Friday, 26 April 2013

When Yes And No To The Freedom Chatter Hit The Stage In Honour of Omotoso

By Anote Ajeluorou

When notable poet Odia Ofeimun and his Hornbill House of the Arts, organisers of 70th birthday celebrations for South Africa-based Prof. Kole Omotoso settled for his post-Apartheid South African play, Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter, it was on account of the play’s resonance with modern reality that spreads across the entire African continent. Omotoso, who turned recently 70, was being celebrated in his hometown, Akure, with full compliment of the Ondo State Government at the Cultural Centre.
  Indeed, all resolutions of freedom either from colonial rule or Apartheid regime have remained the same – that all the freedom ‘charters’ have often turned mere ‘chatters’ that left a majority of the people further dispossessed and alienated from who they really are so much so that it resolved the fight into something other than desired and therefore vacuous!
  Omotoso’s Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter takes a critical look at post-Apartheid South Africa, a country he relocated from Nigeria in 1991 during the last gasp of that repressive regime of minority rule. He witnessed the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ referendum of 1992 that dealt a fatal blow to Apartheid and has since been witness to that country’s struggle to wean itself from some of the structures that supported Apartheid, largely the economic structures still rooted in the hands of the whites even as political power is in the hands of blacks.
  This then is the major thesis of the argument: What do you do with political freedom that does not give you economic freedom guaranteed by ownership of property? While the struggle in South Africa and indeed other parts of the continent had been for self-rule, the freedom fighters gave little heed to economic freedom symbolized by land in a place like South Africa. While the protagonist successfully fights against his white master to regain freedom even after murdering his own wife and child as acts of self-negation, with the intent to also take his own life, his freedom becomes hollow when its realities star him in the face.
  He and his fellow road-travelers come to the shocking realization that there is more to attaining political freedom than they set out to achieve. The fertile lands of South Africa, as is the case in Zimbabwe, are firmly in the hands of the white settlers and those for whom freedom has been granted have no means of economic empowerment; they would have to depend on their erstwhile masters for livelihood. Or they wrest or negotiate economic power from them for their own survival. But this is unacceptable situation. The white masters are not ready to let go of stolen lands, which have profited them for so long. In a face-saving move and seeing that they could loose everything, the whites are ready to negotiate terms that would ensure they are part of the new country so as to retain what they stolen from the natives.
  This becomes the burden of leadership, having to negotiate with former repressive masters, with the baggage of International Monetary Fund and World Bank, mostly usually with terms that hardly favour poor of black folks. Here, the majority rise up against whatever treaty the African leaders are out to sign and disrupt the process…
  Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter presents the dilemma of a country and a continent as shown in the South Africa example. As the country begins to slip out of the hands of the white settlers, the dilemma of transition ensues and the question of what vision of a new country to forge looms. As part of the resolution, even the playwright invites the continent’s ancestors to bear witness to how their wards lost control of a continent to visitors from far away. The alien visitors, made up of administrators and the clergy, often the dregs of their alien, barren societies, swooped on Africa and dispossessed its owners of their prized possessions.
  While the play is strikes at the heart of current economic issues plaguing South Africa, Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter resonates with realities in most African countries. Nigeria may have been freed from military rule, but what true political and economic freedom has 14 years of democratic rule offered ordinary Nigerians? How have those who manipulate the political space fared in managing the commonwealth for communal good? Isn’t the upsurge of militancy in various guises a direct result of how poorly the politico-economic space has been badly managed?
  But Omotoso’s Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter is heavy stuff; it’s a highly cerebral play that is somewhat preachy, in line with the revolutionary fervour of its author, Omotoso. Its near linear plot takes the viewer straight into the heart of the freedom fight and its complex contours that leaves the viewer breathless. But the play’s heaviness is mitigated by the energetic dances infused into it by the director, Mr. Felix Okolo.
  Indeed, Okolo brings along with him into this production ingredients of Odia Ofeimun’s dance dramas – Nigeria the Beautiful and Itoya… A Dance for Africa and A Feast of Return. These drama are heavy historical narratives rendered in poetic form that provides panoramic excursions for the play-goer. Omotoso’s Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter provides no less theatrical thrill.
  Also, Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter is a close to call for the author in its thematic preoccupation for the dispossessed of the earth, who like himself, have had to migrate to other lands to find refuge away from anomie at home. For Omotoso, majority of Nigerians are still dispossessed and it explains his current disposition not to stage a return to the country of his birth. As Omotoso put it, “you can’t have successful politicians without a successful polity”; Nigeria’s political environment is fertile soil for all sorts of murk.
  Ofeimun’s Hornbill House of the Arts is planning to stage Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter in Lagos as soon as it finds a willing sponsor to bankroll the production. The intention is to expose the play to much wider audience than the one that saw the play in Akure, the Ondo State capital last week.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Our passion for books sustains Nigeria book fair, says Kolawole

