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Christopher Okigbo - a legend that died for what he believed in

Christopher Okigbo as a martyr – a tribute from Chudi Offodile

Christopher Okigbo, arguably Nigeria’s greatest ever poet, died fighting for Biafran independence in September 1967.  From 20-21 September 2017, the Department of Classics, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, from which Okigbo graduated in 1956, hosted an event, “Christopher Okigbo: 50 years after”.

Guests included Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and other literary giants such as JP Clark and Chukwuemeka Ike.  Chudi Offodile, author of “The politics of Biafra and the future of Nigeria” and former Chairman Public Petitions Committee in the House of Representatives, gave a presentation on Okigbo and Biafra.  Offodile’s presentation is reproduced in full below.

Chudi Offodile and Wole Soyinka at the event

I am very glad to be here in this great institution, the university of Ibadan, formerly the University College, Ibadan, a place that had a direct bearing on the actions and inactions that shaped the events of the sixties and put Nigeria on its present trajectory.  An institution that nurtured the most creative and most talented of Nigeria’s post-colonial generation.  Today is about Christopher Okigbo, one of those incredible talents produced by this university and unleashed unto an unsuspecting literary world. The sheer quality and brilliance of some of those talents was sure to attract the attention of the Alfred Nobel committee with an outstanding alumnus, Professor Wole Soyinka earning its prize in literature.

Thankfully, I am not saddled with the responsibility of discussing Okigbo’s poetry. I am assigned to deal with the burdensome but less complicated subject of his martyrdom. Of course Okigbo died fighting for the freedom of his people of Biafra. A martyr by definition is a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle, a martyr to the cause of freedom. Why did he not just support the cause of Biafra like other intellectuals in other ways? Perhaps as an administrator, a diplomat, teacher or propagandist? Why did he opt for military duties, combat duties?

Okigbo’s widow, JP Clark, Chukwuemeka Ike and other guests at the event

The history of the events of that era that led to the declaration of Biafra should provide the guide. The coup and counter-coup of 1966, the pogroms that followed, the exodus of Easterners from the rest of Nigeria and the collapse of the Aburi agreement. The challenge is to determine the true account of the events. Why are there different versions of our history emanating from the same set of facts? This very issue is at the heart of the failure of Nigeria’s match to nationhood. I will return to this.

Today we have heard and learned a lot about the life and works of Chistopher Okigbo but for the purpose of my presentation, I will rely and make reference to what Professor Chinua Achebe, another outstanding alumnus of this school, wrote about him in his book, There Was a Country and Professor Wole Soyinka’s encounter with the ghost of Christopher Okigbo in his book – The Man Died.

On the life and works of Christopher Okigbo, Achebe wrote: “I have written and been quoted elsewhere as saying that Christopher Okigbo was the finest Nigerian poet of his generation, but I believe that as his work becomes better and more widely known in the world, he will also be recognized as one of the most remarkable anywhere in our time. For while other poets wrote good poems, Okigbo, conjured up for us an amazing, haunting, poetic firmament of a wild and violent beauty. Forty years later I still stand by that assessment”.

Achebe continues his assessment by saying that, “his legendary creative work was first noticed at Government College Umuahia, where the teachers encouraged this budding talent. Later at the University College, Ibadan, he published a number of poems in Horn, the university magazine edited by J P Clark, yet another outstanding alumnus. He also published his work in Wole Soyinka’s Black Orpheus and Transition, and then produced a number of critically acclaimed poetry collections, including the groundbreaking classics, Heavens Gate and Labyrinths”.

Achebe made the point that when Okigbo decided to join the Biafran army, he went to great lengths to conceal his plan, making up a story about a secret mission to Europe and by the time he saw him two weeks later, he had become a major by special commission in the Biafran army. On why Okigbo joined the army, Achebe explained that, “the experience of the Igbo community from the pogroms [mass killing of Igbo people especially in northern Nigeria] onward had different effects on different people. There was a multitude of reactions – anger, loathing, sorrow, depression, Etc. These sentiments in Christopher’s case somehow transformed into a very strong pro-Biafra feeling. He had no doubt at all in his mind about Biafra and the need for the country to be a free and separate nation. That strong stance was something new for Christopher”.

