In Makurdi, writers in search for Nigeria’s ‘new tribe’ to defeat ignorance, fanaticisms
The Nigerian proverb that says, ‘what elders see sitting down eludes young people, who stand on top of rooftops’ is apt of a country tottering and possibly on the brink of being a failed state. It was Chinua Achebe, who saw Nigeria’s future from the past, made appropriate predictions and warned of possibility of a fractured society unless the tribal fissures were glued with a new understanding and togetherness based on enlightenment.
While inaugurating the Association of Authors (ANA) back in 1981, Achebe had warned writers thus, “so prodigious is our ignorance of ourselves and the things that belong to our peace” and tasked writers to work hard to erase the tribal sentiments that had stalked the country since independence and stunted its growth. This self-fulfilling prophecy was restated last week by the keynote speaker at ANA International Convention held in Makurdi, the Benue State capital. It was the opening day of proceedings held at the Auditorium of College of Health Sciences, Benue State University, Makurdi.
Delivering the lecture was the Dean, School of Postgraduate Studies, Gombe State University, Prof. Saleh Abdu Kwami, who spoke on ‘Issues in the Evaluation of Contemporary African Literature.’ It was a modification of the convention’s theme, ‘Canons, Prizes and Boundaries: African Writers and African Writings in World Literature.’ Kwami touched briefly on the fluidity of canons and how time soon changes the rules and what was not previously admitted soon becomes the dominant text for analysis. His view on literary prizes was no different, saying prizes were awarded on certain “set of culture-specific criteria. Some, however, operate with undisclosed, even suspect criteria and motive” a situation that made Jean Paul Satre to reject the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964. Kwami then concluded, “so, often, prizes tend to have certain strings attached; perhaps, the more prestigious, the longer and tighter the string.”
Kwami traced the long road African literature has travelled till date from historical times and how the narrow-mindedness of western thinkers denigrated and dismissed it by asserting that Africa had no past or culture to report about. He traced the personalities that propagated African writing over the centuries and how such characters became major influences on European thought and writing and the final validation accorded African civilization by modern writers like Wole Soyinka, Achebe and the others.
On European’s indebtedness to African writing, Kwami argues, “As for their impact on, and early status in, the so called ‘World literature’ we only need to know that despite systematic suppression and refusal to acknowledge them, literary historians and scholars have written to point out that Cervante, of Don Quizote fame and other Romance writers of the time, were indebted to the Antar Romance which dominated literature writing in the 5th – 7th AD and was passed on to Europe through Andalusia or Spain by Muslim-Arab scholars. It is also in scholarly records how, for example, Shakespeare’s play, Orthello, was heavily informed by Muhammad al-Hassan al-Wazez or Leo Africanus’ life and writings, which had so much African ethos.”
But Kwami’s keynote touched down properly in the area of bringing the foremost writers’ body to speed on its given mandate and how it needed to re-assert and reinvent itself in healing the wounds so deeply inflicted on the country’s collective psyche through fanatical attachments to primordial cleavages, especially of tribe and religious types. He called on writers to fight the subsisting ignorance that continues to plague the citizenry with enlightenment, saying only then could a ‘New Tribe’ of Nigerians emerge to shake off the old slough that has so far held the country down.
“But, writers need a stronger body beyond their individual selves, an association, to assure them of a conducive environment to enable the society to protect them and protect itself as well,” he said. “For, Achebe opines, the greatest possible social protection comes with a more enlightened and informed society. In Nigeria, the need for more free, performing writers is greater as, Achebe lamented, ignorance had twined and twisted its tentacles in the populace to the extent that we the citizens were to blame: ‘so prodigious is our ignorance of ourselves and the things that belong to our peace.’
“Achebe’s prescient diagnosis foresaw what we are witnessing today in form of the emergence of three dangerous forms of fanaticisms, which he said writers should come together to fight. These are religious fanaticism, political fanaticism and tribal fanaticism. Today Nigeria has been diagnosed as a state on the brink of failure; a state stalked by homebred, self-inflicted malaise: Hausaphobioa, Igbophobia and Yorubaphobia!
“One of the recent prescriptions for the nation’s condition has been the recommendation of the invention of a New Tribe by some of our intellectuals. Elimination of the mutual fear and distrust across the Nigerian old tribes would do the magic of inventing a new from the old tribe. ANA, from inception in 1981, was charged with the task of banishing ignorance, especially ignorance of one another, by Achebe, who emphatically added that Nigerians needed to know ‘what belong to our peace.’”
