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History and politics in 21st century Nigerian poetry – Part 2

By Mathias Iroro Orhero   |   09 April 2017   |   2:18 am  

Apart from Nigerian politics and history, international politics also features in the poetry of 21st century Nigerian poets. Through the agency of globalisation via the World Wide Web, as well as the self-exile or travels or Nigerian new poets, global issues have taken place in their poetry. The new poets are familiar with international history and politics and they allude to these in their poetry. In Odia Ofeimun’s “Death Abiding”, the poet alludes to various aspects of international history and politics.

The poem starts on a note of pessimism as the poet persona philosophises on the nature of death. However, through the use of allusion, the poet incorporates international history and politics into his poetry. In the first section of the poem, the poet persona says:We died, hurried towards our deaths/ in every murder served, condoned,/ a peep away from the lowered car windows/a hoop inside air-conditioned folly/ a head-shake for roadside corpses/ guarding the retching honour of fear/ strutting in Kigali as in other mayhems/ in Kano, Zaki Biam/ and Monrovia where we die/ a different death each day (35).

The above lines have allusions to the Rwandan genocide and the Liberian civil war. Although both events took roots in the 20th century, with one extending to the early 21st century, the poet has been able to incorporate them in his poetry to show the idea of death and the nonchalant nature of humans towards the crises alluded to.


In the second section of the poem, the images are more concrete. This section begins with the poet alluding to the 2002 Nyaragongo volcanic eruption in Congo with the lines: “Only blood was news in the valley / of the Nyaragongo river / where plagues shamed proportions / that the Holy Ones foretold at Kibeho” (36).

The allusion to “Nyaragongo river” in Congo is used by the poet to further show the idea of massive and avoidable deaths in the world. The nonchalance of the world towards deaths is further highlighted in the poem through the allusion to France’s passivity in the Rwandan genocide (1994), Bosnian war (1992-1995), and the Kosovo war (1998-1999), as seen in the following lines:Death was a happy gang on French leave/ with do-goods who loved Rwanda/ as they never loved the fiends’/ rampage in Bosnia-govina and Kosovo/ hauling us to camps run by murder Mafiosi/ who defied justice and to whom/ time kowtowed in snares of the stomach/ happy for beans, blankets and bandages/ (36).

The preceding lines clearly allude to the highlighted international conflicts. Furthermore, the poet also alludes to Darfur crisis in Sudan which began in 2003 as the persona says “between the janjaweed and the interhamwe / every fiend on horseback with a gun” (37). “Janjaweed”, which the poet alludes to, is one of the belligerents of the Darfur crisis in Sudan and, like the “interhamwe” of Rwanda, committed one of the greatest genocides ever known to man.

Aboh’s “a torrent of terror”, the titular poem in the collection, employs allusions to international history and politics in order to empathise with victims of crises, as well as to lampoon tyranny and evil in humans.

The poet uses the apostrophe form to address an unknown character, representative of human tyranny, as the poem opens “Yours is the brewing anarchy / at Tehran, Pyongyang” (23). The allusion to “Tehran” and “Pyongyang” are used to foreground the idea of dictatorship. Tehran is the capital city of Iran while Pyongyang is the capital city of North Korea. Iran and North Korea, especially the latter, are known worldwide for human rights abuses and dictatorships.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is mostly known for restrictions on fundamental human rights, extra-judicial killings, restriction of media, gender inequality, religious intolerance, among other human rights issues (Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia).

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, popularly referred to as North Korea, has one of the world’s highest cases of human rights abuses. In North Korea, there is no free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, minority rights and rights to food, as well as other forms of human rights abuses such as forced prostitution, forced labour and forced abortion (Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia). Aboh’s allusion to the capital cities is his way of expressing the tyranny and terror in the preceding countries.

Aboh’s poem also alludes to the “steaming jihad / in Darfur, Bamako”. Darfur is a city in Sudan while Bamako is the capital city of Mali. The allusion here is used to underscore the religious dimension of terrorism and tyranny. The Battle of Aleppo (2012-2016) in Syria is also alluded to as the poet persona says “Yours is the state-managed pogrom / in Aleppo, in you is the personification / of tyranny” (23).

The lines allude to the military confrontation of the Syrian Rebels at Aleppo where thousands of civilian were killed. Furthermore, the poet alludes to the torrent: of inmates in Guatanamo Bay;/ extricating men from women/ women from children and/ children wandering like stray dogs/ into open arms of militias (23).

The allusion to the United States’ Guatanamo Bay detention camp at Cuba is evident in the first line of the extract above. Guatanamo Bay is one of the prisons with reports of human rights abuses in the world. It was established specially for terrorists by the US President Bush’s administration in 2002. Human Rights Watch reports that the prison housed minors under the age of 18 and women, together with high value criminals (n.pag). Some of the reported abuses at this prison are torture, unlawful detention and the inability to access a law court, among others (Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia).

