Chike Obi, Christopher Okigbo and the Dynamic Party
In many ways Okigbo's admiration for Chike Obi stemmed from awe for his profound intellect and his accomplishments as a scholar. But far more importantly, he was attracted to the unorthodox in Chike Obi. "He was a restless genius ... with a charming liberal disposition, a certain lovable 'madness'," said Leslie Harriman "and Christopher loved this quality of 'madness'." Christopher had first met Chike Obi through his brother Pius, who was Chike Obi's friend and contemporary in school at Christ the King College, Onitsha, and later on at Yaba Higher College. Chike Obi was ahead of Pius Okigbo in school by one year and had already earned a reputation for himself at Christ the King College as a brilliant rebel. After Yaba Higher College, he had, like Pius, embarked on a teaching career in Onitsha. They were all active in the social and political life of Onitsha, a city replete with small presses and popular literature, and the anticolonial journalism. Chike Obi and Pius were already famous young men in this provincial town, the commercial and intellectual nexus of the East and epicentre of Igbo urban life in the 1940s. Christopher Okigbo grew up absorbed and inspired by their legends as young over-achievers. Chike Obi naturally adopted Chris Okigbo as his "younger brother" when he returned to teach mathematics at Ibadan in 1950.
With such social affinity, it was easy for Christopher to become Chike Obi's closest confidante and political collaborator at Ibadan, at a most exciting moment of Nigeria's political development and transition. It gave Okigbo the opportunity of a unique and intimate involvement at the radical end of the highly charged anti-colonial politics of the early 1950s. Chike Obi's radical politics were anchored in the notion of direct political action, or what he termed "dynamic collectivism." He was an advocate of the elevated role of the intellectual as the repository of national political conscience. Any attempt to discern the evolution of Okigbo's political thought and action, even those irreconcilable aspects of his politics and life, must ultimately take into account this early political association with Chike Obi and its impact on his political consciousness. Pius Okigbo later described Chike Obi's politics as "bogus" - tending towards "the lunatic fringe; very near the anarchic side of the political divide." Fringe or not, the Dynamic Party provided the kind of alternative that attracted Christopher, because it appealed to his natural rebellious instincts and provided him ample grounds for adventure. Chike Obi introduced him to the political philosophy of Bertrand Russell, the modernist vision of Kemal Ataturk and the nationalist politics of Abdul Nasser. Dr Obi began to organise the socialists on campus through the Dynamic Party around his praxis of Kemalism. The fundamental basis of Chike Obi's "bogus" politics was his belief that "a sort of benevolent dictatorship by a dedicated corps of enlightened and patriotic Nigerians for an interim period is essential to the successful welding of the diverse tribal linguistic groups of the country into a strong and industrialized nation in as short a time as possible." Chike Obi summed up the political programme of the Dynamic Party, outlined in the pamphlet, Our Struggle, the manifesto published in 1953 by Etukokwu Press. It described "Kemalism" and its praxis as:
"Totalitarianism of the left" as opposed to the "totalitarianism of the right", which differs from the former in that the latter believes in force as a permanent way of maintaining order, whereas the former when resorting to force is used only in order to quicken the pace of progress ... Kemalism is a philosophy which in recognising the vital urgency for a backward country, to introduce western technology into her borders also recognises the necessity for the backward to introduce into her borders western administration, language, way of life as much of these as is inseparable from western technology, and the suppression of any local pretensions which might be an obstacle to the declared westernisation.The Party wanted to divide Nigeria into fifteen States, seek an alliance with Europe and America for economic and cultural progress, and stem "the mad rush towards self-government." The Dynamic Party's opposition to rushed self-government led it into an alliance with the Nigerian Self-Government Fiasco Party, on the basis of Obi's belief that "self-government was impossible in a country where ... apathy and ignorance were widespread." Because it had been "born" under the constellation Aries, the Dynamic Parry chose the ram as its symbol. Years later, Chike Obi recollected: "Those politicians negotiating independence were only interested in creating huge financial empires for themselves, and replacing the British as the lords of Africa, at independence. And so my main purpose was to organise a resistance, and I brought radical, enthusiastic boys like Christopher to work with me."
