By Anote Ajeluorou (Just back from Abraka)
The Niger Delta region has become a metaphor for ambivalence in Nigeria’s chequered history. This is reflective of seemingly contradictory offerings that come from the oil-rich region, which is at once a nightmare zone of oil wealth despoiling the flora and fauna, hotbed for militancy just as it is a fertile land of artistic expression and creative enterprise.
However, it was the latter virtue that formed the basis for celebration last Thursday when professor of drama, folklorist and playwright, Sam Ukala and poet, Mr. Ebi Yeibo were honoured in a symposium at Delta State University (DELSU), Abraka. It was at the instance of Department of English and Literary Studies, with the Head of Department, Dr. Sunny Awhefeada, rightly claiming Ukala as their own and urged him to return to base. Yeibo graduated from the department some years ago.
Ukala was celebrated for winning NLNG-sponsored The Nigerian Prize for Literature 2014 in the drama category with his play, Iredi War, which examines a historical moment in the life of Owa people of Delta State. He’d received his prize a week before in Lagos. Yeibo, on the other hand, was honoured for winning the poetry prize of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) also in 2014, with his collection, The Fourth Masquerade. While Ukala teaches drama at DELSU, Yeibo teaches English at Niger Delta University.
The event, which had the entire English Department, staff and students, in attendance, with a large number of academics from all the humanities, had former Chairman, Editorial Board of The Guardian and professor of Oral Literature, Gordini G. Darah, as chairman. However, Delta State Commissioner for Higher Education, Prof. Hope Eghagha didn’t show up as advertised.
Darah noted that the symposium was the only way they could celebrate those who excel in the marketplace of ideas, as the two academics had done in the field of writing. According to him, “This is our way of celebrating our own creativity in the marketplace of ideas. It’s an expression of DELSU in the creative world. We’re in a corner in terms of news and we might need to amplify ourselves first before we can be heard.”
Darah further remarked on the grimness in the political season and submitted, “We’re in a season of anomie with campaigns going. We’re the only people as writers, who are licensed to criticise them. Ukala’s prize is equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Literature won by four Africans so far. Wole Soyinka in 1986; Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt in 1988, Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and J.M. Coetzee in 2003, both of South Africa. What Ukala has won in terms of monetary value is a Nobel Laureate. You (Ukala) will never be poor again!”
Darah then went on to praise the two writers and said they represented the creative ferment the Niger Delta is noted for in all fields of creative endeavour in the country. “The two writers represent artistic creativity in the Niger Delta,” he said. “Ever field of creativity is peopled by Deltans. Ukala can be said to be among the third generation of writers in Nigeria like Odia Ofeimun, Kole Omotoso, Tanure Ojaide and Femi Osofisan. Among the globally recognized of this generation are Ukala, Tess Onwueme and Zulu Sofola. We’re honouring both, as part of contributing to national economy and national debate and to make sure that art does not perish. This is a celebration of our own Nobel Prize. All of us should challenge ourselves; you will also win in your own area and you’ll be celebrated!
“We all know that it’s the artist who remakes the world with his craft. In all societies, it’s the intellectual, the artist who are celebrated more than those who own property, because the artist never dies!”
Darah promised that the symposium would be a regular part of the life of the department, as the memory of two late literary dames – Maya Angelou of the U.S. and Nadine Gordimer of South Africa – would form the subject of the next symposium.
Chief convener and HOD of English and Literary Studies, Awefeadah said after reading Iredi War he knew it would go places, saying, “We’re celebrating Ukala for writing a tour de force. Ukala rightly belongs to English Department where he took his first degree at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, which gave him an enclave to carve a niche for himself, before delving into drama.”
On Yeibo, Awhefeada simply said, “Nigerian literature, Abraka has arrived!” He then poured libation saying, “Let their endeavour continue to inspire our generation.”
Dr. Godfrey Enita of Theatre Arts Department, DELSU, spoke on ‘Sam Ukala’s Iredi War: Celebrating a History of Resistance and a Nation at Crossroads’ while Steve Kekeghe of English Department, College of Education, Warri, spoke on ‘Yeibo’s The Fourth Masquerade: Allegiance to Homeland or Nation? A Writer’s Dilemma’. Enita provided a dramatic aspect to proceedings when he taught the audience the song on page 40 of Iredi War, to which the audience lustily sang.
THERE were discussants on the two books, who further expounded on their themes. For Pleasure Igugu, “Ukala’s Iredi War establishes a counter-discourse of colonization, which says Africans don’t have a culture worth upholding. The white man came with the bible in one hand and fire in the hand; he deluded the black man with the bible and burnt up their culture with the fire. The post-colonial approach is that the playwright is writing back. It is also applicable to our own society, with the majority being oppressed by their government.”
