Prince Nengi Josef Owei-Ilagha, fondly called Pope Pen the First, has worked as a journalist, broadcaster and public relations foot soldier. Born in Nembe, Bayelsa State, he read English & Literary Studies at the University of Port Harcourt. A one-time Editor of The Tide On Sunday in Port Harcourt, he was Speech Writer and Special Adviser on Research & Documentation to the Governor of Bayelsa State, Nigeria. He served the governments of Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha and Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan for seven years. Mantids, his first collection of poems, won the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, Poetry Prize in 1995. His poems have appeared in newspapers, journals and anthologies within and outside the country, including The Guardian, The Post Express, Voices From The Fringe, For Ken For Nigeria, Junge Nigerianische Lyrick, 25 New Nigerian Poets and Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Nigerian Writing. He is currently running a monthly diary of poems on Facebook.
The Founding Chair of ANA, Bayelsa chapter, his other books on the Treasure label include Apples & Serpents (his second offering of poems), A Birthday Delight (short stories), and I Want to Be a Senator (a collection of essays on the state of the nation). January Gestures, the first of twelve books of poetry under construction, was among the nine contenders for the controversial 2009 NLNG-Nigeria Prize for Literature. He is also the author of Sand House & Bones, A Drop of Pentecost, The Militant Writes Back, Royal Mail, Thirty Pieces of Sylva, Epistle to the Enemy, Serilla’s Story, Epistles to the Small Brave City-State, The Mayor Of Fantuo, Epistles to the President and Big Daddy. His newest book, Freedom Cell, is being awaited. He chatted with Henry Akubuiro on his controversial book that earned him 4 and a half months imprisonment.
You go by the acronym Pope Pen. How did this name stick to you?
I am hard put to remember how that name came about. I am amazed myself that it has stuck to me. Now I take a call, and someone hails me by that alias even before I say hello. It beats me. I know of friends and family who have since saved my number in their phones simply as Pope Pen.
As far as sobriquets go, I have had my fair share. I recall that when I was a speech writer to Alamieyeseigha and Jonathan in times past, I was simply known as Socrates. It was my call sign on the walkie-talkie. Even my bosses called me that, and it went public. Many years before that, back in college at Nembe National Grammar School, my nickname was Shakespeare. I am yet to find out why. But I suppose it all amounts to a prayer from my admirers, those who wish me well, who look forward to seeing the dream of golden letters they have of this gentleman, materialize in the fullness of time.
What I do know for a fact is that, when I was nineteen, I made a conscious decision that I wanted to be a writer of worldwide repute. Call it an epiphany. I felt everything that needed to be written had been written, and I wondered what new text I could bring to bear on the universal body of knowledge, but I prepared in good time. I was sure I could still make a remarkable difference. I read widely and intensely every scrap of creative literature I could lay hands on. I was a second year student in the Department of English and Literary Studies, Universty of Port Harcourt at the time.
I liked the idea of having my name on the cover of a book, and seeing several people hold copies of it. That is my idea of feeding the multitude. That is what it means to propagate knowledge and promote ideas. I held writers in great reverence, and I still do. And so I began to write. I remember how I felt when I first set eyes on the playwright, Ola Rotimi, along the corridors of the Faculty of Humanities. It made me know for sure that I was in a university, and that I was expected to cultivate my intellect.
Not only did I see the professor everyday of the working week, I actually approached him with my own script expressing my reservations about Zebrudaya’s theatrical use of English, and asked him what he thought of it. The revered author of The Gods Are Not to Blame encouraged me to go ahead and send the script to The Guardian newspaper. He even described my style as baroque, a word I had never heard till then. You can imagine how I felt when on December 3, 1984, that article was published on a full page in a national newspaper with my name right there, and not a comma removed from it. I immediately recognized that I had something in me that someone like Professor Ola Rotimi could relate with, and that came as a big boost.
Not much is known about the book, Epistle to Maduabebe, in public circle, which got you remanded in prison custody in December 2015. What is this book all about?