But he was also allied with the dominant national political organisation of the moment: the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon, Azikiwe's party. The National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon had lost its momentum in the political events that occurred between 1947 and 1948, when the party leadership lost control of its rank and file, and allowed the opportunity of becoming a truly national movement slip by. Nnamdi Azikiwe's handling of the Zikist movement, the radical wing of the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon, disappointed radical intellectuals like Chike Obi. Awolowo's party, the Action Group, did not appeal to him either, on account of what Obi himself saw as the "narrow, perfidious politics that was going on." There was talk in those years, Dr Obi recalled, of how the British had helped to organise the Northern Peoples Congress, and how it had funnelled slush funds to form the Action Group as a way of undermining the nationalist momentum of the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon.
The Dynamic Party at best, however, was a paper tiger. Its appeal was very narrow. If the party made any impact at all, it was in providing an intellectual, discursive climate, an alternative to the political thought process at that time: but it was also a movement ironically limited by its own agenda, its appeal and location in the ivory tower, University College, Ibadan, although it tried to fashion itself on a radical populist ideology. Leslie Harriman suggested that one of Okigbo's apparent motivations in working with the Dynamic Parry was the opportunity for frequent travel and robust adventure off campus. Okigbo felt intellectually dissatisfied and unmotivated by the routine of work in the university. He needed something more to stimulate his curious and hungry mind. His truancy at Ibadan was the result of boredom with academic life, and so Okigbo welcomed the "distractions" of life on the road with the Dynamic Party.
Okigbo was especially active in the party from 1953 to 1956, travelling frequently with Chike Obi on Dynamic Party business. Okigbo's real political convictions were of course contradictory: intellectually he was left of the centre, but his lifestyle was epicurean. As Ben Obumselu said, "He could not be anything other than a man of leisure." On the whole, Okigbo's political involvement did give him valuable insight into the larger political questions of his time, something which later sharpened his poetic insight. Okigbo, was drawn towards the sense of subversion - the seduction of the profound but inexplicable beauty of the unusual, which the Dynamic Party offered him.
The Dynamic Party had a small operation run by Chike Obi, assisted by Okigbo and Harriman who became indispensable to him from 1953. He recruited them into the Department of Propaganda and Spiritual Education. They worked hard, campaigned vigorously, and although the party could never garner the popular appeal of the bigger, mainstream parties in the crucial politics of the era, they nevertheless recorded some spectacular successes. The Dynamic Party won five seats in the Eastern region. Dr Chike Obi was elected in 1953/54 to the Eastern House from Onitsha, the home constituency of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. This was no mean achievement. Chike Obi's parry became a magnet for radical undergraduates on campus like Emma Ifeajuna, who would later play a significant role in Nigeria's political history. The Dynamic Party served to foreground Okigbo's political consciousness and his later involvement at the epicentre of national events.
They had many unforgettable adventures. Leslie Harriman recalled some of their experiences campaigning. On one occasion in 1954. they had travelled from Ibadan to Aba in Eastern Nigeria for a political meeting. They were waylaid on Ngwa Road and attacked by thugs at Aba, a formidable National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon stronghold. Harriman remembers fleeing into the bush while Christopher Okigbo managed a spectacular manoeuvre in the car he was driving and found his way to the nearby Ngwa Road police post to get help. Dr Chike Obi was severely manhandled by the thugs, and might have been even more badly mauled had the police not come just in time to rescue the eminent mathematician. They had cause to return quickly to Ibadan. Okigbo drove all day from Aba through the Midwest of Nigeria and by the time they reached Akure they were suffering from exhaustion and headed for Akure General Hospital where Leslie Harriman had a girlfriend, a nurse, and a cousin, Dr Ebenezer Ikomi, who was a House Officer. They made plans to spend the night in Ebens Ikomi's apartment in the hospital quarters, Leslie Harriman, however, decided that he would rather stay with his girlfriend for the evening. Apparently feeling more keenly entitled to feminine consolation, Dr Chike Obi made advances to Leslie's girlfriend and a minor argument ensued over territorial rights until Dr Ikomi intervened.
If they had not been so overwrought that night, they would have noticed that while Leslie and Chike Obi were arguing, Okigbo had quietly slipped into the night and disappeared. No one knew where he had gone, and they searched around the hospital but could not find him. The next morning they discovered to their dismay, that Okigbo had found convenient lodgings in the maternity ward of Akure General Hospital. He just found an empty bed and slept it off.
JOC/EFR May 2019
The URL of this page is: