*’Being 80 is not a mystery’
BY CLIFFORD NDUJIHE & JAPHET ALAKAM
WHEN erudite and iconic poet, Professor JP Clark, came downstairs into his expansive sitting room that could pass for an arts-gallery, on Thursday evening, for an interview with Sunday Vanguard, he could have been mistaken for a 60-year old man. But he is not 60. He is 80 and yet full of energy, stands erect and gesticulates with vigour.
Asked the secret of his young and energetic look, Professor Clark, who turned 80 last Friday, said living a simple life, doing what he loves and eating well were responsible. “There is no secret, I have just been myself all my life, doing what I am good at and not going out of my field, eating well, thanks to my wife, taking my drink when I want it, being in good company preferably. I try to keep things simple and straight for myself,” he said.
Beyond his healthy and young looks, Professor Clark, a literary giant, whose works have been studied globally, confessed that he is battling the challenges of old age, saying, “I am not energetic and strong. The bones are creaking and I have this creaking disease of old age.”
At 80, Clark wants a restructured Nigeria where the federating units will contribute to the well-being of the centre instead of the prevailing scenario where the federal government subsidises unviable member states.
Baying for controversy, he said, put together, the minorities in Nigeria were more than the majorities and could change the face of the country’s politics if they unite and stopping playing the role of the ‘beautiful bride.’
The octogenarian threw his weight behind on-going efforts to hold a national dialogue. He also opposed moves to stop President Goodluck Jonathan from seeking re-election and challenged those saying that Jonathan signed an agreement to do one term to produce or publish the agreement.
He pleaded with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to end the debilitating industrial action in public universities by disclosing whether or not the Federal Government has deposited N200 billion with it as requested by university teachers and claimed by the government.
Born in Kiagbodo, Delta State to Ijaw parents on December 6, 1935, Clark had his elementary, higher and tertiary education in Nigeria before going abroad later. An alumnus of Government College Ughelli; he attended University of Ibadan (UI) and earned a first degree in English. Upon graduation, he worked at UI and later the University of Lagos. While in the two institutions, Clark was actively engaged in literary activities. He founded the student poetry magazine, The Horn at UI, and also co-edited the literary journal, Black Orpheus when he was lecturer at UNILAG.
Clark studied for a year at Princeton, after which he published America, Their America (1964), which was a criticism of middle-class American values and black-American lifestyles. His works also included Poems (1962) and A Reed in the Tide (1965), His Casualties: Poems 1966–68 (1970) which talks about the Nigerian civil war, Decade of Tongues (1981), State of the Union (1985, as J.P. Clark Bekederemo), and Mandela and Other Poems (1988). He wrote and published plays as well.
As one of Africa’s leading authors, JP Clark continues to play active roles in literary affairs even after retirement, resulting in his receipt of the Nigerian National Merit Award for literary excellence in 1991. Howard University published his two definitive volumes, The Ozidi Saga and Collected Plays and Poems 1958-1988. He held visiting professorial appointments at several institutions of higher learning, including Yale and Wesleyan University in the United States.
How he feels at 80
Asked how he feels at 80, Clark, who said he has no regrets because “I like the way I have lived my life,” said he felt humbled and is very appreciative for being celebrated.
“I thank the stars. We are not in charge of ourselves, just few things we can do to make life worth living. I don’t go out of my way to do other people’s business. So I eat well at home, thanks to my wife, I choose the company I keep and I am not into these other things you talk about which occupy their minds. I am not into politics, I am not into business, and I am not buying and selling at whatever level you want to take it. I am not into things that occupy other people’s mind. I am just myself – my art. I try not to stray into other people’s areas,” he said.
His stand on ASUU strike
The former university teacher is disturbed by the six-month face-off between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, and called for urgent resolution.
In spite of the claims and counter-claims over non-implementation of past agreements, Clark insisted that closing public universities for six months was a serious matter.
His words: “The ASUU/Federal Government matter is almost like something in court. I don’t know the government side and I don’t really know the ASUU side. Apart from negotiations over agreements reached some years ago which ASUU said the Federal Government has not implemented and the government says it has implemented, I really don’t know the issues, although I am of the University system. If the people (ASUU) say so strongly for six months that the conditions are not right for them to work and agreements are not carried out, it is a serious matter.
Their sons are there, they are parents who have children in the system and yet they have kept this matter going for such a length of time. It is a serious matter.
“The government on their own side said they have done this and that.
Somebody said something on television yesterday (Wednesday) that can help to resolve the matter. He said on the issue of money (N200 billion) which government said it has paid already that it only takes the CBN governor to tell the nation that it has been paid and as ASUU leaders said, they will call off the strike. So I thought that is very much to the point and they will save the country, students and parents the trauma everybody has gone through since.
“Even the staff is not happy about the problem. Their business is to teach, research, interact with the community and turn up the right services and solutions. So ASUU members themselves are not happy to be away from classes. Government is not happy too that it is not being believed. That is the crux of the matter, there has been a breakdown in trust. But if it takes one functionary to say, ‘yes, I have received this money deposited into account towards the growth of universities and improvement of university system, which are conditions that will make the work of teachers easy and to impact their knowledge to the students, it would be of great relief. I am waiting for that kind of statement because at the moment Government says this and ASUU says that and as I said there has been a breakdown in trust, each party does not believe the other. I hope they reach an agreement on this kind of light being thrown on the issue.”