You may be right. Not much is known of Epistle to Maduabebe to some. It didn’t go far as a commercial success, but it caused quite a quake in certain circles, I assure you. The book was published on December 19, 2009. I know for a fact that the government of Chief Timipre Sylva had taken exception to its contents at that time, and gone so far as to gather hundreds of copies and set them on fire. I was dressed in a royal green white green gown on the blurb of the book. And I protested vehemently, pointing out that the governor had commited a felony by burning the Nigerian national flag with impunity, but it cut no ice with anyone.
The book, to answer you directly, is about some age-old customs and traditions that did not go down well with me as a person, and as a noble son of Nembe. From the time I was born into that community fifty-two years ago, from my playful boyhood to my discerning adulthood, I have known the Nembe people to bury, face down, the first child to die in a mother’s line. It didn’t matter if you were young or old. It didn’t matter if you were rich or not so well to do. It was a golden rule, untampered with through time immemorial.
I came awake to the crudity of this practice when I lost my younger sister, Tonfie. She was the first of my mother’s children to die. She was crushed to death in Suleja, Niger State, by a long-tail trailer without a driver in it. That’s the irony of it. There was no driver in the vehicle. It was parked on a slope. Apparently, another trailer of the same size had nudged it, and the parked monster got into free wheel and began to roll back. My sister was on a motorbike riding up the slope. She was still recovering from a caesarean section from her first baby, and then the accident happened.
To cut a long story short, we took her battered remains from the mortuary at Gwagwalada and rode all the way back to Nembe. I was witness to the obnoxious sight all through the funeral rites. The coffin that conveyed the body was broken and torn to shreds, and her battered body was practically tossed into a shallow grave that was made even shallower by broken bottles and brambles that had been thrown in before.
Someone wearing jackboots jumped into the grave to make sure she was lying face down, and then more debris was poured over her after the fellow came out, before the earth was laid over the ragged doll of a corpse. I didn’t know what to make of it all. Tonfie died on Wednesday May 5, 1999. I was in shock for all of seven years. On October 31, 2006, I had a peculiar experience that served as a catharsis. I began to write what turned out to be my third individual collection of poetry, Sand House & Bones. It encapsulates that tragedy in personal terms. But the message in the book, my calibrated objection to that forbidden practice, was lost on my readership until I wrote the book for which I was detained seven years after its publication. This new book broke down the limitations of poetry and spoke in the plaintive tone of a personal letter to the new paramount ruler of my kingdom.
I called on Dr Edmund Maduabebe Daukoru to arise as a true Christian, and undertake three cardinal assignments in the course of his reign. In the first place, I enjoined him to use his royal office to abolish the practice of face down burials in Nembe. The second proposition in the book was that the king should summon the will to ban the worship of the royal python, which ranks as the other reprehensible tradition amongst the Nembe people. I reminded him that Jesus Christ demonstrated his triumph over evil by crushing the head of the serpent, and we should live by his example. What was the point bowing down to a creepy, creeping creature in this day and age?
The third major proposition was that the new king should muster his wealth of experience in the oil and gas industry, and bring his international clout to bear on the fortunes of the Nembe people. These are the three fundamental pillars upon which the book was founded. Everything else amounted to incidental padding and polemic reiteration.
But it appears my tone was rather harsh and condescending, and that didn’t go down well with the leader to whom the book was addressed. He found it much easier to throw me behind bars than reason things out with me. Curiously enough, he called the kingdom together on Friday July 8, 2011, and formally announced the abolition of face-down burials in Nembe. I am still at a loss as to why he would work with my suggestion and, in the same breath, seek to silence me with a perpetual injunction.
You were incarcerated for four and half months for that epistle. What came to your mind when you found yourself in prison? Mentally, how was the experience like? Do you have some positives to take away from that experience?
I took solace in the fact that it could have been worse. I came to a sudden realisation what it could mean to die in the blink of an eye. I could have been dead on December 14, 2015. I thank God I am alive to know how people would have reacted if it were actually so. As the days passed, I began to see my incarceration as the end of the first phase of my life. I would be starting a second phase when I got out, and here was a chance for me to assess my conduct in the course of that first missionary journey. What was I doing right? What was I doing wrong? What should I be doing that I had left undone? Was I useful to anybody? Was I tidy enough to meet God? These are the hard questions that came to me in my cell. I took courage in the fact that this was not a graveyard. It was a life camp. There were men like me there, and if they could endure the strain of passing one empty day after the other behind bars, I would have to try until God took a hand in the matter.
