By Anote Ajeluorou
At the celebration of Christopher Okigbo’s life and work as a poet at The Life House, and the heady events that were to plunge the young, independent Nigerian nation into civil war that claimed Okigbo’s life, other participants offered contrasting narratives as to why Okigbo possibly donned military uniform to fight off the advancing federal army at the Nsukka front in 1967 to save the life of the new Biafran nation just created out of Nigeria.
While principal anchor of the programme and poet Odia Ofeimun had argued that Okigbo needed to prove himself as being true to the Biafran cause, especially the slaughter of innocent Igbos in parts of Nigeria, and just as he had been true to his artistic calling, others disagreed. Author and publisher, Austyn Njoku argued that the late pre-eminent poet went to war because it was the natural thing to do at the time, pushed as the Igbos were to the wall in the face of aggression from their fellow countrymen on the federal side.
He simply stated that Okigbo could not have watched his young siblings to go to war at the time while he remained behind. He noted that every Igbo young man felt the compulsion as social expectation demanded to take up arms to defend what was the new homeland that gave them a sense of security and humanity.
According to Ofeimun, “Many argued later that it was because of the need to prove himself true to his calling that Okigbo chose to become a soldier; he needed to prove himself. Perhaps, he didn’t need to. Okigbo was a very excited and excitable young man, who knew only one thing about himself: the need to create also requires that you have the capacity to defend what you have created. Those two did not quite mix for him. But finding himself in the contradiction of a poet defending something that he considers a shrinking of the narrow neck of the calabash, it makes us to remember Kenya’s Prof. Ali Mazrui, who wrote a book called The Trials of Christopher Okigbo.
“All Mazrui thought that a poet has no business dying in a tribal war. A question Ali Mazrui never tried to answer is, what do you do if your humanity is being denied by people who believe that there is race? If tribes do not matter, what do you do when other people deny you what is yours because of your tribe? It is a question you can’t answer by being neutral; when you are confronted by the evils of a given situation, you won’t need to answer the question. Okigbo took a decision that many of us would have had to take. Okigbo chose where he believed he would be safe. And, many years later Ken Saro-Wiwa showed us a different way of looking at that problem. We have not resolved that problem yet; we do need to resolve it.
“Unfortunately, those factors that led to Okigbo’s death are still very much around us today. And, we are not just victims, we are also promoters of that which led to Okigbo’s death. Okigbo’s life teaches us something, that whatever we wish to commit ourselves to, we must start early and never give it up! If you’re truly good at what you have to do, the world will beat a path to you. It doesn’t matter how long it disparages you or ignores you; if you do it right, it will beat a path to you”.
Njoku argued that over the years, people have fallen for Ali Mazrui’s position that a poet has no business fighting a tribal war or even going to war at all, and so Okigbo was guilty for his action. On the contrary, Njoku noted most people do not understand why he went war as arising from his cultural background and its expectations of him, particularly as demanded by the age-grade system in Igboland.
Stated, “If you’re Igbo, you can’t but go to war. There’s the age grade thing. Also, young boys of 14 and 15 were being conscripted to, and Okigbo was far older than that. For instance, Ofeimun wanted to enlist at 17, but he was rejected. It was not so in Biafra. It was would be a great shame for your family for a grown up man like Okigbo not to have gone to war. What would he say when others who went to war began to narrate their exploits. So, the society, the culture of the people necessitated Okigbo going to war. It wasn’t just about Okigbo’s decision alone; it was social expectation as well.”