Tony Esijolomi Afejuku, Professor of English and Literature, University of Benin; Poet and Critic; former National Treasurer, Association of Nigerian Authors; former Chairman, Association of Nigerian Authors, Edo-Delta Branch; former Vice Chairman, Academic Staff Union of Universities, Uniben Branch; frontline Itsekiri Activist in this interview with arts editor, McPhilips Nwachukwu examined the socio-cultural violence in the region of the Niger Delta and by extension, the entire nation. Speaking from the stand point of a poet and culture scholar, he spoke as frankly as ever.
There is a kind of cultural renaissance taking place in the Delta areas of Nigeria today. For instance, the Urhobo cultural society is pioneering a lot of works in the literary, historical and cultural platforms. So also are the Isoko and the Anioma cultural/ethnic areas. Where does the Itsekiri, your own cultural/ethnic group fit into this cultural re-awakening?
Obviously you want me to do some kind of comparison, something, an exercise, I really donâ€™t wish to participate in for the simple reason that one or two words from me may ruffle some feathers especially in respect to comparison between Itsekiri and Urhobo. But you know me too well, up to the extent, at least, of not being afraid of ruffling feathers. Moreover, if I donâ€™t answer you directly, squarely, by way of dwelling on the comparison contained in your question, no matter how little you may wish the comparison to be, you may go away with the impression that I have not satisfied your urge â€¦ you may also think that there is some evasiveness from me, from my endâ€¦
Thus, let me quite frankly state that there is no basis at all to compare Itsekiri with other ethnic groups, especially the Urhobo, culturally speaking. Historically, and culturally, we have always held our own, and evidence abounds that we are up there, that we have always been up there. And as far as I know, there is no â€œkind of cultural renaissanceâ€, to quote you, taking place in the Delta today that â€œUrhobo Cultural Societyâ€ is pioneering. I am not aware of any such society. Of course, the Urhobo have the intriguing Urhobo Historical Society, which is North America based.
The UHS, a kind of nascent society, is doing some good work for its Urhobo people by way of writing, editing and publishing works on the history and culture of the Urhobo. However, some of its works, seem to me, to be in the domain of historical revisionism and cultural politics, if you allow me to say so. The habitual stance of several of its academic writers is to display eloquent but specious accounts of Warri history and culture. But I must applaud them for their â€œpioneeringâ€ revisionism and â€œre_awakeningâ€ â€“ if you know what I mean (laughter). I must applaud them also for the vacuously utopian dimension in some of their offerings pertaining to Warri, our dear homeland.
As for the â€œIsoko and Anioma cultural/ethnic areasâ€, I must say that from my narrow, modest prism, their engagement is more in the domain of political relevance in the scheme of things. How do they make their identities as distinct ethnic and cultural groups decisively and authoritatively relevant politically in Delta State and the Nigerian Federation? Several of their societies and groups seem to have this subject or goal as their focus as witnessed in their newspaper advertisements.
As for the Itsekiri, my own people and cultural group, I must tell you that so much have happened since the war between us and the Ijaws. There is a new awakening, for sure. First, we need to strengthen the monarchy. Several important, significant lectures have taken place, key lectures delivered by our leading scholars on the occasion of the coronation anniversary of our monarch, the Olu of Warri.
Apart from helping to strengthen the monarchy, they have also helped to have us take a new look at our culture. Such consequential lectures delivered by Itsekiri scholars such as Professors Nesin Omatseye, Itse Sagay and Doris Afejuku, for example, are helping to change the way we look at ourselves. Second, several cultural displays on the coronation anniversary underscore our uniqueness as a distinct nationality whose well aestheticized habit right from time immemorial can never be tarnished â€“ even by the burning and destruction of our villages and cultural jewels. Of course, we cannot forget the role of the very exemplary Itsekiri Leaders of Thought whose immense contributions continue the vast possibilities of our great traditions. Over the years they have played the role of our cultural, political and intellectual sharpshooter and bulwark at the same time â€“ very ably so.
The Ijaw-Itsekiri war, too, brought into being several Itsekiri associations outside the shores of Itsekiriland and Nigeria. These associations, in varying degrees, underscore the need for Itsekiris at home or in the Diaspora to embrace always their essence as Itsekiri, no matter the odds against them. I can continue ad infinitum but let me for now stop hereâ€¦ in the hope that this answer satisfies your urge.
What do you think is the goal of this new found epiphany?
The answer is obvious from the little (laughter) I have said above. Our â€œnew found epiphanyâ€, or better, the goal of our sudden magical moment, our moment of new magical realization, if that is what you mean by our â€œnew found epiphanyâ€, is to underscore our oneness and unity as a people who have come a long way to where we are now. We know who we are, who we have always been and who always we will be. Regardless of the odds, regardless of the bickering amongst us, regardless of our intra_Itsekiri bickering, we should keep on moving to where we must be and beyond. Itsekiris of today and of tomorrow need to be aware of the continuing possibilities of our great culture and traditions.
