Christopher Nixton Ifekandu Okigbo was born in 1932, when the British ruled Nigeria as a colony. Although Okigbo received a colonial education and was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, he also followed many Igbo traditions in his childhood. These traditions included the familial worship of the goddess Idoto. Okigbo’s grandfather was a priest at the Idoto shrine, which is associated with the river that flows through Ojoto. Much of Okigbo’s poetry speaks directly to Idoto, the river goddess, or prominently features or references her.
Okigbo was educated at the University of Ibadan, where he began his studies as a medical student. He switched to a concentration on Greek and Latin classics and graduated in 1956. Okigbo married an Igbira princess, Judith Sefi Attah, daughter of the Attah of Igbiraland. Together, they had a daughter, Obiageli Ibrahmat Okigbo, born in 1964.
Okigbo held a number of jobs in business, politics, publishing, and academia. He served in significant roles, including manager of Cambridge University Press for West Africa and organizer for the Mbari Club, a group of musicians, artists, and writers (including Wole Soyinka). Okigbo, also an accomplished pianist, played with Soyinka on stage. With Chinua Achebe, Okigbo created the publishing house Citadel Press. He eventually dedicated himself full-time to his poetry, until the onset of the civil war in Nigeria.
The war, which was based on ethnic tensions, saw the secession of the Igbo people in Nigeria, leading to the Republic of Biafra in 1967. Many crimes against humanity were committed during the war, and more than three million Igbo Biafrans died of starvation. Okigbo took up arms in defense of the Biafran cause, and was given the title of major. In July, his lodgings in Enugu, where much of his unpublished writing was held, were destroyed in a Nigerian-run bombing campaign. That fall, he led his troops to the front lines of the battle and was killed in action in Ekwegbe, near Nsukka, sometime in August. He was buried in an Igbo grave near Nsukka, but the precise location is unknown. In 2007, a commemorative stone was placed on an empty plot at the Okigbo burial ground in Ojoto.
Shortly after Okigbo’s death, Ali Al’Amin Mazrui wrote The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (1971). This novel depicts Africa as an afterworld, where Okigbo is on trial for putting personal politics before his own creative potential. The novel addresses age-old questions regarding the responsibility of the artist in a social context.
Christopher Okigbo (oh-KIHG-boh) died in 1967 at the age of thirty-five, after having written serious poetry for only eight years. In that period he was recognized as the most important contemporary African poet. He remains important and influential.
Okigbo was born into the Roman Catholic family of Chief Ezeonyeligolu James Okigbo and Anna Onugwualuobi Okigbo, in Ojotu-Uno, ten miles east of Onitsha-on-the-Niger. His father was a school headmaster, an occupation that entailed frequent transfers, so Okigbo’s elementary schooling was discontinuous and dispersed. His Catholic upbringing and schooling left an imprint on young Okigbo’s psyche and was to find expression in the ritual and liturgical structure of his poetry.
Okigbo was always spirited and rambunctious, and his high school education at Government College, Umuahia, Eastern Nigeria, allowed him to experiment with and develop his budding interests in sports, music, and journalism, even as he pursued his education under austere colonial teachers and administrators. Critiquing of colonialism and cultural imperialism was to be a major preoccupation in his poetry, especially in Heavensgate and Limits.
Upon completing high school, he easily gained admission to the Ibadan College of London University to study medicine. There he juggled his studies with sports, music, magazine publishing, and poetry. Deciding that his calling was in the arts, he changed majors and took courses in ancient history, Latin, and Greek, graduating in 1956 with an honors B.A. degree in classics. This educational emphasis explains the classicism of his earlier poetry. Such influence combined with Roman Catholic liturgism and Okigbo’s indigenous culture and religion, of which he was hereditary priest, to endow his poetry with a haunting ritualistic and lyrical quality. The importance of his baby-sitter, a woman named Eunice, should also be noted; she was an immensely gifted singer who helped arouse the lyrical impulse of the young poet. His mother, who played the piano, also undoubtedly contributed to his interest in music.
Upon graduation from the university, Okigbo took and changed jobs in quick succession. Between 1956 and 1967 he worked as manager of the Nigerian Tobacco Company and United African Company; assistant secretary in the Federal Ministry of Research and Information; Latin teacher and sports coach at Fiditi Grammar School; librarian at the new University of Nigeria at Nsukka; West African manager and Nigerian representative of Cambridge University Press; publisher, with Chinua Achebe, of Citadel Publishing Company; and major in the Biafran army. His spectacular performance as commander and fighter earned for him, posthumously, the Distinguished Service Cross of Biafra.
It was the Biafra-Nigeria war that allowed Okigbo to demonstrate, on the fields of slaughter, his populism and humanity. Maturing from the experimentation and obscurity of his earlier poetry, Okigbo divested his poetry of borrowed elements, found his unique voice, and preoccupied himself with the fate of common humanity and a condemnation of the military politicians in Nigeria and Africa whose greed, divisive ethnocentrism, and unpatriotic furtherance of the interests of imperialism combined to push Nigeria to genocide and fratricide. Okigbo had loudly warned Nigerians of the consequences of mismanagement and misdirection; they paid no heed. Okigbo’s prophetic delineation of the apocalyptic turn of events in Path of Thunder: Poems Prophesying War was to be fulfilled to the very letter during the years between 1966 and 1970. It was during that war, which threatened the Igbo people with extinction, that Okigbo took up arms in defense of freedom and the Biafrans’ right to self-determination. Three months into the war, his death in battle created the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of the victims of the pogrom.
Anozie, Sunday O. Christopher Okigbo: Creative Rhetoric. New York: Africana, 1972. The first book-length structuralist study of Okigbo’s poetry.
Egudu, Romanus. Four Modern West African Poets. New York: NOK, 1977. Devotes a chapter to cultural criticism of Okigbo’s poetry.
Elimimian, Isaac. Theme and Style in African Poetry. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen, 1991. Contains a theoretically informed discussion of Okigbo’s poetry. Updates the Egudu and Udeoyop works.
Mazrui, Ali A. The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. New York: Third Press, 1972. A confusion of history, myth, and biography, which accuses the poet of betraying art by sacrificing himself for society and humanity.
Ngara, Emmanuel. Ideology and Form in African Poetry: Implications for Communication. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1990. Offers a corrective on Ali A. Mazrui’s book, extolling social commitment and political consciousness as integral to African poetry.
Nwoga, Donatus Ibe, ed. Critical Perspectives on Christopher Okigbo. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1984. Gathers essays on Okigbo’s poetry.
Okafor, Dubem. Nationalism in Okigbo’s Poetry. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension, 1980. Discusses Okigbo’s poetry as a sociopolitical and nationalist project that culminated in the prophecy, since fulfilled, of the death of both poet and nation.
Udeoyop, Nyong. Three Nigerian Poets: A Critical Study of the Poetry of Soyinka, Clark, and Okigbo. Ibadau, Nigeria: Ibadau University Press, 1973. Examines Okigbo as one of the three most important Nigerian poets.