Odia: I have never been celibate, ask my girlfriends
Odia Ofeimun is a Nigerian poet and polemicist. Born March 16, 1950, he is author of many volumes of poetry, books of political essays and on cultural politics, and the editor of two significant anthologies of Nigerian poetry. His work has been widely anthologised and translated and he has read and performed his poetry internationally. The Iruekpen, Edo State native has worked as a news reporter, factory labourer and civil servant before studying Political Science at the University of Ibadan, where his poetry won first prize in the University Competition of 1975.
• I Was Born To Write Poetry
• Awolowo Was An Energiser, A Way Into Future
At 70, would you say that you’re a fulfilled person?
I’m always amazed the way people talk about being fulfilled, as if there is a way of defining fulfillment that really, thoroughly makes sense without the possibility of objections. All I can tell you is that, very early in my life, before I was 12 years old, I had made up my mind that I was going to be a writer, and I have managed to be almost the kind of writer I wanted to be. I have not quite finished and I hope I will have enough time to finish. I mean, not quite finished in the sense that there were other things I always wanted to do as a writer. I wanted to do a solid work of philosophy that will stand up to much of what I have read in the European philosophy, and I wanted to do autobiography that would explain how I navigated the waters of a very badly managed country.
Inspite of the badly managed economy, Nigeria seems to have defied ecnomics. We are still afloat and even the biggest economy in the continent
This is not a country w e are going to push over, it won’t happen, no matter, which powers try it. The almost intractable pattern of diversities you have across Nigeria is essentially part of what has protected us so far. We are a divided people, so it looks on the surface, but as I am going to argue in a book you are going to see on my birthday, all that diversity, all that distracted information around us, they are what makes creativity and the way Nigerians do things. We just need to firm up a corps, a Centre, not to direct, but indicate directions.
You’re an incurable optimist. You believe in the country so much. What could have led to this passion about a country that has too much, but the people cannot feed properly?
There are very few countries in the world that can match Nigeria in terms of what the environment provides for rethinking our status as a people, and rethinking ways of matching other civilizations in that we know exists in the world. It is not because
I’m a Nigerian, if you look at the way Nigeria is structured; it is structured like a combination of all African countries.
There is virtually no colour in Africa that is not represented in Nigeria and we may even go further back and say the migration that made up the very many African countries passed through Nigeria, right through to Zulu land. Go to Zulu land and you would begin to see elements of Edo culture that we thought we could only have in Nigeria, and I discovered that in linguistic terms, what we call lion (Oduma), is actually the Zulu word for roar. So, there is a pattern that Nigeria has that has filtered into, virtually, all African countries.
The Igala culture in Nigeria actually passes through all sorts of roots, such that Southern Sudan, Luo in Kenya and Uganda, are people who have deep-rooted affiliations to the cultures in Nigeria. It is very easy to see Nigeria as a truly Pan-African environment. We don’t tend to see it that way, but when I was in Britain doing a dance drama on the history of Africa, I found out that almost all the colours of Africa represented in the dances of South Africa, East or Western Africa are available in Nigeria.
To do a Zulu war dance, all I needed to do was to stroll to Tiv land, and I found a culture that suited it. Whatever other dance forms we took from any other African country, all I needed to do was do a little rethink and I would know a Nigerian culture where that dance form exists.
It is no longer a boast when you say this is a truly Pan-African country. We are not making references to fictional things, they are everyday events in Nigeria and therefore, we do owe Africa a responsibility not to let this culture fade and if there is anybody who is trying to make this culture fade, as it appears as some people are trying to do, we have a reason to stand up to them and fight them.
Recently, I had to talk about the so-called terrorist assault on Nigeria; look, the Yoruba, between themselves, fought for 100 years, over a minor constitutional issue. If somebody is smart enough to imagine that he will take over part of Yoruba land, and that for the next 200 years, he will not be at war, they are jokers, because no matter how many guns you’ve have managed to acquire, after you’ve taken over the land, a land that does not belong to you, those who own the land that you have driven away, they will spend the rest of the centuries ahead of them learning how to acquire weapons to fight you.
The Europeans left, but those who are amongst us who cannot leave, they will be fought for ages and we need to be unsparing of ourselves in thinking of how to deal with it. All the nationalities in Nigeria need to be set free to become part of a proper country. You cannot rope them into enslavement and pretend that we will have a future of peace and harmony, it won’t happen.