Kwami, however, also argued that government needed to assist writers in the onerous duty of spreading the gospel of enlightenment by encouraging citizens to read books and for writers to reinvent themselves.
Kwami asked rhetorically, “But, has the government of Nigeria given the writers the recognition, the protection to write freely? Has the society encouraged and ensured full participation by all citizens in reading the written books? How much have the writers themselves done to make their stories more accessible, more relevant?”
The don also tasked writers on publishing books in indigenous Nigerian languages, saying it was one of the mandates the founding father of the association, Achebe, gave at its inauguration, noting, “Before closing this paper, I need to say something about one of ANA’s oversight in its operations all these years. This is no other than literature in indigenous Nigerian languages. In the Inaugural address in 1981, Achebe opened and closed his address with glowing tributes to Abubakar Imam, who died shortly before the inauguration of ANA, an event which he was to attend. Achebe said he had been looking forward to meeting Imam whom he had never met beyond his writings, and someone who reminded him of Fagunwa and Peter Nwana, two Yoruba and Igbo language writers respectively.
“According to Achebe, ‘When I said in my opening remarks that I had particularly looked forward to the participation at this convention of the late Abubakar Imam, what I had in mind was that his presence would have given a powerful and venerable indication on a new emphasis on, or even awareness of, literature in indigenous Nigerian languages. There are, however, I am glad to say, other writers here today who will represent in our deliberations the crucial interest of our native tongues, and who will display at the poetry reading tomorrow some of the literary harvest already gathered in the prosecution of that interest.’”
Kwami wondered how much honour ANA has given to this wish by Achebe, adding, “Perhaps much has been done. But, much more needs to be done.”
While concluding, Kwami charged the body of writers to “persuade government, through the Minister of Culture and the National Council of Arts and Culture, to institute National Poetry Merit Award, to encourage state governors and local government chair/men and women to also institute literary prizes in the schools under their purview, and visit and seek audience with members of the legislature for a sensitisation session on promoting reading and literary production/activity in their constituencies.”
Kwami did not end his address to the writers without focusing on the concerns of how their work could gain world recognition, even if they were writing from the local, but authentic standpoint.
“Finally,” he said, “on the place of African literature in World Literature, I wish to advise writers to strive to write good literature, which easily comes with faith in what they do with a dose of fidelity to their cultural base. It is not only that ‘Literature does not grow in a vacuum’, the fact is that it cannot thrive and luxuriate in an inauthentic, or borrowed culture. This means, as writers, we must immerse ourselves into our, and not other’s culture, and cultural practices. World recognition is easier built on home recognition, and, as (Denja) Abdullahi also sagely says, ‘cultural authenticity is very important in the creative sphere because that may be all a writer has to contribute to world literature.’”
On his part, president of ANA, Abdullahi, who was returned unopposed for another two-year term, commended Benue State chapter for hosting the association for the third time. He recounted the achievements of the writers’ body, when he said, “Our administration of the largest body of writers in Africa and beyond has been working tirelessly to bring innovation to bear on all our activities, breaking barriers and pushing the frontiers. We pledged two years ago that we were going to ensure pragmatic deliverables that will change the face of the association for the better. We have achieved these through improving the internal governance of the association, documenting its history, improving its corporate image, laying down a blueprint for its strategic development and putting in place the much needed infrastructure that will ensure the sustainability of the association’s activities well into the future.”
Abdullahi did not only commend the Benue State Government for its support, he also appreciated members for their unrelenting spirit in attending the convention in the face of harsh economic situation.
According to him, “Our work today is to ensure that ANA is there tomorrow to meet and overcome the challenges of its times. We shall not waiver in our continuous demand for good governance, quality education and social justice. We shall not withdraw from our role as the conscience of the society and we are committed to doing our bits in the building of a stronger and prosperous country.”
Abdullahi also paid tribute to fallen members among the tribe of Nigerian writers: “At this point, I crave your indulgence that we rise in honour of some of us, who since the last time we met, have answered the great home call to eternity. We remember today Senator Muktari Abdulkarim, Buchi Emecheta, Onuora Nzekwu, Osita Ike, Chief Charry Ada Onwu, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, Haruna Mamnan Vatsa, Adebayo Faleti and Abiola Irele. May their souls rest in perfect peace!”
Four books sponsored by the association were presented at the convention. They included Arrows Or Gods? Essays on the Leadership Question in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, edited by Joseph A. Ushie and Denja Abdullahi and three children’s books: Salamatu Sule’s Oma the Drummer Queen, Chinyere Obi-Obasi’s The Loyal Queen and Kabiru Abdullahi’s The Golden Girl of Galma.
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