Monday, 16 August 2010

Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo – Poet, polymath, human rights activist

Today, Monday 16 August 2010, is the 80th birthday of the great Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo. Okigbo is Africa’s most celebrated and most influential poet. He occupied the poetry chair of the continent’s post- (European)conquest literary academy in the 1960s with Chinua Achebe the head of the novel institute and Wole Soyinka, head of drama.

Okigbo’s scholarship and influences are extensive and varied: Igbo history, mythology, art and philosophy, ancient world religious and spiritual heritage encompassing Kemet (“ancient Egypt”), Nri, Babylon, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Greece and Roman as well as the poetry of Ovid, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Yeats, Mallarmé, Eliot, Pound, Hopkins. Right from the outset, Okigbo’s perspicacious intellectual contribution in mapping out the tenets of Africa’s renaissance scholarship is his focus on both redeeming the European occupation’s assault on the spiritual embodiment of the African existence, in the wake of the conquest, and confronting a ruthless genocide state-in-the-making in Nigeria at the first half of the 1960s. Okigbo’s worldview does not tolerate any excuses for either the perpetration or perpetuation of any forms of tyranny and subjugation of peoples. Since then, Okigbo’s poetry has had a profound impact on the work of several poets of his generation as well as on the ever-expanding stretch of the “post”-Igbo genocide generation of poets and writers in other genres.

Crucial site

Fifty years on, the state in contemporary Africa is essentially a genocide-state – exemplified most catastrophically by Nigeria, the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Okigbo’s incisive scholarship (see, especially, Christopher Okigbo, Heavensgate, Silences, Limits, Distances, “Laments of the Masks”, “Laments of the Deer”, “Four Canzones” and Path of Thunder), to the poet’s eternal credit, anticipates the nature and characterisation of the multifocal crises of this development and rigorously interrogates their tragic consequences. For Okigbo, given the operationalising backdrop of the European conquest and occupation, the spiritual is a crucial site of the African resistance and campaign for the restoration of sovereignty. This is because the eventual goal of the occupation’s assault is aimed at burrowing a cataclastic fault-line in the soul of the people to pre-empt or complicate their determined process of recovery on the morrow of the triumph of freedom. Evidently, Okigbo responds to this emergency, in his scholarship, by weaving a multilayered and panoramic landscape of often-complex fabric of overarching architecture of ideas that meditates on the variegated spiritual universe of the people.


In the 1960-1966 Nigeria historical context particularly, Okigbo’s scholarship of resistance pitches its tent squarely on behalf of those who would confront blatantly-rigged election results and imposed parties and leaderships, rigged census returns, arbitrary arrests and detentions, rabid and rampant authoritarianism and, most tragically of all, the Nigeria state-organised genocide against the Igbo people. The poet himself was killed defending his beloved motherland. 3.1 million Igbo people were murdered during the 44 months of the genocide – 29 May 1966-12 January 1970. In the gripping lines of his last poem cycle, Path of Thunder, written before the outbreak of the genocide, but published posthumously, Okigbo breathtakingly presages the contours of the cataclysmic consequences of Africa’s foundational genocide of the 20th century and his own likely death during the slaughter:

AND THE HORN may now paw the air howling goodbye …

For the Eagles are now in sight:
Shadows in the horizon –

THE ROBBERS are here in black sudden steps of showers, of
caterpillar –
THE EAGLES have come again,
The eagles rain down on us –

POLITICIANS are back in giant hidden steps of howitzers, of
detonators –
THE EAGLES descend on us,
Bayonets and cannons –

THE ROBBERS descend on us to strip us of our laughter, of our
thunder –

THE EAGLES have chosen their game …

POLITICIANS are here in this iron dance of mortars, of
generators –
THE EAGLES are suddenly there,
New stars of iron dawn;

So let the horn paw the air howling goodbye …

O mother mother Earth, unbind me; let this be
my last testament; let this be
The ram’s hidden wish to the sword the sword’s
secret prayer to the scabbard –

BEYOND the iron path careering along the same beaten track –

THE GLIMPSE of a dream lies smouldering in a cave,
together with the mortally wounded birds.
Earth, unbind me; let me be the prodigal; let this be
the ram’s ultimate prayer to the tether …

AN OLD STAR departs, leaves us here on the shore
Gazing heavenward for a new star approaching;
The new star appears, foreshadows its going
Before a going and coming that goes on forever…

Many a season

Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo would be appalled by the devastation of Igboland, 40 years after the end of the second phase of the genocide. He wouldn’t rest on his laurels, though, in response to challenge and overcome what is undoubtedly a clear, conscious, fiendishly-scripted and targetedly-driven juggernaut to destroy one of the world’s very talented peoples. Okigbo, who believes in the power of words, would head for his keyboard … and more…

