By Anote Ajeluorou
30 years of existence ought to be a moment of real celebration, the popping of champagne and painting the town red. Indeed, all the delegates from across the federation that attended the yearly Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) International Annual Convention in Abuja, a festival of writing, had high hope. But such hope was crudely aborted as the convention threw up more questions about the Association’s ability to properly organise its affairs and serve both the needs of writers and that of the Nigerian public
When the Abuja chapter of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) bided in Akure, Ondo State, to host this year’s convention to mark a return of the writers’ festival to its home, where it has a yet-to-be developed landed property, although still mired in legal dispute, many applauded the move. Uyo, Akwa Ibom, was persuaded to give in to the bid. And so writers had poured in from every state of the federation with the expectation of a grand convention in Abuja that would linger on in their minds for a long time.
The homecoming convention was also intended to celebrate the poet-soldier, General Mamman Vatsa, who helped in allocating the disputed land to ANA as FCT minister, before falling to the bullets of a frame-up for coup plotting.
The first sign of trouble was the day of arrival, Thursday, November 30. Accommodation was dismally short and shoddy. Prohibitive cost of hotel accommodation in Abuja did not help matters. The Local Organising Committee (LOC) had to go to the suburbs for relatively cheaper ones. Most delegates did not get accommodated until about 1am on Friday morning. Many did not even get a place to lay their heads even though they had paid their dues. It rankled many.
Also, the Cocktail and Festival of Life, scheduled for Cyprian Ekwensi Cultural Centre, Area 10, Garki, usually held on the evening of arrival of delegates, did not take place. It usually comprises of readings, performances and a dinner, as prelude to the main celebration of literature in the days to come.
The opening of the convention at Reiz Continental Hotel, Central Area, showed some sign of promise. It was well-attended. The chairman of the occasion and chairman, Senate Committee on Environment and former governor of Kwara State, Sen. Bukola Saraki, showed up early but had to leave for a presentation at the Senate. Prince Ayo Fagbemi stood in for him. The special guest of honour and Minister of the FCT, Sen. Bala Mohammed, did not show up. No one stood in for him either.
But the keynote speaker and Frank Porter Graham Professor of African Studies Department, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, U.S., Prof. Tanure Ojaide, delivered a brilliant lecture on the theme ‘Homecoming: African Literature and Human Development’. Among other things, Ojaide submitted that “African literature should be put at the service of Africans to promote literacy and solutions to African problems. What use is literature that does not uplift, ennoble them (Africans) towards higher goals of society, nationhood, and humanity? Literature should sensitise readers and people towards solving their problems and making them better human beings.
“In pursuit of this objective, African writers should create works that our people can read and learn from…. Special effort should be made to promote literature for children, the common people, and women because they are disadvantaged in the mainly patriarchal continent. A mind developed through book culture can be the catalyst for other forms of development…
Ojaide continued: “African literature should range on the side of the disadvantaged and be at the vanguard of human development towards lifting Africans from backwardness to a position of envy among other peoples of the world”.
Also elder artsman, Pa Gabriel Okara added a rare spice to the opening ceremony, when he read from his children’s book, Little Snake and Little Frog, with a blistering anecdote on the advice parents give to their children. He got a standing ovation for his effort. Chinyere Obi-Obasi also read from her children’s book, The Great Fall that made The Nigerian Prize for Literature 2011 shortlist. So, too, did Terfa recite his poem, Peacock, and a Bayelsan lady, who read a poem, Bayelsa woman. ANA at 30 birthday cake was cut to round off the opening.
The Literary Roundtable, scheduled for Friday, on Day Three, at Cyprian Ekwensi Cultural Centre, suffered a setback, although it was not clear what the roundtable was intended to achieve. Although marked out in the programme schedule, no arrangement was made to secure the venue. Delegates were rudely turned away from the centre for lack of arrangements. It was such a rude shock to such notable literary figures like Odia Ofeimun, Prof. Sam Ukala, Pa Okara, Dr. May Ifeoma Okoye and everyone present.
