Poet and polemicist Odia Ofeimun is 70. Like fine wine, this vocal writer, essayist and author of several anthologies of poetry has remained stronger and brutal. In this exclusive chat with EVELYN OSAGIE, he speaks on his writings, Emir Sanusi’s deposition and current national issues.
How does it feel to be 70?
People always feel that a man at 70 should feel different; all I can tell you is that I have always wanted to be an old man. When I was much younger, I always enjoyed being called “Baba”. Many people older than me actually called me Baba. I have never really allowed people to treat me like a small boy.
I don’t believe that to be young is a licence to anything; you just must be good, which is why I never joined the cult of young writers. It is a virtual cult that appears to believe that different standards should be used to judge young people, or older writers are better because they are older. I always imagined, from the first poems I wrote, that I should be as good as all those older writers; and in most cases, those early poems, especially in The Poet Lied, I wrote them by weighing my chest against world’s famous authors.
Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart at less than 26 years old, Wole Soyinka wrote A Dance of The Forest, a book many people consider dense and unreadable, but one of the most exciting works of art. Now, if others could do it, why should I use my youth as a reason not to. Soyinka made me see the possibilities.
What has life taught you at 70?
That this world doesn’t change. You’ll find examples of good and bad persons across all the ages. As you get older, the need to be steadfast, to commit yourself to things you have always considered right becomes very strong and more tasking. I don’t think that some people, especially those in leadership position get it, because as some of them grow older, they get softer, they make commitments that they would have been ashamed of as younger persons. As I get older, I trust more and more the truths of my youth, I think that I got a very good education early in my life.
As a writer, do you feel fulfilled?
About 10 years ago, if you asked me this question I would be very diffident. I won’t be too sure how to answer. Things were different. Then, there was always this problem of being torn between so many genres. I wanted to be a poet, a dramatist; I wanted to write prose fiction, and I’d always loved politics and political philosophy. It looked as if I was over distracting myself, and to a certain extent it was true. But that self-distraction was like extending oneself into virgin lands and populating those lands by planting new things that when added up, amounted to a great deal. The kind of poetry I wanted to write did not appear to be easily buyable. I knew what other people were writing; I did not want to write like them. I wanted to write poetry that could fight – that is resistant to tyrannical rule, and one that would not apologise for seeking freedom across the society – and at the same time, remain a lasting part of the culture to which I belonged within English Literature itself.
I always knew that literature would not bring money. Poor as I may be because of the choices I am making, I am genuinely always very happy.
How did writing start for you?
I began to write literature when I was a very little student in my secondary school days. I started writing literature while I was always driven away for not paying my school fees. What I could get out of writing never struck me as a disability. Even if I knew that no money would come from writing poetry, I would have continued, it never mattered to me. I loved the fact that literature fixed behaviour for you.
What part of your background influenced the man you became?
Anytime people asked me about how I became a poet, I linked it to my childhood. I had solid education. I come from a family of very rugged NCNC people but I was an Awolowo man from my childhood. I loved studying and I loved what the Action Group was doing in schools. I’ve kept saying that the best education I’ve had in the world was my primary school education. It was genuinely educative.
I grew up in a house with older educated people. I grew up with my maternal grandparents. They were wonderful people: genuinely hard-working and very strict about people observing rules, morality and the rest of it. When my uncle was travelling to Germany to read Acronomy, he brought all his books home. And among those books were some of the best things in world of literature.
But why do people refer to you as the angry poet?
Well it is not about anger, it is about making sure people do not forget what has gone wrong, because when you forget, you repeat them and they become the way we live. I have been told that poetry will be more poetic if we did not put so much politics into it, I actually do not see what I have been doing as politics. It is about showing respect for life. It is possible to build a healthier society than the one we have, and when the government comes to power, there should be basic things by which we judge them. These days, we ought to ask every government that comes to power how much of the goods we import can we produce by the time you leave power? How much of what we expend in our in our lives can you help us to produce before you leave power? There is no country in the world that has become economically developed without planning.
With goings on in the country, is Nigeria still beautiful?
I happen to believe that Nigeria is an eminently savable country. I have never managed to lose faith in the capacity of Nigeria, not only to develop but also to become the centre for development for all African states. Nigeria is the most Pan-African country in the world, if you really want to trace the lineages. It is not because I am a Nigerian but historically, it has been the source of migrations to so many other parts of Africa. It tended to be always a destination for very many migrations, either from the Middle East or East or Southern Africa. When you consider that the Igala, they have relationships with people in as far as the Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, and even when you are in South Africa, amongst the Zulu, you will hear Benin words. For instance, our own Ogiso in Zulu language is Uyiso. When you consider the linguistic groupings that we all belong to the Yoruba and the Fulanis belong to a common language family. We are not taught that at school, we are not taught properly how to relate which is precisely why the Fulani man today can pretend that he’s so different from all the others.
