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Gabriel Okara Literary Feast 2017… Making a book city out of Port Harcourt

By Anote Ajeluorou, Assistant Arts Editor, who was in Port Harcourt)
30 April 2017   |   4:15 am
The maiden edition of Gabriel Okara Literary Festival 2017, which seeks to re-energise literary consciousness in the city of Port Harcourt that also hosted similar feast a few years ago that culminated in the city....

Okara (third from left) and participants at the opening of the festival… in Port Harcourt

The maiden edition of Gabriel Okara Literary Festival 2017, which seeks to re-energise literary consciousness in the city of Port Harcourt that also hosted similar feast a few years ago that culminated in the city being named UNESCO World Book Capital 2014, will provide a talking point for a while in the honour it bestowed on one of black Africa’s pioneer poets, Okara. While Okara is indeed a pioneer, who went on to win poetry laurels as far back as the 1950s and 60s before the much-professed first generation of writers came into the scene, he has, ironically, failed to command critics’ intense gaze.

The festival was, therefore, partly a restorative mission of his poetic genius and partly the celebration of a man, who has given so much but has received so little by way of attention from the critical establishment. Another such restorative mission is billed for May 18 in Yenagoa, when Gabriel Okara, an anthology of essays dealing with various aspects of Okara’s works, edited by Prof. Chidi Maduka, will be launched. Leading the charge for the onerous mission for the restoration of Okara’s genius is Institute of Arts and Culture, University of Port Harcourt, in collaboration with The Celi and Joe Ajienka Professorial Chair for Arts and Culture, Bayelsa State Library Board and Faculty of Humanities and American Corner of University of Port Harcourt. The festival had as theme ‘Nigerian Literature Since Gabriel Okara: Continuities and Departures.’

In addressing the theme, the keynote speaker, poet and polemicist, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, sought the restoration of Port Harcourt as the proper Book City in the manner it was named by UNESCO as World Book Capital in 2014. Indeed, Ofeimun argued that Port Harcourt, or any city in Nigeria for that matter, fails to measure up to that high qualification as Book City, as books were still scarce and not readily available and printing still a prohibitive venture in the country among other inhibiting factors to the growth of books as staple items.

According to Ofeimun, “I am pursuing or advancing the dream of a Book City, which was ceremoniously grafted upon Port Harcourt by UNESCO three years ago. It was received with such great expectations. Every writer, who heard about it felt entitled to have an opinion on the rationale for such a Book City. My own take was always, and remains, that a Book City is where writers and writing are not considered anathema and may be ritually deserving of celebration. It is a city where books ought to be available, accessible and affordable almost with the proficiency crafted by Coca-Cola salesmen.

“…One Book City, Seoul in South Korea, had a distinction of a perimeter of hotels with bookshelves rather than television sets in their rooms… When, therefore, Port Harcourt was chosen as a UNESCO-affirmed Book City, some of us imagined it a chance for one more Nigerian city, more formally, to acquire the appurtenance normally ascribed to Book Cities. In real terms, Nigeria’s Book City was Ibadan. It had proper printing presses, a concert of great publishing houses, a wealth of serious bookshops, great libraries from national archives to the university emporium of books, and it had a history of being a great incubator for writers as the take-off or stamping pad for our national literature.”

Ofeimun then lamented that Port Harcourt could not realise the dream of a Book City in one UNESCO year, arguing, however, that, “…it (Book City) musty not be allowed to abscond from the agenda even as a millennial project. I want to believe that any literary performance in Port Harcourt ought always now to be seen as a building block or plank added to the dream of that Book City, which deserves to be pursued for books to have domain in our part of the world.”

Also, Ofeimun argued that the war on illiteracy that should be fought with vigour and won so as to defeat the bludgeoning of harams, kidnappings and all forms of ills that an illiterate population inflicts on society as Nigeria has witnessed in recent years. He called for a bipartisan approach to the war on illiteracy, which a Book City symbolizes, adding, “Eschewing partisan politics in design, the objective (of a Book City) is to have every chief executive (governor), who comes to power in the city pitching into the boil of genuine city planning to accommodate missionary aesthetics for the hoped-for Book City.”

