When dons gathered in Port Harcourt, Abraka in honour of Tanure Ojaide@70

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Ojaide, his wife and other academics cutting his birthday cake… in Abraka, Delta State

From May 2 through 5, 2018, eggheads from universities around the country and beyond gather to honour renowned writer of global repute, Professor Tanure Ojaide, in a conference at the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State. The celebration had as theme ‘Life, Literature and the Environment.’ The conference was the third of its kind and was primarily in honour of Ojaide@70.

Also present were Professors Union Edebiri of University of Benin, Benin City, Onookome Okome of University of Alberta, G.G. Darah of Delta State University, Tony Afejuku of University of Benin, Harry Garuba of University of Cape Town, Onyemaechi Udumukwu of University of Port Harcourt, Femi Okiemuete Shaka of University of Port Harcourt, Isidore Diala of Imo State University, Ogaga Okuyade of Niger Delta University and renowned artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya. Others present were Dr. Sunny Awhefeada, Enajite Ojaruega, Obari Gomba, Friday Okon, Daniel Udo, Sam Dede, Chike Okoye, Ebi Yeibo, Monica Udoette-George, Saaedat Aliyu and a host of others. Academics such as Ativie Karoh, Richard Maledo, Peter Omoko, Anthony Ojarikre, Matilda Tuoyo-Ovie, Dule Nkanen, Ayebanoa Timibofa, and Mathias Iroro Orhero, were also present. Scholars from Kwara State University, Malete, University of Maiduguri and Federal University, Dutse, were also present.

A week earlier, there was also a conference in honour of Professor Joseph Akawu Ushie of University of Uyo at the University of Calabar. Also, when the Ojaide conference started, there was also the International Conference on African Literature and English Language (ICALEL) at the University of Calabar. This year’s ICALEL honoured Professors Ernest Emenyonu and Ushie. In spite of these, the conference in honour of Ojaide was well attended. The sheer number of scholars at the conference was a testament of Ojaide’s popular appeal, humility, and artistic and literary output.

The keynote speakers at the conference were Professors Harry Garuba and Onyemaechi Udumukwu. Professor Udumukwu held the audience spellbound as he presented his keynote address on ‘liminality and nationness in the poetry of Ojaide.’ His paper specifically foregrounded Ojaide’s representation of the plight of Nigerians, who are pushed to the threshold because of the crisis of indigeneity. Using the theory of post-colonialism, Udumukwu explicated Ojaide’s Delta Blues and Home Songs, The Endless Song, The Fate of Vultures, and The Blood of Peace and Other Poems.

To Udumukwu, Ojaide appropriates the post-colonial concepts of nationness and liminality to engage the politics of neo-colonialism or internal colonialism. His theoretical thrust of liminality and nationness was anchored on the work of Homi Bhabha. Engaged it from the perspective of the Niger Delta, Udumukwu was of the view that Ojaide’s poetry is a call for “militant resistance” against the injustices meted on the Niger Delta people. To him, the politics of oil exploitation and environmental devastation in the Niger Delta has pushed the people towards liminality in a nation that is supposed to be theirs. Using specific poems from Ojaide’s poetic oeuvre, Udumukwu identified the British colonial policy of Indirect Rule, as the genesis of the inequality in Nigeria and the liminality of the Niger Delta people. He also discussed Ojaide’s thematisation of internal displacement as analogous to the situation in North Eastern Nigeria. Udumukwu’s articulated his position very well and had rousing applause from the audience.

Garuba, on the other hand, made his presentation on the poetics of eco-animist citizenship in Ojaide’s poetry. He foregrounded how Ojaide, a poet from an animist society and culture, topicalises the destruction of the Niger Delta environment by an intrusive modern extractive oil economy. Garuba also highlighted how displacement via migration and globalisation leads to a reconfiguration of the psychic or spiritual relationship between the self and the community. He explored how the activities of the oil companies lead to double alienation from the homeland. For Garuba, Ojaide’s poetry enacts the idea of double alienation or separation and loss and then performs a symbolic restoration or reclamation of the animistic or psychic bonds between the self and the society, be it the homeland or the diaspora. He appraised Ojaide’s use of ecological imagination to represent the tension or conflict between the animistic and the alienated and how both can be reconciled. Garuba conceived of the psychic reconciliation of the self and the animistic society as eco-animist citizenship. His approach was unique and refreshing. The paper was more theoretical than analytical, but it made definite statements on Ojaide’s poetry.

