WHY OKIGBO WENT TO WAR
“When you have finished, and done up my stitches. Wake me near the altar, & this poem will be finished.” – Christopher Okigbo,
When in 1965 Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo rejected the international prize he won for his poetry, many people were shocked. He had been selected as the first prize winner in the Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar that year but he refused to accept the prize because he said that there is no such thing as black or white art. For Okigbo, there should be a one world standard with which to measure every art as well as the other areas of human endeavors. So he would not have himself or his works stratified into any narrow field of black or Negro art or artist.
But for some people, they felt that Okigbo was being careless or even reckless with his artistic talent because they surmised that this was a young and budding artist whose work was attracting international attention and acclaim and who should cash in on the opportunity. Nevertheless, some other people agreed with Okigbo’s position and concluded that he was a pan-world poet who saw the world as a whole and unified rather than in parts or with the color prism of black, white, yellow, green, red, rich or poor, the world he said is better defined as one humanity and one world.
But some of those who held the later view about Okigbo’s action were soon to be thrown into a state of confusion because they felt betrayed when he went to war for the Republic of Biafra. They had found it hard to accept the fact that this was someone who had such a firm belief in a one world and standard and the universal brotherhood of man but who could take up arms to fight for a group of people fighting to be separated from the other people. Reconciling that may have been difficult for anyone who is unfamiliar with the Igbo worldview or the Igbo Cosmos within which Okigbo thought and crafted his art. But on one hand it would be quite easy to understand for someone who has an understanding of the workings of the Igbo psyche and by extension that of Okigbo. If we would therefore continue to bear in mind that his actions were firmly based on his Igbo heritage and psyche as we go further in this discussion then we are going to see that the choices were not difficult at all for Okigbo to make when he was caught between accepting and rejecting the supposedly prestigious prize at the time and an active or otherwise participation in the defense of his people and Homeland.
When Okigbo enlisted in the Biafra Army at the beginning of the War, he did not go in as a conscript but as a volunteer who knew the dangers of war (especially the Biafra War) that he was getting into and that is where the huge difference lies. His given name was Ifekandu and just as many other things about his life, the name was predictive of the path his life would take. In Igbo cosmology it is believed that ndu bu isi since Igbo people know that as human beings we can only make plans and go out to accomplish them when we still have life. Once a person is dead, they say, he cannot accomplish anything anymore. So for the Igbo people life is of a crowning (supreme) importance in regards with life’s achievements.
But be that as true as it is, yet Igbo people still believe that there is something that can be said to be superior or more important than life or mere existence. Incidentally though, even when they believe that nwa ka ego which is that there is no material achievement or possession that can compare with or be cherished beyond the value of the human offspring, yet the Igbo are convinced that there is something else that is far superior to both life and children. That something (ife) to every Igbo person is freedom. Indeed, to all Igbo, freedom cannot be compared to anything else, it is the ultimate of human existence. It is the only thing that gives meaning to human life or its existence.
It is assumed amongst the Igbo people that once any Igbo person has lost his freedom and independence then he has been reduced to the level of a sub-human being, a mere thing or at best an animal in captivity that exists at the pleasure of the zoo keeper. Such a thing, to any Igbo person, can never be considered as a human being by any definition of it. So to Okigbo and every Igbo person, ife ka ndu (that which is better than life) is freedom and the complete absence of oppression and subjugation of the human spirit and body by another.
Based on this belief then, one can take it as the height of ignorance on anybody’s part to assume that the agitation today or any time for the freedom of Biafra and her people is because they are being marginalized by the Nigerian government and her people. The Biafra/Igbo fight is not about the issue of being allowed to win the national presidency of Nigeria. The talk of an Igbo becoming the president of Nigeria as a way of compensating for the destruction and murder of the Igbo psyche and people makes nonsense of what life and freedom are about in fact, an insult on the Igbo people. The question will always be; can Igbo presidency in Nigeria or anything else compensate for the crime of genocide that have been committed against Biafrans? The only compensation for the genocide is an independent and sovereign homeland for the 3.1 million Biafrans who paid the supreme price to purchase it. It is not about the issue of insecurity of Biafrans’ lives and property throughout Nigeria. We must also correct here the false impression that Biafrans are fighting for the equitable distribution of resources in Nigeria. Biafrans are not fighting for any free and fair elections in Nigeria. The Biafra fight is not about any good governance in Nigeria. Biafra’s agitation is not about the issue of Islamic domination/oppression as it is going on today in Nigeria with the imposition of sharia laws all over the place. The very truth about the Biafra War of both past and present is that Biafrans simply want freedom and independence for the sake of it. They just want to preserve their way of life unadulterated and these reasons are enough for anyone who may care to know and it is the pivotal basis on which Biafrans seek for and are determined to achieve their self-determination as they are doing today.