Being 80 is not a mystery
Asked if he was still writing at 80, Professor Clark said: “Don’t make a mystery of being 80; 80 is just relative. I have brothers who are 83, 86, when I am with them I am young. I am still writing. (Picking one of his most recent books) Look at this book: Still Full Tide – is just coming out. It is a collection of my poems over the past 50 years. I have not dried up. I am writing poetry, I am writing plays. I’ve written four new plays which are coming out this month. Two of them that Osofisan is going to do on the 12th of December, is my day of celebration. I am still writing.
He continued: “Lawyers go to work all their lives, doctors go to work all their lives. Mind you, theirs is based on profession, training, re-training and practice. As an artist, poet and playwright nobody trained me, I think they are products of a gift, some people know how to run, jump, play football, some people know how to make money. I am very happy that I am able to do that, people usually dry up in old age, some even dry up before they reach old age but I am very grateful and happy that with myself I am still able to do this. I grew up knowing that I can do well, I tried to hold it and nurture it all my life and I am still doing well up till this point. It is God, otherwise I can go to bed tonight and will not be able to make next week and this becomes a funeral. All I am saying is that life is not ours. If I go to bed I do not know whether I will see the next day but when I wake up, I take it.”
Advice to upcoming writers
“I don’t know whether people are following me. Anyway it is just about self recognition, know what you are good at and do as much as you can in your area where you are meant to work. “Talking about followers and leadership, you must know where you are, know your family, your village and community, you must be part of them. You must know all of them. You must know your environment, know what is good practice and bad practice, this is the advice I give to any writer who cares to listen.
“Unlike painting, sculpting, music, you have got to serve your apprenticeship before you become a master, you don’t wake up one day and say you are a master, it is very rare to find that anywhere in the world. You must know yourself, who you are and where you come from and you don’t stay within yourself. You must know cultures, languages…
“Everybody has a gift. My advice is you should discover yourself, know the subject and the trade; pay the price, make your mark and leave something behind.
How he sees state of affairs in Nigeria
I am very pleased that President Jonathan has called for national conference or dialogue. I don’t want to talk about whether it should be sovereign or not or whether its decision should be sent to the National Assembly or subjected to a referendum. If all the ethnic groups in the country are represented at the conference which will not take place in London under the colonial secretary or held in government quarters, guarded by soldiers and the structure imposed on us, the decision should become law.
The president who called the conference should make sure that the decisions become law. If, this time, we are given the right to sit as equals as we have in a club where everybody has a vote, every small group has a say in this union we want to carve for ourselves, the executive arm with leaders of the parliament should be able, sitting with those moderating the conference come up with a constitution. In that sense, the document should not be referred to any other body. We know the composition of the National Assembly; it is the most imperfect assembly you can think of.
When you have a club, for instance, all members have equal rights; they subsidise and contribute equally to build the club. It is not the club that subsidises you as a member.
In the Nigerian system now, the member states depend on monthly subvention from the centre or union. Without money from Abuja, most of the states will die economically. There are only five viable states in the country- the major oil producing states like Rivers, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom and Delta and then Lagos.
So, let’s sit and talk as equals. The military gave the template for the 1999 constitution without the consent of the people and this federation is not based on equal arrangement of the people.
Minorities, no longer Zik’s beautiful brides
Let the people know themselves. I have just written a foreword to a forthcoming book. If the minorities will know themselves that they can confront the so-called majorities one-to-one they should take themselves not like Zik’s beautiful bride but like ants of the story, full of strength and unity. If they can organise themselves as a unit, a bloc and don’t go as individuals into these national parties where they are swallowed up, the majority tribes will listen to them because put together, the minorities are more than the so-called majority tribes.
Look at what is happening in United Kingdom now. The Welsh and Scots have their assemblies and they want to go full hog and have their independent countries but now they are operating as a bloc although they are still in Westminster.
So, if the minorities will organise themselves like the ants do, they will change the face of Nigerian politics. But now
they are in a mad rush to belong to national parties where they are swallowed up.
Those asking Jonathan not to seek re-election
Nobody is in a position to tell anybody not to seek an office. It is the fundamental right of every Nigerian to seek political office. If one wants to seek position or re-election if the person is already in office, it is for the people to say come or don’t come through their votes. Nobody should arrogate to himself the power to stop anybody. Let the people decide.
If they said President Jonathan signed an agreement to do one term, let them produce the so-called agreement they are talking about, they should publish it.
Stopping Jonathan on poor performance
What did Jonathan promise that he has not done? Have they given him a chance to perform? It has been all distractions. Look at the distractions going on in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and in the polity – inter-party and intra-party. But that is not to say that he is not doing anything. He took pages of adverts to list what he has done. You can cross-check to tick or cross-out.
Those who are criticizing him from his party and outside his party, what have they done with their own mandate? In terms of roads, health, education, etc, what have they done?
Take it state by state, various governors publish pictures of houses, schools, roads, etc, that they have built; for how many people?
Seriously, there is so much to be done to cater for the greater number of Nigerians,” he concluded.