History and politics in 21st century Nigerian poetry – Part 1
Mathias Iroro Orhero
History and politics are common themes in Nigerian poetry. From the pioneer writings of the nationalist poets, to the first, second, and third generations of Nigerian poets, history and politics have manifested as salient motifs. This essay engages history and politics in 21st century Nigerian poetry with a view to authenticating the new Nigerian poetry as a continuum of 20th century poetry traditions. This discourse adopts Odia Ofeimun’s A Boiling Caracas and Rome Aboh’s A Torrent of Terror, published in 2008 and 2015 respectively, as representative works of 21st century Nigerian poetry.
Nigerian poetry has a very unique history. Joseph Ushie traces the earliest beginnings of the Nigerian poetic tradition to “oral renditions” in various Nigerian cultures. This position is confirmed by Mathias Orhero when he asserts that “Nigerian poetry owes its origins to the oral literary traditions which are predominant in Nigeria”. From its oral origins, Nigerian poetry has taken roots in the written tradition due to the advent of colonialism and literacy. Harry Garuba attempts a canonisation of Nigerian poetry and he employs “generations of poets” as a marker to delineate the various canons of modern Nigerian poetry. Garuba’s study identifies three distinct generations of Nigerian poetry.
The idea of “generations” in Nigerian poetry is well rooted. Scholars such as Ushie, Sule Egya, Friday Okon, Romanus Aboh, and Christopher Ogunyemi, among others, have employed the concept in the identification of various canons of modern Nigerian poetry. It has been established that there are three generations of modern Nigerian poets that wrote in the 20th century. The 20th century poets have received ample critical attention and the peculiarities of their themes and techniques have informed many literary exegesis.
Twenty-first century poetry is considered as the poetry written between 2000 till the present. Patrick Oloko considers the poetry of this period as “contemporary” poetry. He submits that “more poetry has been written in Nigeria between the turn of the century and now than in the past”, foregrounding the blossoming of poetry in this period. He lists some of the poetry collections published in this period thus:
Farthing Presidents and Other Poems (2001) by Tope Omoniyi; Evening of My Doubt (2001) by Rotimi Fasan; Iremoje: Ritual Poetry for Ken Saro Wiwa, (2000) by Akeem Lasisi; Tongues of Triumph, (2002) by Anaele Charles Ihuoma, Heartbreak in the Mangrove and Other Poems, (2001), by Fabiawari Irene Briggs; When a Dream Lingers too Long, (2002) by Toni Kan; Waking Dreams, (2002) by Angela Nwosu; The Lament of the Town Crier, (2003) by F.B.O Akporobaro; Scarlet Laughters, (2004) by Peter Anny – Nzekwe; Rhythms of The Last Testament, (2002); This Story Must Not Be Told, (2003), and The Governor’s Lodge and Other Poems, (2004), all written by Hope Eghagha.
Aboh engages the poetry of the 21st century poetry, which he refers to as “new Nigerian poets”, and posits that they are regarded as “lamentation poets” whose poetry thematise the seemingly irresolvable Niger delta oil crisis, political betrayal, the widening gap between the extremely rich and the extremely poor, religious bigotry and political assassinations. Above all, these poets have continued to forge the link between the poets and their society; making their poems an outlet for the people’s socio-political expression. In a corollary, these poems are shaped by tension between the mass majority and those who clung to power against popular will.
Taking off from Aboh’s idea of lamentation, Macaulay Mowarin submits that the 21st century Nigerian poets decry “the betrayal of political leaders and the dilapidated state of the Nigerian nation”. Gloria Emezue focuses on the dominating voice of threnody in the poetry of 21st century and asserts that these poets lament the betrayal of the people’s genuine aspirations for a better life, poverty, unemployment and the dilapidated state of the nation’s economy. Their anger over the vicious cycle of brutality that diminishes the [nation] is unmistakable. It is this form of threnody ushered by these young men that has come to be known as the new generation of poetry.