I will be frank with you. It was frustrating. It tested my patience. It tested my endurance. But I took it like one more adventure. I took it as a confirmation of my right to express myself, and it gave me certainty that my message struck home. I am glad I wrote what I wrote at the time I wrote it. The subject was forbidden, and my primary audience was a man of worldly weight. I felt I did a duty to the land of my birth, and I was prepared to endure the inconvenience I would suffer for a spell. Today, I am grateful to be working on a new book inspired by that experience. I am spelling out the details of a diary that will serve to improve the mindset of society about the prisoner, and persuade government to temper justice with mercy. I started it in detention.
The working title for the book is Freedom Cell, which is the name by which my cell was known. It is conceived as a collection of one hundred short stories, and I am being modest here. When I was in the gulag, our total number hovered around five hundred inmates and one lodger. By the time I left four and half months later, it was closer to six hundred. Of this number, I could boast of getting to know at least one hundred young men sufficiently to be able to write one thousand words on each. And that’s what I have attempted to do, even if in fictional terms. I’m not calling names, any resemblance is coincidental, but this is a faithful copy of this fellow’s life story.
The more poetic reflections of my stay at Okaka are contained in a small collection of poems entitled Cell Fellowship. And I am glad to let you know that I will be playing the lead role in a new movie on prison conditions in Nigeria, and it will be called Cell Mates. So, all put together, I count it all for the best. All three projects necessarily seek to underscore the importance of freedom in the life of any living being. No bird likes to be in a cage. Even the domestic dog doesn’t like to be on leash all day long. The same is true of man.
Don’t you think you should have spared yourself of that ordeal if you had chosen to write the same thing as poetry, or does it have certain limitations?
Be reminded that my first response to the entire experience was through poetry. Sand House & Bones remains perhaps the longest single book of poems I had undertaken to write with a singular thematic preoccupation, namely the loss of my beloved sister and the shameful manner in which her remains were interred in the name of a grotesque and silly tradition. But it would appear that poetry offered only tentative steps where the railing of an incensed parliamentarian was required, and, therefore, had to give way to a more direct confrontation with the subject matter.
In other words, the message needed to be completely divested of any pretentious literary accoutrements, and speak in the everyday language of prose that would be understandable to the average reader. I worked with an accretion of dates, figures and statistics. I took time to research the primary concerns of the book, and to be fully acquainted with the formidable credentials of the potentate who was my initial audience. So much would have been lost if the meaning, purpose and intent of my crusade were shrouded in the privatist psycho-babble that is typical of poetry. In the format of the civilised letter, however, there was nothing to hide. Every point was clearly spelt out, every argument well considered and thoughtfully enunciated. The end, as they say, justified the means, and did so perfectly well.
As a writer, how have you been recuperating?
I suppose you want to know how I have been coping with life since I came out of Okaka prison. It is, indeed, like falling ill and being out of circulation because you were in hospital. I am glad to be back home to my family, fully recovered, and to pick up my regular schedule from where I stopped when I was summarily taken into custody. I am grateful to personal friends of mine who demonstrated brotherhood in my hardest moments.
My family and the two lawyers who worked assiduously on my behalf deserve a special toast, and I will single out the quick response of my twin sister, Miepre, my younger brothers, Fakuma, Ewonyo, Inaingo, my uncles Professor Godwin-Egein and Seigha Ekegha.
I appreciate the efforts of my friends, particularly the President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Denja Abdullahi, who officially kicked off the campaign for my release, the novelist and current chairman of ANA Bayelsa, Michael Afenfia, who paid frequent visits to me in prison, the poet, Chijioke Amu-Nnadi, and friends from far and near, including Utibe Ukim, Maxwell Loko, Joseph Obaro, Louis Obodiwe, Biodun Adeogun, Alice Akale, James Uloko, Omale Orokpo and Barclays Ayakoroma who hurried to my aid.
I am indebted to everyone who visited me in prison, and I cannot name them all. Neither can I name all those who prayed in the privacy of their hearts that I should be set free. I appreciate one and all.
