Poetry of Tony Afejuku and Niger Delta crusade – Part 2
Afejuku uses the poem, “A Leaping Flame” to expose the belief among the Itsekiri that their land was stolen by those who have high connection in government. The poem is dedicated to the memory of Pa J. O. S Ayomike, a frontline Itsekiri activist and historian who fought for the sovereignty of the Itsekiri nation. In the poem, the speaker re-echoes the words of Pa Ayomike: ‘Nothing is final, he chants. No one shall see the end/Until the land-owners of Oeeri regain and retain their lands/Stolen along the corridors and in the beds of love’. Like several poems in Afejuku’s collections, there is the lingering hope that one day the Itsekiri nation will regain their ‘stolen’ lands. A tone of resolute defiance runs through Afejuku’s poems. It constitutes a point of equi-balance to what might otherwise have been a hopeless view of life.
In another poem, “Muscular Words” (ASOS 104-105) the persona condemns the injustice committed against the Itsekiri nation by some powerful forces in government in which they cede their land to the neighbouring Ijaw people. This situation, according to Afejuku, occurred because those in ‘power treacherously entrench injustice’ in order to ‘hem the homeland’ belonging to the Itsekiri. Consequently, this led to the invasion of the Itsekiri land by ‘marauding wolves’. For this reason, the Itsekiri leaders ‘vow to wipe away/The future’ where violence, pain and servitude will become the norm in Itsekiri land which is already ‘emerging out of the present’ arrangement by the government. To the poet, injustice on the part of those in government contributes significantly to ethnic tension in the Niger Delta.
Apart from articulating the myriad problems confronting the Niger Delta region, Afejuku also makes some recommendations on how these can be resolved. In the poem, “Triumph over Ourselves” (AGOM, 27), the persona addresses the Niger Delta indigenes on the need to give peace a chance. They are encouraged to embrace peace so as to reduce carnage in the region: ‘Let us live a life of peace, love and joy. Our race/Grows sick day by day. We must re-live or else/we die/Before our time; not a noble death but death of/misery’. In almost all his poems, Afejuku preaches peace as panacea to ethnic tension, marginalization, oppression and environmental degradation. Using speakers who advocate peace, Afejuku cautions the people against violence and actions which are inimical to the progress of the entire region.
Having seen the negative effects of violence in the region, Afejuku admonishes the people: ‘Let us not make our world a place/where scoundrels reign: our hearts need our/vows’ (27). The implication of this is that love and peaceful co-existence are critical to the survival of the Niger Delta. The speaker concludes that once love and peace are entrenched, the region will begin to prosper and experience development: ‘Of the creeks and of the Delta and our losses will no more be – Let us re-live: our hearts need our vows’ (27). To stop the ‘losses’ of lives and vital resources, the people must ensure that peace is given a chance.
Afejuku also champions love for the natural environment as well as love among Niger Delta ethnic nationalities as panacea to the egregious problems confronting the Niger Delta people. In “Father’s Kingdom (III)” (AOOW, 52), Afejuku emphasises the power of love in a region enmeshed in acrimoniously internecine hostility. The persona suggests that ‘Our earth’, if shown love, ultimately ‘shall know no dirtying, plundering and slaying again’. In a way, there is a hint at the essence of environmental preservation and protection. By paying closer attention to words like ‘dirtying’, ‘plundering’ and ‘slaying’, we get to understand the import of these words as they underscore their thematic relevance to environmental conservation and safety.
For example, the word ‘dirtying’ suggests environmental pollution particularly that caused by oil spillage. It is through oil spills that the rivers become dirty. As for ‘plundering’, the poet suggests the exploitation or the carting of crude oil away from the region and leaving it worse than they met it. The word ‘plunder’ connotes the insensitivity and mindless penchant for looting of the environment and its natural resources such as the forest trees, oil palm, rubber and other valuable products. Finally, the word ‘slaying’ evokes the sense of mindless murder and killings associated with both ethnic violence and the unsavoury militancy in the region. In effect, attention is drawn, through these words, to the much bloodshed that has characterised the Niger Delta for many years and this provides sufficient justification for the message of love. Consequently, the persona tells the people: ‘The eyes of our earth/Shall kiss love/That balms and cures’. Love, in Afejuku’s poetic imagination, functions as a healing balm that has the capacity to cure the several socio-political maladies wreaking havoc on Niger Delta.
Relying on the image of ornament, the poet conveys love as priceless jewellery which has the potentiality of enlivening the region. This is advocated in “Father’s Kingdom (IV)” (53). According to the persona, there are three sets of jewellery that are invaluable if the beauty of the region is to be appreciated and these are:
… the ornaments of love
… the beads of faith
… the pendants of peace (AOOW, 53)
These priceless ornaments “Hang on the trees, the tree/Of fragrance/The mango tree/Of rainbow remedies’. The three sets of precious stones are ‘love, faith and peace’ and they are conceived as the remedies to the problems of the Niger Delta. This explains the persona’s conclusion of the section thus:
And the fruits
Love, faith and peace (53)
The literary merit of Afejuku’s poems resides in their quality of suggestiveness, and the real significance of all this is simply that Afejuku has an unusually keen eye – or rather, an astonishing ability to express diverse ideas through succinct language.
