Writing is fighting.
That is the dictum of the fiery African-American writer Ishmael Reed who wrote a book entitled Writing is Fighting.
Whether taken literally or otherwise writers fire bullets with words, and in some instances actually take up guns to go shooting.
A landmark example was Nigeria’s most influential poet, Christopher Okigbo, who died young on the Biafra warfront.
It’s not my meat here to take up issues with Ali A. Mazrui who published the controversial novel The Trial of Christopher Okigbo.
It suffices to accept the reality that Okigbo died for a cause he believed in.
Okigbo was the friend of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and JP Clark in his lifetime. The Biafra war somewhat sundered the friendship of the writers. Achebe was heavily involved on the rebel side. Soyinka was thrown into jail for alleged Biafran sympathies. Clark was solidly on the federal side of the war effort.
The broken fences of the Nigerian triumvirate of writers were mended after the war in very interesting ways.
A crucial humane aspect of JP Clark’s life can be seen from when he initiated a move for Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and him “to plead with the Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, to spare the lives of the soldier-writer Major General Mamman Vatsa and his colleagues over the alleged military coup plot of 1986.
According to JP Clark in “The Burden Not Lifted”, his Nigerian National Order of Merit Award Winner’s Lecture, delivered in Abuja on December 5, 2001, he got in contact with Achebe “surprisingly on my first telephone call to Nsukka.”
Incidentally, Clark and Achebe had made up soon after the war when the poet invited the novelist to serve as his external examiner at the University of Lagos, Akoka.
However, in the case of Wole Soyinka, Clark reveals: “I had seen only once, and that’s in Dar es Salaam, since he asked me to his publisher’s office in London to show me page proofs of The Man Diedin which he libelled me. I told him then I would take him to court which I did, and there were quite a few people waiting for the fight.”
As Clark needed to see Soyinka in the bid to save Mamman Vatsa, he wondered on how to reach the playwright “with his roving style.”
Someone gave a suggestion to Clark to try Soyinka’s man, Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi, at The Guardiannewspaper offices in Lagos.
Clark made the contact with Dr Ogunbiyi and got directions to Soyinka’s home in Abeokuta. He dashed off straight to the place.
In the words of Clark, “Wole was away hunting somewhere in the forest of a thousand and one demons. So I sat waiting for him at his neighbour’s flat. Of course, I was the last person he expected to see at his doorstep. I cannot remember whether he came back with a kill and what kind. All I know, we had a great recognition scene of it, and then good host that he is, he cooked us a great meal. Of course, like Chinua, he was a prophet needing no preaching to.”
Eventually, the three great authors put their heads together at Clark’s place at the University of Lagos “to send our petition to the power that was and some say still is and shall be.”
Clark continued thusly: “Wole did the drafting, Chinua and I teasing him he had had more practice at making pronouncements than either of us.”
The case of the mystery gunman who made the pirate broadcast over Western Nigeria radio cannot be forgotten in a jiffy!
It happened that, according to Clark, “word had got to General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida all right, and he was not one to be done out of a show. Three distinguished world-acclaimed writers wanted to see him on a national matter of urgency – how could he refuse seeing them? He duly received us at Dodan Barracks the next day, and was his charming self and all attention. A difficult case, he told us. Some junior officers were the problem, but not to worry. He would take care of it. So we left, walked straight into the arms of the press, and on to a restaurant to toast and treat ourselves to a lunch we all thought we thoroughly deserved.”
Clark concluded the story on a sad note thus: “We were still savouring our wine, when that same afternoon General Domkat Bali, Chief of Defence Staff, came on air, announcing Vatsa and the other accused had already been executed. As a matter of fact, the execution did not take place until well into the night that day.”
Clark’s Mamman Vatsa intervention is the quintessential measure of the man.
Clark was a true fighter for whatever he believed in, and he joined the ancestors in the wee hours of Tuesday, October 13, leaving us a “final” poem entitled “My Last Testament” in his collection Full Tide:
This to my family
Do not take me to a mortuary,
Do not take me to a church,
Whether I die in or out of town,
But take me to my own, and
To lines and tunes, tasted on the waves
Of time, let me lie in my place
On the Kiagbodo River.
If Moslems do it in a day,
You certainly can do it in three,
Avoiding blood and waste,
And whatever you do after,
My three daughters and my son
By the only wife I have,
Do not fight over anything
I may be pleased to leave behind.