The conference also devoted ample time for scholars and students to interact with Ojaide within the framework of the state of African literature in the 21st century. Ojaide, together with Diala, Afejuku, and Udumukwu, enthralled the audience with current trends in African literature as they answered questions in the session moderated by Chinyelu Ojukwu and Margaret Nutsukpo.

Professor Emmanuel Emesealu and Dr. Dede moderated another session on Nollywood, with Shaka and Okome as discussants. The audience was enlightened on the current trends in Nigerian film studies as Shaka and Okome answered myriads of questions.

However, it was a very delightful gathering. There were tributes, paper presentations, and dinner parties. Department of Fine Arts, University of Port Harcourt, organised an exhibition in honour of Ojaide and after this, students from Departments of Theatre and Film Studies and Music amply entertained the conferees. Worthy of note was the enactment of Oshue Ogbiyerin’s revolt against the tax policies of the British during the colonial period. Ojaide had captured the events in his poem entitled ‘Oshue’ and the students brought the event to life on stage. Omoko’s Majestic Revolt also draws from the heroism of Oshue.

Young and established poets read some of their poems to entertain the audience. Edebiri, Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah, Onobrakpeya and president, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Malam Denja Abdullahi, eulogised Ojaide. Ojaide himself read some interesting poems from his Songs of Myself and the audience was held spellbound. The dance session that followed was an unforgettable experience.

On the second day of the conference, this writer presented a paper entitled ‘The Motif of Disillusionment and Absurdity in Ojaide’s Waiting for the Hatching of a Cockerel and The Beauty I Have Seen.’ Tens of other academic papers were also presented on the poetry and fiction of Ojaide as well as on Niger Delta, Nigerian and African literature in general. There were about nine concurrent panels chaired by various academics. Scholars from far and near theorised on and analysed Ojaide’s works from both literary and linguistic purviews. Every presentation was greeted with questions, constructive criticisms and comments. Some of the papers will be included in a forthcoming book on Ojaide.

Ojaide is arguably one of the most prolific African writers practising his craft at the global arena. With more than 20 collections of poetry, five collections of short stories, four novels, and hundreds of critical works, reviews and articles, he has etched his name on the sands of time. Ojaide’s most recent collection of poems and short stories were also unveiled at the conference. The new poetic work is entitled The Questioner and the short story collection, God’s Naked Children.

Ojaide deserves every minute spent in honour of him. This is to wish the poet laureate of the Niger Delta, one of world’s finest writers, the Ominigbo of our time, Aridon’s favourite son, and Africa’s most lyrical minstrel, a very happy birthday!

In the same venin, three days after the conference in honour of Tanure Ojaide at the University of Port Harcourt came to a close, the Department of English and Literary Studies, Delta State University, Abraka, again organised a colloquium in honour of Ojaide tagged ‘The Poetics of Nationhood, Homeland and Exile.’ Dr. Sunny Awhefeada of the Department of English and Literary Studies convener the colloquium, with Dr. Enajite Ojaruega, as host Head of Department. Chief host was the Dean, Faculty of Arts, DELSU, Professor Grace Ogwu. Chairing the event was Professor Abel Diakpomre of Department of Fine and Applied Arts. Honourable Commissioner for Youth Development in Delta State, Hon. Oghenekaro Ilolo, was present as well.

Professor and Mrs Tanure Ojaide were also present alongside Professors Chris Orubu of Department of Economics, James Obitaba of Department of Languages and Linguistics, Temi Akporhonor of Department of Chemistry. Others were Drs. Ovie Forae, Benjamin Okpevra, Stephen Kekeghe, and Karoh Ativie, Moses Darah, Matilda Ovie-Tuoyo, Aghogho Agbamu, and Magdalene Iniovosa Orhero.

The keynote speaker, Professor Tony Afejuku of University of Benin, Benin City, had his presentation on Ojaide being a poet of all sorts. His argument was hinged on Professor Harry Garuba’s appellation of Ojaide as an “Urhobo poet.” Afejuku expressed dismay at that appellation. He argued, while using Ojaide’s Songs of Myself, that Ojaide is a poet whose works can be enjoyed by everyone regardless of ethnicity. His presentation was explicatory and roused the audience into introspection. Discussants at the session were Peter Omoko, Kennedy Edegbe, Henry Unuajohwofia, and Mathias Iroro Orhero. Omoko discussed the idea of nationhood in Ojaide’s poetry, Edegbe explored that of exile in Ojaide’s works, while Unuajohwofia entertained the audience through his exposition of Ojaide as a comedian using Songs of Myself as case study. Orhero, however, sided with Garuba and argued that Ojaide is deeply rooted in the homeland and can be described as an “Urhobo poet.”
• Orhero writes from Okpara-Inland, Delta State