Further substantiating Emezue’s position, Garuba expatiates on the idea of threnody in new Nigerian poetry and states that Though collectivized by a threnodic thrust, the new poetic voices are diverse, disparate, deliberately individualized, a deviation from the gregariousness, the fraternal spirit, and the theoretical meeting point, of the poets of the Alter-Native tradition. The poets recognize the miscarriage of good governance and its attendant woes as the greatest crisis in Nigeria, consider it their duty to confront the crisis, and take different thematic and stylistic routes to do so. They write as insiders implicated in the intense persecution and the struggle for self-liberation, their tones leaning towards pessimism.
Differing from other scholars, Senator Ihenyen describes the 21st century Nigerian poets as “children of globalisation” who have access to the World Wide Web. To him, these poets live in a globalised world and their poetry reflects the changing tides of the society.
The socio-political nature of new Nigerian poetry is also foregrounded in Ushie’s study and he proceeds to list some of the poets such as “Femi Oyebode, Afam Akeh, Onookome Okome, Uche Nduka, Chin Ce, Usman Shehu, Remi Raji, Joe Ushie, Nnimmo Bassey and Maik Nwosu”.
It is important to note that some of the 21st century poets are not new in the Nigerian poetic scene. Poets such as Tanure Ojaide, Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, among others, are regarded as being among the second generation of modern Nigerian poets. However, they continue to write poetry and their new poetry collections respond to the changes in the socio-political configurations of the 21st century realities. This informs why some of them may be included in listings of 21st century poets.
History and politics manifest in various thematic and stylistic shades in 21st century Nigerian poetry. This paper employs Ofeimun and Aboh’s poetry as representative texts. Ofeimun’s poetry has been purposively selected in order to engage an older poet’s new poetry with that of a new poet.
Twenty-first century Nigerian poets incorporate Nigerian history and politics in their poetry. Ofeimun’s “Death Abiding” employs the mode of allusion to foreground two major Nigerian crises. In the first part of the poem, the poet alludes to “Kano” as he creates the image of death in the following lines: in Kano (…)/ We lapped up death/ in the death of strangers/ friends we knew too late/ whose hands would shake ours/ but for the axe-blades powered/ by muezzins, pulpits,/ and infallible rostrum (35).
The lines are used to depict the victims of the Kano religious riots in 2004 that claimed tens to thousands of lives. Kano is not new to religious strife in Nigeria. Since 1953 when the first documented riot broke out, there has been series of riots in the ancient city, mainly by the Muslims who attack and maim Christians in the city over religious differences and other minor issues.
The image of “axe-blade” that the poet evokes shows the domesticity of the violence. Guns, bombs, and other sophisticated weapons were not employed. Rather, home-made and home-used weapons and items like axes and knives were used to commit the massacre. The image of “muezzins” and “pulpits” are employed as synecdoche to represent the two belligerents in the religious war: Muslims and Christians respectively.
In the second section of the poem, Ofeimun alludes to the Umuleri and Aguleri conflicts that started around 1933, reaching its peak in 1999 and has manifested in various waves and forms till the present. The poet alludes to this conflict together with other similar conflicts in the lines:
See? Hutu and Tutsi, kado and pulo,/ ‘umuleri half dozen, ‘aguleri count six […]/ A daemon […] with a matchet/ bullet-spraying from dashing kit-cars/ and bullish hordes on licensed rampage/ awakening neighbourhoods and alleys (37).
The above lines show the nexus between the Umuleri-Aguleri conflict and other similar conflicts, notably the Hutu-Tutsi conflict (the Rwandan civil war), and it proceeds to depict a scene from the conflict.
Aboh’s “moment of despair” and “evidences from okija” employ allusions to, as well as images and themes of Nigerian history and politics. In “moment of despair”, Aboh depicts the refugee crises that has engulfed parts of the Nigeria.
