NENGI JOSEF OWEI-ILAGHA, fondly called Pope Pen the First, was recently released after 135 days of incarceration at Okaka Medium Security Prison, Yenagoa, Nigeria, for publishing Epistles to Maduabebe, a book that the powerful paramount ruler of his hometown, Nembe, in Bayelsa State, considered defamatory and therefore sought to censor. The process that landed Nengi in prison is as controversial as the book that sparked his terrible ordeal. While in jail, members of the literary community in Nigeria worked to secure the release of the award-winning prolific writer and social activist who has worked as a journalist, broadcaster and public relations professional. Mantids, his first collection of poems, won the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, Poetry Prize in 1995. January Gestures, the first of twelve books of poetry under construction, was among the nine contenders for the controversial 2009 NLNG-Nigeria Prize for Literature. His other books on Treasure Books label include: Apples & Serpents, his second offering of poems, A Birthday Delight, short stories, and I Want To Be A Senator, a collection of essays on the state of the nation. He is also the author of Sand House & Bones, A Drop Of Pentecost, The Militant Writes Back, Royal Mail, Thirty Pieces Of Sylva, Epistle To The Enemy, Serilla’s Story, Epistles To The Small Brave City-State, The Mayor Of Fantuo, Epistles To The President and Big Daddy. Nengi’s poems have appeared in newspapers, journals and anthologies including The Guardian, The Post Express, Voices from the Fringe, For Ken, for Nigeria, Junge Nigerianische Lyrick, 25 New Nigerian Poets, and Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Nigerian Writing. Born in 1963, in Nembe, Bayelsa State, he has been Editor of The Tide On Sunday in Port Harcourt, and a Speech Writer and Special Adviser on Research & Documentation to two Governors of Bayelsa State—Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha and Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. He is currently serializing a monthly diary of poems on Facebook. The Founding Chairman of the Bayelsa State chapter of ANA, Nengi has recently completed work on a new collection of one hundred short stories entitled Freedom Cell, while exploring possibilities of turning his experience of incarceration into film. He is married to award-winning novelist, Bina Nengi-Ilagha. In this interview conducted by NDUKA OTIONO, Nengi answers 10 poignant questions pertaining to his life and work, incarceration and the judicial system in Nigeria.
NDUKA OTIONO: Welcome back from one hundred and thirty-five days of incarceration at Okaka medium security prison, Yenagoa, Bayelsa State. Why and how did you go to prison? What role did your controversial satirical work Epistles to Maduabebe play?
NENGI ILAGHA: I know what the inside of a jail looks like now because I was in there for four and a half months. I was detained on Monday December 14, 2015, on the orders of a court that I be remanded in prison custody for contempt of court, following my inability to appear in court to defend the content of a book I wrote and published in 2009, entitled Epistle To Maduabebe. For a long time, I had no idea that judgment had been given in a suit filed against me by the man to whom I addressed the book. He claims I defamed him. I never received notice of any kind to appear before the court. I was not represented by a lawyer, and I didn’t appeal the ruling within the specified number of days, so the court felt offended. That’s the bare outline of the matter. It’s a libel suit. The court said I should pay the sum of 30 million Naira in damages to the complainant, and apologize in three national newspapers, besides picking up his legal bills. And I said I had no business to apologize because I was never given a right to defend myself in a competent court of law. If I did, I would ask why the same man who is so cross with me about the content of the book is dipping into the selfsame book for patented ideas to put our community aright. The court was kind enough to let me go when I finally appealed the judgment, and I was released on Friday April 29, 2016.
Now, to the second part of your question. What role did the book play? What was so controversial in the body of the book that so upset the respondent? I will tell you right away. I hail from Nembe. I am from the Small Brave City-State, which is what Professor E.J. Alagoa, emeritus professor of history, called the community in his seminal first book of that title. One of the most ancient practices of that community is that it buries, face down, the first child to die in a mother’s line. It does not matter how young or how old you may be. It does not matter how rich or how poor you may be. The bottom line is that the first child to die among siblings of the same mother is buried face down, and with great ignominy. I became acquainted with the details of this abominable custom when I lost my younger sister, Tonfie. She was the first of my mother’s children to die. I was aggrieved by the painful manner of her death. She was crushed by a trailer in Suleja. We bundled her remains home to Nembe, driving half way across the country, only for her to be buried naked, face down, garbage under her, debris upon her. She was twenty-eight years old and nursing her first baby. She was still recovering from a Caesarean section when the accident happened.