By Anote Ajeluorou

Starting from May 6 till 11, the 2013 edition of Nigeria International Book Fair will take place at its usual venue at the Multipurpose Hall of University of Lagos, Akoka Campus, Lagos. Chairman of Nigeria Book Fair Trust and Ibadan-based Managing Director/CEO, University Press Plc, Mr. Samuel Kolawole said in a recent interview that all was set for the book tourism that the fair has come to be known amongst book lovers. Exceprts:

What are preparations for the book fair, which is only a few weeks from now? And how have you been able to ensure consistency for the fair?
  Well, so far so good. Everything is in place to make it better than that of last year. So far so good; all the people we need to consult we have consulted and everything has been put in place for a successful fair. I think it’s the passion that people have for the book industry that has sustained it thus far. The book business is a risky business; you may not make millions from it but it can keep you going for a number of years. But if you have passion for it, it can keep you going for a very long time. There is not much money in it anyway, so it has to be a passion for books. The fair is made up of booksellers, authors, publishers, printers, librarians – people who have passion for books. And I think it’s that passion that keeps us going over the years.
  So, in spite of the challenges, the passion keeps us going; it’s what is responsible for the consistency. For the past 13 years, there is no year the Nigerian International Book Fair didn’t hold.
  To a large extent, the fair is self-sustaining except for the international conference part that we have one or two bodies that come to our aid. There’s Repro India Ltd, a book printing company from India that had partnered with us for a few years now, as a way of giving back to the Nigerian economy where they also do business. We used to get support from the Norwegian embassy but that support has finally stopped. But the main support has been what we make from the fair and contributions from our members.
  As you know, support from our government is not there. You know the nature of our country; we keep talking about improving reading culture in the country and access to books, but when it comes to putting money down to drive it, many people, including government, shy away from it. For that reason we’ve not really had the support we ought to get from government.

Do you get enough support for the fight against book piracy from Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC)?
  Well, they’ve been listening, especially in the last couple of years. We’ve got a lot of support from NCC. What we have found is that the problem is so big and whatever effort they are making is like a drop in the ocean. NCC cooperated with us last year. With the kind of system that has been put in place by the booksellers, the publishers, NCC and Nigerian Customs Service, we’ve been able to arrest a number of containers of pirated books that came into the country. So, we had a lot of cooperation from those government agencies because of the agreement we had with them.
  About two years ago we visited and solicited the support of the Comptroller-General of Nigeria Customs Service to help us savage the situation. In the past, the pirates were here producing books in the country; but with the improvement of technology, we discover that the pirated books are becoming better than the ones produced in Nigeria. And so, we had to get them involved; we solicited his support so they have a way of clearing with publishers first once books are coming in. With this system, the Custom contacts us first to know if the books are from us before clearing them at the ports.
  We also had arrangement with NCC so that Custom get authorization from NCC before you can clear books coming into the country. So, these are measures we put in place linking these two agencies; and it has worked well for us. With these measures, we hope to confiscate more books than before. Of course, it has been challenging for publishers and booksellers because of the procedures that are now involved. But it’s better to waste a few days and arrest the situation than allow everybody to do whatever they like to ruin our business. So, they are cooperating but there is a lot more that can be done.
  Recently, we had stakeholders meeting on new copyright regime and how to improve the laws to make them more effective and to incorporate the idea of digital rights into the legal framework. We hope contributions of stakeholders would be incorporated into the legal framework for better copyright regime in the country.

