By Anote Ajeluorou
Amongst the continents of the world, Africa has remained the poorest and the most under-developed. And so far, there is very little indication that conditions of poverty and under-development will change significantly for millions of Africa’s population. These conditions are what have been described as the Curse of the Trinity that has continued to plague Africa and some of its constituent parts in Ali A. Mazrui’s The Trial of Christopher Okigbo written some 40 years ago.
Indeed, Mazrui’s intellectually challenging literary piece, which seeks to provoke discussions around the ill-fated patriotic zeal that pushed Nigeria’s famous but young poet, Christopher Okigbo, to take to arms in Biafra’s armed struggle against Nigeria in that infamous bloodbath is still relevant today as it was at the time of writing it.
Also, Mazrui’s literary showpiece attests to the immortality of true art in envisioning a new world order cast in fresh and everlasting mould.
In it, Mazrui contends that Okigbo should stand trial for subordinating his artistic vision as a visionary poet to the calls of tribal demand for survival. In this intriguing novel of ideas, Mazrui argues that the call to artistic vision is far superior to any other vision, whether nationalistic or tribal, and that Okigbo should not have abandoned that vision by taking to the battlefield in a quest for another nation that promises the Igbo another nation that guaranteed them security.
In this novel of high, combative wit, the author employs two characters, Kenyan’s broadcaster, Hamisi, and Ghana’s budding intellectual, Apolo-Gyamfi, as contestants in Okigbo’s case. Intriguingly also, the novel is set in the two worlds that define Africa’s socio-cultural consciousness, the Herebefore (the world of the living) and After-Africa (the world after death, or the world of the ancestors). Indeed, it is Africa’s ancestors long dead that constitute the jury and bench in the trial of Okigbo for subjecting his higher, immortal, artistic vision to a tribal, transient one for the realisation of Biafra that eventually proved abortive, thus making his sacrifice a vain one.
But Okigbo’s trial is on three fronts. While Kenyan’s Hamisi is to be counsel for Okigbo’s defence or Counsel for Salvation, Ghana’s Apolo-Gyamgfi is counsel for prosecution or Counsel for Damnation. But these two figures are also on trial for taking precipitious actions that caused their own untimely deaths. Hamisi’s is accused of impatience in causing his own death in a road accident while Apolo-Gyamgfi stands trial for aborting a brilliant career as a first class academic when he suspected that he didn’t do well in one of his final papers at Oxford and drank himself to stupor.
The acquittal of these two depends on how well they conduct themselves as counsels for Salvation and Damnation in Okigbo’s trial. The brilliance of these young Africans, whose precipitious actions lead to their untimely deaths just like Okigbo’s, shone through in the trial period in their impressive displays. But at last Apolo-Gyamgfi is acquitted while Hamisi is found guilty for not researching one of the witnesses properly before subjecting her to full disclosure of her tragic past that also included he (Hamisi’s) rash act of love with her one night in London. A pregnant Aisha or Salisha was to die in the hands of rapists in Enugu for being Hausa, in the heat of the tension that eventually led to war.
But Okigbo’s trial and Biafra’s quest to secede from Nigeria, where their security could be guaranteed, is declared ‘Not Proven’. Okigbo’s case is also ‘Not Proven’, the elders of Africa decide, because although an artist’s calling or vision is unique and has both individualistic and universal implications, the calling of kinship is also strong as art is a call to service for society, which Okigbo heeded in going to war to wrest Igbo from Nigeria.
But it is the tripartite curse hanging over Africa that that is the underlying message in this novel of ideas still relevant some four decades after it is written by one of the continent’s leading intellectuals, a political scientist of the 1970s. The verdict goes thus: “…The whole tragedy (Nigeria’s Civil War) was once again the Curse of the Trinity unfolding itself in the drama of Africa’s existence…
“The Christian story of three in one, and one in three, had in part been a prophecy about Africa, and in part a post-mortem on Africa.
“Yes, indeed, Nigeria eventually came into being. Islam, Euro-Christianity, and indigenous tradition struggled to forge a new personality in a single nation. Nigeria was Africa in embryo. But super-imposed over this eternal tripartite tension was the mundane accident of three regions in a Federal Nigeria, each dominated by one of three major tribes. The Curse of the Trinity was chasing Africa to the very embryo of its Nigerian manifestations...
“The Elders of Africa had watched the events which culminated in the Nigerian Civil War, and decided to take judicial account of this painful infliction of the Curse upon the continent.
“The Elders chose to put into trial a poet (Christopher Okigbo), partly because of the poet’s role in that great drama linking the living, the dead, and those yet to be born – again a trinity of divine organisation… But even a modern poet, by the very nature of what goes on within him, provides a fitting subject for examination where the Curse of the Trinity has hit again.”