After drifting aimlessly for several minutes, delegates were told to proceed to the Millennium Park at Wuse opposite Transcorp Hilton Hotel, instead of the advertised ‘Read and Ride Tour to Gurara Falls’. When it was clear there was no plan to engage the writers creatively beyond hurriedly assigned readings under the shade of trees, Ofeimun took matters into his hand and spoke up on what he saw as a failed convention headed in no specific directions. He called on members to decide on a meeting place, where they could plot a direction for the Association as they had been led so far like sheep without a shepherd.
This was when ANA president, Dr. Jerry Agada, stepped in to announce that the Raw Materials Research Centre had been found for the Annual General Meeting scheduled to hold the following day. Thereafter, delegates drifted to their various hotels in far flung places like Kubwa and Maraba in Nasarawa State.
It was clear the convention was headed for the rocks. A mild blame-game had also set in. Who was responsible for the failure of a convention that promised so much and was delivering so little between the LOC, ANA Abuja chapter and the National Executive Council? What would be its likely outcome? Surely, heads would roll by way of punishment!
The matter was laid to rest the next day at the AGM, which though fairly heated, went on in orderly fashion. Amidst what was clearly a campaign of calumny, blackmail, mindless politicking and name-calling, the election swept away the incumbent executive. Agada, in spite of dolling out over N2 million so the convention did not suffer a second postponement, failed to secure his position as president. English Department don of University of Ibadan, Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade, won by three votes. B. M. Dzukogi from ANA Niger State chapter beat Hyacinth Obunseh as General Secretary just as Mature Okoduwa emerged Assistant Secretary while former General Secretary, Denja Abdullahi, ANA Abuja chapter member, beat Prof. Sunday Ododo to emerge vice president.
But implicit in securing their mandate by the new executive is the warning that they must work assiduously for a better ANA to emerge to cater properly for its members and the larger Nigerian society. What emerged from their mandate is the inability of the old executive to manage the affairs of the Association in a manner that would be pleasing to its members. Raji-Oyelade got his first baptism of fire when he had to wade in to settle hotel bills for delegates that were held hostage by hoteliers for failing to pay up.
TRUE, ANA may be bedevilled by tribal politics and other vices, yet the verdict of Saturday was one arising from acute disenchantment from members and how incompetently the old regime ran the affairs of ANA. Would the new regime learn from it and be wise?
That is the question Remi Raji-Oyelade and his team must answer for the health of ANA in the next two years. And the first place to try their leadership acumen is the next convention scheduled for Uyo, Akwa State, which won the bid to host it. This is beside a huge debt profile past regimes have piled up for ANA and its members, who are struggling to make a meaning out of a hostile environment that would not allow their creative muse to bloom.
How literature promotes literacy for human development
PROF. Ojaide’s lecture at ANA convention in Abuja is concerned with human capital development and how literature can help the continent realise this noble objective.
In Homecoming: African Literature and Human Development, he argued that there must a homecoming for all African writers to put their uncommon sensibility to use for “an inward-looking exploration for literary strategies and fresh visions to drastically improve the African condition in the areas of health, education, and standard of living as well as in eliminating the rate of inequality, poverty, gender gap, and human insecurity. In a global village, it may no longer matter where you live but African literature needs ‘homecoming’ physically, spiritually, and metaphorically to be relevant to the people of the continent”.
And because literature deals with the totality of a people’s experience in its incorporation of socio-cultural, politico-economic, and other issues such as gender, class, marginalisation, and justice, Ojaide postulated that its role in the development of human capital could no longer be set aside. He cited the example of oral literature, which written literature mainly draws inspiration, which is deployed towards attempting to solve problems in society so as to enhance the creation of a healthy social ethos. Oral literature, he said, “aims at harmony, justice, fairness, selflessness, communality, sensitivity, kindness and other values and virtues that the generality of the people hold dear and extol so as to be emulated, while the negative ones are satirised in songs and narratives.