The theme for this year’s book fair is ‘Investing in Knowledge Economy for Sustainable Development’ Do you think there’s enough investment being made in knowledge economy in Nigeria?
  It’s interesting to say that investment is taking place in the knowledge economy. It may not be as the coordinated way that people can see. But I’ll give you an obvious example that we don’t even think about; look at the number of private universities that are spring up across Nigeria today. That is investment in the knowledge economy; it’s happening even at secondary and primary school levels. It also happens in materials being used in schools including books.
  So, there’s investment being made there. We move along with the times; the idea of conventional books is changing across the world although we’re still far behind here in Nigeria. We need to begin to invest now so we can prepare for the future. There’s a lot of money to be made otherwise people will not invest in knowledge economy. Opportunities are there but people are only looking at establishing schools.
  There’s the area of technology waiting to be invested in. In some countries, they don’t really have much but you see them conducting admission clinics in Nigeria for their universities and colleges. Students going from Nigeria to their universities constitute part of their revenue like the U.K., Canada, U.S.; you also see Nigerian students attending universities in Ghana and other African countries. This suggests that there’s market there. Investing in knowledge economy can really help Nigeria. Investing in books is part of investing in the knowledge economy.
  Look at all the stakeholders that are involved in the book chain – printers, publishers, authors, booksellers – they all contribute to the economy; they are all investing in the knowledge economy. If there’s good investment in the knowledge economy, all these categories of people will benefit. With the money made, they will employ people and contribute to the GDP of this country. The same goes for the authors who write the books.
  But these are opportunities that the government doesn’t see.

Bring Back the Book… Two years after, Nigerians still await book arrival

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”.

Ebigwei: Promoting the game of Chess

By Anote Ajeluorou

For Dr. Silvan Ebigwei, the intellectually stimulating game of chess has been a life-long passion to which he devoted both his time and resources to develop in Nigeria. Ebigwei first encountered chess as a 15 year-old schoolboy at the famous St. Patrick College, Asaba in 1960. His American teacher, Mr. R. Scarpura introduced him to the game of royalty. He showed early promise when he beat another American teacher, a friend of his mentor.
  The book, Chess: A National Legacy (Worldwide Controls Nig. Ltd, Lagos; 2011) is edited by Emiko Bake, Isaac O. Isaac, Sony Neme and Uzo Odikpo.
  From that early start, through university and adult life, Ebigwei took to chess with uncommon zeal. At the University of Lagos in the 70s, he started organising small groups or clubs of like minds. Even when he did his post-graduate studies, he never let go of chess. As medical practitioner, chess still ran deep in his veins. Indeed, Mr. Chess as he became fondly called, Ebigwei is reputed to have single-handedly founded the game of chess in Nigeria and brought it to international reckoning and recognition.
  The Opanam, Delta State native, also took Nigeria and some African Chess Federations to the international body. As he put it, “I became the president of College of Medicine chess club in 1973 with Boniface Adeniran as my secretary and between us we mapped out a strategy, which led to the formation of All Nigerian Universities Chess Association, with me as the first chairman. And since then I was resolved to popularise the game among intellectuals of this country. One of the major assignments executed in those infant years of chess in Nigeria was to invite the president of the World Chess Association, Prof. Max Euwe of Holland in 1975”.
  According to the editors, “Prof. Euwe’s acceptance to come to Nigeria on the invitation of a friend, Dr. William Zeylstra, then Royal Dutch Ambassador to Nigeria, and his eventual arrival opened up a new page in Ebigwei’s marble-cast of achievements for the chess game in Nigeria. Euwe’s visit aided tremendously the formation of Nigeria Chess Federation with world renowned economist, Dr. Pius Okigbo as president, Dr. J.T. Cole as vice president and Dr. Ebigwei as secretary-general; Ebigwei later became president. The same year, Nigeria was affiliated to the World Chess Federation”.
  Ebigwei’s towering achievements included affiliating the Nigerian Chess Federation to the world body, starting the 38-member nation Commonwealth Chess Association and helping other African countries like Libya to gain affiliation into the world body. Ebigwei also helped to fight Apartheid regime in South Africa when the chess federation money was invested in a South African company. He mounted serious campaign with other colleagues and got the money withdrawn eventually.
  As a pioneer in the game of chess, he helped to plant the game in all schools and extend the frontiers of the game in the country. He encountered certain difficulties in penetrating the usual bureaucracy. But he forged ahead nonetheless.
  An exceptionally brilliant fellow, Ebigwei sums up his involvement with chess thus, “I founded and brought chess to Nigeria and posterity is there to tell the story”.
  Among those who bear witness to Ebigwei’s legacy in the game of chess is a former NTA director, Dr. Victoria Ezeokoli, who, through the death of her son, who was a young master at the sport, became chairman of Nigeria Chess Federation. She states, “Everybody in chess in Nigeria will say he is their mentor. Some of them he picked up from secondary schools, coached and mentored them, and sponsored them to chess tournaments where they excelled. He used to pay their affiliation fees… He made sure that not only Nigerian but other African countries continued to be relevant. Without Ebigwei, there would be no chess in Africa today. It takes that kind of sacrifice, commitment and passion to give birth to an activity like chess and to sustain it”.
  Ebigwei’s son, Olisa says of his father, “Concerning chess, that is his passion. I can say chess is another child of my father. He is so passionate about chess that he gave up family time for it… He goes as far as secondary schools and the armed forces to recruit people to play chess. He was eating and waking up chess. As a matter of fact, his practice as medical doctor also suffered because of chess”.
  However, Chess: A National Legacy is a fine tribute to the efforts of Dr. Ebigwei in his pioneering role in the formation of chess game in Nigeria. Although he is now retired from active participation, what he established still lingers on and is the bedrock on which other achievements are currently being built in the game of chess.
  However, the book Chess: A National Legacy suffers serious editorial flaws. The editors did a shoddy job of stringing the story together. They kept going round the same things over and over again and repeating the superlative achievements of Ebigwei. For instance, there’s hardly a need for this, “So, who is the one, that one who brought the chess game to Nigeria? Who is the one, that one who does not feel but believes that he did more to chess establishment in Nigeria? Who is he who gave his home, who gave his job, who gave his knowledge, who gave his money, who gave his all to the transportation of chess game across the country than Dr. Sylvan O. Ebigwei?”