It seems your politics has overshadowed your literature
Actually, the books of my life, and for my poetry, my poetry is taken for granted. I was born to write poetry, but the other ones came as a result of finding that no matter how you work it out, you need to organise a political system that works. If your political system does not work, the economy will be in trouble and we will find that medical doctors will not function as doctors, engineers will not function as engineers, and we are already in a situation where it is now clear that legislators do not behave like legislators and executives don’t behave like executives, many of them are just openly defying the law in order to make money and you can’t be a serious poet in a society of chaos.
I also had a review of myself at a point — The kind of person I would like to be and I discovered I was being distracted by everyday argument about what African literature should be like. I got involved in this argument but many people were not reading what I was writing, because they were too busy looking for the poet rather than looking at the critical works that were also interested about how literature should be. I have put together all my poetry in three books.
The Harbor Master poems are made up of six collections, beginning with The Poet Lied and it ends with Geography As Fake, which is my latest collection, but in that collection, you have A Handle for The Flutist, Dreams At Work, Go Tell the Generals and I Will Ask Questions With Stones If They Take My Voice. Many people were not following up this production largely because they were waiting for big publishers in Europe or somewhere else to produce it. I have become my own publisher after the crisis of The Poet Lied and to a certain extent, my poetry don’t travel as much as they should have.
Your themes have a way of responding, maybe, to summons. Every work talks about the road well taken
I have this habit of responding to countries anytime I am called upon to speak. In the four years I spent in Britain, I did a collection called London Letter and other Poems; it was supposed to register my way of relating to that new environment. When I travelled to Venezuela during their crisis; that was when I wrote A Boiling Caracas and Other Poems. There were no cars on the road, exactly the way Nigeria was during Abacha’s regime. There was a petrol shortage in Nigeria, but in the case of Venezuela, it was not because of shortage of petrol, and the opposition to Chavez decided to ground the country. I simply used my experience and interaction in that environment to retell the Nigerian story so that when you are reading the body character, you are likely to find things that will make you say, isn’t this Nigeria? It told me a lot about myself when I discovered that many of the countries in the world not only had the same kind of problem but same kind of leadership in most cases and therefore if you want to understand the way the world works, it is like that story told by Achebe, to understand a masquerade, you have to walk around with the masquerade. If it is moving, you too must move with it.
Sir, how long does it take you to write a book?
I don’t fix a time for writing a book, in fact, many of the books that I have written were written over several years, that is to say, in one year, I could write 10 different beginnings. I adopted the pattern of first delivering lectures and then I turned the lectures into chapters in books, but before I set out every year, I already have at the back of my mind, the chapters I wish to write. Although, they may not all come together, I already have an idea of how the book is going.
So, how many books have you written?
If I have the means, on my birthday, there will be 40 books. You can see all the books are been brought in by the printer. Those are the books I have written. For instance, I did my PhD since, which I never submitted. It is on the Unity Party of Nigeria. I finished it but I cannot release that one until the other book on Awolowo is ready. I won’t let anybody know what I have written until I have finished the book. I was trying to prevent you from asking questions about the Awolowo book. The title of my thesis was, Messianism as a political platform. It was about leadership and organisational effectiveness in Nigeria’s political parties. I have a peculiar attachment to Messianism questions in that title but you see there are things I don’t want to let out before I’m ready to present the full story.
When are we going to have the books? What is holding the story?
I don’t know and I will tell you why I said I don’t know. I want to finish the Awolowo story when I am not fighting to put food on the table. One of the reasons why I want all these books published today is that I want to rewrite that book in a certain relaxed mood, because Awolowo was an important energiser and a way into the future. He will never stop being that. Because he held onto the most important things in the life of an underdeveloped society wishing to become developed. He was deceived by the power of the so-called developed countries of the world. As the Labour prime minister of Britain, Harold Wilson, said, ‘Awolowo could be judged as fine Prime minister of Britain, as in any country’. I strongly believed that if we read Awolowo well and stop all the biases into the knowledge of our leaders, we would see that there was no problem we face that he never applied his mind to. He applied his mind in a very scientific manner. You can’t have an Awolowo’s country where the statistics is rubbish. Every Thursday, as his private secretary, I will go to the office of statistics to make sure what we had was up to date. You don’t take decision of the core without looking at the ground. I have tried sometimes to talk to some of my friends, if you are given a state to run, is like somebody giving you a contract. You must know that the money spent in buying the next Agbada, instead of staying with the old Agbada and going to church with it, is money taken out of school fees you could have paid for your son. You must know that buying a new car if you have people who can design a new car for you is a bit of waste of time. There are so many things we can do as I said earlier. Thirty per cent of the money we make in this country is all that is effective. Seventy per cent are either waste or pure corruption. If you have a government that is serious to run a serious society, in five years we will be where it makes sense. When I first came to Lagos, there was a Ministry of Labour. You just go there, you register and wherever there are jobs in the city, when the opening emerges somebody will call you. You were required to go there every Thursday to check. The news of people who fit into that particular description will be read out at the ministry of Labour. If you fit in into that description you will get the job. It was possible in 1969 when I got to Lagos. Then, gradually, they destroyed everything that could help us run a society like that.