A writer’s duty is to write, and that is what I have been doing. I am undertaking a sober assessment of the experience, knowing fully well that this happened to me and nobody else. I am not writing to anybody’s specification about what a detention diary should read like. Far from being depressed, I am responding to the ordeal the way I know best, with that elastic spirit that enables conquerors to be who they are.
You were released by a stroke of luck due to the discovery of technical flaws in the case. Can you tell us more about that?
The principal thing to understand here is that I never appeared in court. To be thrown into prison without a court appearance amounts to a circumvention of my fundamental right to freedom of movement. It was also tantamount to a seizure of my fundamental right to freedom of expression and of association because my phone was taken away from me, I was not allowed to use a laptop for my work, and I was forbidden from reaching out to the world.
The fact of the matter is that I never received any summons from any court, and no lawyer represented me in court. All I heard was that judgment had been given in a case brought against me by the plaintiff, and that I should pay the man thirty million naira in damages and apologise in three national newspapers. I am contesting that. I have a right to fair hearing. I have a right to defend a book I wrote, and it is only proper that I do so to the last letter. That is why I have appealed the judgment. Even so, I am still consulting with my lawyers and it would be subjudice to say more than that at the moment.
You have another epistle, Epistles to the Small Brave City-State. What do you find enchanting about the epistolary form of nonfiction? How different is this epistle from the controversial one?
One is an offshoot of the other. We are actually talking about a trilogy. We are looking at three books which dwell practically on the same subject. It began with the controversial one, Epistle to Maduabebe, in 2009. It was followed by One More Epistle to Maduabebe in 2012, and Epistles to the Small Brave City-State in 2014. The second book was written in direct response to the official ban on the burial of my mother’s corpse pronounced by the selfsame paramount ruler who had taken umbrage at the first book.
Get the picture clearly. I write a letter to the king about how to sanitise the community. The king gets offended by the tone of the letter, but goes ahead to sanitise the community. Then I lose my mother, and in the middle of my grief, the king bans the woman’s corpse from being buried in the land because her son dared to write the king a letter. So I write another letter to tell the king why it was wrong of him to involve my late mother in a civil matter that can be cordially sorted out between us. The king lets me bury my mother, and locks me up afterward. That is the simple outline of the story in which I play the lead role.
Epistles to the Small Brave City-State is the more voluminous book. It runs into three hundred and eighty-eight turbulent pages, twice the size of the first and second books put together. It spells out the full ambit of my disenchantment with the shortcomings of the kingdom into which I was born, and puts forward a valiant argument for communal reform and spiritual liberation. It is an extension of a royal story which began with Professor E.J. Alagoa’s first book entitled, The Small Brave City-State.
I find the epistle enchanting as an effective form of non-fiction. The epistle is simply a letter. It is direct. It is blunt. It makes no pretentions. It gives me liberty to express myself in full flight, without hee-hawing, and in that chit-chatty manner that allows for friendly reading. It gives me sufficient room to experiment with words and to play with ideas on a wide range.
You are expected to take a 6-month creative writing course at the University of Northern Iowa. One would expect you to write on your prison memoirs. Are you thinking in that direction?
That’s right. That’s exactly what I have been doing with myself since I regained my freedom. I have been typing out the content of the note books I came out with, and to interpret the cryptic short-hand into a wholesome work that might find a worthy place in the annals of detention diaries. It is only to be expected. I can’t run away from that fact, and I have the sterling example of prominent writers who were there before me. It goes without saying that Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died is, undoubtedly, the most popular book in that lineage of literature, followed by Ken Saro-Wiwa’s A Month & A Day. The respected journalist, Kunle Ajibade, is also known to have published his prison memoirs appropriately entitled Jailed, and I do know that Ogaga Ifowodo’s Homeland was celebrated as a first book of poems by a writer and civil rights advocate who marked time in a military gulag.
I look forward to my stay at the University of Northern Iowa. The creative writing school there, I believe, is one of the most famous around the world. I have no doubt that the studious serenity of the campus, and the excellent minds I am bound to meet, will go a long way to freshen my creative buds. At the end of the course, I expect to pluck the harvest of a literary work that will be deserving of appreciable merit.