Thursday, 11 April 2013

God’s call changed my life, music, says Ben Orise

By Anote Ajeluorou

He started out as a circular artiste in the late 1980s and early 1990s and led Tony Osei’s Youth Generation band. While at it, he had a swell time scouring the nightclub scene and other performance places in Lagos and environs. But all that was to change for Ben Orise in Conakry, Guinea where the band was on tour for UNICEF. Orise was actually on his way out of the country to Holland to try out his luck.
  But that was how far he could go. He had the good fortune to attend a church in Conakry. When the altar call came, Orise could not resist the force that pulled him towards it. According to him, “I experienced wilderness in Conakry. I resigned from the band; I ended the contract and had no money on me. It was in the band I met my wife, who also resigned from the band for gospel music. But that was her own decision; I didn’t influence her.
  “As God would have it, the band owner, Osei also got converted and changed the band to a gospel band. So, at the church in Conakry I got the call to go into gospel music. I no longer had satisfaction in circular music I was playing. I was in the band on tour of West Africa and on my way to Holland. I didn’t know I was in a place where God wanted me to be. If I had gone to Holland I might not have been changed; God might not have had my time. It was a total experience that was also a revolution as the band changed to a gospel band”.
  Orise, who was in Hot & Nice band in the 80s and 90s led by Lance Perry (a former Lagos PMAN chapter chairman), did not find things easy when he returned to Nigeria after the tour in 1998. He had to limit himself to studio work since he could not perform circular music and gospel music was at its infancy, with little or no popularity to it. Ever since also, Orise has been a church music director with Redeem Christian Church of God, where he also worships.
  He conceded that gospel music in Nigeria had seen phenomenal growth in recent years. Orise said gospel music wasn’t doing badly as it was years past when he newly converted in the late 1980s and early 1990s; gospel music had very little chance or future, and therefore no encouragement from any quarter.
  But all that has changed with the likes of Sammie Okposo, Midnight Crew and several other gospel artistes on the scene. As he noted, “Gospel musicians are not doing badly at all. They have taken gospel music to places, not what it used to be. There’s an explosion; it has gone nuclear and comparable to what we have abroad. It is now a revolution unlike in those days when nobody wants to play gospel music, as there was no encouragement. People shied away from it”.
  For Orise, his new music entitled Celebrate is “about singing gospel music to the ends of the earth to reveal Christ to the people. Celebrate is about sharing God’s love to the unsaved for them to also receive God’s redemptive power”.
  Other tracks in Celebrate include ‘Thou art worthy’, ‘Trust’, ‘Onyeoma’, ‘My son’, ‘Unconditional love’, Lift up’, ‘Seek’, ‘None like you’ and ‘I go worship’. Launch for Celebrate has been scheduled for May although no specific date has been fixed yet.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Race for Africa’s biggest literary prize 2013 begins today

