The emergence and eventual evolvement of Niger Delta literature represents a significant milestone in the development and entrenchment of literature and cultural studies in Nigeria. This brand of writing has significantly been inspired by the need to articulate the egregious despoliation of the Niger Delta environment and other sundry issues assailing the people of this region in order to etch the awful predicament on the consciousness of those in authority as well as the general public. The writers of this literature are impelled by the desire to effect change in the suffering condition of the people and to redirect the attention of the Niger Delta indigenes away from the course of violence to the path of peace and development.
Niger Delta poetry is one of the genres in the corpus of Niger Delta literature which is currently expanding in content, quality and quantity. Notable precursors of Niger Delta poetry are J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, Gabriel Okara and Tanure Ojaide. Others who have since embraced this poetry are Nnimmo Bassey, Joe Ushie, Onookome Okome, Ogaga Ifowodo, Ibiwari Ikiriko, Nnimmo Bassey, Ebi Yeibo, Doutimiarieye Kpakiama, Okejoto Gochua, Ebinyo Ogbowei, Obari Gomba and of course, as we shall soon establish, Tony Afejuku, who began his writing career long and well before these eight poets.
Afejuku, a fellow of the Literary Society of Nigeria (LSN), is a prominent Professor of English and Literature at the University of Benin, a public figure of many parts, a radical activist, who is equally a royalist, a frontline columnist, a true born Niger Deltan from the Itsekiri ethnic nationality of Delta State, Nigeria, a prose critic and stylist, and above all, an eminent Niger Delta poet. He has so far published three well-received collections of poems, namely, A Garden of Moods (1996), An Orchard of Wishes (1999) and A Spring of Sweets (2014) (henceforth abbreviated AGOM, AOOW and ASOS respectively). What continues to attract many scholars and students to the study of Afejuku’s poetry is the fascination with his inexorable use of simple and clear diction and of course, his penchant for horticultural imagery with which he advances the cause of the Niger Delta through poetry.
As Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle have indicated: “literary texts are embedded within the social and economic circumstances in which they are produced and consumed” (119). What they mean is that literary texts (whether plays, novels or poems) are products of the society or environment and as such, they depict the experience of the people about whom the poet writes. Afejuku’s poetry is deeply embedded in the Niger Delta ecosystem. As deeply entrenched as Niger Delta predicament is in Afejuku’s poems, it is curious why many critics have not considered the poems from this perspective.
For example, Emmanuel Babatunde Adeleke describes Afejuku’s poetry as ‘the thermometer of the society’ (249) through which we can feel the ‘agitation’ and ‘regret’ of the people as a result of leadership failure in Nigeria. For his part, Clement Chukwuka Idegwu draws attention to Afejuku’s preoccupation with: ‘the hardship in life, the humiliation one faces daily, the betrayals, the heartlessness of men in all walks of life’. This view encapsulates the frustration of Nigerians which Uduma Kalu has observed in Afejuku’s satire of political leaders who have “plundered the land”.
Kola Eke, another critic, pays close attention to Afejuku’s elegiac poems in An Orchard of Wishes, revealing the poet’s preoccupation with the subject of death as an extension of the death and dysfunction of the Nigerian system. Additionally, Sunny Awhefeada argues that Afejuku combines his ‘private intimations’ with ‘public imperatives’ thus giving birth to a brand of poetry that is ‘akin to a new consciousness informed by the need to balance private and public concerns in poetry’. Yinka Olatunbosun submits: “the poet warns against the abuse of the oil-rich land’. A critical study of Afejuku’s three collections reveals that Niger Delta concerns far outweigh other issues that have been explored. In this essay, we intend to demonstrate Afejuku’s preoccupations in varying degrees with environmental degradation, land feud or ethnic tension and the poet’s recommendation of justice, love and peace as panaceas to the numerous Niger Delta quandaries.
