March 18, 2020

Odia Ofeimun – still going strong at 70

Odia Ofeimun – still going strong at 70

By Rotimi Fasan

A three-day conference which will be closing today entitled, “Taking Nigeria Seriously”, opened at the University of Lagos on Monday, March 16. It’s the highlight of ceremonies celebrating the 70th birthday of Odia Ofeimun. Odia, as he is fondly and simply called (Baba is his other moniker, among younger admirers), is many things to many people, depending on what aspect of his varied life is in focus.

But over and above everything else, he is a writer, or simply a poet, as he best likes to be known. He is everything about the intellect and is completely invested in a life of the mind.

One key strand of Odia’s career as a writer is his interest in and concern for the “Nigerian Project”, viewed as his personal engagement and commitment to making sense of the Nigerian conundrum as the country grapples with the challenges of transitioning from statehood, a creation and patchwork of British political engineering, to nationhood.

It brings to mind his continuing dialogue with his country, which began with the publication of his poetry when barely out of his teens in the late 1960s, and has continued as he steps into the league of septuagenarians.

The birthday conference derives its title from one of a body of about a dozen and a half essays published almost 10 years ago, precisely in 2012. The title essay was originally delivered on August 21, 2003 on the occasion of the launching of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, CDHR, Annual Report of the human rights situation in Nigeria, in the closing months of former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s first term in office.

In his work of creative literature, polemics, journalism and performance, Nigeria is never far from Odia’s mind. He takes Nigeria seriously, as he would want all Nigerians to. He has high hopes and takes his hopes in the greatness of Nigeria seriously, perhaps too seriously, some might argue, as to explain his sustained love-hate quarrel with his homeland, his exasperation with her uneven fortune and his immense faith in the capacity of the people to rise above the level of potentiality to fulfilment of the dreams that heralded its emergence as the largest single home of all Black people in the world.

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As he explains it in the essay in question, his purpose is “to argue that one of the reasons we have not managed to find an escape route out of the tragic bind of our history is that we do not take Nigeria seriously.

To talk about Taking Nigeria Seriously is, therefore, an attempt to contribute to a ritual of reversal…. My purpose is to offer a re-interpretation of Nigeria’s history, away from the general distrust that has frozen out the study of history from the nation’s educational system. If we must take Nigeria seriously, I believe we need to reconnect with facts and interpretations forbidden by official interpreters.

My intention is to show how problems, regarding the failure of state institutions, the lost battle against poverty, the national question, corruption, the travails of democracy and the rule of law, are all part of the many ways in which different groups and nationalities refuse to take Nigeria seriously (emphasis in the original).”

Although a self-confessed politician, Odia’s politics is mostly of the mind. He is an intellectual who makes politics the centrepiece of his activities. He has functioned essentially as a purveyor of ideas and an interpreter of Nigerian and world politics.

His first and only attempt to vie for public office was as contestant for the governor of Edo State. It was an attempt many saw (he did not agree) as more symbolic and, perhaps, quixotic than propelled by real desire or assurance that he could truly succeed.

His self-assurance, often impregnable and apparently inviolable, which had seen him triumph over many life’s challenges, proved inadequate in a world where the currency of exchange came mostly in the form of naira loads of Ghana-must-go than ideas. He did not make it through the primaries, hobbled as he was by financial constraints, the singular bane of Nigerian politics.

His attempt to raise funds through the public was evidence of his faith in the Nigerian electorate if not his idealism as a politician unschooled in the cynicism of the electorate who would rather accept a loaf of bread stuffed with a N500 bill than share the optimism of a man who does not mind being “poor”.

Odia has great dreams for Nigeria. He had a great manifesto and would not offer a bribe in exchange for the votes of those he wanted to serve. This is a man who would rather fall on his own sword than give up his principles.

Which is why he has remained poor in spite of his prodigious intellect and network of friends and associates in high positions, including past and present governors, national legislators and even presidents. Many a professor and others who would become one owed much of what earned them their professorship to Odia. Yet, no Nigerian university has deemed it fit to offer him even an honorary doctorate in celebration of his contribution.

Not that he needs this for validation. He does not care for titles as he doesn’t wealth. And it is this question of Odia’s “embrace” of poverty that Biodun Jeyifo’s keynote at the “Taking Nigeria Seriously” conference, a glimpse of which he offered earlier in his column in The Nation, pivots on.

Odia Ofeimun stands for high principle, honesty and integrity. The only thing to which he has unflinching commitment is his art which he would defend with every fibre in him. He has remained this way, his old, assured self and cannot now change.

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As I called him this past Saturday night to wish him a wonderful birthday ahead of the day, his voice came across strong and full of laughter as he wondered where I had been. He thought I was abroad but the only reason I have often postponed my visit is because a visit to his house is for me often like “a feast of return”.

It is a whole day’s business even when it’s just the two of us around. There is always so much to read, talk about or hear. His is the only home I arrive in the morning and Lagos would be going to sleep by the time I’m leaving. But Lagos in the last couple of years has become for me something of a transit point – a place I travel through on my way in and out of town.

I hope to pay my debt soon. But first, I must locate his new home. I heard he had moved, I said. “I was booted out!” he responded. Quintessential Baba. Happy birthday, Sir!

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