In Sand House & Bones, the book of grief I labored through in honour of her memory, I began to question the basis of the burial rites of my sister that had left me in such severe shock. Why was the coffin that brought her all the way from Suleja torn apart, and her body divested of every stitch of clothing, before it was tossed into the shallow grave? Why did someone climb into the grave to make sure she was lying face down, and why was it necessary to cover her with brambles and broken bottles and every spiky thing available? On February 29, 2008, these questions reverberated in an open letter I addressed to the in-coming paramount ruler, Dr. Edmund Maduabebe Daukoru, published in the weekend edition of the state newspaper. I called upon him to abolish a traditional practice that was, by all definitions, obnoxious, dastardly, archaic, barbaric and retrogressive. I also called upon him to stop another reprehensible practice that was equally immemorial to the Nembe people; namely the worship of the python as a national god. What’s more, I enjoined Dr. Dakoru, Nigeria’s foremost geologist and, perhaps Nembe’s foremost technocrat, to bring his wealth of experience in the oil and gas industry to bear upon the fate of Nembe. I am happy to report that these were the three principal propositions upon which the book was founded. Every other thing was incidental padding. It was a book that desperately sought a new spiritual window for the Nembe people. On the night of Friday July 8, 2011, my crusade against face down burials in Nembe yielded good results. The paramount ruler saw reason with me, called the community together, and abolished the pointless custom with a significant ceremonial vigil. I was not acknowledged and I didn’t complain. Five years down the line, however, he set out to muffle my voice. This is what I don’t understand.
NDUKA OTIONO: One of my favorite cynical quotes about justice was made by the Athenian philosopher Thucydides in his Melian Dialogue: “The standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and… in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” What does your experience teach about the Nigerian judicial system in relation to this troubling declaration by Thucydides?
NENGI ILAGHA: The philosopher you are citing may be right. Thucydides may have a valid point. What I came away with from my entire prison experience is that the Nigerian judicial system is alive, even though it is riddled with inadequacies. I went in and out of that penitentiary with the definite impression that government, all three arms of government, are powerful in their own right. I had no illusions whatsoever about the fact that the arm of the law is indeed long. But for justice to be effective, it must also prove to be thorough. More than that, it must be fair, and seen to be fair, to every concerned party. If someone decides to sue me, I should have the right to defend myself. We should all have access to a system of justice that is impartial to one and all. In this particular case, I was denied that right and yet penalized for flouting a judgment I knew little about. I wonder if that gives me space to sue for unlawful detention.
NDUKA OTIONO: Are there gifts from being imprisoned? Would you consider the inspiration for your unfolding series of poems Cell Fellowships and forthcoming collection of one hundred short stories, Freedom Cell, some of such gifts, the same way imprisoned writers before you, say Ken Saro-Wiwa and Wole Soyinka, produced powerful works from similar forced loss of freedom on political grounds?
NENGI ILAGHA: That is a remarkable way to put it, and I suppose you are right. Every book is a gift to its author. And, for every writer sensitive to his calling, nothing compels a book as surely as a prison experience. The writer is a free spirit by nature. Freedom is what creative self-expression is all about, and when that free flow of expression is curtailed, the boundaries of the self-seeker are limited, and the result can be disastrous. What the writer can do to save himself in the circumstance is to raise his own defenses, to embolden his spirit and transcribe the experience for the edification of his neighbours. The words contained in The Man Died came to Wole Soyinka in solitary confinement as a gift, no less. The same is true of A Month & A Day, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s prison diary. The mind becomes truly receptive to new promptings in unfamiliar surroundings, and the result can be spectacular in a definitive way.
NDUKA OTIONO: In one of your post-incarceration poems you write: “in my sober corner,/ even the friendly words I used to know/ desert me, leaving me without company, /without method, without push.” Could you please elaborate on how these words define the existential challenges of incarceration from your own experience?
NENGI ILAGHA: Words have the capacity to persuade the next man. Words are the instruments of our warfare in the spirit, as in the flesh. We happen to be spirit inhabiting flesh. Words are the catalyst that serve to energize our dreams, to give flight to our aspirations, and to crystallize meaning from it all. That is what prayer is all about, essentially, and in prison, you tend to pray often. You pray silently in your heart that this can’t be happening to you, in the twenty-first century, in a world inhabited by men and women of discernment. You pray for reason to prevail. In prison, words help to clarify the foggy mind about the latitude of freedom we enjoy, and how swiftly we can be restricted to a small portion of that field, if we are found wanting. For the writer, words become the daily prop to lean on, as you await the next sound of the bell which bluntly tells you that it is time to be locked up in a cell alongside other men who confess their sins at will.
NDUKA OTIONO: What would you consider a better spur for great poetry: melancholy or joy?
NENGI ILAGHA: It must be melancholy, to start with. It stirs the waters, because it often begins with self-immolation and solemn prayer. It is deeply felt. It gets to the core of the question, the seabed of conscience. Joy comes into the strains of the poem only when we get well past the stage of melancholy, when our prayers in solitude begin to bear fruit, and our spirit takes flight in unfettered liberation.
