Poet and playwright J.P. Clark’s falling-out with his would-be official biographer, Adewale Maja-Pearce, is chronicled in the latter’s new book, ‘A Peculiar Tragedy’. We begin our exclusive serialisation of ‘Kiagbodo’, a chapter from the book.
Two rivers have there their trysting-place,
A strong selling point, you conceded, were
It in the city, but there we were, in
The maze of Izon country, in the Niger
Delta, and over it a god sits brooding...
J. P. Clark: ‘Land of the gods’
So what is one to make of it all? Much depends on how one interprets J.P Clark’s relationship with the security services — the largest in Africa, according to Soyinka, although South Africa must have run a close second at the time — but here he obfuscates the matter. Undoubtedly, as the most prominent writer who had opted for the federal side he would have been of interest to them as one of the ‘privileged recipients’ of the head of state’s ‘confidences’, the more so since he and Gowon were already known to each other. They had first met when Clark was still an undergraduate at Ibadan almost a decade earlier; as he wrote in the Notes to Casualties: ‘I had known him as a lieutenant through an old friend, Brigadier David Ejoor, the first Military Governor of the Mid-West.’
According to the same Notes, his first encounter with the security services was when he accompanied Okigbo to fetch Ifeajuna back from Accra, where he had fled (apparently with Okigbo’s assistance) as soon as he realized that the coup had failed. Clark claims that he only went in a ‘personal’ capacity (unlike Okigbo, who went as an ‘official emissary’) but says nothing more. However, thirty years later, in a lecture he gave on the occasion of his Nigerian National Merit Award, he offered a fuller account of how it came about:
“After the events of that momentous day broke upon us all, and Major Ifeajuna was reported to have fled to Ghana, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi wanted him back as he had Major Kaduna Nzeogwu. Chris Okigbo was given the letter to take to President Kwame Nkrumah. But he needed company, someone who shared influential literary friends with him in Accra, but more importantly, someone who could add his voice to persuade Ifeajuna to come home and assume responsibility for his action...
We took two trips to Accra by air, the first was a full meeting with Ifeajuna, the second to give his host government time to arrange for his evacuation, while he wrote up the defence he would have given at his court-martial in Lagos. We just made it back before Ghana too fell to the military.”
That Okigbo might have wanted company is understandable enough although why they needed shared literary friends to do so is somewhat puzzling given the nature of their undertaking. More to the point was the fact that Clark had known Ifeajuna at the university and hadn’t been impressed by what he had seen of him. It happened while they were there that the authorities wanted to fence off the students’ hostels following the death of a young woman in a failed abortion attempt in the student union president’s room. The students thought that the authorities were overreacting and Ifeajuna, Nigeria’s first Commonwealth gold medallist and a shining star on campus, urged them onward until it actually came to the showdown, whereupon he hid himself away until the demonstration was over. As it happened, the dead woman was the best friend of another student and budding actress called Christine Clinton with whom Clark was just then having ‘a long, passionate relationship, which was a great talking point within this small community,’ the ‘bombshell’ he told ‘Bob’ Wren in their lengthy interview (Robert M. Wren: Those Magical Years; p.100). So it was that when he heard that Ifeajuna had fled to Accra, ostensibly disguised as a woman (in what seems to be becoming something of a national tradition), he was inclined to see him ‘acting in character, running away after disrupting authority, as he had done while a student at Ibadan.’ And yet this was the man he wanted to ‘come home and take responsibility for his action’.
At any rate, off they went to Accra, only to discover that Ifeajuna was still at liberty until the about-to-be toppled Nkrumah decided to imprison him lest Nigeria accuse him of complicity in the coup attempt. Clark and Okigbo were allowed access to him and even spent an entire night talking with him. The event is captured in ‘Conversations in Accra’, the longest poem in Casualties, where the unlikely duo urge him to heed the ‘clamour’ for change at home that was the reason for his striking in the first place:
The clamour is not in markets only
The clamour is in cathedrals
The clamour is from minarets
And not in the morning alone
The clamour is in kitchens, in schools;
In court, in palaces alone is silence.
Instead of which, he is ‘up on the iroko’ while gathered below ‘are the flies on the meat/ The people may not eat,’ to which Ifeajuna replies:
I know, I know, don’t I know? That night
The group accepted me leader
Even he who took the lion.
They will follow now if I blow the horn.
To which they, in turn, reply:
Then blow it, blow it! Right now,
Scattered in the forest are hounds
You led to the hunt.
