By Anote Ajeluorou
ON December 20, 2010, President Goodluck Jonathan launched a book project designed to stimulate a near-comatose book industry, with the attendant poor reading culture that has been at the centre of Nigeria’s backward profile in almost all areas of development.
Many hailed it as a big deal and argued that the president, being an academic, could not have conceived a better idea for the country.
But there were cynics also; who described it as an electioneering ploy merely designed to win votes. But many voices shouted them down and they adopted the sit-down-look posture, confident that time would prove them right. Indeed, that seems to be the case.
After taking the book campaign train from Lagos to Benin City, Abuja and Bayelsa, the essential template that should drive the book culture to the doorsteps of Nigerians seems to be lacking. In fact, Mr. Jonathan’s book campaign has gone so quiet as if it never happened.
It was Nigeria’s distinguished Professor of English, New Orleans University, Niyi Osundare, who perhaps reframed the operational framework for Mr. President’s pet project, when he said, “Eleven days to the end of 2010, Nigeria performed a strange but highly significant operation; we celebrated the absence of an important entity by wishing its restoration and presence.
“Tagged Bring Back the Book, this is a slogan that has a lot to offer than it seductively alliterates to. And this offer is predicated on a number of intriguing assumptions; first is that the book once lived and probably thrived in Nigeria.
“Second, the book left perhaps without a forwarding address. We were never told the manner and tradition of its departure, whether it was sacked, excommunicated, set ablaze or whether the poor thing just walked away on its own having found the Nigerian environment hostile and life threatening, especially in those dark and dreary days of military dictatorship.
“Are we to assume further that having felt the impact of the book’s departure, Nigeria is now ready, even eager, for its restoration and re-entry complete with all citizen rights and obligation thereof and grant it full liberty in pursuant of its duties as a vital national commodity?
“I can hear the book saying in justifiable anger, ‘who drove me away in the first place and why all this high-powered fuzz about my return at this time of all times?’’
In launching the book campaign, the drivers of the project, among others thing, had said, “Bring Back the Book initiative is a brainchild of President Goodluck Jonathan established with a view to develop a book reading culture in Nigeria, especially amongst the youth who have lost value for reading either for educational purposes or entertainment.
“The initiative seeks to empower the youth for the future by preparing them for the opportunities and challenges faced by us as a people by engaging in series of activities designed to encourage the culture of reading amongst the youth.
“The president believes the secrets of governance, amazing discoveries, development, progressive management principles and every other desire of any nation are hidden in books, books written over generations and that only through reading can the leaders of tomorrow nurture dreams and values that can change society”
The objectives of the initiative, the organizers said, would include ‘revitalising the reading culture, with knowledge serving as a tool for development and projecting the nation’s culture, for survival, sustenance and protection.
Activities intended to drive the project also included ‘organising book readings in educational institutions at all levels across the country; establishment of Bring Back the Book Clubs in educational institutions to serve as hubs for development of intellectual capacity of the youth; support for literary events and projects; creation of platform for national discussion on ways to develop the educational system cum reading culture and conducting research and supporting organisations carrying out related activities.
Others are support for the production of books locally by encouraging publishers via buying of books for distribution to libraries nationwide; construction, refurbishment and stocking of libraries across the country and organising national competitions aimed at driving the culture of book reading in the country. They also envision that “Bring Back the Book will help transform Nigeria by empowering more people to dare to be the change-agents needed to make Nigeria a better place having discovered the strength that lies in reading books.
An insider source in the book campaign initiative, who preferred anonymity, expressed the view that although the project had until now been silent, it was to complete the process of institutionalising and making project independent. He assured that Bring Back the Book would soon hit the road with vigour, noting that Bring Back the Book was about the only trans-governmental, trans-political and trans-generational project that would outlive the Jonathan administration and so its promoters would not allow it to die. He said efforts were already in place to rev it up.
HOWEVER, some players in the book industry, who expressed their views on the matter, are pained that such a laudable project has been hit by perennial government inertia. Although former member, House of Representatives and former president, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) who is also promoter of the only residency programme for writer in the country, Ebedi International Writers Residency Programme, Dr. Wale Okediran praised the project, he is concerned at its current inertia and suggests ways to move it forward.
In Okediran’s view, “The President's BBtB project was a laudable programme. At its inauguration about two years ago, it created a large measure of public awareness, especially among policymakers. The programme also gave some of the stakeholders in the book industry such as the writers, publishers and booksellers some modicum of exposure and respect.
“During the recent visit of the Trustees of the Rainbow Book Club to President Jonathan, the leader of the delegation, Mrs. Koko Kalango, attributed the UNESCO's recognition of Port Harcourt as the World's Book Capital in 2014 to the President's BBtB project. However, like many government programmes, the initiative suffered some degree of neglect, which gradually pushed the project to the background.
