By Owei Lakemfa
GLOBAL writer, poet and humanist, Odia Ofeimun is from a lineage with close affinity with leopards. There was an unwritten rule between the humans of Iruekpen-Ekum, Edo State and that feline family that neither will attack the other. If today, there are no leopards left in that part, it is not because they betrayed the humans. So Odia is an original “Amotekun” the symbol of those in the Western Nigeria taking the battle to terrorists, kidnappers, bandits and rogue soldiers from neigbouring countries.
Odia, like a leopard, has his own time zone; he moves at any time of the day or night harbouring no fears of our quite dangerous highways. Then, bullets from armed robbers near Okada, missed him by the whiskers, hitting the passenger sitting in front of him. It was past midnight! With that nightmare, he pledged to stop travelling at night. But I know he still does surreptitiously. A few months ago, he admitted arriving at the gates of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, past midnight.
This March 5, I called him past 6.00p.m and heard a lot of noise in the background; he was at a Lagos motor park heading to Warri, a city some six hours drive away! As he turns 70 today, March 16, 2020, on behalf of his loved ones, friends and beneficiaries of his amazing literary and political output, I pronounce him banned from all night travels. Democracy is not all about free choice; we have a responsibility to take some of Odia’s freedom, in this case his freedom to engage in suicidal late night travels on our treacherous highways.
Odia is a man of immense courage. I was involved in organising the bloody pro-democracy protests of the 1990s. At that time, he had been living in London for four years partly to write the definitive Obafemi Awolowo book. Those protests were brutal street conflicts, and who will I find in the midst of those battles in Lagos, Odia! I turned to him and said: “Odia, I thought you’re in London?” He replied that the country could not be at war, and he would sit in the comfort of his British home. So he was home to face the brutal military generals who had no value for human lives.
As we fought in the streets, he was also engaged in the underground press churning out editorials and articles; each, a monument to treasonable felony. Some of these are captured in his June Twelvers’ Dilemma book. Simultaneously, he was also minting poems for the protest season. Some of these are in the collection: “Go Tell the Generals” in which he wrote: “Go tell the Generals we shall not retreat… Go tell the Generals we shall not be defeated.” In this collection, he immortalised in the ageless beauty of poetry, some of the giant freedom fighters we lost in the pro- democracy struggles. He wrote Ogidigbo for Alfred Rewane who, at 79, was shot dead in his 100, Oduduwa Crescent, GRA, Ikeja home where he used to host us to pro-democracy meetings. Ken was written in honour of famous writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of Odia’s predecessors as President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, who along with eight other environmental activists, was hanged by the military on November 10, 1995.
The poem: “The Heart Has No Bone” was for the fearless amazon, Kudirat Abiola, 60, who on June 9, 1996 was gunned down on the streets of Lagos by the death squad of the infamous Abacha dictatorship. The collection also had “A Letter for Makurdi Prison” for the journalist, Kunle Ajibade whom the military regime gave a life sentence. One of those Odia dedicated that book to was Bagauda Kaltho, a fellow conscientious journalist who was abducted by the Abacha regime in the late 1990s and has since not been seen.
The title of this piece is taken from the second volume of those protest poems titled: “I will ask questions with stones if they take my voice.”
Odia is one of those persons you have very close relationship with, but cannot recall when you first met. He is like an elder brother I grew up to know, and love being by his side. One of my earliest recollections is that when you got into an heated argument with Odia on a major issue, he was likely to produce a well-reasoned essay or book he had written on the subject. It is not surprising that he has over 40 published books, but I can tell you that he has more unpublished manuscripts.
One day, I visited him in Lagos, and as is not uncommon with a book factory, he had problems with his laptop which, like Martin Luther, at the Diet of Worms, had declared: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” But Odia would not take no for an answer; so he asked we take it to the Computer Village for repairs. As we stepped out of his house, he looked into the blazing Lagos sun and said “Owei, it is going to rain, let me bring you an umbrella.”
I scanned the sky and told him not to be ridiculous: “How can it rain?” He replied he grew up in the village doing farm work and could tell seasons and approaching weather changes simply by scanning the sky. I was not convinced and told him he was free to pick an umbrella but not for me. After some two hours, as we left the computer village, without warning, the heavens opened up. I was shocked. But there was no look of ‘I told you’ in Odia’s face. He reached out for the small umbrella he was carrying and covered me, not himself. If Odia tells me he is a rainmaker, I will believe him.
