Obituary: Ikeogu Oke: Nigeria’s ‘Poet Laureate’ takes a bow

Ikeogu Oke
Ikeogu Oke, winner 2017 Nigeria Prize for Literature, an annual competition sponsored by NLNG. [Photo credit: Independent Newspapers Nigeria]

His last Facebook post was on November 7.

It was a quatrain, which he composed at the time he was hospitalized at the National Hospital, Abuja.

It read:

Strange Taste?

A butterfly

Drinking urine

On a toilet floor

Of the National Hospital.

With these few words, the wordsmith captured the decay in the Nigerian health sector in a four line poem.

At the time, only a few had the faintest idea that the celebrated poet, Ikeogu Oke, was not enjoying the best of health. More than two weeks after, it makes perfect sense.

Two months earlier, in what might have been a foretelling, he wrote his epitaph on Facebook.

“My Epitaph. Here lies a man who loved virtue and art, And gave to both his fortunes and his heart. Ikeogu Oke (1967 –).”

Mr Oke, who won the Nigeria Prize for Literature sponsored by the NLNG for his collection of poems, “The Heresiad” and countless other honors, died November 24, 2018, of an undisclosed illness at the National Hospital, Abuja. He was 51.

Most certainly, he was modest, a poet, an idealist, who respected his Igbo roots.

In a recent interview with PREMIUM TIMES, he noted that, “Poetry is not an art for people in search of quick material success.”

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The NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature was the crowning of his literary career. He was officially Nigeria’s ‘Poet Laureate of the Year’.

Mr Oke’s poetic ingenuity came to the fore in recent years and not many will forget his performance poetry through which he promoted the Igbo culture.

A man of many parts

Born on May 23, 1967 in Jos, Plateau State, Mr Oke’s parents hailed from Abia State.

He worked as a journalist at the now defunct NEXT as well as at The Daily Times newspapers.

He studied literature at the University of Calabar, and was also an alumni of the University of Ibadan and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

In May, during the silver jubilee celebration of the Calabar International Conference on African Literature and the English Language (ICALEL), the Department of English of the University of Calabar had given him a Merit Award.

A thoroughbred professional, Mr Oke’s former colleague on the standards desk at NEXT Newspapers, Gbemiga Ogunleye, noted, “He spent too much time cleaning out copies than our production time would allow. “Each time I raised my voice to complain, he would disarm me with his smile and a genuine apology. For him, any story that passed through him must be completely error-free.”

Winning Works

Mr Oke’s collection, The Heresiad, published by Kraft Books, was described by the 2017 NLNG Prize judges as a book that “probes metaphorically the inner workings of societies and those who shape them.”

There was also something special about the novel as he would later reveal in the interview.

He started writing the poem in 1989 and it took him 27 years to write it; from 1989 when he started the composition to 2016 when he wrote the last lines that he put in the poem.

His works have also been published in international journals, anthologies and other publications worldwide.

Mr Oke performed his poems at various fora in Nigeria, South Africa and the U.S., including as a special performance poet guest of Brown University in 2014.

Other Published Works

When I was Born (2002), Fourth Dimension Publishing Company, Nigeria.

Salute Without Guns (2009), Manila Publishers Company, Nigeria.

In the Wings of Waiting (2012), Manila Publishing company, Nigeria.

Children’s Literature

The Lion and the Monkey (2014), Manila Publishers Company, Nigeria.

The Tortoise and the Princess (2015), Manila Publishers Company, Nigeria.

As a poet, who had remained in active practice for about three decades, Mr Oke said what has sustained him was the fact that he loved poetry and derived fulfilment as a poet.

He was a socially conscious poet and a political analyst.

With “An Anthem against Hate,” one of his recent poems, Mr Oke said he hoped to mobilise support against the plague of hate-inspired utterances threatening the survival of our country.

Indeed, he once noted, “I believe Nigeria can be fixed as a united country, and to the satisfaction of all its citizens, if all its people patriotically commit to genuine nation building.”

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