By John Chukwuma Ajakah
Niyi Osundare, a prolific Nigerian writer, poet, essayist, playwright and social critic wrote The Politician’s Two Mouths against the backdrop of the prevailing political climate in Nigeria during the Shehu Shagari-led Second Republic overthrown by the Buhari-Idiagbon junta on December 31, 1983.
The poem was first published in 1984 along with other socio-political protest poems in an anthology titled Village Voices by Evans Brothers (Nigeria Publishers) Limited. Village Voices also contains thematically related works such as The Land of Unease, Killing without a Sword, The New Farmer’s Bank, The Pillar Has Fallen, and A Villager’s Protest.
The over-riding theme of this poem is deceit, which the poet explores through the portrayal of a dishonest politician, who lures the unsuspecting peasants to vote him/her into power with never-to-be-fulfilled campaign promises. As depicted in this poem, Osundare makes no pretence of his stance, as a social crusader and non-conformist, who is unrepentantly skeptical of political gladiators. Consider lines 11-14:
When the man of power
Tells you his tale
Ask him to wait till
You bring a sieve
The themes of oppression, self-aggrandizement, betrayal of trust, economic exploitation, political apathy and condemnation are also portrayed in the poem. The persona, in direct reference to the power seeker in the lines below, captures the pervading mood, attitude and themes:
Whoever believes what the politician says
His ear is blocked by the carcass of truth
A politician tells you to wait
And you heed his words…
Your sole will tell you
The biting pains of folly
The writer as a commentator
Osundare matches his written words with utterances in public appearances, justifying the writer’s role as a commentator on socio-economic and political issues. In an interview for Poetry International Web in November, 2002,Osundare was quoted as saying, “You cannot keep quiet about the situation in the kind of countries we find ourselves in Africa.
When you wake up and there is no running water, when you have a massive power outage for days and nights, no food on the table, no hospital for the sick, no peace of mind; when the image of the ruler you see everywhere is that of a dictator with a gun in his hand … then there is no other way than to write about this, in an attempt to change the situation for the better.”
The poem consists of 23 lines of varying lengths and 7 stanzas. In each stanza, the poet explores a unique line of thought using a narrative form-free verse that uninterruptedly connects the ideas depicting the peasants as serial victims of greedy self-serving politicians, whose nature is expressed in virtually every line, simultaneously revealing their ultimate intent.
Osundare employs diverse poetic devices – imagery, figures of speech such as simile, metaphor, personification, irony, hyperbole, sarcasm and musical devices like repetition, alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm to harness special literary effects and musicality in the poem.
Imagery is a dominant device in the poem. The following images create vivid mental pictures, which enhance the aesthetic qualities of the poem and minimize complexities: Esimuda’s sword, a snake, a hungry dog, a lying wolf, a sieve and the white man’s razor.
Moreover, the images combine effectively with other figurative expressions for desired effects as in: ‘The politician’s mouth has two edges/Like Esimuda’s sword’ (simile), ‘it is murder both ways’ (metaphor),’ ‘who sees a snake/ and hails an earthworm?’(rhetorical question), ‘he prostrates for a vote’ (sarcasm),‘but his mind squats like a hungry dog’ (simile) and ‘Your sole will tell you/the biting pains of folly’(personification).
Language is an indispensable medium of communication in every human community. The speakers use it to achieve diverse purposes and influence the decisions or actions of their listeners. Politicians particularly engage oratory skills during electioneering campaigns to persuade prospective electorate to vote in their favour.
As Niyi Osundare demonstrates in this poem, writers also use language, not only to express their views on the trend of events in the society, but also to checkmate the political class, curb their excesses, and make them accountable to the populace. In terms of diction, Osundare’s choice of words unmasks the politician as a hypocrite and reveals that the poet speaks for the peasants. Ambiguity is a major characteristic of the language of politics, especially in African countries like Nigeria. The poet counters this by using simple expressions that appeal to the peasants’ sense of reasoning.
As in the writings of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and most African writers, Osundare infuses local lexical, semantic and paralinguistic elements such as proverbs and idioms into Standard English expressions to place the masses on the alert over the antics of uncanny politicians.