Nigerian poet, teacher, and librarian Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo (16 August 1932 – 27 July 1967) gave his life to support the independence of Biafra. He is now widely acknowledged as a prominent modernist author as well as one of the best postcolonial English-language African poets of the 20th century.
Early Life and Education
At the height of British colonial rule in Nigeria, Christopher Okigbo was born on August 16, 1932, to Mrs. Anna Onugwalobi Okigbo in the Anambra State hamlet of Ojoto, which is about 10 miles (16 km) from the capital of Onitsha. Chief James Okoye Okigbo (Onyeamaluligolu Oda), the father of Okigbo, spent his early years traveling from station to station while working as a teacher in Catholic missionary schools. Okigbo felt a connection to and finally came to believe that the soul of his maternal grandfather, an Igbo divinity priest, had been reborn in him despite the ardent Christianity of his father. Idoto is embodied in the same-named river that flows through Okigbo’s town, and the “water goddess” is a significant character in his 1962 piece “Heavensgate.”
Pius Okigbo, a renowned economist and the first Nigerian Ambassador to the European Economic Commission(EU), was another prominent figure in Okigbo’s formative years.
Okigbo, a voracious reader and gifted athlete, graduated from Government College Umuahia two years after another well-known Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe (in current-day Abia State, Nigeria). The next year, he was granted admission to University College Ibadan, which is today known as the University of Ibadan. In his second year of medical school, he switched his path of study to Classics. He accompanied Wole Soyinka in his first appearance as a singer at college, where he established himself as a gifted pianist. It’s believed that Okigbo also created original music at that time, despite the fact that little of it has survived.
He started writing poetry after receiving his degree in 1956 and worked a number of jobs in various American cities. He worked for the Nigerian Tobacco Company, the United Africa Company, the Fiditi Grammar School (where he taught Latin), and finally the University of Nigeria in Nsukka as an assistant librarian, where he had a role in the founding of the African Authors Association.
During that time, he began submitting his writing to magazines, most notably Black Orpheus, a literary magazine that features the best writing by African and African-American authors. He was fiercely against negritude, which he considered as a romantic pursuit of the “mystique of blackness” for its own sake, even though some of his poems can be seen as a potent statement of postcolonial African nationalism. In a stark philosophical contrast to the editorial stance of Black Orpheus, he likewise rejected the notion that black people in Africa and Black America had a common experience. He declined the first prize in African poetry that had been given to him at the 1966 World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar on the basis of precisely these arguments, claiming that there is no such thing as a Negro or black poet.
He moved from Nsukka to Ibadan in 1963 to take on the role of West African Representative for Cambridge University Press. This position allowed him to frequently visit the UK, where he gained more notoriety. He joined the Mbari literary club in Ibadan and completed, wrote, or published the works of his mature years there, including Limits (1964), Silences (1962–65), Lament of the Masks (a Yoruba praise poem commemorating W. B. Yeats’ centennial birth, 1964), Dance of the Painted Maidens (celebrating the birth of his daughter, Obiageli or Ibrahimat, whom he believed to be a reincarnation of his
In the Nigeria-Biafra conflict, Okigbo enrolled as a major and was killed in combat in 1967 in Nsukka, Enugu State. In the past, Okigbo was wed to Judith Safinat Atta. He followed her from the time they first met in 1951 until their marriage in 1962. She was an Igbira princess and allegedly the first woman in Northern Nigeria to acquire a university degree. Obiageli Annabel Ibrahimat Okigbo, a daughter, was born into the union.
He was the fourth of five siblings, the other three being Chief Dr. Pius Nwabufo (Ebekuodike of Ojoto), Chief Lawrence Chkwuemeka (Onwa of Ojoto), and Mrs. Susie Anakwenze Onodugo.
In 1966, the Nigerian crisis erupted into full-blown conflict. Okigbo, who was living in Ibadan at the time, relocated to the eastern region of Nigeria on May 30, 1967, to await the outcome of the turn of events that resulted in the eastern provinces’ secession as independent Biafra on that day. While residing in Enugu, he and Achebe co-founded Citadel Press, a brand-new publishing company.
After the breakup of Biafra, Okigbo immediately volunteered as a voluntary, field-commissioned major in the armed forces of the new state. He was a decorated soldier who lost his life in the line of duty while defending Nsukka, the university town where he first found his voice as a poet and which he vowed to defend with his life, from an attack by the Nigerian military.
The Nigerian air force attacked his hilltop home in Enugu, where he kept many of his unpublished works (perhaps including the first draft of a novel). The poetic autobiography Pointed Arches, which he characterized in a letter to his friend and biographer Sunday Anozie as a record of the events of his life and the correspondence that contributed to the development of his imaginative creativity, was also set ablaze.
It is known that some of his unpublished papers survived the conflict. His daughter Obiageli, who inherited the papers, established the Christopher Okigbo Foundation in 2005 to continue his legacy. The texts were cataloged in January 2006 by Chukwuma Azuonye, a professor of African literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Boston, who assisted the foundation in nominating them for the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
Okigbo’s unpublished files, in addition to brand-new poems in English, such early drafts of an Anthem for Biafra, also include poems written in the Igbo language, according to Azuonye’s preliminary review of the materials. The Igbo poems are intriguing because they refute claims by some critics that Okigbo sacrificed his native African sensibility in order to pursue obscure Euro-modernism, particularly those made by the troika (Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike) in their 1980 essay Towards the Decolonization of African Literature.
“Elegy for Alto,” the penultimate poem in Path of Thunder, is now regarded as the poet’s “last testament” and foretells his own death as a lamb killed for human freedom.
Wole Soyinka established the Okigbo Award in his honor in 1987.
First place went to Jean-Baptiste Tati Loutard for La Tradition du Songe (1985).
- Heavensgate, 1962 (Mbari Publications)
- Limits, 1964 (first published in Transition, July-August 1962, Mbari Publications)
- Silences, 1965
- Path of Thunder, 1968 (in the literary magazine Black Orpheus)
- Labyrinths with Path of Thunder, 1971
- Collected Poems, 1986 (with a preface by Paul Theroux, introduction by Adewale Maja-Pearce)
- Elegy for Alto
Awards and Honours
The Christopher Okigbo International Conference was held at Boston University in 2007, and Okigbo was awarded the National Order of Merit of Biafra after his death. The Christopher Okigbo Foundation grows in influence and stature. Okigbo won the Langston Hughes Award for African Poetry at the Festival of Black African Arts in Dakar in 1966, but he turned it down because he believed that art shouldn’t be restricted by racial issues.
His estimated net worth was unknown before and after his death.