Stranded in the woods are dogs listening
For the hunter’s horn,
And loitering in the square
Are the people hungry for a share.
According to Clark, Ifeajuna was disoriented but coherent and, for the first time in his life, he ‘saw the folly of human judgment, and that no man living should be called a hero.’ So it was that Ifeajuna returned with them — much to Nkrumah’s relief, no doubt — but instead of being met by a senior military officer in the ruling Supreme Military Council, as they had apparently been promised, they were confronted by a junior police officer from Special Branch — a ‘donkey’ — who promptly took ‘Fred King’ into detention. Moreover, Clark himself was unceremoniously dumped on the tarmac; as he wrote in ‘Return Home’:
Together with Chris I brought him home
On clipped wings, on clipped wings,
He who seeing a forest fire,
Turned on a tap the crocodile
Could not stop, unknown to pilot, to crew,
As plain Fred King. There by the green lights
On the ground the red rug was rolled
From under his feet. Engaged elsewhere was
The horse that should have cantered to the
Crawling now to its place of rest. Instead, came
A donkey to carry into the night
King Fred, Chris close at his back,
Sam holding to a restive tail,
And I alone on the tarmac
With odd items to clear,
A number of papers I did not dare declare.
In the event, Ifeajuna and the others were left to languish in protective custody in the then Eastern Region while the country’s first-ever military regime dithered over what to do with them until the matter was resolved with the counter-coup seven months later. Among the papers Clark ‘did not dare declare’ at the airport was the latter’s hastily-written account of why they had struck:
“I have often wondered over the years what became of this manuscript that I kept at one time in a baby’s cot. When the publisher Longmans chickened out, I handed it over to a brother-in-law to take home to his wife, Rose. I found portions of it later reproduced in General Olusegun Obasanjo’s biography of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu.”
So far so good: up until this part of the story Clark makes no mention of any direct contact with the security forces. Quite the reverse, in fact; in the Preface to Casualties he goes to some trouble to let the reader know that such rumours then circulating in Lagos were entirely false:
“But I got so close to a number of the actors after the curtain rose, actors some of whom still evoke such mixed response, that I came to be identified by some as playing in the show — to the extent of being interrogated by the security people. The pity is that I have had no part in the drama still unfolding.”
Clark is here obfuscating the matter by not coming out clearly to admit that he was indeed interrogated by ‘the security people’, as he was to admit three decades later in The Burden Not Lifted:
“In Casualties, my account in poetry of the Nigerian Civil War, so much misunderstood by my Igbo readers and their friends in quotes, I said at that time that I came so close to the events of 15 January 1966 that I was taken in for interrogation. Shinkafi was the officer, all professional but very polite. Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna had given me his account of the coup to edit and arrange publication. The authorities thought I had it then in my custody.”
In fact, the main thrust of Clark’s lecture seems to have less to do with the burden of the public cleansing demanded for the blood that was shed by an unwilling military — and which, in any case, he had already dealt with at greater length in ‘The Hero as a Villain’, his inaugural lecture at the University of Lagos in the 1970s — than in ‘the burden that has been my own all these years’. And what was the nature of this burden?
“Looking back now with regrets for what might or might not have been, I sometimes wonder whether Chris and I should have persuaded Emmanuel Ifeajuna to return with us for, as he said, and as we now know, the situation in Nigeria might have changed at any point, and optimist and consummate schemer that he was, he could then have returned to a different stage on his own terms.”
‘Optimist’ and ‘consummate schemer’ are not the most obvious qualities that one would associate with Ifeajuna given Clark’s own assessment of the man he knew. And what was it that was going to change that might have made a difference to someone who had a penchant for running away at the first sign of trouble? Change indeed it did but where lies the burden that Clark has been living with all these years? It is this, admitted to for the first time in public in the same lecture:
“An interesting development from my visit to the then Special Branch of the Nigeria Police Force at Force Headquarters was that my late friend, Aminu Abdullahi, fresh from assignments in London and Nairobi, moved in from his cousin M. D. Yusufu to live with me for a year and keep an eye on me. I have never discussed the matter with our inimitable master spy-catcher of those days. Some years later, he gave me the good advice that the state does not mind what a writer scribbles about it as long as he does not go on to put his words into action.”