The main thrust of Tony Afejuku’s poetry is the threat of environmental devastation. In many of the poems, we find the pollution of water bodies, the loss of aquatic life, and the frustration which the people suffer occasioned by oil spills in the Niger Delta. In the poem, “A Fragile Boat” (ASOS, 32-33), Afejuku depicts the colossal ruin of the Niger Delta homeland. According to the persona, the mangrove ‘homes of oil’ which used to have millions of inhabitants owing to several lucrative opportunities, have become void of human and non-human habitation. The despoliation of the waterways has created a state ‘of desolation and pitiless desolation/where fish and turtle and periwinkle/for water’s lack die of thirst’ (32). The effect of environmental degradation in the area is noticed in the use of visual imagery to convey the sense of emptiness, loss and desolation. Thus, the oil spills have destroyed aquatic life and halted socio-economic activities. Through the persona’s repetition of ‘desolation’, our attention is drawn to the ruins in the Niger Delta where the people, owing to lack of clean water, have to migrate out of the riverine area in search of better life.
In another poem, “The Song of the Sea-Bird” (ASOS, 35), Afejuku emphasises the degradation of the Niger Delta environment. The persona laments the destructive activities of the oil companies in their community. According to the speaking voice: ‘and the oil men came/and the oil workers came/close-whacking, close-walking/down to the shores of the water’ (35). The end product of the activities of these oil men is the destruction of the natural environment. The speaker reveals that the consequence of environmental destruction is social deprivation. The people are deprived of fun as the oil companies have come ‘to halt the carol of my bird’ which in the end leave: ‘… the pines and the slips and the strokes’ to become ‘forlorn and so still’. The picture evoked here is one of hopelessness for the people. Thus, the persona compares the ‘hush voices’, of the birds to the ‘present muteness of the caroller’, an obvious reference to Niger Delta indigenes. This ruin also leads to a situation where the once peaceful environment has become one that ‘heats and dries’ as a result of the terrible choking effect of oil spills on the water. Afejuku’s poetry is remarkable for its linguistic virtuosity as well as its imagistic ebullience. Throughout the poems we encounter simple and clear expressions steeped in visual and auditory imagery which depict an ambience of the Niger Delta eco-world wreaked with tragic devastation and desolation. The poetry of Afejuku is thus about a thoroughly degraded world realised through a subtle interplay of debased ecosystem set in an equally debased environment. There is a motley assemblage of the deflated riverine settings which are not only unappealing but also shockingly incongruous with any recognisable set of pictures about the Niger Delta environment.
Environmental degradation in the Niger Delta causes economic deprivation. This point is depicted in “Mystery Love”. The speaker opens this poem with a sad reminder of how important the river is to the people. It is the place where they: ‘plunged and plunged for turtles’ but when the oil companies came all that stopped as they ‘combed’ for oil in the river. Therefore, the turtle and the fish are ‘Now drowned by these explorers’ whose actions ‘bring finless silence’ and cause ‘naught and misery’ everywhere. Thus, the mangrove is ‘vanquished’ and thereby ‘dissolve hope in patience/In the absence of turtles for meals’. The point being canvassed is that environmental ruin causes hunger, starvation and eventually, poverty in the Niger Delta particularly in the rural areas where livelihood is primarily dependent on the water. It is a remarkable fact that Afejuku pursues his poetic concerns with such an astonishing vigour that we hardly miss the point of his message. Afejuku’s use of language is an indication of how Niger Delta poets can portray with veracity and accuracy the different levels of environmental abuse and the frustrating theatre of pain and suffering in the Niger Delta. In fact, the whole poem emits the sense of loss, the pollution of the water and horrendous decimation of the landscape.
Words matter to Afejuku and through them, he weaves his message into a weapon with which he attacks those who threaten the eco-world of his poetic imagination. Beyond the impulsion to depict a depraved and degraded Niger Delta, there is the undercurrent of an environment torpedoed by hegemonic forces whose quest for wealth knows no bounds. This fact bares itself in the poem, “The Brewer”. Afejuku presents Niger Delta groaning under the excruciating weight of oil exploration. There is the picture of a disappearing coastland as well as the scenic beauty. Relying on simple diction, the poet recreates the savage ruin of the shore.