Back in Nigeria, Soyinka was a detainee. He was imprisoned because he not only denounced the war in Nigerian newspapers, but he followed it up with a visit to the rebel territory in search of peace. On his return to Nigeria he was arrested by the Gowon regime. And from prison he wrote: “Of the many ghosts that haunt me here, the most frequent and welcome are the ghosts of dead relations, grand father and the two ghosts of Christopher Okigbo, Adekunle Fajuyi… Banjo and Alale also visit, but hardly as ghosts”. “My grandfather sits gnome-like, chuckling secretively, every chunk of his body pulsing with love and strength… Where have you been, Where are you going, when are you coming again, why do you never stay? Now I will leave Soyinka’s grandfather’s ghost alone lest he reappears. I should rather focus on the ghost of Okigbo, which should be with us here today.

“Christopher rushing in his whirlwind manner into the office of the Adjutant in Enugu. I am sunk in a deep armchair behind the door where I had been placed by the Adjutant after my earlier summary roughing-up by Biafran security, so Christopher does not immediately see me when he enters the office. Hot and breathless, he delivers the instructions he had brought from the front. The war is three weeks old. The Adjutant takes rapid notes then says, look behind you. Christopher’s eyes pop out of his head, then he breaks into that singular Cherookee yell-and-jig which has raised squirms of unease among a host of self-conscious acquaintances in every corner of the globe. He calms down minutes later, makes room for me in the convertible by flinging his major’s uniform in the back. As he drives towards the front, he says: you know, I learnt to use a gun right in the field. I had never fired even an air rifle in my life. I swear it, you know I’m not a violent man, I’m not like you. But this thing, I am going to stay with it till the end”. Soyinka recalls another encounter with Christopher sitting hours across the table from him while he awaited trial in a police cell in November 1965, discussing poetry.

Because of what Okigbo considered to be grave injustice suffered by Easterners, with the declaration of Biafra in May 1967 and the war that followed in July 1967, he joined the army and headed to the battlefield. Two months into the war in September 1967, he was killed in active combat in Nsukka sector. He was a hero and was honored posthumously with Biafra’s medal of honor.

Ukpabi Asika was on the federal side during the Nigerian civil war

Contrast with the role of Ukpabi Asika, another famous alumnus of this university who was opposed to Biafra. Asika joined the federal side and accepted the role of Administrator of the defunct East Central state. He lived and died a Nigerian. And I pose this question: What if Asika had died in active service during the war, would he have qualified for martyrdom in the eyes of Nigerians? Is Asika a Nigerian hero? By the way, who are Nigeria’s heroes?

Nigeria’s complicated history frustrates the march to nationhood as different sections of the country see things differently and oftentimes interpret the same set of facts very differently. There cannot be two sides of truth. An account of events is either true or false. Our different accounts of historical facts cannot all be true and that makes the teaching of history rather problematic. The solution is not to remove history as a subject in our school curriculum or to engage in the dangerous dance of pythons with needless fatalities, but to commit to the universal ideals of justice and fairness. So that even with all our differences, applying the universal standards of justice, we can begin to pull closer, begin to see some things the same way and begin to forge a common worldview with the same heroes. Not different heroes for different ethnicities.

On the war and its aftermath, Soyinka predicted our present national quagmire and possibility of re-occurrence of the events that led to the war in the following words; “What is clear, miserably, humiliatingly clear is that a war is being fought without a simultaneous program of reform and redefinition of social purpose. A war of solidity; for solidity is a far more accurate word than unity to employ in describing a war which can only consolidate the very values that gave rise to the war in the first place, for nowhere and at no time have those values been examined. Nowhere has there appeared a program designed to ensure the eradication of the fundamental iniquities which gave rise to the initial conflicts”. I would argue therefore, that the children of that war being branded as terrorists are indeed victims of war and should be treated as such.

Because he fought on the side of Biafra, expectedly, opinions differ on his place in history. But he was a hero. A hero need not be perfect but a martyr is a perfect hero, for there is no better way to die than for a cause you believe in. Christopher Okigbo died a martyr.



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