Igugu also spoke on polygamy in the play, with Igboba’s younger wife, Nwoma always wondering why the king prefers the bed of the aged wife to hers. Igugu put it down to the “vagaries of polygamy, which is one of the concerns of feminism, as it concerns the treatment of women in African society”.
Henry Unuajohwofia submitted that characters in the play have fragmented personality when examined through the lens of psychoanalytic frame. He argued, “The white men were determined, courageous, resilient and expressed love for his country. They fought, died, retreated and fought again.” However, the party of the cowards belonged to the Africans, with some betraying their own people. Unuajohwofia also stated that the play also presents lessons of heroism, with Igboba appearing to be naïve in his assessment of the white man and considered him a friend rather than the enemy he truely was.
He also located the theme of Iredi War in the prism of today’s globalised politics, and how the African continues to be a victim of forces outside of himself. However, Unuajohwofia praised Ukala’s play for its two dimensional format in using the “best of static western theatre and the best of moving African theatre to form folkism”. He also commended the spirit of resistance of Igboba and the entire Owa people against alien imposition and advised all to take a cue from them.
Closer home, and in seeming tongue-in-cheek analogy, Unuajohwofia linked the emergence of Senator Ifeanyi Okowa as governorship candidate in Delta State in the forthcoming elections to the continuing ascendancy of Owa, setting of the play, in the power equation of their time, both past and present.
Peter Omoko, who teaches English at College of Physical Education, Mosogar, said although Ukala’s Iredi War is recreation of African unity from the Owa people’s point of view in massing together to fight a common enemy, there appeared gaps in the narrative. He pointed at the time lag in delivering the telegram in the play and how impossible it was for the imperialist power to retreat from a juju cast by one of Igboba’s wives that struck a native police dead. Omoko accused Ukala of idealising Africa, saying, “The attempt to idealise the heroism of the African is not right.”
Interrogating The Fourth Masquerade, a poetry collection that uses the motif of the masquerade to give voice to the oppressed of the land, a graduate student of English, Mr. Karo Ilolo, said Yeibo is decidedly tilted towards an allegiance to homeland rather than to the nation, as the nation comes under intense fire for failing to protect the weak from being oppressed, reason for the masquerade’s anger.
According to him, “Yeibo is decidedly tilted towards homeland having gone through the pain of the region, having gone through the violence of the Niger Delta. The Niger Delta of Gabriel Okara and JP Clark is different from the Niger Delta of Yeibo, who is unapologetically vituperative, sad and angry as the language shows.”
Critiquing the title of the collection, Ilolo said, “Does it coincide with the time Nigeria is at crossroads with the Fourth Republic, and not sure which part to take? And is Yeibo a militant? In this collection Yeibo is facing his own dilemma”.
Also for Kennedy Edegbe, “Yeibo is one of the strong, forceful voices that has come out of the Niger Delta. Yeibo’s work shows his commitment to his homeland. Now, he talks about contemporary issues, and shares his pain of happenings in the Niger Delta, the open paradox of life in the region. The behaviour of politicians is not spared. Even Boko Haram is not friendly to Nigeria. So, we see the motif of masquerades generally. This work has come to prompt us to action and to act decidedly on the side of justice.”
ON his part, Yeibo expressed gratitude for the honour accorded him when he said, “I’ve always regarded Abraka as my home. The event is unique and I’m blessed.” To the students in the hall, he said, “You’re on the right path; put in your best in whatever you do, as students, as aspiring writers and you will attain success.”
Ukala also expressed gratitude to English and Literary Studies Department for honouring him. According to him, “The department is cultivating, fostering what we see in older universities – academic culture! How can offices be shut at 4pm, even the library in a university? At University of Ibadan, offices are still open till 1am. The coming of Darah has changed things at Abraka.”
Ukala also responded to Omoko’s criticism of his play and explained that the time lag was justified, as the telegram didn’t arrive when it should and that the white feared juju given the circumstances of its happening and what was at stake.
He, however, praised the nobility of Igboba in not only standing up to the white man, but offering himself to be punished along with his subjects, as the hallmark of leadership. “Igboba didn’t allow his subjects to be chained or hanged without offering himself first, as the hallmark of good leadership,” he stated.
Dean, Faculty of Arts, DELSU, Prof. Austin Anigala, who was represented by Prof. Grace Orji-Ogwu thanked the two prize-winning authors for “representing us well. Ukala has gone beyond the university to let the world know that this university is grooming men and women of distinction. The Faculty of Arts is proud of its men and women. Darah just came back from the National Conference. More is yet to come.”
Sadly though, not even a 10-minute drama skit was performed to serenade a master dramatist of Ukala’s stature. Clearly, it would seem Ukala’s department (Theatre Arts) merely watched from the sidelines while others claimed him in celebration.