By Anote Ajeluorou

For Nigerian poets both within and outside the country, today marks the end of submission of entries for the 2013 edition of the $100,000 worth The Nigerian Prize for Literature in the poetry category. It also marks the promise of an exciting year for poets who have had to wait for a circle of four years to have a chance at the mouth-watering prize sponsored by Bonny-based gas company, Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG).
  Although it is too early in the day to make any prognosis, Nigerian poets would have been learnt their lessons from 2009 when a verdict of poor outing was given on entries for that year. That judgment sparked off prolonged controversy between writers and critics on the one hand and the advisory board for the prize largely made up of university professors.
  Last year, which was for prose fiction, was won by Belgium-based Chika Unigwe. She won with the novel On Black Sisters’ Street, a work based on Nigerian young women sold for sex work abroad by traffickers on the illicit trade in feminine flesh. However this year, poetry takes centre-stage. Ibadan-based PEN Nigeria Centre President and poet has stared into his crystal ball for this year’s poetry contest and has come up with a verdict: “The one safe prediction that can be made is that whoever wins this year would be a poet with strong bona fides and a vision. There is just no room for the poetaster or for jejune juvenilia. It is a strong field and the strongest contenders will be from home and exile. It will be interesting to see how the vision of the poets intersect, how their craft carries their message. It will be really interesting to see how the long list crystalizes into the shortlist. It will be a great year for poetry, no doubt”.
  Judges for this year’s prize include Prof. Romanus Egudu (chairman), Prof. Abiodun Omolara Ogundipe and Dr. Andrew Abah as members. Prof. Kofi Anyidoho has been announced as the international consultant. Advisory Board chairman remains Emeritus Prof. Ayo Banjo while Dr. Jerry Agada and Prof. Ben Elugbe as members.
  This year also, some innovative ideas have been brought to improve the prize, organisers announced recently. An external consultant would be brought from outside Nigeria to complement judges’ efforts, especially when the final three writers would have been announced and shortlisted. Advisory Board chairman for the prize and Prof. Emeritus Ayo Banjo said the initiative would give the prize both international status and enhanced credibility.
  Another novel idea to the prize regime also announced recently was the ‘Critical Essay Prize’ worth N1 million. This prize will be awarded for a critical essay or review of a Nigerian literary work each year. It must be published in a renowned international journal by Nigerian critics both home and abroad. According to organisers, the Critical Essay Prize takes cognizance of the pivotal role critics play in the evolution of literary creativity.

Politics and literature are inseparable, says Omotoso

South Africa-based Nigerian intellectual Prof. Bankoe Omotoso, author of the provocative fact-fiction Just Before Dawn, will be 70 on April 21. Various activities have been lined up to celebrate this Nigerian icon of letters in his home state, Akure, Ondo State. But in this online interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Omotoso engages some of the issues confronting the country of his birth and why he had to leave when he did

Congratulations on your 70th birthday, Prof.! What does it mean attaining such great age? How would say life has treated you?
  One of the joys of living long is watching your children bring up your grand children!

It’s such a long journey from years back till now. What happy and sad landmarks can you point at in retrospect?
  Too many of both but on balance same-same

Your book Just Before Dawn, often seen as a biography of Nigeria, stirred a lot of controversy at the time, which is also at the heart of Nigeria’s evolution as a country. What did you make of the controversy? Has anything changed ever since?
  It saddened me that it caused any controversy! A lot has changed. The army is not in power. There's less misappropriation at states level. Private business is beginning to get out of the embrace of politicians.

Nigerians are often seen as a people that suffer from collective amnesia. How much of this is at play in the country’s historical evolution?
  It is not collective amnesia. Just that different people remember differently. Our future wars will be fought on the different remembering. How we remember our past will decide how we build our future.

The theme for your birthday lecture echoes your book, ‘Radicals, Literature and Nigeria: Just before 1914’. How far radical do you think Nigerian literature has been? Has there been any achievement in social, political orientation, if any, with that radicalism?
  Our literature has been our greatest export. Followed by our films. Imagine if petroleum had been able to bring us as much positive as these two how much greater Nigeria would be?

Do you think literature has made any appreciable impact on the basic psychology of Nigeria as a nation?      
  I still feel Nigeria has a future behind it! Unfortunately!!

You always castigate younger writer, even including your daughter, Yewande, who doesn’t reside in Nigeria, for not being politically engaging enough in their works. Do you think that criticism is fair, seeing how averse the public has become to reading literary matters, and the kind of political culture at play in society?
  It is good young writers are not obsessed with the politics of the nation as we are. All the same politics and literature, the greatest literature, are inseparable!

