July 14, 2024

Day Mamman Vatsa was woken up to adulation in Abuja

  • March 24, 2024
  • 8 min read
Day Mamman Vatsa was woken up to adulation in Abuja

By Denja Abdullahi

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WORLD Poetry Day 2024 celebration with the theme ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’ was a day cut out for members of the literary clan in Nigeria to remember the immense contributions of the Soldier-Poet, late Major General Mamman Jiya Vatsa, to the development of Nigerian literature. That may be the reason why the Abuja Poetry Society and the Abuja Poetry Troupe collaborated, with the support of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), to host a series of literary events in honour of Vatsa on that day. With the theme ‘Waking Mamman Vatsa’, it had ‘From Ink to Immortality: Documenting Nigerian Writers and Poets’ as rider. The events held within the cavernous 1,500-seating capacity auditorium of the Chinua Achebe International Conference Centre inside the Mamman Vatsa Writers’ Village, Mpape, Abuja.

The celebration started with an opening remark by the former president of ANA, Mallam Denja Abdullahi, under whose auspices as ANA President the construction of the Mamman Vatsa Writers’ Village began in 2017, many years after Vatsa in 1985, as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, donated the land to the Association. Abdullahi was therefore conclusive in his address that the Association of Nigerian Authors, in terms of its infrastructural development for the powering of Nigerian literature, is today standing on the sturdy shoulders of Vatsa. He recalled the distinction of Vatsa as a foremost soldier and a passionate poet who was monumental in the nurturing of the poetic sensibility in the Nigerian military and his legacy contribution to the association when he hosted its 1985 convention where he made his visionary donation of the land towards the future of the writers’ body.

The poetry readings for the day was kicked off by an excursion into the poetry of Vatsa and of other soldiers-poets in the Nigerian military, many of who were Vatsa’s protégés. Two poems of Vatsa were first read which were ‘If I Must Die’ from the 1978 collection, Voices From the Trench, which he edited, and ‘The Spell of Abuja’ from his 1985 collection, Reach for the Skies. The reading of two other poems, authored by the so-called ‘Vatsa’s boys’, followed. They were ‘Now You’re in Love’ by Capt. J.I.P. Ubah, who later became a colonel and a Military Administrator of Katsina State in the mid 1990s, and ‘War Stories’ by Brigadier General Mamman Hassan Lai (rtd), from his 2017 collection, Whispers From Tukur-Tukur.

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Soldier-poet, late Gen. Mamman Jiya Vatsa

The keynote was delivered by a veteran writer-journalist and photographer, Pa Lindsay Barrett, who became a friend to Vatsa in 1967, when they met in Enugu in the thick of the Nigerian Civil War, where Vatsa was the Commanding Officer of the 21 Battalion of the Nigerian Army. In his speech entitled ‘The Relevance and Importance of Literary Endeavours in Nation–Building: Mamman Vatsa‘s Primary Concern’, which was delivered on his behalf by Dr. Tunde Olusunle, Barrett went down memory lane to inform the house of Vatsa’s manifest passion for literature though a consummate soldier. He identified a few persons Vatsa had close friendship with alongside himself, naming them as the founder of Fourth Dimension Publisher, Arthur Nwankwo, a former director in the Federal Information Service, Chukwuma Okonta, poet, photographer and world renowned music and literary critic, Tam Fiofori and renowned columnist and editor, Olu Akaraogun Idowu.

According to Barret, it was this coterie group that Vatsa first informed of his dream to establish a writers’ colony in the Federal Capital City, after being inspired during a visit to Eastern Europe, where he saw such a thing firsthand. To Barrett, “The Abuja Writers’ Village was conceived to achieve this visionary purpose and no matter what military history has recorded as Vatsa’s crime, the institution is a monument to his devoted belief in the relevance and importance of literary endeavour to building a nation that he once risked his life to unify.”

The panel discussion that followed on the theme of the day made up of distinguished literary figures such as Dr. Olusunle, veteran journalist, media scholar, poet, former Special Adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo, writer and editor Mr. Mike Ekunno and poet, playwright and former President of ANA, Abdullahi, and moderated by the award winning poet, Dr. Kabura Zakama, came up with a number of interesting suggestions towards further immortalizing Vatsa and other Nigerian writers and poets. They stated in various ways that writers, by their vocation, are already immortals who became so not without leveraging on the works of those who wrote before them (standing on the shoulders of giants). The panel was unanimous on the need to further immortalize writers by celebrating and interrogating their works in special seminars, workshops and colloquia.

With particular reference to Vatsa, the panel suggested the carving out, within the writers’ village, a space where photographs, personal effects, books, manuscripts and other memorabilia of Vatsa, as a poet and soldier, can be kept in the form of a dedicated gallery. Also it was suggested that the Association of Nigerian Authors can host a major colloquium on the works of Vatsa and alongside other military writers in the near future. An audio-visual documentary on the life and times of Vatsa, the panel felt, will not be out of place in the further immortalization of the iconic figure.

In a quick reaction to the issues that came out of the panel discussion, the General Secretary of ANA, Dr. Joan Orji, who was at the occasion to represent ANA president, Dr. Usman Oladipo Akanbi, raised some pertinent issues. She stated that some other institutions of state have claims to Vatsa like ANA, if not more, and wondered what they were doing to preserve and honour the man’s memory as much as ANA has done. The institutions she identified are Nigeria, which Vatsa served diligently, Niger State, his natal origin and the Nigerian military.

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Dr. Tunde Olusunle (left); Dr. Kabura Zakama; Mr. Mike Ekunno and Denja Abdullahi during the panel discussion on World Poetry Day 2024 in honour of the late soldier-poet, Gen. Mamman Jiya Vatsa

Following the panel discussion was an interlude of a spectacular drama-cum-operatic performance of the life and times of Vatsa by the Abuja Poetry Troupe, directed by Oko Owiocho Afrika. The spellbinding performance, reliving snippets from the tragically romantic story of Vatsa, featured life-like, real life characters such as Vatsa himself, Gen. Ibrahim Bademosi Babangida (IBB), Sufiya (Vatsa’s wife) and a chorus-like guitarist, wailing the fate of Vatsa in the hand of a friend, who became an enemy. The 15-minute performance, with the leading song ‘Tori Don Geti Bowleg o’, was adapted from two of Vatsa’s books, Tori For Geti Bow Leg, The Bird that Sings for Rain and facts around Vatsa’s accusation of plotting a coup against his friend IBB, his arrest, trial, his strident statement of his innocence in poetic flavour and eventual execution. The drama was so moving that a few persons, including Hajiya Aisha Vatsa, Vatsa’s daughter in the audience, shed some tears.

The goodwill messages segment of the event, which followed the drama, was kick-started by Hajiya Aisha Vatsa, who struggled to deliver her speech, after having been affected emotionally by the dramatization of her father’s travails as a soldier-poet and patriot. Nevertheless, she affirmed that being the only surviving direct descendant of the gallant soldier and passionate poet and as ‘the last of the Mohicans’, she was ready to sustain his legacies. She shared with the audience some never-heard before words and poems of Vatsa, many written when he was under detention before his execution. She promised to present to the public in December 2024, on Vatsa’s posthumous 80th birthday, a collection of those last words, writings and poems of Vatsa that were preserved by the family and some other stuffs she wrote about her dad. She expressed gratitude on behalf of the family to the organisers of the event and the Association of Nigerian Authors for always remembering her father.

The General Secretary, Oji, stated that ANA, with other stakeholders, will collaborate with the family to celebrate Vatsa’s 80th posthumous birthday and the presentation of the ‘last books of Vatsa’ and the daughter’s book that will go with it. The compact but highly symbolic World Poetry Day 2024 celebration at the Mamman Vatsa Writers’ Village, Abuja, came to an end with a tour of the book exhibition of some military-poets organised by Kairos Scrolls and Books and Vatsa‘s life-size portrait hanging at the foyer of the auditorium.

Indeed, Mamman Jiya Vatsa, the Soldier-Poet and Poet-laureate of Abuja, woke up to adulation in Abuja on World Poetry Day 2024!

* Abdullahi, poet, playwright, culture administrator, was a former president of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA)

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