The complicity of Russia in the Syrian crisis and its military invasion of Ukraine (2014-Present) are alluded to in Aboh’s “a torrent of terror” as the post persona reveals “Yours, the Putin rush / of weapons to Syria, now Ukraine / finding solace in other’ death” (23).

The allusion to Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, in the preceding lines is employed to represent Russia. Clear allusions to the Syrian crisis and to Ukraine are also shown in the lines and these are used to show Russia’s role in the protracted crises in the region. Again, Aboh employs these allusions international history and politics to thematise tyranny and terrorism in the 21st century.

The theme of political corruption is a major aspect of history and politics that manifest in the selected texts. Corruption is not a new concept in the Nigerian context. The Corruption Perception Index (CPI) and Transparency International rank Nigeria high in terms of corrupt practices. BribeNigeria asserts that corruption is endemic in Nigeria. These show that corruption is not new in the Nigeria socio-political stratosphere. However, in the 21st century, the endemic corruption in Nigeria has only worsened. In response to the malaise evident in the society, Odia Ofeimun and Rome Aboh use their poetry to satirise the leaders who engage in political corruption.

Ofeimun’s “Angels Of The Lootyard” directs its biting satire at the corrupt Nigerian leader. The poem starts by referring to Nigeria’s democracy as “democracy of baboons”. Baboons are employed here as symbols of oppression and violence against the masses by the leaders. Ofeimun laments the “backward” movement to “tyranny” in 21st century Nigeria. This is against the Nigeria of the 20th century in a bid to show the retrogressive nature of political corruption in Nigeria. The political leaders usually start out by “a campaign of ants / whose megaphones goad silence” (12). These lines foreground the idea of subservience of the masses when the inept political elites come campaigning for another shot at power. To buttress the idea of political corruption, the poet persona says that the corrupt leaders banned the parliament of hearts… and locked courthouses against justice/ to settle briefs in street marches and demos/ they paid marchers to vacate shop floors/ factory yards and oil rigs/ And, mere hawkers on the streets/ they paid the mountain not to move/ to stand and to await another millennium (12)

The poet repeats “paid” to foreground bribery, a vice that goes together with corruption. The political leaders show their tyranny by shutting the other arms of government, as well as mass hysteria through bribery. The idea of “stipends” to the masses in return for passivity towards corruption is ingrained in the political philosophy of “share the money” by some Nigerian political parties.

In Aboh’s “a letter to the mp”, the poet employs an epistolary form to thematise political corruption. The poet persona begins by alluding to elections as he says “Dear MP, / When you cajoled us to vote for you, / was the last time we saw you” (25).

These lines confirm the view that political corruption begins at the point of election. The use of “cajoled” foregrounds the idea of forced voting or cash inducement of voters, which are common indices of political corruption in Nigeria. The poet attempts to appeal to the conscience of the political leaders by painting the imagery of the abysmal state of the masses that have been promised better conditions.

The following lines show this:Come and see our matchbox houses/ cramming us in on bedbugs-infested mats./ Come and see our eczema-coated skin, our only linen./ Come and see our children kwashiorkored bellies/ and mumps-fattened jaws./ Come and see rodents and reptiles besieging our hospitals, And bats ambushing our dilapidated classrooms (25).

The visual images in the lines above are created by the poet to draw attention to some of the effects of political corruption on the masses. These masses are the same ones that voted in the leaders after being promised better living conditions. Further lamenting the plight of the masses, the poet persona says “We will leave this place for you. / You will inherit our corpses”. The ideas of human mortality and eternal judgement are evoked by the poet to create a sense of sober reflection for the corrupt political class.


Nigerian poetry is functional. From its earliest inception in the written tradition, it has always had history and politics as its driving force. Critics must ask salient questions on whether the new and current Nigerian poetry have anything in common with the 20th century traditions of poetry.

This work has attempted to answer this question using Ofeimun’s A Boiling Caracas and Aboh’s A Torrent of Terror. It has been revealed that 21st century Nigerian poets write against the background of 21st century history and politics. They, therefore, continue in the socio-political tradition of 20th century Nigerian poetry. However, the new poets have been able to leave the confines of the nation to thematise the history and politics of other countries, therefore subscribing to the idea of globalisation. The new poets do not also subscribe to ideology as obvious in some 20th century Nigerian poems.

In terms of style, new Nigerian poets employ highly allusive language in order to capture the wide range of historical and political influences on their poetry. The poems also attempt to thematise multiple issues at the same time, thereby creating a connected web of themes. This study limits itself to just two collections of poems, but the point must be made that almost every poetry collection in Nigeria demonstrates a profound fidelity to history which gives politics a toga of acceptability in the poetic representation of the Nigerian experience. Since the nation’s historical evolution has been tumultuous, the poets would for a long time to come have no choice other than to continue to engage it as their motif.
• Orhero is a postgraduate student of African Literature at the University of Uyo



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