‘…What is happening in the Niger Delta is internal colonization, genocide’
‘…During #EndSARS 2020, young people dreamt about rescuing this country but failed’
By Godwin Okondo
WHEN writer and culture promoter, Mr. Samuel Osaze, launched his collection of old and new poems entitled The Strange Moon of Yenagoa on Saturday, June 25, 2022 at Goethe-Institut Nigeria at its office in Victoria Island, Lagos, what rippled through was how his art reflects the immediate the challenges of his environment and how to remedy them. The venue was instructive, as Osaze’s poems are also translated into German language. Osaze’s book unveiling attracted a gathering of culture producers and advocates from within and outside the country that included screen matriarch, Taiwo Ajai-Lycett, Nigerian Hollywood actor, Chris Obi, international sculptor and installation artist, Ndidi Dike, culture advocate and communicator, Jahman Anikulapo, renowned fashion designer, Austin Aimankhu who styled Osaze’s outfit, a blend of igbu, an indigenous Edo and modern fabrics, President of Poets in Nigeria (PIN), Eriata Oribhabor, Executive Director of Unchained Vibes Africa, Ayo Ganiu, Green Queen, Sola Alamutu, and co-founder of Narrative Landscape Press, Anwuli Ojogwu, who piloted the event as compere, among a host of other book enthusiasts.
Osaze was at his elemental best as he performed two of his poems – ‘The Scars We Bear’ and ‘Upon Seeing an Esan Maiden Dance (Obhebhezele)’, with Ayanjo Heritage Theatre providing music and dance, to the admiration of the audience which applauded him for his scintillating performance mastery.
Ajai-Lycett, Obi, and Jahman commended Osaze for staying the course in his literary and artistic journey. Anikulapo particularly, with whom Osaze has worked as programme officer at the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), organisers of Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF), recounted how he saw Osaze’s book, one of a few African titles in one of Berlin’s biggest bookshops, and was so proud to identify with it. He commended Osaze as an unassuming artist who has, with the collection newly unveiled, proven himself a writer to be taken seriously.
At the closing stage of the unveiling event, writer, journalist and Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of AnoteArtHub, Anote Ajeluorou, had a stimulating conversation with Osaze on his art and what readers should expect from his poetry collection, The Strange Moon of Yenagoa, that is rendered in both English and German languages side by side in the same book, the first of such hybrid publication by a Nigerian writer.
Osaze’s first point of focus is the environmental degradation of the Niger Delta region on account of oil exploitation by the International Oil Companies (IOCs) from which The Strange Moon of Yenagoa, the title of the collection, is derived, the IOCs that are aided by an uncaring federal government that reaps maximal proceeds from the oil wealth while leaving the host communities empty-handed, poor, undeveloped, marginalised and manipulated. He submitted that there is internal colonisation of the Niger Delta people who are now faced with the spectre of genocide by the government they claim to be their own. Osaze explained why he thinks government has been so callous about the region’s environmental plight. He, however, reaffirmed his artistic commitment to highlighting the issues until a favourable resolution is reached for the welfare and good of the people.
“If you look at it, you’ll see that it’s multi-faceted,” he began, saying, “I wouldn’t know where to attack it first, but the undeniable truth is the extent of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta, which is mindboggling. Quite a lot of things are ongoing, even as we speak. If you are here, sitting at the comfort of your home in Lagos or Abuja or Kaduna, you feel confident talking about it, but there are people in the eye of the storm in the Niger Delta who, on a daily basis, are being exposed to a lot of health hazards, as a result of constant environmental pollution in the region.
“As a socially-inclined artist, I cannot talk about daffodils (which I haven’t even seen all my life) when you have quite a number of anomalies in the country. I think it was Chinua Achebe who said that a man whose roof is on fire cannot be running after a bush rat. Some things are quite important; you need to prioritize them, and as a writer, it is my responsibility, because I so much believe in the saying that an artist, a writer, for instance, is the shaper of society; he has the foremost obligation to say the truth through his craft, and that is what I’ve done. The government is dead because of the fact that there’s a high level of complicity between the government and the OICs operating in the country.
“What is happening in the Niger Delta that we all know is internal colonization, where the lives of the ordinary people, people who are supposed to be blessed are now living in pain and penury as a result of the quest for the black gold (crude oil).”
Among artists who have deployed their writing to publicise the environmental plight of the region are writers like Kaine Agary who won The Nigerian Prize for Literature with her novella, Yellow Yellow, which dwells on a similar theme as Osaze’s The Strange Moon of Yenagoa. Tanure Ojaide, Ogaga Ifowodo, Obari Gomba, Ebi Yeibo, and lot of writers, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, who died in the process, have all lent their creative voices to the problem, yet government has repeatedly failed to act in the interest of people in the oil-producing Niger Delta. While dialogue might be best, Osaze said time was running out for such nicety on account of government’s refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue.
“Well, I know that apart from being insistent in pushing the narrative to the general public, as an individual, I believe in dialogue and peaceful resolution, even though the situation might call for a bit more, because what is happening in the Niger Delta is a call to arm,” he declared. “I do remember someone like Saro-Wiwa, a foremost activist from that region, who was basically in the forefront of pushing the Niger Delta agenda, and we all know what happened to him (he was murdered by late head of state, Gen. Sani Abacha, who would then steal so much billions of dollars of the oil wealth he stashed abroad that is still being recovered and repatriated some 24 odd years after he died). That should not be a deterrent.”