“In order to redress this problem, every effort should be made by government to re-invigorate the project through a more active arm of government than where it was previously domiciled. On the other hand, the programme could be handed over to a very active book organisation such as the Association of Nigerian Authors, Rainbow Book Club, Lagos Book and Art Fair (LABAF) or Ebedi International Writers Residency among others for proper and effective execution”.
But current President of ANA, Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade said he didn’t know enough about the project to make informed comment, saying, “I can’t comment on a project I really do not have a brief on, either as individual author or as President of ANA. Simply, we do not lack the capacity to think out good projects as the BBtB, and I am sure the government meant well. Whatever has happened to that dream, its actualisation and management, I do not know.”
Managing Director of Ibadan-based University Press Plc and chairman, Nigeria Book Fair Trust (organisers of the yearly Nigeria International Book Fair), Mr. Samuel Kolawole submitted, “Well, I was disappointed. I think it was a great idea, but as human beings, it may not have been carried through properly. One of the things that we always complained about in this country is that stakeholders in the book industry are not always carried along. If you’re going to do a programme that has to do with books, the involvement of printers, publishers and booksellers has to be sought. It’s not about the fantastic cameras and big event. When people talk about publishers, what comes to their mind is that he’s a businessman and he doesn’t need to be consulted when policy issues are to be discussed. If you do anything in the educational sector, you need books. Who produces the books? It’s the publisher! So, you need to bring him in, to say, ‘what direction should we follow?’
“These are some of the implementation challenges that have not allowed the project to realise its intention. But I think its intention was good. Practically, what should we do? It’s not about holding fantastic seminars. It’s not a political issue; it’s a policy issue and in policy issues, you need to involve every stakeholder at every level. That’s very important for you to be able to achieve your objectives. It’s a laudable initiative. I don’t think the idea should be allowed to die, but everybody must be involved to help realise its potentials.
“You can talk from now till forever, but what is the implementation level? I think implementation is the challenge that the Bring Back the Book programme is facing. They should involve stakeholders in the book industry for it to work”.
However, President, PEN Nigeria Centre, Ibadan-based poet and lawyer, Mr. Tade Ipadeola is not happy that Jonathan has played politics with his own laudable project. According to him, “The buck for Bring Back the Book stops at President Goodluck Jonathan's table and he has failed miserably at realising a potential for Nigeria there. I was one of those who received that initiative with enthusiasm. Today, the whole exercise appears gimmicky and wasted. It was clearly not thought-through despite the willingness of writers to get this one initiative going.
“I think this failure lost Mr. President a lot of those who believed in him and is fast making outright enemies for the man. How do you bring in Wole Soyinka into a scheme and then mess things up so thoroughly? The National Library has been on strike for a long time now; state libraries are comatose and local government libraries are non-existent. This is inexcusable in a country that claims to fight Boko Haram. Indeed, failure of this magnitude gave impetus to Boko Haram.”
Secretary of PEN, Mr. Oluwafiropo Ewenla, is not as charitable at the failure of the project, as he has harsh words for its organisers, saying, “That is what our oga at the top wants. But we inquired then if the book went anywhere. Those who acclaimed the project then have now been shown as lacking a depth of understanding of the plight of books in our country. Where did the book ever go warranting anyone bringing it back?
“You cannot end a journey you never started. It was not meant to be anything but a jamboree. I am yet to come across a writer, publisher, librarian who has benefited from it and is willing to openly campaign for it. If it is anything, it is a sham. I do not know what its aim is. So, I cannot talk about whether it achieved its aim or not when I find the aim questionable from the beginning. It is more than certain writers and the book industry have been taken for a ride.
“Those who have benefited in any small way have unconsciously endorsed the scam that it is. I bet you need to see what would have appeared on paper as money spent on bringing back the book project. I strongly feel that our body of writers should call for an audit.”
AUTHOR of Eno’s Story, Ayodele Olofintuade views the project purely from a political prism, noting, “As far as I am concerned, Bring Back the Book has achieved its aim of getting Goodluck Ebele Jonathan his desperately needed votes. The first sign of how the initiative would end was there at the beginning when the President launched his badly edited book My Friends and I on the same day the initiative was launched.
“I know a few PDP states have tried to bring books to their cities but these are half -hearted attempts whereby a few hundred pupils ended up with books they probably won't read because there are no back up programmes to encourage the love of reading in them. Bring Back the Book is just another white elephant political vehicle, all noise and no substance. I have absolutely no faith in the programme presently.
“Frankly, bring back the book was a perfect example of the profligacy, corruption and waste that are now the hallmark of GEJ's presidency. I can bet you that they cannot produce one single receipt on how the millions of naira were spent. Nigerian publishing houses are in trouble because of a government that doesn't care about its citizenry. Publishing houses like Cassava Republic, Farafina, Parresia that are headed by young, vibrant Nigerians are going under due to the fact that government has failed to invest in them and give them grants so that the books that are supposedly being brought back will become cheap enough for the people to access”.