The persona’s aches which he has suffered in the hands of his lover are equated to the physical destruction which the Niger Delta indigenes and their environment have suffered in the hands of oil companies. Thus, the speaker sardonically lacerates the oil men: ‘In the estuaries/Of my heart turbid and shoreless,/As Warri River’s/Of Shell and Chevron,/Drowners of loves and dreams/As lost reeds/In the sea’. The logic of the speaker’s argument is that by the activities of ‘Shell and Chevron’, they unwittingly destroy ‘loves and dreams’, an obvious metaphor for both the social and economic life of the people in the region. The poetry of Afejuku is not simply one about nature but of what has happened to the natural environment: the sense of loss and nostalgia, the fadedness and loss of beauty and appeal are clearly depicted. There is the pervading sense of desolation that dominates his poems. Cleverness, suggestiveness, figurativeness and mellofluity, then, are characteristics of the best Niger Delta poetry; and in such a context Afejuku seems at home. Many of the words ordinarily appear simple but they carry extra meaning. Every word has an almost seamless precision about it as well as associations that belong to the encyclopedia of the poetic experience. Afejuku is a craftsman of a high order and keeps a tight control on the use of diction.
Afejuku is the master of graphic details and he exploits this method to reveal the evil of environmental degradation in the poem, “Passion Orchard (VII)” (AOOW, 36). According to the speaker, ‘Demon-lovers’, a graphic image of oil companies whose love for Niger Delta is more devious than they claim. These people ‘pound’, ‘stab’ and ‘suck’ the land of its resources. Looking at these verbs expressing violence, one actually is able to visualise in graphic terms the persona’s anger at what these oil explorers have done to the land. Beyond the anger of the persona, there is the hypocrisy of the explorers being exposed by the speaker. According to him, the oil companies are only interested in the ‘oil juice’ as they desperately ‘cross, criss-cross and cross cross-across/our forests and swamps and mangroves/of oil juice’ (36). The ‘oil juice’ as can be inferred, is a symbol of oil wealth embedded in Niger Delta. Afejuku’s uniqueness and much of his success lie in the baffling and completely compelling use of violent imagery and other images of sight to present a thoroughly decimated environment and evoke the reader’s anger and so instigate change.
Land feud or ethnic tension also occupies a significant position on the list of Niger Delta issues articulated in Afejuku’s poetry. The feud centres on the question of land ownership, which has existed among the three ethnic nationalities (the Ijaw, Itsekiri and Urhobo) in Delta State. In fact, the land controversy has bred ethnic hostility and recrimination. This is the cornerstone of the poem, ‘Land Song” (AGM, 20). ‘We own this land/And the swamps/The palms/And the mangroves;/We’ll die defending them’. The speaker reveals the economic worth of the land in contention. For this reason, his kinsmen are prepared to lay down their lives in order to defend their vast resources. The long drawn litigation that has subsisted is also revealed in the poem. All the intrigues and legal tussle which have characterised their existence offer the poet the opportunity to throw some jibes at the judiciary in Nigeria. The speaker upbraids venal judges: ‘The judges may have their pockets swelled/And the courts wring the neck of justice’. The implication is that the judiciary fuels the crisis. Also, the animosity is further exacerbated by the greed and corruption of lawyers who ‘sneak around/And soften official palms’ (20) all in a bid to win the case. The speaker is upbeat that ‘The raped land will be chastened and restored’. Pervading this poem is the tone of defiance tinged with vitriol with which the poet amplifies the message. The poem may seem to sacrifice artistry for factuality, but given its basic purpose or intention, this is to its advantage. TO BE CONTINUED
• Odia Clement Eloghosa is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Literature, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria. He teaches Poetry and his research interest is in Poetry, Oral Literature and Literary Criticism