Nigerian poet, essayist, journalist, and social critic, Odia Ofeimun has been announced as the 2010 winner of the Fonlon-Nichols Award. The award, administered by the African Literature Association, ALA, is given to an African writer every year for excellence in creative writing and for contributions to the struggle for human rights and freedom of expression, according to Dr. Oty Agbajoh-Laoye, chair of the ALA award committee.
Mr. Ofeimun is the author of eight collections of poems and numerous essays on political analysis and cultural criticism. His most recent volumes include Go Tell the Generals, A Boiling Caracas and Other Poems, and I Will Ask Questions With Stones If They Take My Voice, and Lagos of the Poets, a poetry anthology. In 2008, Los Ninõs del Estero, a selection of his poems, was published in a Spanish translation in Mexico .
Ofeimun was born on March 16, 1950. He published his first book of poems, the critically acclaimed The Poet Lied, at the age of 25. His career began as a journalist and literary correspondent with The Midwest Echo, a newspaper based in Benin, capital of present-day Edo State , in Nigeria. He has also had experiences as a factory worker, civil servant, and union organizer. After a stint as a graduate student of Political Science at the University of Ibadan , he was appointed as the private secretary to Nigeria ’s leading political figure and former presidential candidate, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in 1978. Following the fall of the Second Republic , Ofeimun published A Handle for the Flutist, his second poetry collection. He also became a member of the editorial board of The Guardian (Lagos).
From 1989, he was a British Council fellow at Oxford University in England; he lived in London and worked with Nigerian expatriates in the pro-democratic New Nigeria Forum until 1993 when he returned to Nigeria in the wake of the controversial June 12 presidential elections of that year. From this point, Ofeimun’s political and literary engagements followed two distinct but interconnected paths: he became the president of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), and the lead columnist for the hitherto-clandestine TheNEWS/TEMPO publications. His tenure as president of the writers’ body (of which he had been publicity secretary and general secretary between 1982 and 1988) coincided with the political crisis of the 1990s, and it has to be borne in mind that his immediate predecessor was the late writer and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa.
The annulment of the presidential elections precipitated the “stepping-aside” of General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria military president (1985-1993), and the rise to power of General Sani Abacha, under whose tenure the country experienced untold political and economic repressions. Progressive political opposition to the military dictatorship coalesced around the groups National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), the Campaign for Democracy (CD), and the Democratic Alternative (DA). Although his political connections were strongest with the first, Ofeimun dedicated his weekly columns in TheNEWS to championing and appraising the activities of all the three groups. Those classic pieces, including such titles as “The June Twelvers’ Dilemma”, “The Ngbati Press”, “On Whose Side are the Orisa?”, are remarkable for their robust illumination of modern Nigerian (and indeed, African) political and cultural history, and for their thoughtful eloquence as a most accomplished example of the concern of African writers for the lives of the majority in their societies. Ofeimun’s tenure as ANA president ended in 1997, but his relationship with TheNEWS/TEMPO continued for a little longer, peaking with the organization’s second period of “guerrilla journalism” (1995-1998).
In April 1995, while attempting to travel to England for a conference sponsored by the New Nigeria Forum, Odia Ofeimun was stopped by security agents at the airport in Lagos . Although they never succeeded in jailing him, the agents questioned him on his political and other activities, and his travel documents were confiscated. For the next three years he was unable to travel outside of Nigeria , and would not regain his passport until the period of “liberalization” which followed the death of General Abacha in June 1998.
In spite of these involvements, Ofeimun found time for creative writing. His career as a poet suffered undeniably from the crisis in the publishing industry, like that of many African-based writers in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2000, he published three volumes of poems: A Feast of Return Under African Skies, Dreams at Work and Other Poems, and London Letter and Other Poems. Ofeimun’s poems have been widely anthologized. His works-in-progress include the poetry anthology “Twentieth Century Nigerian Poetry”, the essay collections “ Africa ’s Many Mansions” and “In Search of Ogun”, and a long-awaited political biography of Obafemi Awolowo. Since Nigeria’s return to civil rule, Ofeimun has become a highly-respected and much-sought-after opinion leader and public speaker, giving speeches to NGOs and other civil society outfits. He is a leading champion of human rights and anti-corruption crusades in Nigeria, and he remains steadfastly independent of political organizations in the country.
The Fonlon-Nichols award was established in 1992 to honor Bernard Fonlon and Lee Nichols for their own contributions to both African literature and freedom of expression. Past winners include Rene Philombe, Mongo Beti, Werewere Liking, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Femi Osofisan, Nuruddin Farah, Nawal el Saadawi, Niyi Osundare, Assia Djebar, Abdellatif Laabi, Wole Soyinka, Pius Ngandu Nkashama, and Tess Onwueme. This year the award will be publicly presented at the 36th annual conference of the African Literature Association March 10-14, 2010 to be held in the University of Arizona, Tucson.