Soyinka, Clark, Ike, others to celebrate Okigbo’s legacy
Had celebrated poet and humanist, Christopher Okigbo lived to ripe old age, he would have make up the quartet of Nigeria’s preeminent men of letters alongside late Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and John Pepper Clark, who were part of Ulli Beier’s famous mentoring Mbari Club. But he didn’t; Okigbo died young at the war front at Opi Junction near Nsukka, fighting against injustice and to defend the university town in 1967. He was thus one of the earliest casualties of the bloody Nigerian Civil War.
Fifty years on, Christopher Okigbo Foundation, set up by his daughter, Obiageli Okigbo, in collaboration with the University of Ibadan, will hold the Christopher Okigbo Conference at Trendchard Hall, University of Ibadan, Oyo State. It has as theme ‘Legacy of Christopher Okigbo – 50 Years On.’ The conference will be a gathering of some of Nigeria’s literary heavyweights. Soyinka will deliver the keynote address while Eze (Prof.) Chkukwuemeka Ike will chair it and Clark will speak from the perspective of a friend. Obi of Onitsha, Nnaemeka Achebe, will be the royal father, with Okigbo’s widow, Ambassador Judith Attah Okigbo and Chief Berkhout Joop among the other dignitaries.
A statement from the organisers said, “2017 marks the golden anniversary of the passage of Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo (August 16, 1932 – September 1967). The Nigerian poet, teacher, and librarian, who died fighting for the independence of Biafra, is today widely acknowledged as an outstanding postcolonial English-language African poet and one of the major modernist writers of the 20th century. As part of the activities to commemorate his passage, a two-day conference is being planned for September 20 & 21, 2017 at his alma mater, the University of Ibadan.”
At a press briefing to announce the conference on Monday, which had the foundation’s president, Obiageli Okigbo and its Secretary, Patrick Oguejiofor in attendance, conference Advisor, Dr. wale Okediran, “After the opening, paper presenters and a panel of discussants will talk on some of the sub-themes before the floor will be opened for discussions. A brief interlude of cultural display/poetry readings will spice up the approximately the programme.
“The conference will continue in the evening of the same day with a ‘Gala soiree,’ hosted by Chief Joop Berkhout at Cambridge House, Ibadan, to an assembly of Okigbo’s contemporaries, fellow poets, entourage, members of the cultural industry and institutions worldwide that have been instrumental in upholding his memory to date.
“Cambridge House is very much part and parcel of Christopher Okigbo’s legacy. It was his home while he was the Nigerian representative of Cambridge University Press, built in 1960. In 1992 Berkhout (publisher) bought the property and Okigbo was celebrated at the opening in the presence of his elder brother, Dr. Pius Okigbo, Soyinka and Clark, amongst others, and a plague was unveiled in front of Cambridge House. It reads, ‘Here lived Christopher Okigbo.’
“The conference will round off on Thursday, September 22, 2017, Day Two, with paper presentations at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan.”The panel of six will speak on significant aspects of Okigbo’s short but momentous life and work. His widow, Amb. Okigbo, will speak on ‘Okigbo the Family Man,’ his brother, Pius Okigbo will speak on ‘Okigbo the Sibling,’ his principal at Fiditi Grammar School, Chief Alex Ade Ajayi will speak on ‘Okigbo the Teacher,’ Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade will speak on ‘Okigbo the Poet,’ Clark will speak on ‘Okigbo the Friend,’ while wartime author, Hon. Chudi Offodile will speak on ‘Okigbo the Martyr.’
Okediran also disclosed that Okigbo Poetry Prize, initially instituted by Soyinka, would be resuscitated by the foundation and made a pan-African poetry prize as a measure of the global significance of the late poet. Mr. Odia Ofeimun has been appointed the jury chair. Okediran said the Okigbo Conference is unique in many ways, as it foregrounds Okigbo’s as a true Nigerian, a man who hailed from the South-East, went to school in the South-West and married from the Middle Belt.
Okediran added, “We are not only celebrating Okigbo, but also encouraging scholarship, as mid-level academics will present papers on various themes at the conference.”
Also, an admirer of Okigbo, publisher and literary enthusiast, Mr. Kunle Ajibade, said enthusiastically, “Okigbo was extremely cosmopolitan. He participated in Mbari Club; he was the regional editor of Transition magazine. He preferred Transition to Black Orpheus (a negritude magazine) because of its cosmopolitan nature. Okigbo was a great spirit, a poet and humanist. Okigbo was truly charismatic in spite of the giants at that time. He was the one everyone was ready to accommodate and defend, even by Clark. He was larger than life. Soyinka lightens up when there’s talk about Okigbo.
“The kind of camaradiere among these great men is a big lesson for us today; Okigbo represented that spirit. Okogbo means so much to humanity. He didn’t know anything about war, but he woke up one day and took a gun to battle. He felt a keen sense of injustice. People need to know more about this giant of a man!”
His daughter, Obiageli, said there would be an unveiling of ‘Memory of the World Heritage Register,’ a UNESCO Plaque for her father, which is a “selection criteria regarding world significance and outstanding universal value.” It will be unveiled by Senior Programme Specialist, Knowledge Societies Division, UNESCO, Joie Springer.