid to offer their head for breaking the communal coconut.  This rare group of Nigerians are the silent workers, the restless bees that leaven our drab morsels. They neither work in the Presidency nor do they wear the tag of ‘Honourable’.

They neither travel in military convoys nor do they live in the choice apartments of monarchs and ‘leaders’, expensive dungeons that are misnamed mansions. They are not afraid to live among the people in whose name they lead but take Nigeria seriously enough to see it as a house of many mansions that should, if it must not fall, be governed by a common morality that knows neither ‘tribe’ nor ‘tongue’, colour or race but applies to all equally.

And when situation demands, they have not been afraid to leave the comfort of their private existence to take their place at the barricades. Among this group of Nigerians belong Odia Ofeimun- simply Odia among the literati or Baba to those initiates of Nigeria’s creative power house.

It’s exactly 10 years to the day today, March 16, 2000, when the slain Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Bola Ige, led others to celebrate the Golden Jubilee anniversary of Odia, the poet. In a week-long celebration spread across Ibadan and the National Theatre in Lagos, Nigerians came together to taste salt and water with Odia Ofeimun. Some of the rituals that marked the 2000 celebrations will be re-enacted today and for the rest of the week.

This is how it should be for someone who has given himself to nothing but writing as a personal enterprise and for the creative development of Nigerian literature. A political scientist by training, a politician by choice and a writer by inclination, Odia Ofeimun is arguably the only Nigerian who lives exclusively by his profession as a writer- and is proud of it.

Everything and anything he does has something to do with his work as a writer and in a career that has spanned four decades he has come to see literature or writing of whatever kind as a weapon of development: for the recuperation of the stolen will of the people and chastisement of all those who seek an abridgment of the spatial dimensions of our freedoms. In good and bad times he was and has remained a writer. His knowledge of and immersion in the development of Nigerian literature is at once broad and deep, and borders on zealotry.

An inveterate bibliophile who lives and wakes amid books, he is one of the leading writers of his generation and perhaps the only one of the earlier generations whose interest in what succeeding generations of Nigerian writers are doing goes beyond mere lip service. He knows the best books and writers in town and not unexpectedly he is mentor to many of these writers.

With him there are no old or young writers. You are either good or bad- a master of your art or you should quit. A natural polemicist, not the muslim that would eat pork in order to avoid a controversy, he thrives on intellectual arguments and can easily come alive and set a quiet house, in which you’re the only other occupant apart from him, alight with argument.

Anything is grist for polemics; no time is bad and nowhere is too sacred to be turned into a battleground for intellectual discussion: the bedroom, the living room; a public forum or even the road.

As a family man- yes a family man, this writer does not shirk his responsibilities: admission matters to attend to; fees to be paid for those going to or returning from school and the stream of relations, friends and colleagues alike seeking one assistance and another- everyone attended to on the basis of a ‘common morality’. This is wishing the battle-axe of Nigerian literature and winner of the 2010 Fonlon-Nichols Award many more controversial years.


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