March 18, 2020

Odia Ofeimun: Ancient and modern warrior at 70

Odia Ofeimun

By Banji Ojewale

And I must tell my story to nudge and awaken them that sleep among my people – Odia Ofeimun in The Poet Lied.

ABOUT a year or so after Obafemi Awolowo ‘lost’ the 1979 presidential election, I was in the home of a senior TV journalist in Lagos when the vendor delivered the Sunday newspapers. As we flipped through, I drew my host’s attention to lengthy articles attributed to MCK Ajuluchukwu and Odia Ofeimun. They were piercing political presentations that analysed the poll and submitted that the outcome was against the run of play. My senior colleague (name withheld) proposed that one of the authors might be among a group of ghost writers assembled by Awolowo and his Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, to try to rubbish the ballot and deny winner Shehu Shagari of National Party of Nigeria, NPN, of public sympathy. “Does the name Odia Ofeimun sound real?” he asked me in a tone that terminated further exploration of the land of ghosts.

He seemed to be at peace with Ajuluchukwu, a principled nationalist and journalist, whose great writings were well-known to his compatriots of the pre-Independence age and the younger ones that came after in the ‘60s through to the ‘80s. His unease was with Odia. He doubted if his ‘muscular’ piece could come from the home of the living.

I didn’t have to go to the land of ghosts to settle the debate. For, some time in the late 80s, I met Odia Ofeimun at the Ikeja, Lagos home of literary legend, Kole Omotoso, author of a thousand and one books, including the early work, Fella’s Choice, considered Nigeria’s first detective book. Odia Ofeimun wasn’t a goblin after all. But, as I got to know later,he possessed (still possesses) the elemental qualities of those supernatural creatures. You wouldn’t read him, poetry or prose, polemics or panegyric, without perceiving an ethereal substance. I think that was what deceived the TV journalist who believed that Awolowo went for elfish writers to prop him and his politics. Only someone not of thisworld could qualify to be the sage’s private secretary.

By the way, Awolowo himself wasn’t accepted as a man belonging to his time. There was a lot of wizardry in his deliveries as Premier of the old Western Nigeria. He was a miracle worker, setting records beyond Nigerian, African and global parameters. Only magicians were capable of such achievements.

On the Editorial Board of The News magazine at Ogba, Lagos, where Odia and I worked together, I noticed in him the same streak of extraordinary application of labour and fervour. Odia stayed long hours in the office, after the day’s business. He appeared to reserve the best part of his energy to the period when the office was deserted. He functioned tirelessly during the day, during official hours. But Odia operated maximally when he was alone. Or with few eyes watching. Or shall we say, Odia prefers the presence of the unseen muses? His out-of-this-world inspirers never failed him.

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In those days, he always moved about with a holdall, long before today’s youth began to carry a rucksack that serves more as burden than a utility luggage. You can guess what Odia carried in his bag. Books, exercise books, biros and more books and more exercise books. Today, he would add a handy computer. I have watched Odia write long hand in exercise books. He wouldn’t follow the tradition of exhausting a page, before moving on to the next. Instead, he would spread the book and write across the two leaves down to the last extreme end and to the last bottom line(s). He would turn the page and continue to the end of the exercise book.

For a fast thinker and writer like Odia, I suppose that approach enabled him to save time flipping pages more frequently. So, rather than change page every 10 minutes or more, he would do it less often. The time gained allows him to write more. His journalism, straddling the toddler days at the provincial Midwest Echo, through The Guardian and The News and Tempo periods, are characterized by one goal: the struggle to be on the side of the people. Odia has practiced the profession with no room for compromise. It is the reason Odia Ofeimun, despite his closeness to the corridors of influence or  men and women of power, has hardly leaned on power for personal gain. All where he has worked, he has resigned if there arose a threat to his integrity or if it raised issues about his avowed affinity with the deprived of society.

Odia’s unbending belief in the maxim that ideas rule a society has succeeded in helping him invoke scholarship and intellectualism to guide his journalism. He is as welcome in the profession as he is in academic circles. His articles in the newspapers discussing the knotty challenges of the Nigerian condition reflect deep concerns of a troubled intellectual activist who would not accept misfits in government.

Although his books, about 40, cover politics, literature, culture, journalism, critique, human rights, etc., there is nothing in the writer’s mien to advance the proposition that they were all for lucre. He believes in service, service to man and society. If you serve, he argues, it must be selfless. You can’t make a merchandise of the people you serve. The Awoist school Odia passed through was precisely about that type of commitment, a renunciation of the perks of office so that your people would be empowered.

He is fiercely anti-military rule. He has engaged in endless trench warfare to battle soldiers in government. Nor does he spare civilian dictators, those in ‘muftiform’, as I call these who leave the barracks to pollute our politics. Being more of a wordaholic than a workaholic, Odia Ofeimun has used the written and spoken word to fight his wars against misanthropic governance and politics. It’s an ancient ploy still at his service in the modern age in which he has found himself.

Odia Ofeimun, turning 70 on March 16, 2020, has found himself applying an old, albeit not outdated, philosophy to fight the battles and injustices of his day. If we correctly describe him as an old man who has aged in conflict, and survived the struggles that have defined and molded him, why would he be expected to abandon the struggle in the modern world? Why would he forsake what has made him who he is? Old soldiers, the old saying goes, don’t die. He can’t abandon his own shadow. The struggle is that shadow.He lives in the shadow. Both are inseparable. What helped him yesterday can still be enlisted for service today and in the infinite future.

In the prologue of his famous 1989 book, The Poet Lied, OdiaOfeimundeclares what that mission is: I have come down to tell my story by the same fireside around which my people are gathered…And I must tell my story to nudge and awaken them that sleep among my people. Among the numerous synonyms for ‘nudge’ are ‘knock’ and ‘punch’. Therefore, Odia Ofeimun’s job is to knock his countrymen and women out of our opiate death-sleep. His heavyweight punch is tirelessly in action against those who gave his people the drug.

Ojewale, a social commentator, wrote from Lagos