In spite of its imperfections, the political culture of South Africa, where you reside, has a measure of sanity even if power is in the hands of blacks. What useful lessons can Nigeria learn from her?
  In South Africa power is not the monopoly of one particular group. Blacks have political power. Whites have economic power and there are trades off between different seats of power. Banks are well-run and infrastructure is the business of everybody. Governments at national provincial (state) and local levels have to get annual account certificate! All the same inequality is still too high and unacceptable.

A large pool of Nigerian intellectuals resides and works abroad like you. Is such absence from home still tenable given the onerous rebuilding work needed all areas of national life in Nigeria? How can intellectuals abroad be lured back home?
  Each time I'm asked this question, I tend to laugh. When you are unable to effect change in your environment, when you cannot dislocate the wrong doers, you do not join them. You relocate. You relocate in the hope that you will empower yourself on your return to dislocate the enemies of progress. Dislocate or relocate. As at now the balance is still in favour of those who don't want change. The day enough Nigerians refuse to use generators and insist that NEPA or PHCN must deliver, then coming back will be in sight.

Give insight into some of your recent writings, especially drama and short fiction? Are we expecting a major fiction work from you soon?
  I don't speak of my writings. I expect those interested to do their homework!

Conversation With Four African Female Writers On Residency At Ebedi

By Anote Ajeluorou

Perhaps for the first time, four female writers converged in Nigeria’s only residency for writers in Iseyin, Oyo State, to complete ongoing literary projects. They are author of Bom Boy and Nigerian-Barbadian, naturalised South African, Ms Yewande Omotoso; author of Victor and Ugandan writer, Agiresaasi Apophia; author of Abamo and indigenous language writer, Rukayat Olaleye and author of Eno’s Story, Ms Ayodele Olofintuade.
  The Ebedi International Writers Residency was instituted a few years ago by medical doctor-turned writer, politician and former President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Dr. Wale Okediran. It’s situated at the foot of a hill in the serenity of Iseyin community.
  Omotoso said she came to the residency through a friend, Samuel Kolawole’s recommendation. She got to know about Ebedi Writers Residency Programme from fellows she met last year at a writing workshop in Lagos. According to her, “So, I got curious; because it’s a big opportunity, and we need to publicise it.
  “I’m working on the first draft of a book set mostly in South Africa and the two main characters are 80-year-old women, neighbours. It’s basically a story about their relationship. They hate each other but are dependent on each other. It looks at South African dynamics, the racial problem 20 years’ on after a democratically elected government in 1994. What are the racial dynamics that exist in the Western Cape. There is segregation by class and colour in Cape Town 20 years on. So, I’m just looking at why that is the case”.
  Although she hopes the new work would be different from Bom Boy, Omotoso remarked, “Because I’m not only South African; I think whenever I write, for instance, my character is West Indian, and the other character is a white South African. I feel like when I write, I need to put a character there that relates to my experience, which is me being a foreigner. So, I can write from a West Indian perspective in South Africa, and she also comes to Ibadan. You know, I’m Nigeria but I’m not really Nigerian so I can write from West Indian perspective. I always need that perspective that I know”.
  Bom Boy won her South African Literature First Book award, and it’s about her roots in Nigeria, but she countered easily, saying, “It’s not directly my story because it’s not autobiographical but it is about somebody who doesn’t fit in and who is struggling to find his place. I can relate to it in some degrees because that is what life in South Africa is to me. Otherwise, I’m not that weird”.
  Although they are a band of four female writers holed up in the same setting, they have their individual work schedules, as Omotoso noted, “Everybody works differently. For me, I take it as a really amazing opportunity and I’m not prepared to waste it. I came really serious; I have my calendar and what I need to accomplish when I leave here. I mean, who else is going to give me a place to work? I’m really grateful for it. So, I have managed to finish the first draft in the space of five weeks. And I agree, it’s because of focus, you come with the intention; it’s intentional. Everything is geared towards producing”.
  Omotoso would gladly recommend the residency to anyone willing to really work, stating, “My intention is to recommend it widely, and my intention is to interact with Okediran seeing he is very open because I have some suggestions that I think will help make it a little bit more organised. I think it can be international. You can have writers from all over the world wanting to come here. It works. Any writer wants this. It’s such a big deal; we have to shout it and be proud of it. I think it works.
  “And I feel that we can make it more popular, which I also think will help with the funding. It’s very brilliant; there is no question about that; it’s such a great idea, a great project”.