History testifies that the quest for human freedom is not often an engagement pursued over just one season. For many, and the Igbo appear to be incorporated in this group, it is rather much more painfully drawn out; it could entail a cast of over several, long seasons. This trajectory, therefore, inevitably, encapsulates its vivid vicissitudes of pain … grief … opportunities … turmoil … setbacks … triumphs … turmoil … grief …  opportunities … breakthroughs …  What is at stake here is for a more focused, more steadfast, and a more enduring understanding of the huge tasks ahead. Surely this is music in the ears of the resourceful and resilient Igbo people.

The Igbo can and will rebuild their battered towns and villages and economy, which was one of Africa’s fastest growing power houses on the eve of the genocide. Unquestionably, the Igbo will restore their sovereignty. As the Okigboan œuvre demonstrates, human freedom eventually prevails most luminously. Okaa Omee.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

British arms to Africa

The new British Conservative-Liberal Democratic government, the first coalition administration in the country since the end of the Second World War, is grappling with significantly cutting the record national budget deficit of £160 billion during the life of the current parliament. The deficit represents about 11 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Massive cuts are therefore expected across the entire spectrum of government departments’ expenditure with only healthcare and overseas “aid” funding provisions preserved. But even on health services, positions of health managers and other administrators as well as hitherto powerful supervisory boards are being abolished.

So, not even spending on crucial departments as education nor indeed defence (despite the war in Afghanistan and the other country’s security commitments elsewhere in the world) is spared, such is the gravity of this crisis of the British budget deficit. This financial year’s (2010-2011) defence ministry’s core budget is £37 billion and the impending cuts mean that officials here are already looking for sources beyond the treasury (finance ministry) to offset any cash shortfalls. One source recently suggested by Peter Luff, minister for defence equipment, is to boost the export of British weapons. For Africa, a continent where Britain is currently the leading global arms exporter, Luff’s comments to the media on the future drive of his department on the subject is ominous indeed: “There’s a sense that in the past we were rather embarrassed about exporting defence products. There is no such embarrassment in this government.”

There is nothing in Luff’s statement which implies that the previous British Labour governments of 14 years (Prime Minister Brown’s and Blair’s) were anywhere “embarrassed” or ethically challenged on British arms sales/ transfers to Africa. On the contrary, it was indeed during the Labour party tenure that Britain acquired that unenviable status as “leading arms exporter to Africa”. As from 2004, Britain’s annual income from selling arms to Africa crossed the £1 billion threshold. Besides being a major arms supplier to such genocide-states as Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Sudan, Britain also sold arms during this period to 10 out of 13 conflict-stricken countries on the continent. These included states in east/central Africa then involved in the so-called Great Lakes’s War where London in fact sold arms to both sides of the principal protagonists (DRC, Rwanda, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Uganda), which led Charles Onyango-Obbo, the respected Ugandan journalist, to reflect, at the time, that “Britain is supporting both sides [in the war] – it just robs them of any moral authority and a lot of people rightly do despise the British government on this affair.”

Britain should ban all arms sales to Africa immediately and comprehensively. This act should be a priority implemented by the new Cameron government. Africa must not be the arena where Britain wants to seek urgent financial resources, through arms sales, to ease its budgetary difficulties at home or achieve other goals. As I have argued severally in the past decade, British and other exported arms to Africa are used principally by the local recipient regime to murder its own people(s), often targeted constituent nation(s), as inter-state conflicts/wars have been more of the exception. 15million Africans across the continent have been murdered since May 1966 with the use of these weapons in genocidal campaigns and other intra-state conflagrations. We mustn’t fail to recall that the 1966-1970 Igbo genocide which claimed the lives of 3.1 million Igbo people (a quarter of the nation’s population), the foundational genocide of post-European conquest Africa, was carried out by the Nigeria state with the active involvement of the British government of the day – Labour’s Premier Wilson’s. British support for the campaign included steadfast supply of arms and other logistic and diplomatic backing to the genocidist regime in Lagos throughout the gory and devastating duration of the 42 months of slaughter.

In his major speech in Bangalore (India) last week on one of the prominent threads of the existential threat of our age, Prime Minister Cameron may have opened up a laudable, new vista in international relations discourses that requires statespersons to approach pressing global issues more openly, more honestly, more frankly. Arms to Africa is another prominent thread in this threat. Given Britain’s much embedded role in the thread, Africa and the rest of the world do expect the reforming Cameron to administer the Bangalore treatment to this problem at his earliest opportunity.