In another poem, “Elegy of the Butchered” (AOOW, 6-10), Afejuku articulates attitudinal change on the part of government and the Niger Delta people. The persona affirms the need to be positive-minded in an era of hopeless ruin: ‘I sing a tale/of beauty and roses/or our land/a tale/of roses and beauty/or our land’ (AOOW, 8). The speaker’s decision to talk about ‘roses and beauty’, which symbolise the ideal world of peace and love among the people, is that he wants the Niger Delta people to give attention to those things that unite them rather than those which divide and destroy them. Accordingly, the speaker declares: ‘Wombs of pain/masks of hope/Dances of daedal rhythms…/Shrink, recede, undescend’ (AOOW, 9). This declaration is strengthened by the speaker’s firm belief in hope.
The expression ‘wombs of pain’ refers to those whose actions are hurting the people through acts of violence. To these people, the speaker orders them to ‘shrink’, which presupposes a total halt to their nefarious activities. Also, the expression ‘Masks of hope’ draws attention to those who have lost hope and have abandoned the cause of the Niger Delta, the persona positively urges and encourages such people to be hopeful of the future. As for those whose actions are causing death, they are advised to stop the ‘Dances of daedal rhythms’. Therefore, the speaker envisions a Niger Delta where ‘wombs of pain’ will ‘vanish’ just as ‘masks of hope’ and ‘Dances of death’ will cease to exist. Admittedly, the poet strives for the perfect union of language and subject matter, and is acutely aware of the contribution that each makes to the other. If he succeeds as an artist, it is because of the depth of connection that the writer is able to have with the reader, so that there is added force and vividness to the entire poetic enterprise.
Afejuku also predicts the emergence of a visionary leader as one of the ways to resolving the Niger Delta crisis. This point is made in the poem, “Passion Orchard” (1) (AOOW 12-20). According to the speaker, such a leader will usher in the process of development and progress: ‘For the tainted/Legacy (orchard)/I’ll join him who will/come again, whose/Advent we will celebrate/A-new with mango beer,/To cleanse and re-weed/Our orchard’ (AOOW, 13). This leader will have on his agenda the cleansing as well as the re-weeding of the ‘orchard’. The act of cleansing suggests the remediation and revamping of the Niger Delta soil and water bodies which years of oil spills have destroyed. There is urgent need for restoring the environment. As for re-weeding, this suggests re-building the lives and infrastructure destroyed in the region.
Finally, the poet also articulates the need for patriotism in order to protect the Niger Delta resources from those who threaten them: ‘for fatherland and motherland/taxing us to undo land-thieves/Stealing, raping, killing, spoiling, burning/Our fronds, our creeks, our mangroves and all/Here we are guarding richly/Many nights now of rains of bullets!’ (AOOW, 101). The persona calls on all Niger Deltan indigenes to be patriotic so as to be spurred into standing up in defence of their vast and valuable resources and against those ‘stealing, raping, killing, spoiling, burning’ the rich ‘fronds’, ‘creeks’ and the ‘mangroves’.
It is apt to end this essay with an excerpt from one of Afejuku’s unpublished poems, “Medals of Honour” (in a forthcoming collection), because of its direct relevance to the subject of this discourse, and that is that love in the Niger Delta is the way to sustaining peace and achieving development. The speaker in this poem is passionate about the tale of the Niger Delta as it represents the poet’s message of hope encapsulated in justice, love and peace to bring sustainable development to the Niger Delta in particular and Nigeria in general: “Now the enthusiastic tale of our time/We tell with hearts of honour”. Thus, the message is addressed to the Niger Delta youths (even the ‘un-born’) to embrace and show love:
Even to our yet un-born mangrove dwellers
From Warri rivers and beyond Warri rivers
We love with the love of love of lovers
Sharing love without boundaries and borders.
It is on the strength of love that peace can become meaningful.
It seems agreeable enough: all Niger Delta indigenes need safe environment, justice, love and peace to develop. Still, the exploitation of the flora and fauna resources, environmental degradation, ethnic tension and armed struggle remain problematic. As Afejuku’s poems show, the Niger Delta region has been plundered and impoverished by hegemonic forces. Although the government has failed to resolve Niger Delta issues, the poet cautions against violence as a way of tackling the challenges of the region. The poet shows readers that peaceful co-existence, justice, love, patriotism and selfless leadership are viable options in solving Niger Delta problems.
They are the open sesame to enduring peace and development that will eternally benefit the people of the Niger Delta (and our country). Afejuku’s marvellous poems treated here, in different overlapping guises, adumbrate this perspective and solution. Government at all levels should hearken to the voice of this eminent, patriotic Niger Delta poet of peaceful progress and innovative development. CONCLUDED
• Odia Clement Eloghosa is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Literature, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria. He teaches Poetry and his research interest is in Poetry, Oral Literature and Literary Criticism