HER friends had gushed so much about Ebedi that a usually skeptical Olofintuade wanted to see for herself. As she put it, “I got a call from President, Ibadan chapter of Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA), Uncle Akin Bello. He was like, ‘do you want to go to Ebedi?’ and I said, ‘why would I want to go to Ebedi?’ I was just kidding. He asked me if I wanted to come to Ebedi, and of course, I know about Ebedi. Almost all my friends have been here. Everybody comes back from here and says, ‘oh my God, you should go for it’. I got in touch with Dr. Okediran and we got talking... I just made up my mind to come and I have no regrets.
  “I wanted to come and start a new novel, Shina Rambo, but when I got here I got a mail to do a first draft of the one I was working on before I got here. So, that is what I’m doing and I mean, it’s just been totally amazing, a great experience. It’s called Lakriboto Chronicles. In Yoruba land, lakriboto is an independent woman, whom a lot of men see as sexless, a woman who doesn’t bow down to men. I’m examining the African community. Is there really a community? Are we really as cohesive, as close and as family-oriented as everybody claims we are?
  “That’s what I’m questioning and I’m also questioning the way people with mental illness are treated in our country. The story is about three women, one of them has mental illness; they are just girls that were growing up in a typical Yoruba family. There is a kind of loss involved so they were moved around among relatives as house-helps to take care of the children. I’m following the journey of these three women”.
  If anyone would do a controversial theme, it has to be Olofintuade. Her lakriboto story has all the elements of stirring the hornet’s nest with its tendency towards gay issues, as she said, “My understanding of lakriboto may be wrong; it may be about lesbian. It’s amazing, you can’t be a lesbian and have no sexual organs. What I also want to examine is the fact that we all say, ‘we are Africans and being gay is not part of our culture’. The question is, where does lakriboto come from if it is not part of our culture? And how can you be a lesbian and you don’t have sex parts? You are supposed to be a sexless person basically because you don’t have sex enough”.

UGANDAN health worker and writer, Apophia, knew about Ebedi as a member of FEMRITE, which is Uganda Women Writers Association. Two of her compatriots – Doreen Baingana and Barbara Oketa – had previously had residency stints there. She said, “Oketa was asked to recommend somebody and she picked me. I applied online but it took some time and I didn’t get a reply so I asked Barbara whether she had given me the right address and she gave me Dr. Okediran’s email; then, I applied to him directly. I sent a letter, my CV and a sample of what I was working on. I was accepted and I had to apply to Art World Africa for my air ticket.
  “Ebedi is getting popular, especially at FEMRITE where other writers have also applied but are not sure if they would get funding for air ticket. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to come because Ebedi replied over a month ago and I have been here only two weeks while the others have been here for a month. But the residency is becoming very popular.
  “I had thought I was going to work on a novel but since I came here I’ve been working on a series of short stories and I have finished seven of them. I’m right now working on the eighth. Of course, they are addressing different themes and are all set in Uganda, fortunately or unfortunately. There is high level of unemployment, the patriarchal tradition and how women are being repressed and are trying to rise to the top; they are also on love and life generally.
  “The quiet environment here really makes you want to work, and you have to be committed because you have nothing else to do. We are not cooking or cleaning the house so you are just in your room - eat, read and write. Also, this is not a city. Perhaps, if it were in Lagos we would have been tempted to go to the bar or places like that.”
  The Ugandan writer freely expressed her views about her host country, Nigeria and what she thought about its people, saying, “I find Nigerians warm, receptive; so, I haven’t had any major challenges. I have learnt a lot from them. Of course, I’ve met many Nigerians in meetings at international conferences. I’ve seen them make presentations. I know they are very brilliant, hardworking and it is the same thing I find here. People have come here and written a lot in one month. So, they don’t waste time. I realise that maybe in Uganda we are in some kind of trauma. Nigerians are just the people who are aggressive, eh?”
  However, Apophia wants some improvement on how things are run at Ebedi Writers Residency Programme, noting, “I think that on a weekly basis we should have someone write a brief report, get an excerpt of what the residents have done. Then, at the end of the six weeks, the residents write a report”. 

FOR Olaleye, an indigenous language writer, who lives at Apete, Ibadan, Ebedi has been the right place for her to be holed up with fellow female writers and really write to her heart’s content. She has finished work on a book Olori Asake since getting to Ebedi. According to her, “Now I’m working on a collection of poems. I write poetry, prose and drama”. She is enthralled by the environment at Ebedi, which she described as a haven for writers.

