Thrilling Awoonor Tribute as AWF Hosts Obemata and Egwudah By Elvis Iyorngurum

It was not part of the original plan for the Abuja Writers’ Forum’s Sept 28, Guest Writer Session    but then Kofi Awoonor’s death was also unexpected, and given his eminent role in the development of modern African poetry in English, it made sense to have a tribute.

In a thrilling poetry performance supported by background  guitar and violin music,  Actor Jide Atta threw the audience into a solemn mood as he recited the poems of Awonoor, who is one of Africa’s renowned literary icons. He read ‘The Cathedral’, “The Weaver Bird,” “This Earth, My Brother,” “Across a New Dawn” and “Dzogbese Lisa Has Treated Me Thus.” Emotions rose high as he recounted Awoonor’s history, lamenting his untimely death by the hands of the Somalian Al-shabab militants and the painful loss it portends to the continent’s literary community. Someone  hearing about the Ghanaian poet, Kofi Awoonor for the first time through Atta’s reading would have felt very familiar with him and felt the pain of his demise like that of an old friend. The presentation received a prolonged and resounding applause. Kabura Zakama and Obemata also read poems dedicated toAwonoor.

Although Temi Sode could not make it to the venue because she was indisposed, the other two originally billed for the event did not disappoint. Activist, lawyer and poet Abdul Mahmud, popularly known by his pen name, Obemata, read from his debut collection of poems titled Triptych. The collection  he said was inspired by his urge to express his frustration on his identity crisis, being an Abdul Mahmud from the south; his years in exile during Nigeria’s dark years of military rule and his deep love for his fatherland.

Obemata’s recollection of the history that inspired his writing of Triptych revealed the travails of a young man who as the president of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), organized the largest students protest in the history of Nigeria, against the plans of the Babangida regime to remove government subsidy for petroleum products. Obemata was arrested and detained in 1991 at the Kirikiri Prisons under the dreaded State Security and Detention of Persons Decree Number 2 of 1984, on account of his opposition to the military dictatorship led by General Ibrahim Babaginda. He was again arrested in 1996 and detained by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) and the State Security Services (SSS), following claims that he knew or participated in the killing of Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, the wife of the acclaimed winner of the June 12, 1993 Presidential Election, Chief Moshood Abiola.

Obemata is widely represented in poetry magazines and anthologies, notably Sentinel, African Writer, Wordriot, African Writing, Origami, Liberty, Swalelife, Blackbiro, Next, Ijele, The Nigerian Guardian and ‘Witness’: anthology of war poetry (Serengeti Press, Ontario, 2004).

The story of the devastation that was brought upon Ibaji, a Local Government Area in Kogi state by the floods that ravaged many communities along the coastal lines of the rivers Niger and Benue in 2011 was told in a documentary produced by a non-governmental organization, the Civil Society Coalition for Poverty Eradication (CISCOPE) and International Rescue Commission (IRC). The NGO had intervened, bringing succor to the people of the local government, with funding from ECHO, a donor organization based in New York, United States. Peter Michael Egwudah who represented CISCOPE recalled that in 2011, the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET) issued a flood alert that the agency said would affect communities along Nigeria’s coastal line. He said governments at the national, state and local levels did not heed the warming and so were not prepared for the disaster when it eventually struck. The documentary detailed the calamity the affected communities faced with thousands of families losing their homes, farmlands and other sources of livelihood. Visuals of whole communities submerged along with their sources of livelihood painted a picture that to many who had not witnessed the floods, was shocking, to say the least.

The greatest tragedy of the situation was the inability of the government to make a timely response to the disaster. CESCOPE’s intervention in Ibaji saw the organization inject 1million Euros, which was a grant it was offered by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a United States based aid agency.

While answering questions from the audience, Mr. Egwudah said the government of Kogi state had initially refused to cooperate with them in their relief efforts. He said the Deputy Governor of the state on a certain occasion, threatened to arrest them, accusing his organization of bringing ‘terrorists and spies’ to the state and at some point fumed at why such a huge amount of money had got to the organization without passing through the state government. Responses from the audience praised CESCOPE and its partners for their humanitarian gesture which had brought hope and survival to thousands of distressed members of our society.

Egwudah said working with CISCOPE has enabled him support the poor and vulnerable in different communities in Nigeria with skill-acquisition, education and advocating for pro – poor policies for the vulnerable as well as support and rescue people who are affected by one form of disaster or the other.

Film producer and director Kasham Keltuma, Jide Atta and Obemata, also presented certificates of participation to the second introductory class of the AWF’s Creative Writing Workshop. The participants had undergone intensive training on creative writing techniques spanning the four Saturdays in the month of September. One of the participants, Oluchi Agbanyim responded on behalf of the class. She praised the forum, for the great initiative which has provided writers and aspiring writers, the opportunity to develop their writing skills and take the quality of their literary output to a higher level.

It was also a reward day for winners of the forum’s monthly writing challenge as they receivetheir prizes for winning the contest in various categories. Other features were  musical renditions by Tokunbo Edward who showed up this time with a backing duo including a violinist and soul rock singer Adzer David.

The Guest Writer’s Session of the Abuja Writers’ Forum began in 2008 and has remained consistent, creating a platform to celebrate published authors resident in Nigeria and abroad. The Forum also runs Creative Writing Workshops, as well as a critique session that holds every Sunday at the Internal Institute of Journalism, Asokoro, Abuja.

Iyorngurum is a Writer, Poet, Editor and the Secretary of the Abuja Writers’ Forum. He writes from Abuja.

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