ANA PR, North and author of City of Memories, Mr. Richard Ali sees the project in a similar vein, saying, “"I'm afraid I now think it was an act of gimmickry and it is clear that Nigerian writers and publishers were taken for a ride. You would admit that educated consumers of culture largely supported the President in his succession travails and presidential campaigns, he being a Ph.D holder and all made us sympathetic. His Bring Back the Book campaign was seen as a further nod to the president's intention in terms of culture and intellectual pursuit. But the silence since then shows that we were sadly deceived.
“President Jonathan, in his preference for the kleighlights of Nollywood over other organs of culture such as the Association of Nigerian Authors, has shown that the Bring Back the Book initiative was done solely in the heat of campaigning. He recently gave Nollywood another N3 billion. How much has he given ANA and Nigerian publishers? There isn't a lot we can do except continue to speak the truth to power. President Jonathan is making his administration into a philistine one as far as books and publishing are concerned and this is sad in capital letters, sad in any sort of emphasis you can imagine".
Prof. J.O.J. Nwachukwu-Agbada of Abia State University, Uturu sees the project as “A ploy. I feared it would not last. Anybody who read my reaction to Mr. President's gesture in 2011 would know that I took it with a grain of salt. Ordinarily, I think he may have meant well but his advisers may have turned his face away since it was not a vote-catching antic. They'd have reminded him that it was not 'it'; they'd have told him to go to road workers unions, butchers' guild, actors' associations, musicians, stand-up comedians etc. I heard he doled out a huge sum to one of them, a gesture that immediately made the stakes higher in the said organization!
“Yet the call for the revival of the book culture, an idea which the President seemed to have bought just before his election in 2011, is one whose time has come. Could it be that the President tried to woo the youth with his gesture, and noticing that they were not keen, took on other matters? If it had been about the social media or pornography, he would've got their ears and eyes too. Well, the campaign for the return of the reading culture needs to last a little longer, in fact longer than the years the disinterest in books have taken. A campaign such as returning people's interest in books shouldn't have been a one-off offer, which, when it does not catch fire immediately can be jettisoned offhandedly.
“What are writers to do? They are not supposed to do anything except to continue writing. One can't be a writer and also a promoter of what one writes. It's difficult to combine the two. Except a few people who have that kind of ability. They could organize publishers' parleys where the necessity for book promotion will have to be re-iterated.
“Why disinterest in books should continue to be a social headache is baffling. How can we step surefooted into the present century de-emphasizing reading? Or do we want to remain in the 19th century? What humbug of education are we propagating?”
HOWEVER, publisher, renowned author of such novels as Nigger at Eton, Revenge of the Medicine Man, Juju and recently, God, Sex and the Englishman and organiser of Enugu-based Coal City Book Convention, Mr. Dillibe Onyeama commends the book initiative as providing impetus for stimulating book culture in the country, adding, “President Goodluck Jonathan's Bring Back the Book campaign made a huge psychological impact when seen in the light of coming from no less an authority than the Number 1 helmsman in the corridors of power. True enough, Nigeria's reading culture was in a comatose state. His call was the greatest news for stakeholders in the book industry since Nigeria's independence in 1960, for no central government other than passing support voiced by former Vice-President Dr. Alex Ekwueme during the Second Republic had shown any interest to promote the intellectual dividends offered by the book.
“Our 'brain drain' crisis caused the decline of literature in Nigeria because with the largest population of Western-trained manpower in black Africa, such as Nigeria boasted, we also boasted a vibrant reading culture which kept many publishers off-shore afloat, resulting in many job losses off-shore when interest in books dwindled with the entry of the military in Nigeria's affairs of state. Mediocrity was consequently enthroned, and has in the main remained enthroned till this day - resulting in a depressed economy for stakeholders in the book publishing industry.
“Not long thereafter the NLNG-sponsored award, The Nigerian Prize for Literature upped its annual prize incentive from - I think it was $50,000 - to a mind-boggling $100,000 every year. As if like a wave of a magic wand, the great literary boom years of the 1970s and early 1980s - when the Obi Egbunas, Chukwuemeka Ikes, Buchi Emechetas, Amos Tutuolas, Nkem Nwankwos, Gabriel Okaras and the Ben Okris, etc, were selling 40,000 copies a year of their novels - have returned, bringing us the Chimamandas and Chinwe Unigwes and several other exceptional literary talents.
“I am sure that President Jonathan would still have won the last election with a landslide if no writer voted. As it is, he is to be saluted for the significant upsurge in the output of literary efforts since his campaign”.