‘We Are Not Nigerians By Mistake’

Titi Horsfall recently launched her new novel, From an Orphan to a Queen Esther, a bible-based story of a Jewish girl, who became a queen in a foreign land and did great things like her great forebear, Moses. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUORU, Horsfall highlights the significance of the Esther story in modern times. She sees it as a product of her environment, a poor girl who rose to overcome challenges through God’s help and which should serve as example for modern-day individuals for their respective societies

In projecting Esther in fiction, were you responding to a need to create heroines for a world largely dominated by men?
  On the contrary, the story projects hope to anyone who is under the impression that life gave him or her, the short end of the stick. The circumstances in which Esther grew up were most pitiful and disheartening. Through conscious acceptance of her ‘silver linings’-that is, identifying and preserving the ‘good’ in her bad situation, she secured her future.
  Some are born great, but encase their dreams within the limiting circumstances around them. We are to believe in ourselves and what God has put into us. We can all aspire for greatness; for there is a drop of greatness and a seed of favour in every man, irrespective of gender. Even our President Goodluck Jonathan exhibits this Esther story: rising from a repressible foundation to a height of unimaginable glory. Esther is, therefore, a person worth celebrating, irrespective of her sex. She lived an exemplary and outstanding model of life.

What do you expect your readers to take away from the life of Esther?
  While the novel is on Esther’s life, her exploits were not achieved in isolation. She worked in tandem with people who I would call, “helpers of destiny”; people who keyed into a single vision and persevered to see its realization. The various characters in the novel throw in our path many life lessons. Many consider this novel to be a life manual.
  On Esther in particular, she is a product of a good heritage. In local terms, we would say, “she is a well brought up girl”- train up a child in the way s/he should grow and when s/he is old, he or she will not depart from it. This is an advice to all parents. This was what God was projecting to all parents. Have you considered the fact that God could not risk sending just any maiden to the palace to fulfill His purpose? It had to be someone who would not be entrapped by the palace grandeur and lewdness which harem life may stir up. In maintaining a purposeful and Godly life, Esther was a good candidate for God’s use.
  We are not Nigerians by mistake. We were born for a purpose and it is my hope that in our individual and collective yearnings, we will find, understand and fulfill our purpose.

Why did you choose to fictionalize Esther’s story instead of through pamphleteering?
  Pamphlets show a writer’s opinion or partisan stand on an issue. My writing is not aimed at portraying a female leader (if you want to consider this as an issue, of which I may be making a case for). I fictionalized the story of Esther in much the same way an anthropologist would visit the ancient ruins of Persia, take up all the factual evidences on ground and attempt to re-enact and explain the kind of society in which Esther lived in.
  Fictionalizing Esther’s story came to the fore through inspiration. There are the facts, as laid down in the Bible. There are further evidences recorded in secular history. Then, there are the expected interplays in human engagements as seen in everyday living. Herein, lies the fiction.

How did you manage to achieve a recreation of the world Esther lived in at the time?
  Recreating Esther’s world was a journey through a time capsule. I looked into history to determine the exact time scale and geography, and then fit in the bits as they relate to the landscape - weather, architecture, food, clothing, names, culture, customs and traditions. The rest, however, is not history. As the legendry Gabriel Okara puts it, “This century old biblical story has been brought to life and relevance, for lovers of good literature”.

Critics might question Esther’s ambition for her son as ungodly, in view of the strife it engendered... What is your response?
  Let me point out that the absence of strife in one’s life is not an indication of the presence of God. Strife may sometimes push us to our places of glory. That said, leaders are generally chosen by God. Years before Esther’s son was born, it had been prophesied by Isaiah that a king chosen of God will restore his people to the land of their fathers. Did this happen? Yes. Esther was just an instrument to serve that purpose, with the storyline further portraying a basal human instinct to preserve self and lineage.

What Esther quality does modern society lack? How can this be remedied?
  Esther displayed great humility. She was humble enough to take direction and advice even as a queen. When she was crowned queen, her outlook on life did not change. She was still in touch with who she was and what her people meant to her.
  As a society, we should believe in ourselves and play our respective roles in securing our future, positively. No matter how we are created, we are meant to complement ourselves in building strong frontiers.

What other literary projects are you working on?
  I have a few ideas, which I am contemplating. For now, what is foremost is listening and sharing with my readers, on how this novel is transforming their outlook on life.