Ofeimun noted that no great city in the world was built without the contributions of artists, as it was so often the case in the country. Inherent in Ofeimun’s subtle indictment is the stoppage of the yearly Port Harcourt Book Festival by the current administration in Rivers State, which, rather than build on the gains made so far by the festival, has eroded the legacy of a Book City Port Harcourt has poised for itself.

Interrogating The Niger Delta Question
ALTHOUGH it didn’t feature as a major talking point in the festival’s offering, the Executive Secretary/CEO of National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO), Dr. Barclays Ayakoroma, drew the audience’s attention to issues of neglect communities in the Niger Delta have suffered and how they have not benefited from the oil resource in their land. Specifically, Ayakoroma interrogated ‘the 419 factor’ that ensures people in the oil-rich region, where Nigeria’s wealth is produced have nothing while others, who are largely unproductive and parasitic, consume the bulk of it and even own it in terms of oil blocks and employment. Ayakoroma also pointed out the futility of amnesty given to some youths in the region as palliative against militancy, saying, “Amnesty is unproductive business; let the money be more productive.”

In his paper, ‘Interrogating the Niger Delta Question in Nollywood Films: A Contextual Reading of Curtis Graham’s Oloibiri,’ Ayakoroma blamed poverty in the Niger Delta on the absence of filmic narratives to conscientise the world regarding the tragedy oil exploitation has foisted on the poor inhabitants. He said though Nollywood is a great cultural ambassador for Nigeria like the other arts, it was yet to be properly deployed to tell the story of the dire conditions in the Niger Delta, adding, “It (Nollywood) has not focused attention to happenings in the Niger Delta for the larger society to see and appreciate the predicament of the people. One way Nigerians and the world can be perceptive about the Niger Delta is to see images from it. Until there is synergy between the politicians and intellectuals, there will be no moving forward. There is need for unity in the Niger Delta so we can think as one and tell our story through docu-drama and documentary. We need to tell the Niger Delta story in filmic media to the larger society for enlightenment.”

However, before Ayakoroma arrived at his panaceas for problematising the region’s issues in filmic format, he’d provided numbing statistics on how the region bears Nigeria’s economic burden on its head, while the other regions lounge in opulence and comfort.

According to Ayakoroma, “Nigeria has a total of 774 Local Government Areas (LGAs) currently. Somehow, the 17 states of the South have 355 LGAs and the 19 states of the North having 419 LGAs. The question is: Why are there 419 LGAs in the North? We all know what that number (419) connotes in our country. From the perspective of film studies, what meaning can we read into these 419 LGAs in the North? Perhaps we can draw some inferences from Annkio Briggs’ analysis of the Federal Accounts Allocation Committee (FAAC) revenue sharing formula.

“Entitled, “The Injustice of Revenue Allocation in Nigeria”, an illuminating piece, which has been trending on various social media platform, Briggs asserts that the North-Central receives 20 per cent of the revenue and contributes 0.00 per cent; the North-East receives 16 per cent and contributes 0.00 per cent; while the North-West receives 21 per cent and also contributes 0.00 per cent. The implication here is that, the 19 Northern states receive about 57 per cent every month, out of the federated revenue to which they contribute absolutely nothing. On the other hand, the South-West receives 16 per cent and contributes 3.97 per cent; the South-East receives 11.00 per cent and contributes only 2.07 per cent, while the South-South receives 15.00 per cent despite the fact that it contributes a whopping 91.64 per cent. It is apparent that the 419 imagery is beginning to surface.

“Citing data from the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation, as published by the Federal Ministry of Finance (April, 2013), Annkio Briggs deduced that the 355 LGAs of the 17 Southern States receive only 45.1 per cent (inclusive of the 13 per cent derivation fund) of the 100 per cent revenue, which they contribute. Paradoxically, the 419 LGAs of the 19 Northern states receive 54.9 per cent, in spite of the fact that they contribute 0.00 per cent. In her view, Southern Nigeria, particularly the Niger Delta, “has over-loved Northern Nigeria”, a development which is not being appreciated. She asks a rhetorical question: “How dare someone who brings nothing and takes more than me who brings 100 per cent ask me what I am doing with the little that he did not steal?” This, to me, is where the 419 dimension becomes clear.