NDUKA OTIONO: How would you describe the response of the Nigerian literary community to the imprisonment of Pope Pen?
NENGI ILAGHA: I was suitably overwhelmed by the response of the Nigerian literary community to my imprisonment at the infamous Okaka prison. It was wholesome. It was heart-felt. Every time I got around to chat with a Nigerian writer over the phone, in the presence of a warder, I was taken by the sincere outpouring of feeling from friends and admirers alike. I am thankful that I could get to hear some of the wonderful things that were said about me on my cell radio and, as I was to discover later, on the Internet. I remain grateful to the media for the swift response it gave to my release, to say nothing of its avowed partnership in the campaign to secure reprieve for the incarcerated writer. It came as a big boost to my morale when a delegation from the national secretariat of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, led by the Vice President, Camillus Uka, visited me in prison. I equally appreciate the frequent visits of Michael Afenfia, chairman of the Bayelsa chapter, who kept up a vocal front on behalf of conscience. When I heard that the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, was to visit me, I put it past him. He was too busy to bother with me, I thought. But then I was immensely overjoyed to receive the poet, Chijioke Amu-Nnadi, who remembered to bring me his new books at the end of a country-wide tour. His open-handed overtures to me and my family in the heat of crisis have since confirmed him as a bosom friend.
NDUKA OTIONO: Assess the resources available to an oppressed writer in Nigeria.
NENGI ILAGHA: A writer’s resources begin with pen and paper. It begins with the availability of ink for him to spell out his feelings and opinions, as conceited as they may be. In this day and age, those resources amount to his laptop and his phones, and the wide network of contacts that entails. Primarily, therefore, when these resources are taken away from the writer, he stands emasculated. That was my experience in prison. I was pining for an immediate access to civilisation, and the very tools for this process were taken away from me as a matter of course. The first thing you do at the registry point of the prison was to part with your phones and, for as long as I was there, I didn’t have the benefit of studying in a library because there was no such facility. In other words, the very first requirements in the supersonic world we live in were seized from the start, and that rules out every access to any resources you may think of. You fall back to go-betweens and emissaries. You cannot do what you want to do the way you want it done, the way you would have done it, if you were out there. Inevitably, the resources that can be available to the oppressed writer in Nigeria can only be given by those who still enjoy their freedom, those who sympathize with your plight, and are willing to speak out on your behalf, those who actually open their wallets and give a token note, those who send in a kind word in the face of adversity. Outside that, the biggest composite resource available to the oppressed writer is the fraternity of writers itself and the muscle of solidarity they can muster on your behalf, acting individually and as a body.
NDUKA OTIONO: What needs to be done to enhance access to justice for artists in distress?
NENGI ILAGHA: Justice is justice when it is fair to all parties. It doesn’t mean that the bands of justice should be relaxed for me simply because I am an artist. No, but I should be seen not to be oppressed either. I should have the benefit of being served with a court summons. I should have my copy of a ruling in a case involving me. It’s that straight-forward. If I am deprived of that, I have a good chance to crow as loud as I can until I get suitable restitution.
NDUKA OTIONO: Upon your release from prison you wrote: “To be free is to be in heaven. To be in heaven is to be free. Whichever way you put it, my freedom means the world to me.” In what sense/way has the word “freedom” expanded or shrunk in meaning to you?
NENGI ILAGHA: I think of freedom now in relation to time. When you are behind bars, all the suspended assignments come at you in one swoop. You suddenly remember goals you set out to achieve, targets you set to attain, and become increasingly aware of just how far from reality they are. You become critically aware that every dream can only flourish in a boundless, borderless community where your creativity can exercise free rein. And that’s why I am so eager to get back to manuscripts that have been on hold for so long.
NDUKA OTIONO: Please anchor your answer to the most intimate consequences of your loss of freedom in relation to what you describe as your “domestic constituency.”
NENGI ILAGHA: Yes, of course. The most immediate realisation that I was in an uncomfortable situation was the panic it sent through members of my family. My daughter brought me breakfast the following morning, and it was obvious that she didn’t sleep well. The same was true of my wife, my first son, and all the younger ones that couldn’t quite understand what this was all about. It broke the languorous tedium that we had come to be familiar with, and taken for granted, as freedom. It upset our schedules and distorted our priorities as a family. It altered our search for daily bread to the pursuit of my release as a non-negotiable ultimatum. That was enough distraction.
NDUKA OTIONO: Thank you for your time and forthright answers, Nengi.
NENGI ILAGHA: Thank you; you are welcome.
This interview was first published by African Writer on August 8, 2016.