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The stars have departed

By Obi Nwakanma
Umaru Yar Adua was finally pronounced dead on Wednesday and buried after a quick and simple Islamic funeral in a simple grave at a public cemetery on Thursday. The president’s death finally brought to a close an acrimonious succession battle fought over his dead body.

But Umaru Yar’Adua seemed much more than what later became his presidency. He was an intellectual and an honourable man from the testimonies of those who knew him well. He was also a simple, ascetic, and devout man who shunned the materialism often associated with those in public office. I think his frail health was his greatest failure, and it prevented him from asserting himself and accomplishing the goals of his presidency.

I take a measure of Umaru Yar Adua from two principles: his early politics as a socialist intellectual, who shunned the conservative affiliation of his father’s politics and his then more famous elder brother’s interests, and joined the “peoples party,” the Peoples Redemption Party of Aminu Kano.

He identified with the Socialist cause, and secondly, he seemed indeed, by his work as a former lecturer in Chemistry at the Kaduna Polytechnic, a man who consciously chose the reflective life over the pursuit of wealth early in his life. He seemed capable of the common touch, having earned his living as a teacher and as an activist intellectual. How will Nigerians judge his unfinished presidency? Time will tell, but we have entered a unique moment in our national life whose constitutional significance will reverberate over a long span.

Death had long haunted Yar Adua who was called “president go-slow” because of the rather lugubrious pace of his administration. He seemed to ruminate a lot; full of long term plans, but was quite short on matters of execution. Nigerians soon grew impatient with him.

He seemed to have quickly run out of steam. It does not matter now. This much abused man, whose health, perhaps unbeknownst to him, had become the subject of toxic politics, has now gone to the immortal spheres, where politicians can no longer kick him around like inflated leather. Death in a sense was kind to him. And death was prowling Nigeria last week, and had plucked a rich harvest.

Yar ‘Adua’s death seemed to be the last leg of a relay of deaths with both public and deep personal significance this passing week. Death came to the house of writers. First came the death of the poet and dramatist, Ossie Onuora Enekwe, quondam Professor of the Dramatic Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, closely followed by the passing of the novelist T.M. Aluko at the great age of 91, and the last news that came to us was the sudden death of the irrepressible poet and playwright, Esiaba Irobi, in a hospital in Berlin.

To Timothy Mofolorunsho Aluko, we offer not tears but celebration. He was a much accomplished man. His years were many. He was born in Ilesha in 1918, very early in the last century. T. M. Aluko was educated at the Government College Ibadan and the Yaba Higher College, and later studied Engineering and Town Planning at the University of London.

He enjoyed a rich professional life, rising to Director of Public Works and Permanent Secretary in the old Western Nigerian government. He left his civil service position in 1966 as permanent secretary and embarked on the academic life, joining the Engineering department of the University of Lagos where he also enjoyed a fruitful career.

But his most eminent contribution, the one that placed him in the gallery of the stars is his work as a novelist, who wrote in the great satirical tradition, mocking social mores and change with aplomb and perspicacity.

His great accomplishment may not be in the high style of modernist art, but he was much like his contemporary Cyprian Ekwensi, a simple chronicler of social mores and of a passing time. He gave us great pleasure. Ossie Onuora Enekwe’s death was on the other hand unexpected and harsh.

He belonged to the generation of Nigerian writers who emerged in the 1970s, establishing their reputations slowly. Enekwe was an accomplished guitarist and his forte was poetry and drama. He studied English at the University of Nigeria and the MFA at Columbia University, New York, where he was a writing fellow from 1970-1972.

Enekwe returned to Nsukka in 1975 and helped to establish the department of Drama with people like Jas Amankulor, Chimalum Nwankwo, and younger playwrights like Esiaba Irobi. The poet, Nnorom Azuonye, a former student of Enekwe’s describes him as “a tortured soul” and by that I think he meant the fierce melancholy that animated Enekwe’s soul from which he wrote coruscating poetry. He was also a first class drama theorist.

He was by many accounts not an easy man to get along with. But he was a fair and decent man. He was kind to me. He had invited me to spend some time as a Fellow of The Hansberry Institute of African Studies while he was Director, and had also recruited me to the editorial board of the Okike magazine of which he had become editor after Chinua Achebe.

I saw beyond Enekwe’s moodiness into a subtle mind in my various encounters with him, and there is a part that we must no forget: his commitment to the University of Nigeria.

When all his colleagues left for “greener pastures” overseas, Enekwe refused to take the route of exile, and he could have. But he stayed because he was that sort of fellow – fierce in his loyalty and commitments, and he expected the same of everyone.

That made him difficult and memorable. And memorable too is Esiaba Irobi (1960-2010) who died on May 3 in Berlin where he was on a fellowship. Esiaba, as we all called him, was teaching at the Ohio State University, Athens, after his studies in Sheffield and Leeds, and various gigs at New York University and Towson University in Maryland. He had also, before then taught Drama at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

Esiaba Irobi came to limelight in the 1980s, an “angry young man” whose rage cut like razor in his poetry and Plays. The most famous, Nwokedi, and Hangmen Also Die have become classics of contemporary Nigerian drama.

Esiaba Irobi argued fiercely when his work was denied the ANA prize in 1985, and there was some justification in his anger. He was frustrated by Nigeria and felt deep alienation. He lived and died in exile.

The last time he came to visit me in St. Louis he was working on a play based on Chinweizu with the African-American Director, Ron Hines. He was undergoing chemotherapy for laryngeal cancer and was driven down by his lover, Charla, to whom he dedicated the poem “Barbados” one of his most sensitive, later poems.

He could not talk, and he was in great pain. But he was Esiaba – magnificent in his laughter. Not even cancer could repress him.

He fought it without self pity. The last time I spoke with him in February, he went on about having discovered happiness. He was, he said, never happier, because he found a woman, Uloaku. His search was finished. His life was complete. Not even death could undo that.


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