OSAZE also said while he might not personally take up arms, he has the sympathy of those who have done so, and were ready to still take up arms against a deaf government if only to stop the inevitable genocide currently taking place in the Niger Delta, and to which the entire world is unaware.
According to him, “I am not a militant, but if you look at the magnitude of atrocities going on in that region, it is saddening. Someone said what is happening in the Niger Delta is genocidal, an intentional plot to wipe out people living in communities where oil is being exploited, and the federal government doesn’t care about what is happening. All that government is after is the oil, and on a daily basis, what you keep hearing is that the locals are the ones blowing up pipelines and stealing oil, but we know who the real thieves are. Like what King Bubaraye Dakolo documented in his book, The Riddle of the Oil Thief, there is a strong indictment of the ruling class. People call them the ruining crass, because they are just irresponsible, their lifestyles show unimaginable leadership irresponsibility. I believe that the writer tries to educate the society through his work.
“For instance, I have chosen poetry as my medium for conveying that message to the public. Government is supposed to have a listening ear and read books, but in a situation where the government does not read or encourage people to read, where you have a kind of apathy for reading books, it becomes difficult. So in this case, I wouldn’t blame the writer if after he realizes his efforts are futile, he decides to take the gun like Christopher Okigbo. Of course, Saro-Wiwa didn’t take up arms, although he was quite aggressive in his environmental campaign for the Ogoni people, he paid the ultimate price.”
But the plight of the Niger Delta people is not the only thematic concern of Osaze’s The Strange Moon of Yenagoa. It’s much more; it’s also about the promotion of African culture, with the poetry spiced up with Esan words and a celebration of Esan culture. Will Osaze possibly contemplate writing in Esan someday, or even translating his poetry into Esan, since his mother tongue, Esan, was the first language he spoke and wrote in as a child? But he played up the difficulties of such enterprise, saying a lack of central orthography for language is a huge challenge that Esan scholars should take up urgently.
“I actually started reading and writing in Esan first, then I evolved into reading English,” he said. “So, my mother tongue is my mother tongue. The Esan language is part of the Edoid language. It’s just the fact, but the memories have always been there. I keep re-enacting my life on the streets of his community, Ohordua, going to river to swim, going to the farm – it was quite a thrilling experience growing up as a village boy who then had the opportunity of going to the city. I remember the feeling of joy I had the first time I visited Benin City.
“The problem with writing in Esan is that there are multiple layers or varieties. Howbeit, there is a high level of intelligibility among the various speakers. We have not had Esan lexicographers standardize the language. So, the lexicon, spelling and orthography, everything is just hinged on the different varieties. So, as an Esan man, while I was performing that poem, when I was talking about the Esan masquerade acrobatics, in some parts of Esan land, they call it Igbabonarimhin, but in my own part, and some other areas of Ubiaja and towards Esan South East, some of the towns bordering Ika-speaking Delta, you see that it is a bit different, but you can still hear the Arimhin which is ‘the spirit of the dead.’
“Like I said, there is a high level of intelligibility, but there is no standardized orthography, but some people are making attempts. I know of one Prof. Christopher Abumere, or so who is based in the U.S., but I believe for you to achieve a standardized Esan orthography, which I think is achievable, people need to sit down and make collective effort, better than an individual attempt.”
Osaze took part in the #EndSARS youth protest that culminated in the October 20, 2020 debacle at Lekki Tollgate. It is a theme also explored in The Strange Moon of Yenagoa, as he aptly captures the mood in the poem ‘The Scars We Bear.’ But the song on Nigerian streets is being ‘Obi-dient (a euphemism for those supporting Peter Obi’s Labour Party presidential candidacy), with youths thronging INEC centres to register for their PVCs to vote, a near-extension of that youth protest. So, instead of marching in the streets, the youths want to use their electoral might to bring about popular change. But Osaze is not so optimistic, arguing that those who have held the country hostage are unrelenting in their stranglehold.
According to him, “The Nigerian society is quite complex and unpredictable, or should I say predictable, especially when you look at it from that political panorama. At that standpoint, you see the country is in captivity by some people who are holding it hostage. The #EndSARS movement was a rescue mission, young people who felt they could salvage the situation, but those holding the levers of powers, who have always manipulated things, decided that if they didn’t end it soon, it would degenerate to such an extent that they wouldn’t be able to predict the outcome. We had young people who dreamt about rescuing this country and they failed; that was something that happened during that #EndSARS protest.
“After my NYSC in Katsina, I lost hope in Nigeria. I will tell you that hopelessness, to an extent, still finds a place in my heart. I hope the hawks don’t come again to swoop on innocent people who are on a rescue mission. I have no other place to call home apart from Nigeria, even though I’m praying to japa, leave. Because of my pride and love for this country, I am talking about the Esan people, but Esan cannot stand in isolation. Esan is in Edo, and Edo is in Nigeria.
“So, I wrote a poem about punching the air and going to my homeland. That particular poem, I remember it was featured in an international installation by Ros Martin in Bristol, called ‘Daughters of Igbo woman.’ It was about an Igbo slave captured in Uga, in today’s Anambra State, many years ago during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade era. It happened that the young girl was kidnapped by some head-hunters around Uga in present day Anambra State. The artiste in that work is such that the poem embodied their projection of tracing ancestral roots. You have to go back to your roots for you to have that strong sense of confidence and identity.”