Odia Ofeimun at 70

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TUESDAY BY REUBEN ABATI

In the world of literature and the arts- imagic, plastic, graphic and visual – there is no power in the hands of one dominant, tyrannical individual as may be found in partisan politics, power is located in a widespread but felt realm of imagination, distributed into the hands and minds of many individuals, agents and reincarnations of the Muses, who distinguish themselves with the fecundity of their talent, the awesomeness of their imagination, and their natural capacity to build, illuminate, re-define and extend the traditions of human thought and accomplishments. It is our duty as a community and as beneficiaries to celebrate these special individuals whose outputs transcend the boundaries of colour, identity, race, ethnicity and religion, and who by their efforts in the kingdom of the imagination, affect, enrich and transform our lives.

From the village, ancestral griots in Africa, to the ritual priests of Egypt, the priests of ancient Hellenistic post-ritual enactments, the gladiators of Roman festivals, through the centuries to the Alarinjo, Ayinla Omowura, Rihanna, Beyonce, and Tiwa Savage and all the poets, drummers, the dancers, actors and actresses, painters, wordsmiths, and the models who capture time and space with their hips and swings, my firm belief is that humanity owes those who think, create, and engage society with their reconstruction of verbal and non-verbal imageries, a great debt of gratitude. Today, I devote this column and pay tribute to one of such persons: Odia Ofeimun, the poet, polemicist, author, journalist, publisher, and politician who turned 70, yesterday, March 16.

At 70, Ofeimun has lived through many of the great events of post-independence Nigeria and he is without doubt, one of the most articulate and persistent chroniclers and critics of that experience. He is a key voice in the perpetual search for a transformative, regenerative Nigerian revolution. For the better part of his life, Odia Ofeimun has devoted his time and energy to the task of “taking Nigeria seriously”, and yet this is a country that hardly rewards commitment and diligence. Instead, we reward characters who have no clear understanding of what it means to “take Nigeria seriously”. In a country of 200 million people that can hardly generate up to 4, 000 MW of electricity, one clown from Niger State showed up in the Senate the other day and proposed a bill to ban generators. In Odia Ofeimun’s native country, so many other clowns have showed up over the years, but that has not deterred him from “taking Nigeria seriously.” Every brilliant Nigerian who continues to take Nigeria seriously is a patriot and an agent of change and hope.

The man I celebrate today, Odia Ofeimun achieved intellectual maturity quite early and under quite inauspicious circumstances and this should serve as a lesson to the younger generation. Born and raised in Iruekpen in the Ekpoma Division of what later became known as the Mid-West, Odia Ofeimun arrived in Lagos as a secondary school drop-out and with nothing other than Primary School education. His father was a rich mechanic who fell on bad times. His grandfather was a man of noble extraction, with many wives and an active, fertile loin. Faced with family misfortune, Odia found his way to Lagos. His first job, as he told me the story himself, was as a factory worker in Ijora-Badiya area of Lagos.

The name of the company is West African Thread Company. He did night-shifts, carrying load and managing to sleep wherever nature called. This did not discourage him. He studied privately on his own and eventually wrote the School Certificate Examination, the famous GCE. He passed. He also enrolled privately later for the Higher School Certificate Examination. He also passed. In those days, the HSC was a prestigious piece of qualification. It was the ticket for Direct Entry admissions into universities. But there was something else about this factory worker: he loved words and he discovered poetry and literature. He scribbled on scraps of papers and notebooks. By sheer accident of fate, he sent a few of his poems to the then Mr. Wole Soyinka, who had become a celebrated African writer, and who was at the time putting together an Anthology of West African poetry.

Soyinka has a life-long reputation for responding to every mail, especially from younger writers seeking his attention and support, and also being ready to encourage younger artists in general. In making his selection, Soyinka who did not now who Odia Ofeimun was, selected his poems and included them in the anthology. The factory worker became a published poet! Odia Ofeimun’s life would never be the same again.

Fate would also later bring him in contact with Mr. Bola Ige (as he then was), lawyer and rising star in the political firmament of Nigeria’s Western region. Ofeimun’s HSC result got him a place at the University of Ibadan where he studied Political science. He once told me Chief Bola Ige (as he later became) supported him financially. A few years ago, Odia Ofeimun visited the same factory in Ijora, Lagos where he was just a factory hand. He was surprised to find some of his old colleagues still on duty! They had heard about his accomplishments. They were excited to see one of their own who had now become a superstar on the global stage. Ofeimun’s story is inspirational. Every young man who is depressed and thinking of ending it all at the Lagos Third Mainland Bridge, Nigeria’s suicide highway should remember Ofeimun’s story, the son of a bankrupt mechanic who made a name for himself on his own steam. Odia Ofeimun does not have billions in the banks, he has no powers to remove a traditional ruler from office, but the President of Nigeria has issued a statement congratulating him on his 70th birthday!

From a small factory in Lagos as labourer, Ofeimun created a manufacturing factory of his own. The only difference is that he manufactures words. He writes. He talks. He thinks. His factory of words is large, expansive, prodigious, his exports have earned him a solid, unimpeachable reputation. That dirty-clothed factory worker in Ijora is now a foremost public intellectual, and an undisputed leader in his chosen vocation, dressed in his own fashion choice of aso oke attires as a man of culture and as a promoter of African cultural symbols. It is a great privilege to know him. It is a great blessing to be “one of the boys” of this immensely gifted writer who we refer to affectionately as “Baba” (for he is indeed a father figure in Nigerian arts and culture), or “Owanle” (in his native Esan language, that means “Elder”) or as most of us do, we just call him “Odia.” He doesn’t mind. He is a man completely without vanity, pretentions or affectations.