The central theme of homelessness is introduced in the opening lines: “Their umbilical cords uprooted and / dumped at The Hague” (24). The uproot of “umbilical cords” symbolise the displacement from motherland, while “The Hague” serves as a metaphor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, Netherland. The ICC is regarded as the apex court where displaced people can go for justice. Aboh proceeds to thematise the Bakassi Peninsula crisis of 2006 in the lines:
Now Bakassians go as would refugees/ without their gods,/ without a home/ with annihilated yesterdays;/ with beleaguered tomorrows./ Kpash! They go without/ the libation of their fishing feet./ Their loving brows no more caressed/ by the morning dew./ And their ghosts like Hamlet’s/ wander still on that Peninsula (24).
The preceding lines paint a vivid imagery of the refugee situation of the Bakassi people. When Nigeria signed off the oil rich Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroun, after an ICC judgement, the people were left without homes. Many of the inhabitants of the Peninsula are Nigerians who settled there ages ago mainly for fishing and trade. Upon the occupation of the Peninsula by the Cameroonian government, the displaced persons were moved to another location in Cross River State, Nigeria, and were thus, severed from what they have considered as their homeland. Aboh’s poem, therefore, presents some of the agonies of the displaced Bakassi people who are left without a “home” and their “fishing feet”.
The allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet is used by the poet to convey the idea of hopelessness and exile. It is also used as a metaphor of the mental agony and anguish of the dispossessed people. Furthermore, the poet alludes to the Odi massacre by Federal forces in Bayelsa State, Nigeria (2010) and the Zaki Biam massacre by the Nigerian military in Benue State, Nigeria (2001).
These two massacres were committed against hapless citizens of rural communities that dared to face to government in demand of their rights. The poet persona comments on their homelessness, which was an after effect of the military pogrom, in the lines:
O you peace-loving terrorist/ Of Udi, Zaki Biam/ have rendered many homeless;/ your generation shall also be homeless/ in the land of the living (24).
The paradox of “peace-loving terrorist” is used as a humoured satire of the Nigerian military that have rendered the hapless people of Odi and Zaki Biam homeless. The poet persona proceeds to unleash invectives on the culpable persons in the massacre.
In “evidences from okija”, Aboh directs his object of satire at Nigerian leaders. In thematising tyranny, the poet alludes to various aspects of Nigerian history and politics beginning with the titular “Okija” and “Soka”. Okija refers to Okija shrine at Anambra State, Nigeria, where over 70 dead human bodies, purportedly for human ritual purposes, were found in 2004. Soka refers to the Ibadan forest of horror where hundreds of human skulls, over twenty decomposed bodies and over twenty living but emaciated people, also for human ritual purposes and human organ trade, were recovered in 2014 (Wikipedia, the Free Encylopedia). The poet employs these historical allusions to foreground the inhumanity of Nigerian leaders as he says:
Having sold our souls/ to tenders of Okija and then Soka,/ they swore with maniacal pomposity:/ “it’s a do-or-die.”/ They swore with zealotry:/ “we will reign for sixty years to come.” (30)
It is obvious from the preceding lines that the poet persona alludes to Okija shrine and Soka forest to form parallels of the evil committed therein. However, he obviates the direct object of his satire through the quoted statement that asserts reign for sixty years. The statement was made by the previous ruling party of Nigeria.
Aboh also alludes to the current Boko Haram terrorism in Nigeria (2009- till date) that has taken lives and ravaged the entire North East of Nigeria, especially Bornu State (Sambisa forest) where is it is headquartered. The poet attempts to ridicule the inability of the government to address the menace since its inception and he expresses this in the lines: “BH offers them amnesty, / leads them into Sambisa; / and pain-packed laughter knocks us naughty” (30). “BH” is an abbreviation of Boko Haram while “Sambisa” is their official base. The act of “BH” offering “amnesty” to the government only for “pain-packed laughter” to knock the government “naughty” is used as an irony and to assert the terrorists’ control of the situation. The poet’s tone of pessimism is largely due to the insincerity of the government in the fight against the terrorists, as well as the many underground politics involved in the Boko Haram saga.
•Orhero is a postgraduate student of African Literature at the University of Uyo.