Last December, the Itsekiri Consultative Forum, of which I am a member, organized a highly successful symposium geared towards aspects of what I am saying here. Also in the same December, a very nascent group, Itsekiri Cultural Renaissance, actually a break_away from ICF, organised a kind of cultural feast, a very spectacular one, in honour ofÂ the incumbent Governor, an Itsekiri son and brother. The cultural fiesta was geared also towards some aspects of my offering above, although some observers would not hesitate to make capital out of its perceived political undertone.
Generally speaking, as an artist, writer, critic and intellectual, I should help my people to argue for their cultural nationalism and exemplify its value in the Niger Delta and the Nigeria Federation. In fact, our scholars and intellectuals need to engage and participate in this act. As a micro-ethnic minority, this is imperative otherwise we may cease to be.
And these movements are giving birthÂ to the emergence of community based newspapers. One is beginning to feel that this is a conscious move to galvanize not only a new critical voice, but a more militant political class. What do you think?
Personally, apart from my other activities, literary and non-literary, well known to you, I should tell you here, tongue-in-check, that floating a community based newspapers should not be our worthy and worthwhile consideration. All over the place you have them â€“ Warri Mirror, Warri Chronicle, Urhobo Voice, and others whose names I cannot readily recall.
They have their uses quite alright, but I am looking at other directions that would enable me and other kindred thinkers, so to say, to establish something different, something that would enable us to more than galvanize a very, very intellectually critical voice. We shall leave the political angle to the charged political class. They know what to do while we know what to do. Let them run guns and bombs, if necessary, if they must, while we run ideas. High time we preached measure for measure. And itâ€™s more than high time, too, to intellectualize the struggle. This is what I think. What do you think?
How do the whole of these platforms help to shape the struggle in the region and the entire political climate?
Every body now knows that we are in a part of the world where due process, rule of law, equity, fairness, justice no longer mean anything. The enemy we have in our region today is called violence. Every body, including the so_called powers that be, is a worshipper and fearer of violence. Violence rules our day_to_day affairs. Guns, bombs, grenades now rule and control us. They dictate the entire political climate. Nothing is evil, vile, bad or wrong in the eyes of guns, bombs and grenades. We are in a state of flux. The more things seem to change, the more they seem not to change. Conversely, the more things seem not to change, the more they seem to change. There is no order, I mean there is no correct or right order, there is no right or correct morality, there is no appropriate moral code any longer.Â The falcon can no longer hear the falconerâ€¦ But there must be an anti_dote. The writers among us, the poets, must respond to the yearnings of our region. They must prove to the people and to the world that the poet is the unacknowledged peace_maker of our world, to rephrase Shelley, the English Romantic poet. Even when we run guns, we do so justly, to achieve peace. And when we die, we die for justice, for peace. The poet is the truth_sayer of the world. Remember Ken Saro_Wiwa. He didnâ€™t die in vain. He will be reborn.
Are you not disturbed that this new political and cultural process will rather fuel a more agitational clime?
The answer to this question comes from the answer to the immediately previous question. We, in the arts and humanities, need to promote the idea of the necessity to humanize our clime and landscape â€“ politically, culturally and otherwise. Promote justice, promote fairness, promote equity, promote due process and we will have a changed culture. Promote the interest of the weak as you promote the interest of the strong. Rob not Peter to pay Paul and rob not Paul to pay Peter. Now you yourself tell me: what do you see, honestly speaking, that will halt the kind of agitation going on in our region? Now we have an Acting President who is from the Niger Delta Region. Recently he inaugurated his cabinet. What do you have? Four or five choice ministries are given to his Ijaw people â€“ Petroleum, Niger Delta, Foreign Affairs, Energy and of course the (Acting) Presidency. And the Itsekiris, Ogonis, Andonis, Urhobos, Isokos, Ukwanis, Annangs, Ilajes, etc? Our Acting President, a Niger Deltan, a South_South candidate, has told us bluntly that only his Ijaw ethnic group is the sole inhabitant of the region. The other ethnic groups donâ€™t belong there. Iâ€™m disturbed that Dr. Goodluck Jonathanâ€™s action, politically, culturally, will compel the various platforms to add more fuel to our â€œagitational clime,â€ again to quote you. Thereâ€™s this Itsekiri saying, let me spare you the headache of wording it first of all in Itsekiri for your cracking: â€œIf itâ€™s good for the hunter, the hunterâ€™s pouch rejoicesâ€. Apparentely, Dr. Jonathan is clearly an Ijaw hunter, not a Niger Delta hunter. Only his people are now full of joy, of happiness. Only his people now rejoice. To Itsekiris and the others, it is to â€œthy tents O Israelâ€. Apparently, Dr Jonathan, our zoologist isnâ€™t going to bring order and salvation to the Niger Delta zoo after all! Iâ€™m afraid, very afraidâ€¦.
How best do you think culture can serve the struggle question, whether it were to be in the Delta, Plateau or any where in the nation?
Plateau State, especially the Jos axis, is becoming another terrible jungle, another horrible zoo â€“ perhaps worse than our Niger Delta â€¦ in terms of the orgy of massacres going on there. Honestly, I donâ€™t have the cultural medicine, the cultural antidote, to douse what is going on there. Perhaps I need to go and retrain as a cultural zoologist to help change the current mind_set there. My appeal though may go to our good fellow writers and intellectuals from the region to help harp, really harp more on the need to use their works and contacts to promote the requisite ideals I enumerated much earlier on.