“Apparently, the foregoing encapsulates the Niger Delta question. The drums of the struggle for resource control have been occasioned by the high level of deprivation.”

In interrogating the Niger Delta question in Oloibiri,’ Ayakoroma laid bare the dilemma of a region, saying, “Oloibiri, the small, sleepy community in the Ogbia Local Government Area in present-day Bayelsa State, the location from which crude oil was discovered and exploited in commercial quantity in 1956, came alive as the film, Oloibiri, produced by Rightangle Productions, was exclusively screened for a select audience. Oloibiri is a story of the frustration and anger of a people, whose land has been exploited for its resources and abandoned to a life of hopelessness, hunger and poverty.

“As the producers rightly stated, perhaps, Oloibiri may never have been known if not for divine providence of God: locating Nigeria’s common wealth, crude oil, underneath its soil. Sadly, 60 years after, the community has nothing to show for the wealth the nation has tapped from its soil but dry and rusty wells, a polluted environment, and a host of health, economic and social challenges. Government is only jolted to carry out some face-saving palliative measures any time militants carry out devastating actions. Since such actions are taken in a hurry, without proper planning and impact assessment, they cannot stand the test of time. For instance, when you dole out between N60,000 to N250,000 to placate a jobless youth, who does not contribute to socio-economic development of the country, all in the pursuit of amnesty, such a youth will not ever think of working legitimately to earn a salary that is by far less.

“The film, Oloibiri, is based on the heart-rending, sad life of the people of Oloibiri community, where crude oil had brought more harm than good, more underdevelopment than development, more retrogression than progress, and more ‘oil doom’ than ‘oil boom’. The Oil Museum, which the Federal Government had pledged to build many years ago, is still in the pipeline. Little wonder then that the youths have resorted to blowing up the pipelines to see the projects that are hidden in there.”

NLNG’s Development Model, An Indictment On FG, IOCs
RIGHT from inception, the model of Nigerian Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) company’s engagement with its host community, Bonny, has been a shinning light that abysmally shames the International Oil Companies (IOCs) that have operated for years in the Niger Delta. According to the company’s General Manager, External Relations, Dr. Kudo Eresia-Eke, NLNG will spend N3 billion yearly on Bonny community in the next 25 years for the proposed Bonny Kingdom Development Foundation, noting that, “The idea is to transform Bonny into the ‘Dubai’ of Nigeria.”

For a company that buys gas from the IOCs for its operations to plan to do so much for its host community is a direct indictment both of the Federal Government and the oil companies, which have operated in various communities in the Niger Delta and perpetuated monumental neglect and environmental devastation over the years. What is ironic is that these oil companies – Shell, Agip, NNPC and Mobil – are also shareholders in NLNG, but which failed to lift the various communities they operate from. Rather, they have helped to fuel the rise in militancy in the region by their willful neglect of their host environments.

Will NLNG’s shinning example spur the IOCs to change tack in their evil operational module in the Niger Delta for the better? Will host communities be smart enough, going forward, to demand the Bonny treatment from oil companies operating in their domains? Clearly, the Bonny/NLNG’s model would seem the only way forward for responsible partnerships between oil companies and host communities.

While presenting his lead paper on ‘Social Responsibility: Education, Our Best Legacy; Literature, Our Most Defining,’ Eresia-Eke said, “We believed from the onset that it was in the interest of both our company and our host communities to create and build a relationship based on trust, mutual respect and open communication. We, therefore, set out early to crystallise key stubborn principles to drive our interactions with our hosts. The results were that we minimised reserved privileges to community notables, as was the tradition in much of the (oil) industry then.

“We rather focused on the good of the community as a whole, as you see in our Right of Way Maintenance Contracts awarded only to land-owning families, and not to some community notable. We also made it known that beneficiaries of our programmes and contracts would be selected based on objective and open criteria. We also insisted that there would be no appeasement payment to youths and other community groups. And in the delivery of community projects, we were guided by three cardinals, namely true partnership, stake-holding and sustainability.

“It is this kind of thinking that has guided the conduct of our business and corporate social responsibility activities in our host communities and indeed in the greater Nigerian society. In a capsule, our approach is anchored on five fundamentals. These five fundamentals are ‘being community-based,’ ‘participation as partners,’ ‘stake-holding,’ ‘active and continuous consultation’ and ‘respect for community culture and systems.’

