By Anote Ajeluorou
Dr. Obari Gomba is a poet, playwright and university don; he teaches English at University of Port Harcourt. With the Hyacinth Obunseh-led African Writers Forum’s forthcoming International Colloquium on the late Kenule saro-Wiwa in November to coincide with his judicial murder by the then military junta, Gomba was recently appointed organising committee chairman by the university, where the colloquium will be held. In this interview, he spoke on sundry issues relating to Saro-Wiwa’s writing, the impact of the man’s writing and his environmental activism for which he was murdered on November 10, 1995. Excerpts:
How does it feel celebrating Saro-Wiwa in your university and you being saddled with the task of organising it?
It is a great idea. It is very thoughtful of African Writers Forum to have come up with a programme like this. It is also great that the unique University of Port Harcourt has been chosen to play host to this event. Saro-Wiwa is a symbol of excellence and social justice. I speak of him and those values in present tense. He still stands tall today…tall above the inanity and crudity of power. We cannot fail to celebrate him…to celebrate his entire essence. The University of Port Harcourt is a lovely site for the gathering of those who understand the meaning of Saro-Wiwa’s life.
Our university has been the hub of cultural activities for decades. In our history, we can boast of such active forces as Ola Rotimi, EJ Alagoa, Kay Williamson, Willfried Feuser, Sunday Anozie, Charles Nnolim, Helen Chukwuma, INC Aniebo, Chidi Maduka, Nolue Emenanjo, Ozo-Mekuri Ndimele…to name but a few. These men and women have kept a great cultural tradition.
And you know that my university has partnered with the Rainbow Book Club to bring about the Garden City Literary Festival since 2008. Interestingly, I am also the chair of my university’s committee for that yearly festival which has brought a lot of great persons to the university. The likes of Wole Soyinka, Kofi Awoonor, Ama Ata Aidoo, Molara Ogundipe (who has joined our faculty), Jesse Jackson, etc have visited my university through the years.
Presently, Elechi Amadi and INC Aniebo have been appointed as writers-in-residence in my university. Truly, the University of Port Harcourt is the first-choice destination for cultural events today. My role in this development is a modest one. It is to deepen the tradition I have inherited. This is why I am excited about the AfWF colloquium. It will not be an essay task. So I have rolled up my sleeves.
What activities should guests look forward to at the conference?
The theme of the event is “Environmentalism, Minority Rights Activism and Literary Renaissance in the Niger Delta”. The programme will run from Wednesday 9th to Saturday 12th in November 2013. Captain Elechi Amadi will be the chair of the colloquium. Prof JP Clark will present the keynote address. There will be plenary sessions, dramatic performance of Saro-Wiwa’s Basi and Company, exhibition of Saro-Wiwa’s books and manuscripts, visits to Saro-Wiwa’s home and personal library in Port Harcourt and a dinner for guests. It will be a momentous time for all of us.
Do you not think this celebration is coming a bit late coming as it does some 18 years after his judicial murder, especially considering that this idea didn't quite come from your university?
Mankind has never failed to celebrate Saro-Wiwa since he made the supreme sacrifice in 1995. Books have been written in his honour. Vigils and rallies have been staged in his honour. The flame of his resistance has continued to interrogation the assumptions of the Nigerian state. We have continued to cite him in our various engagements with the state. In all these, my university as the flagship of intellectual pursuit in the Niger Delta, lays a peculiar claim to the mystique of this inimitable figure whose person and career conforms to the values of the social construct, which we stand for.
There is already a building in honour of Saro-Wiwa in my university. It is called the Ken Saro-Wiwa House. It houses the Department of English Studies where I work. My office is in that building. We thank Rt. Hon. Chibuike Amaechi for donating the building to my university. Rt. Hon. Amaechi donated the building when he was the Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly. Rt. Hon. Amaechi is an alumnus of the Department of English Studies in my university. So, you see that the celebration of Saro-Wiwa has been flowering for long in my university.
What ways do you think Saro-Wiwa's legacy can best be celebrated and immortalised?
Saro-Wiwa took care of his own immortality. He did not leave it to us. He did not leave it to his children. He did not leave it to chance. He successfully immortalized himself through the life he lived. His writing and activism are abiding testimonies of his immortality. He has grown even taller in death. Death is his apotheosis, as I said in “No Leaf Falls”, a tribute-poem, which I published in 2009.
