Saturday, June 8, 2024

Martyrdom and Immortality in the Poems of Ogaga Ifowodo


By Ekemini Pius

  • Title: A Good Mourning
  • Author: Ogaga Ifowodo
  • Publisher: Parrésia Publishers Ltd
  • Number of pages: 78
  • Year of publication: 2016
  • Category: Poetry

A Good Mourning is a great attempt by Ogaga Ifowodo to immortalise people and events that have shaped history. With his superb ability in using imagery, he reopens old wounds and unearths the works of people who sacrificed themselves to make our world a better place.

‘Sixty Lines by the Lagoon’ is a tribute to Odia Ofeimun, a renowned Nigerian poet and polemicist whose poems have been critically acclaimed internationally. Ifowodo follows in Ofeimun’s footsteps by writing poems of protest against social injustices, poems about the decrepit systems that have entrenched poverty and suffering in Nigeria. In the fifth stanza of the poem, Ifowodo explains how religion gives people a form of escape from the suffering they face every day:

[S]eize the minds of the hungry and homeless
with the enchantment of prayer, paradise
desire here and now, till the last
salaam recalls them to the streets, rude
as before, strung like a vicious bow,
where neither love or [sic] piety runs in the gutters.

He goes on to decry the suffering of the people, the same people who were living in better conditions fifty years ago:

Ah, dear land! for a young country
your people have grown so old
gnarled and wrinkled under the red sun
of their suffering – the same people whose skin
fifty years ago glistened in the dawn!

He also says that the masses are aware that there is a problem that needs to be fixed, but they are being hamstrung by decrepit systems that exist in the nation:

Our wounded land requires of us a song true
to its torments, but how can we sing
with battered tongues?

Furthermore, he faults corrupt leaders who embezzle money from the national coffers and deny ordinary citizens access to a better life:

Or, stung by myriad voices that rue
the long reign of thieving kings,
stay glued to your desk till you hear the true song.

In ‘The Frightened Tree’, Ifowodo pays tribute to the memory of Bola Ige, a Nigerian lawyer and politician who also served as a Minister of Justice. He was brutally murdered in Ibadan, in 2001. It was widely speculated, at the time, that he was assassinated in what was seen as a battle for the soul of Osun State politics. With this poem, Ifowodo rolls back the years to revisit Bola Ige’s assassination. He writes:

Death strolled into your bedroom like a bosom friend
for whose coming and going you had kept the door ajar.
Death borne by the steady hands of paid hoodlums
felt well enough at home to need just one bullet.

Ifowodo goes further to describe the state of Nigeria’s democracy, where election rigging, the stifling of public opinion and the employment of armed thugs to intimidate people have become the order of the day:

Arguments are not won or lost
at the podium, nor mandates
at the polling booth: a muffled gun
will speak louder for me,
says the man of blind
ambition, gun barrel
propping up his hollow spine.

He shows the effects of intimidation via thuggery, how it silences important voices through which we might have had emancipation and how silence in the face of oppression is a different kind of oppression:

Cocks are berserk crowing repeatedly
the hour of the murder, but for whom
do they shriek, their combs aglow
with the rage of the season?
Why do the trees at the gate seem frightened,
leaden leaves on bowed branches –
because birds have fled to kinder climes?

The poet-persona seems embarrassed by the undemocratic muffling of voices in his country, and he addresses the next stanza to foreigners who look up to Nigeria as a growing democracy, asking them to lower their expectations of this fragile democracy:

Please turn your eyes whoever sees us
hack at our veins
to draw hot blood
for the joyous ritual bath
turn your wounded eyes when you see us
set our heads on fire
to end the scourge of lice
Bewitched from birth
by our strange country
we boil the cauldrons night and day.

In the title poem, ‘A Good Mourning’, Ifowodo pays tribute to the memory of Moshood Kashimawo Olawale (MKO) Abiola. Abiola ran for the presidency in 1993, but the election results were annulled by the then military head of state, Ibrahim Babangida. Abiola was awarded the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) posthumously by President Muhamadu Buhari in June, 2018, and Nigeria’s democracy day has been changed to June 12 to commemorate the annulment of the 1993 elections.

Ifowodo laments wistfully about how Abiola might still be alive today if he had minded his businesses littered around the African continent and stayed away from the brutal politics of Nigeria’s military era:

Had he kept to gathering
firewood, scouring the forests
of Abeokuta for dead branches
to keep the pot boiling
in an old woman’s kitchen
he might still be alive today.
Had he kept to boardrooms
once a star led him out of the haunted
bush, content to measure his power
by the banks that begged for his millions
by his vast estates across continents
he might still be alive today

In narrating the event of the June 12 elections, Ifowodo reveals the joy that Nigerians felt going to the polls to elect a democratic government; how the joy of being able to free themselves from the fetters of military government gave them a special kind of vigour on that morning:

A good morning it was: homes
emptied into the streets
to break the spell, cut
the soldiers’ strings that played
for eight years the maddening
music of their nightmares.
A good morning it was: they queued
under the sun burning with the heat
of their resolve. Ballots counted,
the streets sang the winner’s name
and they thought the curse was broken
never reckoning with the spell-master
weighing thirty pieces of silver and a crown.

The ‘thirty pieces of silver’ is a Biblical allusion to the price for which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus Christ. Ifowodo uses it to show how Abiola was eventually robbed and betrayed by the military government that annulled his victory.

Kudirat, Abiola’s wife, was gruesomely murdered while he was in prison to send him a strong message. The poet narrates:

How muted was their rage at first –
when, still chained to the rock,
they slew his wife! Mocked
daily by their guns, their uniforms
fading before the blinding light
of his will to keep the people’s trust,
they curled inwards, empty husks
burning in the coals of their fears.

Ifowodo emphasises that the annulment of the election and the killing of MKO Abiola and his wife were just ploys by the military government to cling to power by all means, and at all costs. The annulment was a watershed moment in Nigeria’s history and a terrible way to re-introduce democracy after years of military dictatorship. Ifowodo suggests that after the annulment Nigerian voters learned to distrust democracy even before it really, truly began:

At last I’m my own man! None will ever doubt
me now when out of the back row
I emerge gun in hand ready to shoot the sun
if my shadow shortens in the brightest hours. I
want to reign a king crowned by bullets. He will
never be president while I live. I will double
the weight of his chains, nail his hands to the rock
till he begs to return to his wives before I mark
another for Sergeant Roger’s rifles. At last I’m
my own man! My heart will be of harder stone
than where I will sit gun in hand ready
to shoot all who dare step beyond the stony foothills
of their broken dreams. At last I’m a man!

Through this collection, we understand the kind of writer Ogaga Ifowodo is. Like Chinua Achebe, he believes that for a people to have a future they must remember and embrace the past, however dark and gruesome it may be, and that history and those who helped to shape it positively must always have a place in our hearts.

Photograph: ‘Mourning’ by Thomas Quine

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Ekemini Pius
Ekemini Pius
Ekemini Pius is a student of English and Literature at the University of Calabar, Nigeria. He loves fiction and has published short stories on Afroztar. He is also a recipient of the Calabar Carnival Creative Writing Award and has been shortlisted for the Linda Ayade Creative Writing Prize. He was a Wawa Book Review Young Literary Critics Fellow.

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