By Patrick B. Naagbanton
Nnimmo Bassey, was born in a remote farm village located on the northern frontier of Akwa Ibom State in the south-south region of Nigeria. But he lives in Benin City, the capital of Edo State after his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC). He is a practicing architect, clergy, writer, poet, newspaper columnist, environmental campaigner and activist.
Bassey’s venture into literature, especially the poetry genre, is similar to the case of other great Nigerian novelists like Cyprian Ekwensi, Elechi Amadi, Wale Okediran, Eghosa Imaseun and a horde of others. He (Bassey) received his formal tertiary academic training at the University of Nigeria (UNN), Enugu State in architecture, and graduated in 1981.
The late Cyprian Ekwensi was born in the present-day Niger State in north-central Nigeria to his Igbo parents from Anambra State, south-eastern region. He was a rare novelist, and he was undisputedly, the father of the Nigeria “city literature”, because of his work in the area of city literature. He received his early university education in Forestry and Pharmacy before he became a writer of fiction. The late Elechi Amadi from the Aluu community in the Ikwerre ethnic nationality in Rivers State, also took a bachelor’s degree in Physics and Mathematics, and taught for years before becoming a prolific novelist and playwright.
Wale Okediran from Oyo State in the south-western part of the country is a trained medical doctor, now a novelist and author of, Tenants of the House (2009). And Eghosa Imaseun was born in Warri metropolis in Delta State, but his parents are from Edo State. He is also a medical doctor, who is now a midcareer novelist. He wrote Fine Boys (2012).
They all prove that writing is a limitless art. Jerry Cleaver, the well-known American author, literary critic and teacher, in one of his inspiring book, Immediate Fiction –a Complete Writing Course (2002, page 218), wrote, “There’s no special talent needed to write publishable stories – all you need is your own emotions and your own life experience. In other arts – music or painting, for example – you may need a special, inborn talent. But writing is different..... Most successful writers don’t get these big awards. The only talent you need to be successful is a talent for work”.
Bassey lists Ken Saro-Wiwa, the great Niger Delta playwright, poet, novelist, newspaper columnist, short story writer, activist and environmentalist as part of his influence. Writing a foreword to the book, Silence Would Be Treason – Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa (2013) edited by Ide Corley, Helen Fallen and Laurence Cox, Nnimmo Bassey wrote; “Ken Saro-Wiwa and Sister McCarren (the Irish revered sister of the Catholic Church) both influenced my life and growth as an environmental justice advocate. In addition, Saro-Wiwa challenged me as a fledging writer who thought I would find a niche as a poet and short story writer. His pioneering work in building a virile environmental justice movement as well as the rights of minorities in Nigeria remains outstanding and continues to inspire campaigners around the world. I recall his visit to my humble home in Benin City when he came to lead a conference of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) in 1994. It was a memorable occasion and I heartily drank from his spring of wisdom on a variety of topics”.
Bassey has written or co-authored both his architectural and other books. Some of them are Beyond Simple Lines; the Architecture of Chief G.Y Aduku and Archcon co-authored with Okechukwu Nwaeze (1993); The Management of Construction (1993); Oilwatching in South America (1997); Living Houses (2005); To Cook a Continent- Africa; Destructive Extraction and Climate Change (2012) which has been translated into Portuguese and Finnish languages. He has also received several important local and international human rights and environmental awards.
For the sake of this article, I will concentrate on Nnimmo Bassey’s poems. So far, five of his collections of poems have been published, all by the popular Kraft Books Limited, Ibadan, Oyo State. They are Patriots and Cockroaches (1992), Poems on the Run (1995), Intercepted (1998), We Thought it was Oil but it was Blood (2002) and I Will not Dance to your Beat (2011).