When we celebrate Saro-Wiwa, we are not ushering him into immortality. No. We are simply identifying with his immortality. And we have to take the party a little higher by asking the same questions he asked. Resource control, fiscal federalism, environmental protection, corporate responsibility, minority rights and self-determination are still nagging issues in our polity. We have to keep demanding that our state should live up to its vow of justice and equity to all the stakeholders in this postcolonial mélange.
As a writer yourself, do you think Saro-Wiwa's works are being celebrated enough since his death?
Of course. Let me start in an ironic mode. Saro-Wiwa’s book was on the syllabus of the West African Examination Council when he was murdered by Dauda Komo and Sani Abacha. They took the book down… I think it was A Forest of Flowers. That was a kind of celebration. If the rabid soldiers could acknowledge the motive value of his writing, then they unwittingly doffed their berets to Saro-Wiwa’s superior mind-power.
At another level, we see that since Saro-Wiwa’s death, there has been a global interest in his writing. In a few odd years, he has come to stand amongst the first-ten writers in the African canon. Check Bernth Lindfors’ paradigms. They are interesting. Yes…they are interesting because they take into account such formatives as popularity and scholarly attention. Saro-Wiwa enjoys this enviable first-ten placement with the likes of Soyinka, Achebe and Ngugi.
In your view, how best can Saro-Wiwa's literary legacy be bequeathed to younger generation of writers?
This colloquium is part of it. We believe that society stands to profit from the values which Saro-Wiwa stands for. There are strong challenges on our collective security and integration today. We cannot pretend not to know the root of this development. The unfinished business of nationhood is on the laps of Nigeria. Some people have chosen to play North-South politics with the situation. It is a shame.
Nigeria is where it is today because of our collective commissions and omissions. When citizens run their systems the way we have done for over 50 years, then they have elected to make themselves slaves to others in a highly competitive and merciless world. We beg others for everything…healthcare, technology, education, transportation, food, security, energy, etc. Damn it! We have made ourselves the joke of the world. We cannot continue like this. No country is ever developed by foreigners. Forget all the trash about foreign investment.
Check all the countries that are developed. They began by creating internally fair systems to integrate the component units of their polity. Then they moved on to develop internal capacity to deliver goods and services. We have missed it on both counts. I bet you, take the example of the oil industry; look at Nigeria’s technology-dependence on the West. That is the most important source of revenue in Nigeria today; and it is still subject to the whims and caprices of Shell and its cohorts…over 50 years since independence.
Even the Department of Petroleum Resources and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation cannot tell us convincingly that they know how many barrels the multinationals drill per day. Whatever the multinationals declare, we take. And the multinationals have come to exude an annoying impudence here. They incinerate our communities and environment daily.
The power-cabal says nothing because they are hooked up to a grand system of petroleum-profiteering. If we love this country, we must all wake up…rise up…speak up. That is the legacy of Saro-Wiwa to our generation and to the next generation. Saro-Wiwa’s literature is involved in the articulation of freedom and justice. We must learn from the dynamism of his literary engagement.
And lastly, how far has his environmental activism for which he was killed be vindicated or proven wrong in Nigeria's political space? Any end in sight for his struggles?
The guilt of Nigeria is already common knowledge. The guilt of Shell and its cohorts is also common knowledge. They have not stopped their decimation of our communities. They are doing worse under the veneer of democracy. Surprisingly, the Niger Delta elite have been mum. You know the empty rhetoric about having our son in office. They are waiting for Dr. Goodluck Jonathan to leave office before they start their beggarly garrulity again.
Thank God for the testament which Saro-Wiwa has sealed with his blood. No one can undo it. It is anchored deep… right to the bedrock of our lives in the Delta. The environment will always be a keystone in the articulations for self-determination…by all the nations of the Delta. The struggle is not over. There is a deceptive lull but the undercurrent is still strong among the wretched of the earth. Let Ogiso and his party continue to measure peace by the barrels. Tomorrow will come. We shall keep hope alive!
The guilt of Nigeria is already common knowledge. The guilt of Shell and its cohorts is also common knowledge. They have not stopped their decimation of our communities. They are doing worse under the veneer of democracy. Surprisingly, the Niger Delta elite have been mum. You know the empty rhetoric about having our son in office. They are waiting for Dr. Goodluck Jonathan to leave office before they start their beggarly garrulity again