The thing that appeals to me most about him is his formidable intellect, which confers on him an unmistakable authority in both personal and intellectual circumstances. His mind is nimble and rich. He is able to turn every conversation into an argument and enrich it with his advantage of rich exposure. He is an orator even if he lacks the diplomacy of an orator seeking to win an audience to his side. Odia does not seek to persuade. He challenges you and he can be very obstinate with his views. He has an uncanny capacity to switch the template in an argument, he will take ownership of your argument, explain it better with facts, history and anecdotes, dismantle your original argument and then insist on his own original position. This unusual talent has brought him into conflict with those who consider him too intellectually aggressive and uncompromising.

When he speaks, he sounds like he is writing. When you read his writings, he sounds like an orator’s delivery with all the emotions. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. He got a full measure of the implications of this when as Secretary General and later President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), he thought he was in a position to direct the past, present and future prospects of the association. He was stoutly resisted by those who thought he should not be allowed deploy literary leadership as a tool of management and organizational knowledge. Many years later though, it is beginning to look as if he was the actual owner of some, not all, of the arguments.

Odia’s big shortcoming is that he does not hesitate to make his position very clear and he has enough vocabulary to prove his point. He is a voluminous thinker. Whereas his poetry is precise, his prose is a big volume of words, carefully scored to a rhythm. Every subject for him is a philosophical problem which must be analyzed to the point of exhaustion. Odia’s essays do not end; they stretch into other arguments. Long before Corona virus became a public health crisis, Odia Ofeimun infected the younger generation of Nigerian thinkers with the coronavirus of thought and ideas in the public domain.

What we have in return is a rich harvest of over 40 books and seminal essays. A balance sheet of Odia Ofeimun’s public career further reveals a number of high points, beyond the narratives above. One, he was the Private Secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the legendary and iconic Yoruba leader in the middle and later part of the 20th Century. Ofeimun competed for that position with some Yoruba sons, but he was Awo’s choice. Awo did not know him. He had never met him. He got the job purely on merit. Awo was a living legend and sage. Working for him was like serving tutelage at the feet of an Avatar. In due course, it was reported that some documents escaped from Awolowo’s private bedroom which showed up on the pages of a national newspaper, and exposed the great Awo to gross embarrassment. The Yoruba elements who never wanted Odia Ofeimun on the job conspired against him, and made him the scapegoat. Till today, nobody knows exactly what happened. But I am shocked that each time this topic comes up, Odia refuses to be malicious. He remains an Awoist and a friend of those he believes may have been behind his travails in the Awolowo household. He continues to adore and promote Awo.

He moved beyond the Awo debacle to become a strong force in the market place of ideas. Man is born to rise and fall and rise again. He experiences the cycles of fate: he lives and dies and rises again. Odia Ofeimun’s life is a script written in the city of the Phoenix. His resilience is the stuff of genius. He served as a member of the Editorial Board of The Guardian newspapers. He was an editorial writer and an active contributor to the polemics on the pages of Nigerian newspapers in the 80s and early 90s. It is sad that there is no debate on the opinion pages of Nigerian newspapers today. Every character who ever passed through the newsroom is now a columnist. Opinionitis – a disease as bad COVID-19, is now rife. Creativity is scarce. We are now in the age of the columnist as a consultant-propagandist. Ofeimun belongs to a different generation. That generation survived for a while, until it ended up in the hands of anyone who ever wrote a news intro.

After The Guardian, Odia went abroad. But fate bought him back and he lived in the Aromire- Ikeja area of Lagos where all the young boys learning to write poetry converged on his space and he became the Godfather of a whole generation of Nigerian poets. He later became the Chairman of the Editorial Board of The News and Tempo and was part of the struggle for Nigeria’s second independence- that is the independence from military rule and Northern totalitarianism. Odia’s journalism bears the same imprints as his poetry. A skilful reader of his writings across the genres will see a persistent attempt to reach a high level of perfection and idealism, a devotion to humanism, and a determination to correct what is wrong with society. In his various essays, Odia is not afraid to engage in theoretical disputes.

And is he fully armed? Yes, he is. He is a romantic though. He does not often appreciate the aesthetic, delicate, distance between theory and action. He has always boasted that he is in a position to teach Nigerian politicians how to play politics. I guess this is why in 2015, he aspired to become Governor of Edo State. I wrote a piece in The Guardian in which I lampooned him. It is good he didn’t make it. His fate would have been worse than that of Godwin Obaseki, current Governor of Edo State, whose biggest challenge is the scourge of the the politics of “Godfatherism.” Odia would have written poems and essays to attack the Godfather and his agents and he would have been in bigger trouble.

I admire Odia Ofeimun. But I particularly do not like the fact that he extends his intellectual authority beyond his own limits. I recall how he tried in my younger days to act as a marriage counsellor: his only qualification being the fact that he was at my wedding and the naming ceremonies of my children. When he tried to start intellectualizing about how to be a husband, I reminded him that he had never married a woman in his life, and so, he should not act like the Pope. Once Odia knows your wife, you cannot take even an innocent female Personal Assistant to his house! He claims to be an expert in matters like that, when we all know that he and one famous Ijebu Chief’s daughter are…Okay, I have to stop there… Look at your ears, aproko somebody, you too like gist! Odia is a good cook. He knows how to entertain. He dances well. He doesn’t drink alcohol, although if you invite him to a party, he is likely to bring a bottle of wine. He is a wonderful friend and mentor. My family knows him as Daddy Odia. From all of us, may you live long sir to become the Odionwele of your clan in Esan West Kingdom. Congratulations.