Once more, Nigeria has lost another of her ‘big’ musical artists. Sunday Oliver Akanite, a.k.a. Oliver de Coque, was reported dead recently in a number of our national dailies. In leaving at this critical moment in our national life, he joins the list of the growing number of ‘great’ Nigerian musicians who have either contributed to the development of the nation, or contaminated the moral sanity of our society. Loved by some, and hated by many, Oliver de Coque was one of the nation’s most talented musicians whose career started in the commercial city of Aba in Eastern Nigeria since the late 1960s. He moved onto High Life music in the 1970s and soon cornered the minds of many Nigerians with his ‘Identity’ LP. With this song, he amassed stupendous wealth for himself and, all over the nation, even kids in Kindergarten immediately added the English word ‘opportunity’ to their knowledge of the English language. I recall one incident in an argument while growing up: a young friend of mine boasted that he knew the meaning of the word. When asked to explain the concept, he gleefully informed us that ‘opportunity’ simply means “come but once”.
At the initial stage in his career, Oliver de Coque sang meaningful songs. He spoke to humankind on the experiential and existential issues of our people, and celebrated the rhythmic essence of African musical instruments in innumerable manifestations. He sang about the futility of human existence (Enu Uwa bu aja), and prayed for divine elevation (Chim Kwanite M, duga M ebe di mma). Arguably the best Nigerian guitarist-a credit he is likely to share with Victor Uwaifo and Sunny Ade-Oliver de Coque’s dexterity was not only tantalising, but also near hypnotical. He had combined his familiarity with the Igbo indigenous instrumentation with borrowings from the rest of Africa, especially the Congolese forms. His lyrics remain exemplary in his deployment of Igbo conversational skills. Except, perhaps, for the arrival in the scene of Goddy Ezike in the 1980s, there is hardly any Nigerian musician whose familiarity with the Igbo proverbs and conversation skills come into play in their performance than Oliver de Coque. This, of course, is not really surprising, especially for some of us who are familiar with his growth in the bucolic universe of Umudiala village of Ezinifite in the Nnewi-South Local Government Area of Anambra State.
Since the late 1980s, however, Oliver de Coque’s career took a turn to the obscene. He glamorised obscenities to such a disturbing proportion that it could be argued that he contributed immensely in the destruction of contemporary Igbo moral life. He threw decorum to the winds and sang the praises of known and unknown criminals, fraudsters, drug barons, and extremely corrupt members of our society. As an observer, I did not feel any shock about his galloping sense of ‘success!’ ever since his blatant ‘opportunity’ lyric where he claims that opportunities only come once and must be grabbed with both hands. This capitalist ethic almost led him into serious trouble with the late maestro, Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, after he re-issued a song in praise of members of the Peoples Club in the 1980s. Chief Osadebe was known to have played the song with a candour and sense of decorum. But Oliver de Coque’s was nothing short of beckoning the society to jettison thrift and decorum for an embrace of a gregarious, epicurean life style. He urged his audience to block their minds to the events of the future and concentrate on simply enjoying their lives at the present time. This was an affirmation of his ‘opportunity’ mentality that he propagated, and projected in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But the worst was yet to come.
In the 1990s, Oliver de Coque once again ridiculed social decorum and the Igbo cultural ethic as he glamorised and elevated some big time criminals, drug barons, and notorious fraudsters to the rank of “Giant Masquerades”. His audacious exploitation of one of the most venerated of the Igbo juridical symbols-the masquerade-attests to his unprincipled fascination with the illogic of anything goes! At this point in time, many Nigerians knew that things would never be the same again. Many Nigerians, who listened to the song at wedding parties, at launch of social clubs, at community development programmes, and at private festivities, soon took to the cult of “Nnukwu Mmonwu”. Even the non-Igbo members of the society who did not understand the meaning of his songs knew immediately that wealthy members of the society are “Giant Masquerades”. Oliver de Coque felt no moral qualms in identifying with so many of these millionaires of dubious morality as long as he made some millions for himself. Some emergency millionaires who could not account for the source of their wealth travelled abroad to have champagne brewed in their names and customised labels. We heard names of these clowns all over our airwaves and many Nigerians, till this day, still wonder what is so special about Fred Ajudua who took the title of “Alusi Ego” (the deity of wealth), John Nebolisa-“Alusi Awkuzu” (the deity of Awkuzuland), Morris Ibekwe (Okwelle Holdings), etc. Even Ibrahim Babangida got eulogised in too many terms….
Oliver de Coque contributed more to the contamination and destruction of Igbo moral sanity than he did in purifying it. Elsewhere in the world, there ought to be a sense of moral panic in our society: but Nigeria seems to have embraced a life style defined by the very worst amongst us. Anyone who is remotely familiar with the rhythm, philosophy, and the moral logic of the late Celestine Ukwu, Ali Chukwuma, Paulson Kalu, Mike Ejeagha, Goddy Ezike, and even Chief Osita Osadebe, would admit that Oliver de Coque transgressed our ethical borders in his quest for material wealth. His later music symbolises the very worst that the Igbo and, indeed, the rest of Nigerians should avoid. In a period so desiring of moral regeneration, it is strange that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has not looked at the direction of many of our musicians who are daily destroying the imagination of the young members of our society through their insane compositions. Even the legendary Cinna the poet was punished for his “bad verses”. The death of Oliver de Coque should be a reminder to many of our musicians in Southern Nigera, especially amongst the Yoruba and Igbo communities to reconsider the germs they are busy developing in their musical laboratories.
It is sad that even Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, who many of our people adored so much, would later devote quite a number of his songs to the eulogization of the many strange gods in our society. This, of course, raises the question whether Celestine Ukwu, Mike Ejeagha, Paulson Kalu and others would have taken recourse to Oliver de Coque’s gutter-genre of praise singing. What emerges at the end is a poverty of imagination: many of our good musicians seem to have lost out on the immense possibilities of the human mind. Many of them now find it difficult to express their intellectual and creative independence, to the level that our custodians of culture at the province of lyrics simply make do with banal renditions that offer nothing to the world and, especially, to their immediate society. Anyone who has been following the tragic slant of Chief Morocco Maduka’s recent renditions would admit that there is anarchy in the imaginative temple of our musicians.
So saying, I am not insensible of the privilege and respect accorded the dead in our communities. In fact, as our people would say, it is not a mark of bravery to urinate on the gravesite of a dead enemy. But, then, for how long do we keep quiet while mother-goat delivers a baby on tethers? For how long do we turn our eyes from the atrocities of the dead when we are aware of the level of injury such dead inflicted on our society while alive? Oliver de Coque was never my enemy: he was more an enemy to the Igbo and, indeed, to the Nigerian society. As brutal as it might sound, nothing could serve our communities and nation better than for the Ezinifite community to withdraw the chieftaincy title awarded him, even if posthumously. All radio and television stations in Nigeria, especially in South East Nigeria, should be advised to ban all his morally decadent compositions from the nation’s airwave. His later songs remain closest to what every sane member of the world should see as musical toxic waste. He can jolly all he wants in the land of the dead with many of his acolytes that include Morris Ibekwe, John Nebolisa, Fred Ajudua (when he dies), Victor Okafor (Ezego Ihiala), to mention these few. I hope they have enough “Yaago Wine” to last them all eternity. Nonsense and ingredients!
* This article was conceived, and partly drafted before the demise of Oliver de Coque. It has been revised to capture the present moment, with the original idea left intact.