How else could this Igbo/Biafra-world view be better demonstrated than in the incident that took place in 1803 at the mouth of Dunbar Creek, St Simons Island in Savanna Georgia, United States. (The place is today known as Igbo Landing). A group of Igbo people were captured by the notorious slave raiders of the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries and were forcibly shipped off for slavery and subjugated labor in the US. The captives had learned during the Middle Passage that they were headed for the worst kind of oppressive subjugation and inhuman treatment in the Americas so they took a decision that was only natural to any Igbo person. To the true Igbo spirit such condition of existence was not an option to be preferred over death so on arrival to the island they walked off the deck of the ship as one man, as agreed amongst them, into the water and drowned rather than lead the type of existence they had been told would be their lot. This is the way the true Igbo-world operates, it is either freedom or death. For many thousands of years every Igbo person has shunned and never pursued after any wealth, talent or anything else that conflicts with the Igbo’s individual or collective independence and liberty.
And because Okigbo was a part of this world he believed without the slightest doubt in this Igbo-world truth which says that freedom should be had in place of life when presented with both choices. If we should go further and explore this age-old Igbo truism even if to just indulge ourselves in semantics, then let us say that the ife which means something does also translate as light (it actually does). It is generally accepted that knowledge brings about enlightenment. Therefore knowledge or redemptive/enlightening knowing is better had than mere life or existence. In conclusion therefore, we can safely say that it is based on this Igbo belief that they the Igbo people developed the njepu spirit that has continued to propel them and make them to keep on exploring and adventuring and have never considered any field as too far off.
From the month of May 1966 Okigbo watched with utmost dismay and disbelief as the Nigerian government and all her citizens started out to kill every Igbo on sight and all those in hiding in their bid to cleanse the Nigerian society of every trace of all Igbo people. Okigbo had spent much of his adult life outside Igbo land, played with, taught and mentored both adults and children of none Igbo extractions. And he had erroneously believed that because he gave his whole self to his relationship with these supposedly fellow citizens then all was well and everybody had become one in the bond of national brotherhood. But to the mockery of every decency and reason, he watched in disgust as the government of Nigeria openly declared their genocidal program of eliminating every adult Igbo person and other peoples of the Southeastern origin and subsequently subjugate their orphaned children to eternal slavery and bondage. Okigbo and all other Southeasterners were alarmed as they watched for a full one year, up to the middle of 1967 when the Republic of Biafra was finally declared, as Nigeria and Nigerians continued without remiss their unconscionable mission of completely exterminating every Biafran. It was in the face of the perception of the certain death of a people in the hands of these barbaric Nigerian vandals that Okigbo and these other Biafran heroes chose to die defending their freedom and liberty even when they knew they were outnumbered and had no weapons while their attackers were equipped with every conceivable modern weapon of war and death.
For those who would have had it that Okigbo the artist lived to create more masterpieces of poetry for their selfish enjoyment should have thought better because Okigbo knew that you can only create masterful, uplifting and enriching arts in an environment that is free from oppressive and subjugating forces. So it is easy to imagine today what was going on in the mind of Okigbo as he rushed in anger into the very thick of battle in defense of the liberty of his people and Homeland – Biafra. His every action was deliberate and the extension of his beloved art, poetry. Okigbo saw the Biafra War as one long nightmarish epic of a poem. He knew it would be arduous, tortuous and prolonged but he also knew that when the howling and sadistic monster – Nigeria would have been silenced and defeated at last, Biafra’s many gaping wounds would finally be stitched and done up and all the mighty heroes still lying in state beside the great Igbo sacred altar of freedom and independence shall be aroused to complete the Biafran long poem of liberty, justice, equality, security and prosperity for all within Biafra’s borders.
For Okigbo the artist, freedom is synonymous with his trade and he understood that great art is only possible in an atmosphere of great freedom. So on that fateful day on the Okpatu hills in 1967 it was a very conscious act of self-immolation for the Poet. He looked ahead and saw freedom for himself, his people and the land of his fathers and was attracted as the moth to that pure light of hope of all mankind and the only true essence of human existence. So deliberately and consciously he flew head-on straight into that fire of hatred that Nigeria has against him and his people. From the foothills in Okpatu that day, Okigbo saw and felt the searing heat from the consuming fire being stoked into more and more intensity by Nigeria’s igbophobia and was not scared. He went right in and it was his personal and collective envisioned freedom and independence for his fatherland that compensated for his pains and suffering. Now, do we still hear Ali Mazrui and all the other lazy and careless commentators who would never know the color of freedom and justice when they see it, pull up their chairs and cover their faces in the most polluted veils of ignorance and bigotry and call to judgment the meaning and efficacy of Okigbo’s self-sacrifice?
Who cares now about those idle meddlers? Those kind of inconsequential noises do not carry enough decibels that are capable of stirring Okigbo or other compatriot Biafran heroes who are patiently waiting by the altar to be called out to come and assume their earned place in the world’s grand arena of freedom, justice, equity and progress. As these words are being written Biafra’s march to freedom and liberation is right at the very threshold of that altar and they are nearing the very moment when Okigbo and all the other heroes will be aroused with that loud shout of freedom and independence to finish this long poem that started to be written in May 1966 and has remained in writing till today.