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Nigeria Killed Iyayi

As the IWP mourns the loss of alumnus Festus Iyayi (IWP '90), deceased 12 November 2013, fellow writer Niyi Osundare (IWP '88) offers this tribute:

And so Nigeria killed Festus Iyayi. . . .

He was one of our very best: creative, energetic, dependable, and forthright. We were there in 1980 (with the then young and irrepressible Tunde Fatunde) when what we call ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities) today was in its infancy. Iyayi served the Union tirelessly and loyally, becoming its President in 1986, by popular acclamation. I worked with Iyayi, and saw him at close quarters. Fearless but fair, courageous but compassionate, demanding but decent, Iyayi was a great leader and an even greater follower, the kind who pressed on when others were seized by trepidation and despair. There is a painful logic in the fact he met his death while on a vital errand for our beloved ASUU.

Iyayi was a Balogun of the Barricades in our struggle against military dictatorship and our battle for Human Rights. He gave so generously, so valuably of himself and his inexhaustible physical and mental resources. Like the great Nelson Mandela, he could have said, without any fear of contradiction, that the struggle was his life.

All these virtues informed every line he wrote, from creative works to occasional interventions in the media. Art for Human Sake; clear illumination of the past; sensitive appreciation of the present; intelligent apprehension and anticipation of the future: Iyayi is a writer with the answerable vision. He chose his heroes very carefully, very judiciously. He ridiculed tyrants out of their despotic inclinations, challenged the unaccountably wealthy to show the source of their loot; urged the pauperized and the marginalized to interrogate the grounds for their plight instead of merely collapsing under its weight. Iyayi's blood boiled at the sight of injustice. Whenever he raised his voice it was to denounce the monsters that make progress impossible by laying us low. Iyayi challenged, then redefined our concept of heroism, for he knew that many of those propped up as heroes are nothing short of heinous villains; that many of our so-called giants are smaller than ants. His novel on the Nigerian civil war is never ambiguous as to who the real heroes of that war are, and where to look for the villains.

For many of his readers, Violence remains his all-time classic. In this unforgettable novel, Iyayi invites us to a Fanonian aetiology of violence, its actuation, and awful ramifications. In this heart-rendering story, we meet a millionaire who never labours for his money but uses it to take advantage of the moneyless; we meet young people so desperate, so poor – no, impoverished – that they are forced to sell their very blood for money for the very basic essentials of life. We encounter the uncommon courage and stoicism of the poor and lowly and the callous bestiality of the rich and powerful. In the annals of African fiction, only Ousmane Sembene’s God’s Bit of Wood and Ngugi wa Thion’go’s Petals of Blood have dissected Africa’s social reality in such gripping detail and with such committed panache. I love all Iyayi’s works with a passion, but for me, Violence remains for him what Things Fall Apart is for Chinua Achebe: a magnificent story ennobled by unforced lyricism and spontaneous narrativity. Violence marked a new accent in Nigerian fiction when it appeared in the late 1970’s. In many ways, it is the harbinger for the likes of E.E.Sule’s Sterile Sky published about three decades later.

Personally, to encounter Festus was to get ready to fall in love with him. Natural. Unabashedly, unapologetically natural. Humorous and always loaded with funny anecdotes, Festus took the sting out of the scorpion of the Nigerian jungle by laughing and helping others to laugh at its countless foibles. Victim of incarceration, unwarranted sack, vilification, and other abuses, he was always ready to forge ahead. Utterly disenchanted with Nigeria’s present, he never lost hope in her future. Festus was a comrade who was also a friend, a fellow-traveller and a brother.

And so Nigeria killed Iyayi. Nigeria, that dragon which feeds so insatiably upon the most precious of its own eggs. We lost a gallant fighter and great patriot. Terrible. Unspeakably terrible. Behold the terrifying irony: the patriot who labored so tirelessly to rid his country of violence has become a victim of her egregious violence.

Yet another chapter in our running saga of waste. . . .

Adieu, brave comrade. Nigeria’s wasters are still here, Awaiting Court-Marshall.

Niyi Osundare
New Orleans, Nov. 15, 2013
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