Patriots and Cockroaches (a collection of 66 poems) appeared before the poet (Bassey) was enmeshed in the radical pro-democracy, anti-military activism and campaigns for the protection of the dying environment of Nigeria. From 1993, he headed the Edo State branch of the Association of the Nigerian Authors (ANA), and later became ANA national General Secretary after Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the bloodthirsty General Abacha alongside his eight other comrades. Abacha did that with support from Shell and their local allies in the Niger Delta region. Shell was worried about the widespread of Saro-Wiwa’s campaigns throughout the region rather anything else. Bassey was also the headed of the Environmental Rights Action (ERA)/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria (FOEN) as well as a member, Board of Governors, Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), Lagos, representing the south-south region.
The tone of the poems in the Patriots and Cockroaches collection was mild; written in simple style with good diction to convey his message. For example, the first poem in that collection, “The Road to Life”, has 14 lines and two irregular stanzas. It subtly talks about the crisis of the General Ibrahim Babangida era, “The boom has been the burst/our hearts too light to hold the glow/like children before a heap of pie/ |we gnawed and wrecked the pile” (Line 1-4).
In August 1993, Babangida had left the country after annulling the 12 June, Presidential election in deep disorder. He formed his helpless and scandalous Interim National Government(ING) and gave it to one of his loyalists, Ernest Shonekan to head. Three month after, Shonekan’s over-ambitious and brutal Defence Minister, General Sani Abacha, removed him (Shonekan) and took over as head of the new junta. Abacha unleased his horror on the country and its people, especially those who complained quietly or loudly about his tyranny and corruption for four years and few months.
The poet was openly and deeply involved in the struggles of the era to chase away the military from Nigeria’s political landscape. Wild covert and overt agents of the infamous junta of Abacha were unleased on his trail; and the poet had gone into hiding in a place in Ibadan, Oyo State capital, for a period of over four months. His beautiful and easy-going wife, Evelyn and his two children – Otoabasi and Daramfon, had relocated from Benin City to Uyo, capital of Akwa Ibom State (his home state) because of the persistent intimidations and threats to their lives by Abacha’s raging agents. Ekere Nkanga, the poet’s brother-in-law, then a notable human rights activist with the CLO, Nigeria’s premier and leading human rights organization, was arrested in the poet’s (Nnimmo Bassey) house in Benin City. He was detained for three months at the notorious Oko Prisons in Benin City without charge or trial.
Majority of the poems in Poems on the Run were written while the poet was underground (in hiding) in Ibadan. Two great Nigerian poets, Professor Niyi Osundare and Odia Ofeimum praised the poet. “These poems distill meaningful music from the adversity of imperiled freedom”, Osundare wrote. And our Ofeimum also wrote, “--On the Run in essence confronts the banal misuse of power as well as the anger riding from Goma to Ogoni and Freetown and Banjul to Abuja were as prefigured in the poem, “Shell.....”
The Poems on the Run collection is dedicated to “Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ekere Nkanga...(who were) denied justice and in the memory of Sesan Ajayi, the poet who left”. In one of the longest poems in the book, titled, “Shells”, which has 45 lines, and 9 stanzas, Bassey, the poet cried, “....turn the sod in the mass/Graves to Goma and Ogoni” (in line 16-17). He used visual and concreate images, symbols and metaphors. There were no much of embellishments because he was a very angry person then. While hiding from the Abachaic terror, he also wrote a 33- line poem for his wife (page 20-21), whom he described as “Comrade”. It wasn’t a love poem. His words there were quite denotative and comradely, and also for his children, titled, “See you” (page 24), and other comrades outside his family “Days of rage”(page 25).
On Wednesday, 5 June, 1996, rampaging operatives of the State Security Service (SSS) now called Department for State Security (DSS) kidnapped Nnimmo Bassey. He was on his way to Accra, capital of Ghana to attend the World Environment Day. It may be recalled that five months after, this writer (Patrick B. Naagbanton) and Uche Okwukwu, then his comrade and radical human rights lawyer and activist were also kidnapped from the central motor park in Uyo on their way to Calabar, Cross River State by over 30 SSS operatives. They were tortured and held in an isolated and cloudy and cell with suspected armed robbers and assassins awaiting trial or executions, transferred from Aba, the market town in Abia State, south-east. Other activists throughout Nigeria also suffered similar abuses.
