Death, on Saturday, with its biting sting, so typical, snapped away a literary icon, whose journey was always unfolding gloriously. Ikeogu Oke, a great Poet, only won the NLNG prize for literature in 2017, after many years of beautiful expression and excellent commitment.
Born on 23rd May 1967 in Jos, Plateau state, the 51 year old Nigerian poet and journalist whose parents hail from Abia state, wrote in his award acceptance speech that peotry is a ”healthy narcotics.”
“I am happy to be addicted to it as shown by my refusal to be swayed by such concerns. I have invoked the poem here hopefully to arouse the contemplation of how one’s resolve to pursue one’s dreams in spite of such concerns is the best decision that can lead to a fulfilled life,” he added.
His poetry collection, The Heresiad, was declared winner of the coveted prize from among 184 entries received from across the country.
His works have been published in international journals, anthologies and other publications worldwide.
Oke performed his poems at various fora in Nigeria, South Africa and the US, including as a special performance poet guest of Brown University in 2014.
He graduated with a BA in English and literary studies from the University of Calabar and an MA in literature from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
On September 16, in what might be a foretelling, he took to his Facebook page to write his epitaph.
The post read: “My Epitaph. Here lies a man who loved virtue and art, And gave to both his fortunes and his heart. Ikeogu Oke (1967 – ).”
Tributes From Colleagues
His death was first announced by his friend, fellow poet and journalist, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, on his Facebook page.
As a journalist, Mr Oke worked at the defunct Next Newspapers as well as Daily Times.
Mourning him Sunday, Gbemiga Ogunleye, his former colleague at NEXT, wrote on his Facebook Page:
“And the poet died!
“Like many Nigerians who knew and had a relationship with Ikeogu Oke, I am still in shock.
“Ikeogu was part of the star-studded team of Journalists assembled by the duo of Dele Olojede and Dapo Olorunyomi to bring into fruition the NEXT newspaper.
“As the Chief Standards Editor, it was my privilege to lead a team that included the talented poet.
“One complaint against Ikeogu then was that he was too meticulous!
“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. He, therefore, took his time fumigating every story passed to him.
“I need not say that he was a good writer.
His winning the 2017 NLNG prize for poetry was proof-positive of that.
“In spite of his celebrity status, Ikeogu was always happy to introduce me as his boss!
“The poet, perhaps sure he might not overvome the ailment that eventually took his life, had pulled a fast one on us all by writing his epitaph two months ago!
“Or was he afraid of being misrepresented in death?
How did Shakespeare put it? Death is a necessary end, will come when it will come.
“Ikeogu’s turn has come! We await ours!
May the good Lord be with his family!
May his gentle soul rest in peace!”
Betty Abah, writer, journalist and activist, who, like Mr. Oke, attended the University of Calabar, also wrote a tribute titled, “Ikeogu Oke: Tearful Ode to Our Poet Laureate.
“Just last year, Ikeogu Oke won the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature, riding on the wings of his poetic endeavor. It was the crowning of his literary career. He was officially the nation’s ‘Poet Laureate of the Year’ since the Prize, worth $100, 000, remains the biggest on the Nigerian literary scene and perhaps one of the biggest on the continent. A poetic genius had been announced to the world.
“Yet long before then, some of us had known Ikeogu’s creative genius. At the University of Calabar, where he had his undergraduate education, Ikeogu was beyond doubt the most prolific and most colourful poet of our time at the English and Literary Studies (ELS) around 1995-1998, and definitely, one of the very brightest students. He was a senior many of us held in awe. A restless and unforgettable soul, he was the one who saw and created poetry from everything—a casual conversation, a fleeting encounter, a classmate of mine with whom he fell in love—just about everything—and never forgetting his trademark musical rhyming at each verse’s end. When he contested for the presidency of the English and Literary Students Association (ELSA) around 1997, his campaign slogan of ‘Okey is Okay’ and general campaign candour stood him out even if didn’t eventually win. True, Ikeogu was never one to shy away from controversies yet he never lost his characteristically calm humaneness. Who can forget his warm, handful handshakes and charming smiles?
“In recent years Ikeogu’s poetic ingenuity became more visible and more alluring with the additional feathers of performance poetry he brought into his practice and through which he promoted the Igbo culture on local and international platforms while also creatively breathing life into his thoughts on universal themes, his trademark animal skin dress, traditiobal cap and other paraphernalia to boot.
“And just when the wider world began to turn to appreciate his unique gifting, he was gone!
“Just this May, the ELS department in UNICAL duly recognized Ikeogu with a merit award during the silver jubilee anniversary celebration of the famous Calabar International Conference on African Literature and the English Language (ICALEL).
“A gem is gone. Our land, our universe is verily diminished,” she concluded.
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.
The Lion and the Monkey(2014), Manila Publishers Company, Nigeria.
The Tortoise and the Princess(2015),Manila Publishers Company, Nigeria.
He died on November 24, 2018 at the National Hospital in Abuja where he had been receiving treatment for a yet-to-be-disclosed illness.