As a secondary school pupil many years ago, two poems written by two Ghanaian poets held a special appeal to me because of their piquancy, aesthetics and their thematic concerns. I almost knew the two poems by heart as I often found reasons to read them aloud as a form of defiance against the little psychological storms that haunted an average adolescent’s life. One of the poems is Kofi Awoonor’s “Songs of Sorrow” and the other is Atukwe Okai’s “Sunset Sonata”, which was dedicated to our own Professor Wole Soyinka.
That the life of the legendary poet, Professor Kofi Awoonor, among other lives, was violently terminated by cretins in Nairobi, Kenya, in terrorist attacks was therefore to me a personal loss. “This earth, my brother”, is terrible. Among other things, his death occurred at a time Africa still needs great minds like his to give succour to her hapless masses and guidance to her heartless leaders. The sick souls behind the attacks failed in their mission ultimately as Kofi Awoonor lives forever in the hearts of millions of people who he had inspired through his remarkable artistry.
It is equally unfortunate that as we are getting to terms with the Kenyan catastrophe, terrorists in the week snuffed life out of scores of Nigeria’s future leaders in the College of Agriculture, Gujba, Yobe State, leaving behind wails of agony and tears of sorrow. Life has become cheap in our country today through such horrific attacks and beasts draped in human skin are prowling day and night under whatever guise they choose to unleash death and destruction.
In this sorry situation, no one is safe as death lurks at every corner through armed robbers, kidnappers, insurgents, terrorists and so on. As Professor Otukwe Okai puts it in his poem under reference, “For a hundred hells/ Hunt for the human heart/ While a billion/ Blows bang upon its door,/ And unpitying paws/ Pounce forth from every part/ Till cruel cries/ Cake up at its very core”.
It is against this backdrop that while our leaders might be singing Hosanna as Nigeria marks her 53rd Independence anniversary this week, what many Nigerian sing is nothing other than “songs of sorrow” that they have been singing for long. What confronts the majority is forlorn hope as many elderly people, such as those interviewed by the last “Saturday Newswatch”, believe that the old good days are gone and the dark days are here.
It is the current scenario that the late Kofi Awoonor aptly captured several years ago in immortal lines: “Dzogbese Lisa has treated me thus/ It has led me among the sharps of the forest/ Returning is not possible/ And going forward is a great difficulty.” In other words, due to how our leaders are treating us, returning to the Nigeria of the 50’s and 60’s is not possible while going forward is a great difficulty in this era of systemic failure, which manifests in inexplicable terrorism, crass corruption, political brigandage, economic sabotage, moral bankruptcy and general decadence.
I often wonder if it a curse that at a time that many other countries outside the African continent have made significant progress half a century after their independence, Nigeria continues to trudge behind. Not Nigeria alone, though she is the one with the greatest potential, many African countries are yet to get it right and sorrowful tunes rent much of the continent in wars, both large scale and small scale, poverty, hunger, displacement and diseases.
Between January and December 1960, as many as 17 sub-Saharan African countries attained political Independence. The countries are Cameroon (January 1), Togo (April 27), Madagascar (June 26), Democratic Republic of the Congo (June 30), Somalia (July 1), Benin (August 1), Niger (August 3), Burkina Faso (August 5), Ivory Coast (August 7), Chad (August 11), Central African Republic (August 13), The Republic of the Congo (August 15), Gabon (August 17), Senegal (August 20), Mali (September 22), Nigeria (October 1), and Mauritania (November 28). How many of these countries have pleasant songs to sing at 53?
Though 53 years is long in the life of a person, it is still short in the life of a nation. Nigeria can retrace her steps and get where she should be if we all get more purposeful. For instance, if our politicians desist from pursuing selfish interests and crave after public good, the country will be better for it. Good politics begets good governance and bad politics begets bad governance.
In a recent interview, retired Bishop Bolanle Gbonigi recalled, “In those days, people were in politics primarily for the purpose of which they were in politics; that is to serve. They used the resources that were available for the benefit of the common people. The politicians we had in those days who impacted favourably on the lives of the people included Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sir Ahmadu Bello and the rest of them….They provided the basic necessities of life for the people; they provided electricity, good roads, health care services and free education.”
What most of our politicians today provide us is a catalogue of woes, corruption, insecurity, unemployment and other indices of bad governance. Both our elected and appointed leaders are robbing the soul Nigeria and the centre cannot hold as the party in power, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), is even fragmented between the old wine in the old bottle and the same wine in a new bottle. The common denominator is self-interest and self-preservation, not the interest of the masses and everything will be sorted out when the contentious issue of who becomes what when and how among them is resolved.
But Nigerians must insist on calling their leaders to task and making them feel uncomfortable until they do their job right. This is why those who are stubbornly uncomfortable with and acerbically critical of the current state of the nation should not relent until our leaders do the right thing. Every “soul-sanctioned, bulkwark-bone” must therefore steel his or her soul, as Professor Okai told Professor Soyinka, “against both stick and stone/ and toughen your toe.”
As Nigeria clocks her 50th year as a Republic and 53rd year as an Independent country, it is another auspicious moment to reflect on where the rain started to beat us and “still stand stubborn”, as repeated for effect in “Sunset Sonata”, against all forces of oppression, terror and darkness: “Still stand stubborn/ To stones that strangle the dawn/ Still stand stubborn/ To stones that maim the morn/ Still stand stubborn/ To stones that assail the sun/ Still stand stubborn/ To stones that ambush man.”
It is also a moment of prayer and as once said by Professor Is-haq Oloyede as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ilorin then in a well-received address, “God save Nigeria from Nigerians.”
Politics is not a bad profession. If you succeed, there are many rewards, if you disgrace yourself, you can always write a book – Ronald Reagan.