Intercepted is a collection of Bassey’s detention poems. The book contains 75 poems. The poems in this collection are relatively short, but laden with powerful messages. One of those short poems with potent messages is “Nights out” on page 22. This poem has 9 lines, deliberately constructed in short and loose lines, though there is a caesura (break) somewhere in the line. “Luxury night out on the veranda /head jammed to the threshold of an important boot / I glued myself to the rustic mat / my slippers for pillow / my head, legs and hands marked by the four / cardinal points of mosquito cell”. The horrible prison conditions were highlighted here through his poetics.
In spite of all the intimidation, threats, arrest and tortures, Nnimmo Bassey didn’t run away from his country, but was on the run within. In the poem, whose title is written in the corrupt Nigerian version of English Language, Pidgin, “I love Nigeria no be small” (page 43), the poet shown his classic ironic humour and unmixed love for his unstable country. “I love Nigeria no be small/Inside the hole is love/ Dreadful cold brutal / love” (in line 5-8).
Bassey also wrote about the struggles of others in his poems. He also celebrated the courage of the Edo State-born journalist Abdul Oroh turned human rights activist and executive director of the CLO. On page 68 in the 32- line poem “For Abdul Oroh”, “In the quick march of the /Poisoned air and I feel/ Your fist rise and fall as/Your powder to dust---” (line 19-22). Oroh spent months then in Abacha’s detention too.
Bassey, the poet also remembered the late Professor Charles Bruce Powell, the celebrated Canadian ecologist and teacher who left the comfort of his lovely country (Canada) and naturalized in restive Nigeria as his new country. Powell wrote in his will that when he died, his corpse should be cremated (burnt to ashes) and the ash buried in a swampland forest village located in the Central Niger Delta (Bayelsa State). That was the place, where he (Powell) discovered the Niger Delta red colobus (philiocobus epieni), endangered monkey specie unknown to science until he discovered it in 1993.
“I marvel still at your unconditional love for/ These beasts unknown to science except you thrust them forth,” the poet wondered in line 23-24 of the 28 lines poem, “For B Powell”. During the dark days of Abacha’s militarism, Powell and David Brigidi Cobbina, lawyer and former student leader were arrested in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State capital and held at SSS cell in Port Harcourt for weeks, earlier before Bassey was arrested.
Democracy was not his only concern. Environmental degradation also gives him much pain. The death of Abacha saw the speedy return of the country to civil rule (not democracy) in 1999, but that didn’t end the poet’s (Bassey) troubles and struggles. His other two collections, We thought it was oil but it was blood (37 poems) and I will not Dance to your Beat (33 poems), are largely “environmental poems”. In them, the poet protests against the brazen destruction of the environment in the name of oil and gas extraction in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria and other places.
“The oil only flows/when the earth bleeds/the oil only flows/when the earth bleeds” (page 17) in “When the earth bleeds”, is one of the poems in page 23. On page 48 of the 25- line poem, “Gas Flares”, he cried again, “The earth gassed/Dynamites rocked the storehouse/Of life/The earth gassed/A fart delayed/Belching dragons attack/Leaping tongues lick/Roofs, farms”. At some point in it, Bassey lost his poetic patience and openly called on his audience to “Mobilize...Resist...Change”.
Nimmo Bassey is a serious poet with a serious message. His message is that of life and death (issue of “true” democracy, (not the mockery of democracy we have in place), respect for human rights, environmental conservation and protection). Those who threaten our future both the oil and gas transnational corporations and others, governments or powerful individuals are not spared in his new poems.
This piece is written basically to celebrate Nnimmo Bassey’s 60th birthday. He was born on 11 June, 1958. Happy birthday, our travelling, weeping and protest poet on the run! Don’t cease to poeticize, it is not yet uhuru ! The struggle certainly continues!
(Naagbanton, an independent journalist, researcher and writer, lives in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.)