Do you really think the solution will come with a National confab?
We already have a solution. Every ethnic nationality or fraction in Nigeria should be self-governing. But the fact that we belong to different language groups does not prevent us from sharing educational policies, common health policies and other welfare programmes. Some people are afraid for every child to be educated, first because the class systems which they belong to require the dominance of all other people. Some believe that it is the God-given right of their ethnic group to command and control others, but you see, if you go by that rule, we are returning to the 14th century. And it will never work. Now, something is happening across Nigeria, all those children who did not go to school are growing up in an age where guns are available everywhere and they are buying guns, and they are having guns bought for them by miscreants among the elites who think they can use them for their own purposes. While you are buying guns for them to use for your own purposes, they are acquiring these guns to have power they can use over you. In the end, history has a way of revolutionising the poor, such that even when they have nothing, they learn to acquire the means to fight.
So when does this civil war end?
The civil war ends when to fight all the oddities, lies and falsehood in our polity. Imagine a Fulani child who instead of driving cattle along forests and other routes is properly trained as a veterinary surgeon. These days, they pack them into trailers and dump them into forests in Southern Nigeria, it’s like they refuse to train their own, but they want to use the untrained and unskilled to mess up and mix up people in other parts of the country. They are just human beings like us. Nigeria is rich enough to provide a civilised way of living, rather than pour those children into forests to suffer, let them stay where they have cultural and religious empathy. If you do not allow them to move from the hideous poverty that we are all sentencing them today.
Given the much talked about social media restriction/legislation and then the writers/journalists being arrested. Would you still “ask questions with stones” if they take your voice?
We have reached a situation whereby it is no longer a balance of power, but a balance of terror, we can’t escape it. If you say you don’t want to buy guns, but when people bring guns to your doorstep as they did in Benue, and they said ‘your land or your life’, what do you do? It is a question that those who designed Amotekun are not able to answer properly. Once you allow violence to become the definitive of everyday life, you will need something tougher.
It is the kind of question a poet should not be asked because it hits deep inside you, meaning how can you have a future in which things are like this?
So if you are given a chance to tell the General, what will you tell him?
That we would not submit. Nigerians proved during the military era that we have self-respect. We are acquiring a capacity to say no to government.
Do you think that the reason we got to where we are politically is because we all did not take Nigeria seriously?
Well, that’s the claim I make in my book, that in fact we have not been taking Nigeria seriously. If you take yourself seriously as a people, it’s like one of the stories I tell in ”Imagination and the city”. If a land is beautiful and want to continue to enjoy it, you do not destroy it or make it uninhabitable. You’d make it beautiful. We who claim we own our forests, let us make our land beautiful. We must not allow the regimes of violence that are being imposed on the rest of the country. At the moment we have the means to make this place beautiful. As vibrant and very inspired people, we deserve to have peace. We should all prepare for the future by making today better than yesterday.
What’s your take on the Sanusi and the emirship saga?
It must have been clear to Sanusi that he would always be in trouble as an Emir, he grew up believing he was going to be Emir someday, and he managed to achieve it, but along the way, he also acquired the capacity for self-criticism and social criticism which did not agree with the tendencies of traditional rulership. He probably would have done better in a society where, when you become a traditional ruler, you have the power to make certain things happen. In the history of Kano, Rumfa was such a leader; Rumfa was a great Hausa leader who changed almost everything in Kano. The only comparable leader in Nigeria’s pre-history who was like that was Eware the First.
With the case of Sanusi, if you allow yourself as a traditional ruler to move into mainstream political activity, you are bound to repulse politicians who lack the juncture for changing development of the people, and there are those who just get envious, frankly when you have a former Central Bank governor who knows the way the world works and has seen how his people are being grown down in poverty. Out of guilt and resentment of what the politicians are not able to do, he is bound to misbehave. And to be very honest, it is out of his misbehaviour, when to simply distaste for bad governors, an Emir refused to attend public meetings, because you know what to expect if you are dealing with politicians who are very corrupt, and you know that it reflects on you as an Emir to be Lord and Master of this estate that is being ruined under your very nose. It’s a very painful role for an Emir to occupy, such that many of them are telling Sanusi to throw away his turban and play politics properly. It requires a different form of governance to make sure that the 15-25 million children who did not go to school in the North will go to school, and if Nigeria wishes to remain a normal society in the next 50 years, we must get all of them to school.
The fact that we have allowed millions of people to be out of school and unskilled is a crime, and it is a crime that the Sanusis of this world will never be able to solve by being traditional ruler.