“African literature has to promote literacy to ensure human development. A literate people do not forget and so learn from past mistakes and failures and resort to strategies that succeeded in the past”.
Is contemporary African literature failing the continent?
AFRICAN literature is built on a strong moral ethos, where society’s cherished values are upheld to promote its health and the wellbeing of the people. But Ojaide posited that there is a new, faddish argument making the rounds in what has come to be identified as African literature and African writing, with the later seeming to be the preoccupation of African writers residing in North America and Europe. For Ojaide, while the older writers had their art focused on the role of the writer in society, these new entrants seem to have chosen a different path that tends to negate the continent in their creative sensibilities.
And appropriately enough, two prizes championing this novel literary engagement are the Caine Prize for African Writing (not Literature) and Penguin Prize for African Writing. The renowned academic noted that such Diaspora writers, who argue that there is no such thing as African literature have long missed the point, and are doing so to please foreign audiences and playing into the stereotype of always negating everything African.
Such themes as the graphic representation of sex, child soldier, violence, and misery, Ojaide said, play up Western stereotypes about Africa, which some African writers have helped to deepen with their writing on events about the continent. While not denying the existence of these negative occurrences in Africa, Ojaide argued that there is a need to also play up the happy ones as well.
“One can understand the frustration of writers about Africa’s misery, the corruption, and the failure of political leadership in most countries,” he stated. “However, I appeal to the writers to be cautious so as not to give only a picture of gloom that will discourage rather than inspire. The writer should be balanced in telling the good and the bad about African experience”.
Homecoming for African literature
“’Homecoming’ for African literature,” Ojaide enthused, “entails tapping from our roots to affirm faith in our indigenous virtues and values. With literature, writers build memory that should be a guide to the people.” He challenged writers to return to the positive ways which Africans are known for as a means of solving current intractable problems bedevilling the continent, implying that abandonment of the old, moral ways should be blamed for Africa’s problems.
He tasked writers to dig into literary archives to unearth Africa’s wholesome ways of doing things to bring about spiritual renewal, adding, “As we retrieve virtues of the past, literature should also critically address current problems and issues… The writer may not always provide a solution, but by raising an issue in an artistic manner for public reflection, he or she is contributing to the sensitisation of the people…
“The writer imbued with experience of the past must lead to the future by offering a vision of possibilities. In this way, the writer plays the role of a guide and a prophet constructing an imaginary nation or society of an ideal polity to which readers and the entire society are constantly riveted.”
ANA’s muffled voice
PART of the disenchantment of older writers with the writers’ body in recent times has been its loud silence in failing to lend its voice to national issues and debates, and consciously taking sides with the masses for which literature easily aligns or identifies. It had become so bad that poet laureate, Prof. Niyi Osundare, had wondered if ANA had been bought over so as not to comment on national issues or take sides with the people.
However, before he was ousted from power, Agada spoke up against the insecurity of lives and property ravaging the land when he gave his address at the opening of the convention. Although it was certain the armed robbery attack on his vice president, Ododo, had motivated him up to speak on the matter. He stated, “We in the Association of Nigerian Authors believe strongly that the reason a series of violence and insecurity are rampant is simply because their root causes have not been honestly addressed… The country can still be rescued from the present decadence if the political class can muster the necessary will to do so.
“We have written and continue to write about the social conditions in our society and proffering solutions; it is high time Nigerian government and her officials turned to Nigerian literature for administrative guidance. I am confident they shall succeed if they do”.
The incoming executive was also enjoined by ANA Lagos State chapter chairman, poet and school teacher, Dagar Tola, to quit hiding the Association’s head in the sand like the ostrich and be part of the various national dialogues raging in the country such as whether to increase the fuel pump price or not, and other people-oriented issues.
Tolar also decried the subsuming of literature under English or Social Studies in the Junior Secondary School section, saying such educational policy, which Agada admitted he helped to fashion, portended grave danger for children’s proficiency in the use of English language and the advancement of literacy generally amongst students. He called for its immediate reversal.