What makes a good story or creative work?
I am afraid to answer that question well, because from this year I intend to write a lot of prose and I don’t want people to hold me on that. The truth is, we have not told Nigeria’s stories well. We are a very creative people but we have not had an organised centre to relate to, which means that our energies are dispersed and the fictions we have written are grand in the eyes in relation to what other countries have, because frankly, compared to most other countries, Nigeria is special. But you see, we still have not written what is expected. When I say we are special people, I am not bragging. Almost every area of Nigeria is the area with the best of human stock that can emerge. When you then look at how our cities are managed and how our lives are generally managed you will know that there is a derailment and it is precisely how to correct that derailment that is the issue. When people talk about restructuring, it is the kind of thing they need. If people had not protected geography, we hardly do things right. Nigeria started by refusing to give protected geography to ethnic groups. What that did is that, people lacked the confidence to act for themselves. If you are waiting for the government, you are waiting for some foreigners. In every local government in this country, we have the kind of resource that matches the stars of many countries in the world. If we don’t know what we have, how can you mobilise people? Those who cannot be seen are very difficult to understand. I mean our people do not see themselves enough. This day, government takes pride in not knowing the people they govern and you can tell it in government documents, you can feel it the way we talk to our representatives so that a governor who does not know his state talks with authority about what will happen in that state. A good story is about a thoroughly hopeless situation that never ends but always strives, that is so say, situations where things are supposedly impossible, where an impossible theory exists.
No. I can give you an example. The book, In Search of Ogun: Soyinka In Spite of Nietzsche, I wrote over a decade, which is to say in one part, I wrote the second part and the third party at different times before they were brought together. I have started writing about Soyinka when he was 80. I decided to do a special 80th birthday for him and I delivered it as a lecture.
That season, I was supposed to deliver three lectures; one at Ife, Rome and Lagos. I was rushing to write all the three together. I left the one for Ife. I said when I was done with the other ones, I will write this literally into the hall? For three days, I was busy writing this essay, but could not finish it. Any time I talk about this thing, I laugh. Honestly, it was just like a joke. I will wake up in the morning simply go to my table and go on but after that Ife incident, I sat myself back and re-read what I had written and I realised that it was something I could not have written unless I forced myself into it. The way I was going, if I had taken it easy, I will not have written anything. Anybody reading those books knows that I was pressed writing it but I was thoroughly enjoying it. Soyinka, I have always considered something special in aesthetic proffering solutions, but there was something new about Soyinka he reconditioned and rewinds the capacity to think from indigenous sources to a viewpoint that can be heard to the rest of the world. The form and pattern of Yoruba methodology that he has engaged makes it appear as if he was interested only in an aspect. As you move deeper and deeper into Soyinka’s theorisation of need, you will discover that it forms a pattern with almost all the great thinkers. In the book, In Search of Ogun: Soyinka In Spite of Nietzsche, what I have done is to show how his engagement with the Yoruba gods actually fits very well into views and positions in management theory in general. If you understand Yoruba mythology well, ways at which people have thought of how to organise life for centuries have been codified in a manner that can be used in the way people pick theories. My argument is that if we are interested in understanding African societies, you need to take a second look at the myth and folktales of our culture in order to discover that they were not just fascistic as many people try to say, that they were actually components of management theories that have been around in the world from generations and for which if we modify can give us a better way of organising our society. For Soyinka, it looks as if you are just talking aesthetics, fictions and things of that nature. My argument is that the root of actual need to experience Africa and his use of mythology actually links him to the other ethnic’s fractions in the world.
Okay sir, how will you say your family has reacted to the fact that you are a writer?
The people, who engaged me, in that sense, were the older and educated people in the family; that is my mother’s elder brother. He didn’t like my idea of becoming a writer. He thought it was like escaping from social responsibilities. To a certain extent, he was right. If you have a family in which the only educated person decides that he would be a writer, it means that he doesn’t want to make a lot of money. Moneymakers are the ones who call the shots; you are keeping your family backwards. But you see, I made a choice very early in my life. I had no means of going to school, as I would have loved to. I probably would have been an engineer or an astrophysicist. Such things excited me, but I made the choice of becoming a poet. I soon realised that being a poet would not put plenty of food on my table but I loved my choice and I don’t want to leave this world unable to remember, that is, what I have done as a poet and those other ones; essays on politics, books and the rest of it but this, I remember as my reason and excuse. There was an older friend of mine who was going to establish a merchant bank and he wanted me to bring him somebody who would be his chief of staff. He rejected everyone I brought, then one day, he said, ‘why not you?’ It was because I wanted to remain a poet and that each time I took a decision to do something different, I always never did well at what I wanted to do but that poetry kept haunting me, and that it was best to do what your heart tells you.
