Ikeogu Oke. Image from Ikeogu Oke’s Facebook.

Nigerian poet Ikeogu Oke, who won the 2017 NLNG Prize for his poetry collection The Heresiad, has passed on at the age of 51. He died yesterday, 25 November, at National Hospital, Abuja.

On 16 September, on Facebook, he had written:

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My Epitaph

Here lies a man who loved virtue and art,
And gave to both his fortunes and his heart.

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Ikeogu Oke
(1967 – )

His last Facebook post was on 7 November, at which time he might have been hospitalized:

Strange Taste?

A butterfly
Drinking urine
On a toilet floor 
Of the National Hospital

Ikeogu Oke
November 7, 2018

Nigerian newspaper Premium Times confirmed the news of his demise following a Facebook post by the journalist Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, a friend of Oke’s.

Oke worked as a journalist at the now defunct NEXT as well as at Daily Times. He studied literature at the University of Calabar, and was also an alumnus 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.

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

On Facebook, Oke’s former colleague at NEXT, Gbemiga Ogunleye, is reported by Premium Times to have written: “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 took his time fumigating every story passed to him.”

Tributes have poured in on Twitter and Facebook.

Shocked is the most underwhelming word to describe what I feel to hear that Ikeogu Oke has left us.

I met him last year while working on the shortlisted books for the Nigeria Prize for Literature. As I described in my review of his book (read here: https://www.ktravula.com/20…/…/on-the-heresiad-by-ikeogu-oke/), I found the work delightfully committed “to innovation, tenacity, joyful experimentation and social commentary in a way that provokes delight and engagement.” His acceptance speech, a literary delight on its own, is titled “A Poem as a Dreamer and Pacifict” (https://www.ktravula.com/…/02/a-poem-as-a-dreamer-and-pacif…/)

In person, when we finally met, he was not less impressive, perceptive, yet unassuming. Outside of my work as a literary journalist interviewing each shortlisted writer, we became somewhat close, and kept in touch. I was interested in creating a Wikipedia page for him.

In July this year, out of the blue, he sent me 50k to support our YorubaNames project. “A drop in the sea for what you need”, he had texted “in solidarity for African languages.” Then he added, “will remember to do more with improved life and prosperity.” What I didn’t know was that he was sending a message, a message I failed to catch.

He likely had a terminal illness he never told anyone about. And yesterday, he passed away in Abuja, and shocked everyone to our bones.

So, here is to thank him for his work — for that book, The Heresiad, the only one of his I ever read; for his Facebook rhyming which sometimes got on my nerves for their persistence and the notifications it invited to my phone whenever I was tagged (he stopped tagging me after I complained); and for his life which — going by all the testimonies about him — made an impact, and made meaning.

Below is my interview with him in 2017, after which I predicted his book was going to win, and it did.

Now, to get that Wikipedia page on (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ikeogu_Oke), though just a little too late.