In fact Clark had already told me about Abdullahi early on in our relationship. It was a question I had to ask because it was a question that everybody else was asking, for instance Odia Ofeimun when I emailed him about his disagreement with Clark over The Poet Lied. Ofeimun even went as far as to give me M. D. Yusufu’s private number so that I could hear directly from the horse’s mouth, as it were, but then there was no real need. There it was in black and white in Clark’s own hand although I didn’t know it at the time because I was yet to read it. So I asked him and he told me quite openly a number of times, on one occasion with his wife present. They laughed as they recalled a brandy-drinking, chain-smoking jazz buff who lived with them for about a year between 1967 and 1968. The impression I formed was that he was someone they had casually met and taken a liking to but the arrangement struck me as unlikely all the same. At the time they were just three years into their marriage with a new baby and another on the way. They were also managing a modest apartment on his Lecturer Grade 1 salary on what was then still the building site of the newly established University of Lagos. The Clarks themselves were far too bourgeois as I had come to see them with their concern for status and everyone knowing their place to be so accommodating to such an untidy guest; and now, on what would turn out to be my final visit to Clark’s country retreat to look through the last of his personal papers before travelling to London to finish this book, I challenged them on it.
Doubtless I could have been more tactful in my approach but I had also drunk more beer than usual in order to fortify myself. Moreover, up until then I had allowed myself to be too respectful towards them in the Nigerian way demanded even by would-be bohemians, especially after Clark had let it be known that he thought me too small to compare myself to him, as he had told me during one of my earlier visits, and as he was to tell me again on this, but more vociferously now that he didn’t need to be on his guard. And all the while there was the idea at the back of my mind that Abdullahi’s period with them would have coincided with the gathering of Commonwealth eggheads in Australia just as the federal government was waging a propaganda war every bit as vicious as the conventional one in order to reassure an increasingly hostile international community that genocide was not among its objectives. Perhaps Soyinka’s name was never mentioned in all that long year that Abdullahi was keeping an eye on him. Perhaps Abdullahi simply shrugged when Clark told him where he was going and who he would be meeting. Perhaps, but it seemed unlikely.
The fact that his wife was also present in Kiagbodo was an added bonus. She rarely visited the place, which was why Clark himself was often in Lagos. Previously it had been only the two of us. Rightly or wrongly, I had formed the impression that she didn’t much care for it. It was nothing she ever said, more what she didn’t say. She would just smile indulgently whenever I paid a courtesy call on them in their Apapa residence and he spoke wistfully of ‘home’. And now her unexpected presence — he hadn’t told me that she was coming until after I had arrived — only confirmed my suspicions. As it happened, she was only visiting because their son was over from the UK for a short holiday. It turned out that it was the first time either of them had been back in over two years and I could hardly credit Clark’s nervousness at their imminent arrival. He kept marching up and down the front garden barking orders at the workers and asking his overseer for the umpteenth time whether there was enough fuel in the Mercedes he parked in his sister’s compound in the village proper.
When at last they arrived, Clark having left for the airport at Warri with at least two hours to spare, it was immediately obvious that they felt themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. They dithered in the front garden while I did my best not to look too much at home before opting to row across to the village to give them time to settle down. Over the next three days I was struck by the fact that neither of them once ventured outdoors, and yet the idyllic setting was the main attraction of the place. I was rarely indoors myself because it was peaceful to work in the front garden overlooking the river, and on the only occasion my wife accompanied me to draw sketches for the cover of this book, she spent all day, every day sitting on the balcony observing the scenery below.
Clark obviously wanted them to feel at home but it was equally obvious that they didn’t. His wife was offhand with the staff as she tried to assert the authority she didn’t have, forever ordering them about to conceal her discomfiture. That first evening, for instance, she was adamant that her son needed chicken because he loathed fish and that she herself wanted plantain. They tried to explain to her that it was too late to get either in the village; that they would have to go to Ughelli but that the markets would be shut by now — it was after seven — but she insisted they try and so off they went, only to return empty-handed two hours later, which annoyed her, whereupon she started fussing over what her son would eat. Clark himself, after his initial anxiety, didn’t always bother to disguise his own irritation at her awkwardness. Twice that first evening over dinner he snapped at her when she proved slow on the uptake. ‘How many times must I tell you that I don’t like repeating myself,’ he said as he frowned at the fish before him. Their son, as embarrassed as me, laughed nervously both times but was clearly used to it, as indeed she was.
Serialisation of ‘A Peculiar Tragedy’ continues next Sunday in The Lagos Review.