To a very large extent, during this my birthday, I would like to go to him and give him a set of the books I have written as a way of letting him know that it was nothing personal. I just wished, always to be a poet, and I was frightened that if I deviated again, because whenever I did something else different from the poetry that I wished to write, the poetry couldn’t leave me and therefore, whatever I was going to do, it was like those other things were distractions. I would have become, maybe, a moneyman of a kind, but what kind of moneyman would Odia be, if he stopped writing? I couldn’t imagine a life without literature.
So, how much do you react to critiques?
This morning, I was just reading Akin Adesokan, who has done a critique of In Search of Ogun: Soyinka In Spite of Nietzsche. I’m yet to reply to tell him that there are some of his positions that I don’t understand and when I get to understand it, we will have a proper haggling. I love the movement of ideas and I like engaging people who do not agree with me, because there are walls that are open to you when you try to see the other person’s point of view but I am not shy and I am not nice when people say things that are not true. I go to town, I fight, but when I know that someone is genuinely interested in finding an answer, I support his finding an answer, and most of the books we are doing at the moment, especially in fiction and poetry.
There is a sense to which our literature has been shy, except for the new middle-belt writers, who are also shy, you don’t get a picture of why there is so much violence in Northern Nigeria. Why? There is so much violence in Northern Nigeria and now, across Nigeria. It’s hardly, properly explained and that is likely because we have been trained to believe that ethnicity is our problem and that you don’t talk about ethnicity, that it is like you are dividing the nation. No, you are not dividing the nation, we should confront it. In a multi-ethnic society, a central position should be harmonized out of a proper debate. Put all your facts on the table and let’s have a debate. There is no point in hiding under a religious or an ethnic code because at the end of the day, the things you refuse to talk about are actually the ones that determine how your country moves. We did not see the Fulani’s because we kept being very nice, sometimes; it is a case of ‘don’t vex them,’ so that we can keep Nigeria as one. No, unity must be built out of a rough tackle with each other. We must confront the real issues in our lives and we must ask ourselves, ‘if we go on like this, how can we move from A to B?’; and I believe if we take the current Fulani threat seriously, we might just be able to turn them into proper citizens. Now, they don’t want to be citizens, they want to be overlords. No matter how they try, because, as I said, if thirty million Fulani’s in the world want to take ON 180 million Nigerians, they will have to really work so hard. They would be keeping us backwards for so long that it would wipe out our capacity to move forward. I think that they will have to become citizens and the rest of us must also learn to live with the difference because it is a difference that is not based on anything serious.
So, as a former president of ANA, the last convention couldn’t hold or bring a new president. How did you feel that such a thing happened?
It was bound to. It’s like history’s judgment. We needed to go back to where we actually started in order to reconsider our grounds and in order to know that we have misled ourselves. The important way to look at it is this — we started as a very small organisation. The numbers of writers in the country were few and we knew ourselves.
Real writers, people who were properly published, so that if you walked into a company of writers, you knew you were in the company of writers and we tended to respect our zest more. But then, we wanted to expand, we wanted new people to become poets, we were helping others to become better writers than they could have been, and therefore, I wouldn’t say we relaxed but most of the people who were moving into the organisation did not acquire the discipline required of the literary arts and so thought literature could just be treated like any other area of life in the country. We imagined we were different; we were bringing something of value to the society, which was not already there.
The last conference that ANA held, which was a proper conference, was the one at which we elected Abubakar Gimba and Wale Okediran, but that executive created a basis for creating all the illegalities that confronted every other regime that came after and this was how they did it; our understanding of a branch is that all the writers in that branch will first of all be listed, whether they are members of ANA or not because it is in their name that you are going to be speaking.
