By Henry Akubuiro
For more than three hours, the Trenchard Hall of the University of Ibadan erupted in cheers. Intermittently, melancholy rent the air. Prof. Wole Soyinka was nostalgic as he relived exciting moments with his bosom friend, Chris Okigbo, at the then University College, Ibadan. J.P. Clark gave an impassioned speech about his adventurous and daring lifestyle. Chukwuemeka Ike recalled the good times they had together. All agreed the late poet was one of a kind.
50 years after he died fighting for the actaulisation of Biafra, members of the literary community and the academia converged on his alma mata, the University of Ibadan, to pour eulogies. In the Chairman’s opening remarks, Eze Chukwuemeka Ike, a contemporary of Okigbo, recalled that the slain poet used to give his wife a bottle to beat as he recited his poems. “I wonder what Okigbo would have been if he hadn’t been extinguished unceremoniously,” he noted.
In his keynote address entitled “Why Okigbo Matters”, Professor Dan Izevbaye examined the imaginative idiom of Okigbo’s poetry. Taking a look at his earlier poems published in The Horn and Black Orpheus, published between 1958 and 1961, Izevbaye said they were modelled mainly on Igbo musical forms, as well as elements of Latin and Italian poetry.
“The poetry only shows that Okigbo is not deracinated but cosmopolitan, and also firmly rooted in his culture of origin. It also shows the central role of music in his composition. His poetry is often a representation of musical forms in verbal images or medium, not an unusual technique for a poet who was a music composer before he started writing poetry,” he noted.
For Izevbaye, what is remarkable for the reader in a post-colonial world is Okigbo’s approach to making sense of his place in our multicultural world. Therefore: “He turns its complexities into dramatic poetry and thus distances the personal element from the art of poetry without losing sight of its social and psychological sources.” Okigbo’s poetic form and idiom, he stated, was part of a cultural response which was part of a wider cultural firmament in other parts of Africa that has been justifiably described as a renaissance.
The Nobel laureate, Prof. Soyinka, who admitted that Okigbo used to entertain them with his piano as composed music set pieces, added, “He was a multivalent person, one of the genuinely renaissance people of our generation: poet, activist, musician, gregarious and, at the same time, an introvert.
“When I think of his legacy as a human being, he was somebody who placed his life on his convictions. In order words, Chris wasn’t just an armchair activist. He would rather, at a certain point of conviction, put his life on the line, and not many of us do that.”
The virtuoso writer blamed mis-governance, leadership alienation, marginalisation cutting across regions and classes, and lack of opportunities that lead to the problems confronting the nation at the moment.
He denounced the excesses of the Nigerian Army, saying, “The resurgence of militarism is beginning to take its toll on the civilians. The soldiers are beginning to behave as the masters of this country, dehumanising the civilian population. Open the papers any day, and you will see soldiers beating up policemen of or making people crawl [in a pond]. This bad, unacceptable habit of military superiority is beginning to creep back into the society, and it is fueling separatist movements.”
Professor JP Clark, another contemporary of Okigbo, recalled that it wasn’t until two years as students of the then University College, Ibadan, that their paths crossed, and he was to learn that Okigbo was an admirer of his poetry, having been following his poems in the campus publications, The Horns, edited by him. “In the course of time, Christ found himself as a poet; the poet we are celebrating today,” he said.
“I have always wondered why the man who told me when we went to Accra to get Emmanuel Ifeajuna from Nkuruma ‘If the Secret Service get us, I will talk o’, went to war, which has changed nothing. Chris wasn’t a chameleon that takes up the colour of a scene to protect himself; rather, he had something about what Chris called ‘negative capability’, which enabled him to enter into the excess of whatever subject closest to his heart. He took up the trouble and trauma we were going through so seriously that the only way I can explain it is that he thought he should go to war and fight for the restructuring of this country.”
In his contribution, Chief Alex Ajayi, the former principal of Fiditi Grammar School, Ibadan, where Okigbo served as a teacher and vice principal, said the invitation he extended to Okigbo to teach “provided the turning point in his life and was the launching pad from which his poetic soul leapt, liberated and unbound into the freedom of the muse’s and prolific productivity of the avant garde he became.”
The Oyo State Governor, Ibukunle Amosu, speaking through his deputy, Chief Moses Adeyemo, said Okigbo, who spent part of his life in Ibadan was “an epitome of what a Nigerian should be”. Prof. Kole Omotosho, who recalled how Okigbo mentored him, said we needed that kind of renaissance man whose relationship cut across ethnicity and took a younger person to a new experience and civilisation.
Professor Remi Raji of the University of Ibadan never met Okigbo. He only came in contact with his poetry in 1981 as an undergraduate. He admitted that Okigbo had a great influence on the poets of his generation. “That name was a cult name –a very important name in our development as a poet. In his days, Okigbo was often quoted as a poet’s poet. He was honoured by his peers with prizes. He was a patron saint.”
Hon. Chudi Ofodile, a former parliamentarian, and Okey Okuzu also eulogised Okigbo in the session moderated by Molara Wood as from Ebika Anthony, who compered the occasion, enlivening the audience with poetic renditions to Okigbo’s ex-wife, Amabassador Sefi Attah, who listened with nostalgia with smile-creased face, it was a day to remember.
Later in the evening, Chief Joop Berkhout, the CEO of Spectrum Book, Ibadan, who bought the Cambridge House, Ibadan, where Okigbo used to domicile (1962-66), hosted participants in the premises. An inscription in the house read: “Here lived Chris Okigbo, a poet”. He described the house as a place which gave him the inspiration to write, adding: “The short time he lived, his international literary achievement, would have taken somebody else a lifetime.”
While Dr. Wale Okediran, the advisor to the Okigbo Foundation, announced the new Okigbo Prize for Africa, Patrick Oguejiofor, a member of the Okigbo Foundation, unveiled the latest edition of Okigbo’s magnum opus, Labyrinths. Obi Okigbo, the poet’s daughter, also unveiled the Unesco “Memory to the Word” plaque. Paper presentation rounded off the 50th anniversary the next day.