In his “The Harbour Master Poems”, he told why he had to leave the farm and his homestead: “I arrived from our city of forgotten moats; My dreams broken-heartedly insistent, no longer able to flow and bond.” He also wrote about arriving in Lagos only “with a handful of poems in my pocket”. As tribute to the city that gave him shelter, Odia published a 549-page anthology of 228 poems titled Lagos of the Poets by some of the finest poets the country has ever produced. He also wrote a 280-page book Imagination and the City: A Lagosian View.
But the farm boy did not hit it off big in the city. He fought hard battles to survive, including being a petrol attendant, labourer at the West African Thread Company where he also learnt how to repair basic company machines, and trade unionism. Despite having dropped out of high school, and given his heavy work load, Odia did the Ordinary and Advanced Level General Certificate of Education examinations simultaneously and passed. With the passes, he got admitted into the University of Ibadan to read Political Science without a clear idea how he was going to fund his undergraduate studies.
On campus, he was engaged in student unionism but missed out becoming the President. Although he went on to do a Masters in his political science field, it was his participation in literary activities that stood him out, ultimately defined his life, brought him fame and guaranteed his place in history as one of Africa’s brightest, most conscientious, engaging and prolific writers. In his February 1, 2016 essay in the Premium Times titled: “Biodun Jeyifo: Denizen of the Fourth Stage”, Odia explained his cross carpet from political science to the arts: “I found literature and the discussion of creative writing so much more fascinating than was allowed by the sometimes arcane lingo of the social sciences.”
He graduated with a Second Class Upper Degree and was posted to Kankia, now in Katsina State for his National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, as an Assistant Divisional Officer. He made friends with the elderly District Head who turned out to be the grandfather of a corper, Sani Yusuf Sanda who was serving in Lagos. They met in Kankia and both poets hit it off. Over the years, they lost contact, only for Odia to get news Sada had passed away: “My first thought after the initial shock was: what would happen to his poems?”
That began his search for Sanda’s manuscripts that took over 15 years to locate. Thanks to Odia’s efforts, the world can now access Sanda’s poems, some dating from1974 published in a 2016 collection titled: “A Lookout For Sunrise.” I had accompanied Odia to the Katsina State Lodge in Abuja, in a vain effort to get the state government popularise Sanda’s poems.
The Sanda story is a clear testimony that Odia does not forget his friends. This again, is demonstrated in his poetry collection No Country Is Enough in which he celebrated his late friends like Tajudeen Abdulraheem, Wole Awolowo and Oronto Douglas. After his NYSC service, he saw an advert to which he responded and was invited for interview. It turned out to have been placed by the legendary Chief Obafemi Awolowo who was searching for a photographic brain as Private Secretary.
Awolowo who had never met or heard of Odia before, picked him out of the crowd. That began a relationship, which though disrupted by political intrigues in which both men were ensnared, endured, and continues today with the Awolowo family. I am yet to come across any person more intellectually versed in Awoism than Odia. Except that he was not interested in being an academic, Odia could easily have picked a doctorate on the thoughts and politics of Awolowo, and become a professor in Awoism. In his essay on Jeyifo, he explained why he did not become an academic: “I had a preference for an intellectual life outside the institutional framework of the Ivory Tower…I could not imagine myself with a sedentary life within the university…”
Prodigious Odia thinks and writes fast, but sometimes I find him bogged down for long periods by a few lines with which he wrestles endlessly. That was the case with some of the poems in his 2019 collection Geography As Fate, a work I will describe as a ‘geographic-autobiography’. Months after I found him wrestling with some of the poems, including “Rivers of the Delta”, I told him he has to end the contest one way or the other so he can move to other works.
Odia the courageous leopard never backs away from a fight that is inevitable and in the process courts a lot of controversies. After duels on Biafra and with other centrifugal forces, Odia came out with a 566-page book titled: When does a Civil War come to an end? He is for restructuring the country along the lines of federalism but tells the Afenifere Renewal Group that its positions which rests on the resurrection of regionalism, is bankrupt. As for those campaigning for indigene-ship based on years of stay, he says, perish the thought.
In 2016, he decided to lead a developmental change in the fortunes of the Edo State people by contesting for the gubernatorial elections. That threw him and some of us into a race: trying to raise funds and popularise his candidacy. He had a progressive and transformative manifesto loaded with good workable ideas centred around production, wiping out illiteracy, re-planning and rebuilding villages, towns and cities in the state. He chose the Labour Party, and it fell on me to introduce him to its national leadership in Abuja. We paid for the party primaries form, but eventually did not take part in them as we were given tutorials in Nigerian Politics 101: Odia spoke words of development and wisdom, money spoke the language of party leaders.
As we celebrate Odia today, I am proud of this African gift to humanity.