When I returned from Britain, Olu Obafemi and Bode Sowande came to me and said I should step down for Abubakar Gimba and I asked, ‘Step down for anybody? No.’ I literally begged most of the people who were members of ANA when I was publicity secretary and when I was general secretary. I would go to Saro Wiwa, every Thursday, I would visit Saro Wiwa and Cyprian Ekwensi to convince them to become members of ANA because very many of those older writers took time to join the association but I made sure I went after them and Gimba was one of the people I went after so that if it was a question of precedence in status, I did not feel I owed him that sense of precedence before me, but it had to be a Northerner. I never joined the Association of Nigerian Authors to help promote that kind of ethics and whenever some people claim that in order for ANA to be effective, they needed for other members of executive to come from where Chinua Achebe came from, I always opposed it and I opposed it to the very end until Chinua Achebe stopped being the president of the association, because they thought I was going to oppose him. They rigged up a national opposition bracket that was meant to drag us out completely. The people, who organised the last conference that I, as President of ANA, put together in Abuja, were largely security men. That is to say I actually sat down and I could see they claimed to be members of a committee or whatever, anyway, the short and tall of the story is that Abubakar Gimba became president of the association but when I was leaving as president, I set out broad-head guidelines that had guided us up till that time, they were not yet part of the Constitution. But when this group came to power, they started fishing around the Constitution. They managed, as a way of proving that they were doing very well, to take some of those guidelines and put them back in the Constitution. That Constitution required that to form a branch, you had to have a list of all the writers, before you even talk about membership of ANA, because whoever becomes a member of the executive there, it’s not just representing the writers of this moment, they are representing all the writers in that branch.
From that point on, they refused to abide by that position. They, themselves, put the provision in the Constitution, what was merely a guideline became a provision inside the constitution but they refused to obey it, then the magic started happening. They will rig every election that took place because since you are not working from the global figures, you are just working with a group of friends who talk to a group of friends and bring in their next friends, until it became an association of a very limited coterie. Fine, once you did that, you made a proper writer’s audit impossible so that most of the branches we’ve had in the country since then, none has followed the rule for a proper branch.
So, when you hear one side accusing the other of being illegal, all of them have disobeyed the rule but I will tell you what the real trouble is: we have a land that was given to the association by Major General Mamman Jiya Vatsa and the day he handed the papers to Chinua Achebe, it was virtually his major performance as a boss of Abuja. Thereafter, he was arrested 10 days after the ANA conference in Abuja and for a very long time, we could no longer talk about the ANA land. ANA then was not properly registered as an association. I took all the papers to the Ministry, handed them over, but no Ministry official dared to deal with any matter related to us because we were like friends of coup makers. It was not possible to perform an ANA function whether at the level of the registration of the association or taking full possession of ANA land. It could not happen until General Abdulsalaam Abubakar came to power and his speechwriter happened to be Gimba. He had left office as ANA president. That made it possible to gradually work our way back to civility. We were a registered association, but as for the land, it had been tinkered with one way or the other. That would not have been a serious problem. The serious problem was that members of individual executives wanted to be the controllers of the land and the methods they used were very interesting.
At the Port Harcourt conference, which was the one that followed Okediran’s executive, there was this very simple argument. Some people said we should sell part of the land to develop the other. I insisted, we must never allow any part of ANA land to be sold for any development of another, because if you know the land hunger in Abuja, once you start that process, you are going to be in trouble forever and that’s precisely what has happened. I refused to vote for the late Elechi Amadi as president of ANA because he came to our business meeting to say that he supported the people who wanted to sell part of the land to do the development.
Why did Odia choose the life of a celibate?
I have never been a celibate. Find out from any girlfriend I’ve had, whether I’m a celibate. You’re quite free to ask, and it is not my business to tell you who my girlfriends are.
Why is Odia not married?
You’re asking a 70-year-old man a question like that. It’s a completely useless question. It doesn’t make sense. Do you know how many decades there are? Seven.
But at 70, people will actually expect that. So what’s happening?
So, if I invited you to come to my wedding today, would you refuse to come because I am 70? Seriously, would you?
Why will I refuse to?
Fine. Why not wait till I invite you?
Today is 10. It’s in six days time
I don’t have any business with that particular day because the committee kept me out. What I am supposed to do, they will invite me, they will provide a chair, and I will sit down. When they ask me to speak, I will remember whatever to say the way I’m talking to you now. These friends of mine, imagine that it is just about what they wish. Well, it is true, they are getting away with what they wish and they have used methods that are very interesting. You know, when Obama had to be president, he insisted that people who had small money could send it. Well, we had no money but I think these people managed to put little money together and then they had the means to talk to some big men whether they are giving us money to give us a good time, when we get there, we shall find out, and I think that they are very responsible people, and everyone knows I’m not a money man.
You won’t be embarrassed?
Why should it embarrass me? As long as a lot of people come around and I am able to do one thing properly, I want to show them these books that I wrote in hunger, that kept me in hunger and books that I would love for the world to read because I think there are some problems that can be solved by reading them.