“Using these five fundamentals, we have been able to deliver life-enriching projects in our host  communities.”
Earlier, Director, Institute of Arts and Culture, University of Port Harcourt, and organiser of Gabriel Okara Literary Festival, Prof. Juliana Okoh restated the redemptive mission of the festival in retrieving Okara from the margins of literary discourse.

As she noted in her address, “That is to say his works are still in the shadow of literary discourse in Nigeria. Okara has written in all literary genres, yet not much attention has been given to his work. I may be wrong. If there are publications on his creativity, we would like to have details to enable us upgrade our bibliography on his works. Briefly, I believe his works deserve better attention.”

It was, therefore, Okoh’s hope that there should be the “establishment of Gabriel Okara Foundation that will provide residency for writers from all walks of life (composers, fiction and non-fiction writers, playwrights, poets, video/filmmakers, multi-media and visual artists) seeking time and space for reflection and disciplined work, without disturbance from professional and personal exigencies; organise a yearly lecture series in honour of Gabriel Okara; endowment of Professorial Chairs in the various genres of creative writing in honour of Gabriel Okara; establishment of Creative Writing School named after Gabriel Okara that will create a forum where young writers could learn to write creatively through workshops and short courses; integration of more of Okara’s literary works into WAEC/NECO school syllabus (‘The Piano and Drums’ is already on WAEC syllabus), and awarding of diverse literary prizes in honour of Gabriel Okara.”

A New Roadmap For Gabriel Okara Literary Festival
INDEED, the maiden edition of the Prof. Juliana Okoh-inspired Institute of Arts and Culture Gabriel Okara Literary Festival 2017 was a success. No doubt, it had its challenges, as every first outing of such magnitude would pose. But the organisers also rose to those challenges and surmounted them for a smooth feast. From the keynote address by Ofeimun to the lead paper presenters, Ayakoroma and Eresia-Eke and other presenters and attendees, the festival kept the University of Port Harcourt abuzz for the two days it lasted.

However, for a better and all-inclusive festival befitting Okara, Africa’s oldest man of letters, its scope needs to be expanded to accommodate all stakeholders in the Niger Delta question, which Okara quintessentially embodies at over 96 years.

Firstly, the festival appears overly an academic affair. Given that it was hosted in a university community, that wasn’t surprising. But it effectively shut out non-academic writers from having a field day as well. On day two, attendees were broken into three segments for academic paper presentations. But it needed not have ended there.

The festival didn’t give room for book discussions or for authors of topical issues to take the hot seat and respond to audience’s queries about their writings. The two workshop sessions were general on general discussions on writing, but did show the basics. For instance, three writers – Jowhor Ile (And After Many Days) and Nwilo Bura-Bari (A Tiny Place Called Happiness) have made the city of Port Harcourt settings for their works. Another Port Harcourt poet, Dr. Obari Gomba, who was festival coordinator, has two interesting poetry collections (Thunder Protocol and For Every Homeland). It would have been a boon to have had conversations with these writers and several others in a book chat format.

Also lacking was a panel on salient issues in the Niger Delta, particularly those on environment, development and militancy. Apart from Ayakoroma’s presentation that had Oloibiri film as its anchor, the festival would have been worse for it without examining such topical issues that directly impact on the people’s lives. And just like Eresia-Eke had brought to bear NLNG’s narrative and its sterling development module, other oil companies in the Niger Delta should also be placed on the crucible to explain their organisation’s role in the neglect in the oil-rich region and how they intend to turn a new leaf going forward.

Therefore, it is the expectation that subsequent outings of Gabriel Okara Literary Festival would be far more embracing in content and output. That way, Ofeimun’s prayer that a proper Book City be made out of Port Harcourt after the city’s glorified UNESCO World Book Capital would not only be realised but sustaining. However, with the loud absence of the Nyesom Wike-led Rivers State Government at the maiden Gabriel Okara Literary Festival, it would seem like ‘waiting for godot’ for the city to be anywhere near becoming a Book City in the foreseeable future! Only Bayelsa State Government had its Secretary to the State Government, King Serena Dokubo-Spiff, in attendance and playing a supportive role.