The poet is the peace_maker of the world. Also, perhaps we need to recommend and recommend to our elite in and outside government to live above board. But can they truly humanize their sensibilities and those of their flock? Itâ€™s easier said than done. What have we not said, what have we not written about the Nigerian condition generally? I may be contradicting myself, contradicting my position but as I always say, ours is a country of contradictions, of, at times, unprofound dimensions â€¦ so my dear Mcphilips, excuse my contradictionsâ€¦. you know what Iâ€™m talking about as a foremost Nigerian literary journalist and fellow poet and humanist â€¦
Mind you also, that violence is a culture, going by the definition of the term as a peopleâ€™s way of life?
Yes, I know the rhythm of violence. My apology to Lewis Nkosi. We are now worse than South Africa, it seems. We now have our own kind of romance, the romance of violence, of frustration, of pain, of anguish and of death. Internal colonialism, internal colonization here dictates the beat, steps and embrace of the fatal romance. It is very chilling to dwell on it. We need a messiah. Go read again my An Orchard of Wishes, my second poetry collection. Also take a look again at my â€œLand Songâ€ in A Garden of Moods, my first book of poems. Lastly, at least for now, read one more time my â€œEvening Prayerâ€ in also A Garden of Moods. Maybe, just maybe â€¦ Iâ€™m tongue_tiedâ€¦.
It is in this context that one feels disturbed that the other form of humanized culture is being abused in the Delta by those who call themselves the custodians of the struggle. Think about what happenedÂ some weeks ago at the Delta State Government House Annex, where Vanguard was to hold a post amnesty meeting for the region. May I have your response?
My views on the post-amnesty nonsense are well known. I donâ€™t wish to elaborate on them therefore. But with the cabinet appointments of the Acting President, which I alluded and referred to earlier, it is quite clear that the amnesty, pre- and post-, is for the unjust enrichment and placation of a tiny section of the Niger Delta. This tiny section though does not have the monopoly of guns, bombs and grenades… The Niger Delta is not an Ijaw respublica, as the post-amnesty people are conveying, so it seems.
Personally, I will eternally say no to the placation of rapscallions. I emphasize this. The true â€œcustodians of the struggleâ€ are those whose â€œhumanized cultureâ€ has not been debased. They are bound to win the war ultimately even though they have been horribly traumatized. Who are these people with an un-debased culture, who are these people who still possess a â€œ humanized cultureâ€ despite all the monstrosities and spiritual wrongs going on every where in our region? The organizers of the aborted, the spiritually_aborted â€œpost amnesty meetingâ€, know these people. Your founder and chairman, our amiable uncle Sam, if he doesnâ€™t want to sound immodest as I am going to sound here, will tell you that my people belong to a â€œhumanized cultureâ€. We have always beenâ€¦ being so from time immemorial, and we shall keep our culture so. We believe in the struggle but in a very humanized form. We shall always be bound to our culture. We shall remain true to it â€“ no matter the odds, no matter the pains, frustrations and anguish we endure, no matter the injustice, no matter the denials. We are a courageous, fair_minded, patient and forward_looking people. We shall engage, if need be, on just wars, but not in a way that will diminish our humanity. We shall be true to ourselves. This is what I will preach if given the opportunity to do soâ€¦ in the right placeâ€¦
In that case, what would you put out as schema, to be the function of culture in the present time, as it has to do with other troubled regions in Nigeria?
This is a tough one. What really do you want me to say, to offer â€¦? In the present time we must endeavour to tame our animal instincts â€“ those of us in the Niger Delta or the Plateau or elsewhere. We should pursue our line of wishes and demands justly. Of course, I believe that there are just wars, as I mentioned above, but do we need to fight wars if our leaders are true and fair? Tolerance of one another is a preachable doctrine, is a preachable culture. If you can bow for your monarch you also must be prepared to bow before mine in the same manner you want me to bow before yours. If you must create fiefdoms and kingdoms in my territory and kingdom you must be prepared for mine to be created in your fiefdoms, territory and kingdom. And if you must create Community Development Centres or Areas in my kingdom and territory you must be prepared for mine to be created in your kingdoms and territories. One good turn deserves another. Do unto others as you expect to be done by. I advocate this culture. I promote the culture of tolerance; the culture of puppies that fall for each one at play. This is the culture of justice, simply put. This way, we promote and reveal our humanity. The culture of the conqueror and the conquered should be no more. Letâ€™s banish it. All of us are winners and we need to play the play of such a culture. We need to invent this culture now. Can Dr. Jonathan be the inventor and messiah? No, no, no â€¦ unfortunately. His cabinet appointments provide the answer. But he may surprise us yet. Perhaps, just perhaps, he may get our applause after allâ€¦. What do you make of my schema? Does it reveal much of what you expect? I should be grateful to know â€¦ but whatever and however it appears or sounds to you, please accept my offering here as the schema of causality.