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Stakeholders’ take as frenetic season of book festivals ends

By Anote Ajeluorou (Assistant Arts Editor)
26 November 2017   |   4:30 am
Wikidepia's description of a literary festival, also known as a book festival or writers’ festival, comes handy in delineating the place of a gathering for conversation...

A cross section of panelists and audience of Narratives of Distrust at Lagos Books and Arts festival 2017… in Lagos

Wikidepia’s description of a literary festival, also known as a book festival or writers’ festival, comes handy in delineating the place of a gathering for conversation in any society serious about growing its book and development culture. “A regular gathering of writers and readers, typically on an annual basis in a particular city. A literary festival usually features a variety of presentations and readings by authors, as well as other events, delivered over a period of several days, with the primary objectives of promoting the authors’ books and fostering a love of literature and writing.”

In Nigeria, perhaps Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF), organised by the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), which recently ended its 19th edition, has unarguably demonstrated unparalleled longevity. However, the other book gathering that has had the longest lifespan is the yearly Association of Nigerian Authors’ (ANA) Convention. It held its 36th edition last October. Nevertheless, while ANA is more a gathering of book comrades, of like-minded writers, with a few speakers and which sometimes culminates in an election of officers to its leadership cadre, LABAF offers a totally different book experience.

With LABAF, the book, or what organises describe as ‘text,’ takes precedence over the writers or authors, as the case may be. So at LABAF, textual examination takes centre-stage, with readers of all shades, including the audience and non-literary types, being invited to interrogate the ideas espoused in the text for clarity, especially in the light of global events as they affect society. Called ‘Africa’s Largest Cultural Picnic’ by the organisers, LABAF’s themes are always conscious of its conception of harnessing the book for society’s development in much the same way the country’s leadership has long jettisoned the book for other less ennobling values.

For instance, last year, the theme was ‘The Terror of Knowledge’ in response to the pervasive threat of terror groups around the world, with the spectre of Boko Haram threatening parts of the country. This year’s theme is closely related to the previous one, ‘Eruptions: Global Fractures and our Common Humanity’ and is dedicated to the erudite stylistician and poet of the marketplace fame, Prof. Niyi Osundare.

Although ANA might need to diversify its yearly convention programming to make it the book feast of choice, its continuing relevance stems from its rotational policy in terms of hosting. While other book festivals, like LABAF, are held in one fix place in one city, ANA takes its convention on rotational basis to different state capitals of the country. This rotational principle brings the festival to writers and booklovers, who otherwise cannot afford to travel outside their domain for a large gathering of writers boosts at their doorsteps. The major drawback of this system is that some states have had to give up their hosting rights on account of lack of sponsorship, usually hinged on the generosity of state governments, which comes in fits and starts.

ANA’s staying power in consistently holding its convention since 1981, when the late Prof. Chinua Achebe established the association, is somewhat instructive to other organisers of festivals and anyone hoping to organise one in future. The association’s large following and its financial membership is key, together with the drive of its leadership to ensure the convention is held at personal financial sacrifices.

However, in spite of these financial difficulties, many individuals and organisations have continued to hold festivals. While some have died out outright, especially those with state government’s backing, others are coming strong on the scene to keep a robust diet of book feast going. Principally, two state-owned book festivals died in the last two years because their benefactors and state chief executives left office after completing their tenures as governors.

First was the widely acclaimed Garden City Literary Festival (GCLF), later renamed Port Harcourt Book Festival (PHBF), sponsored by the then Rivers State governor, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi. For seven years, the festival gave the city a cultural hype and literary tourism became synonymous with the city. Organised by Mrs. Koko Kalango-led Rainbow Book Club, PHBF would, later in 2014, bring greater book honour to sub-Sahara Africa, when the city won the right to host UNESCO World Book Capital. Alexandra, Egypt, was the other African city to be so honoured. It was at its opening that the now famous Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) took root when, alongside Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili gave voice to the abduction of over 250 Chibok schoolgirls that stunned the world.

So for seven years, PHBF gave Port Harcourt the face of a book city, as writers and readers alike from far and near thronged it to experience the book and writers. But since Amaechi left office May 2015, the festival suffered the usual lack of continuity associated with change of guards in Nigeria’s governance structure. The current administration of Mr. Nyesom Wike is averse to its continuity even as he has not initiated any cultural programme in whatever guise as replacement.

And so Port Harcourt continues to remain a famished city book, festival-wise, a development that saddens university don, Dr. Obari Gomba, who lamented, “It’s a shame this feast didn’t hold and this is coming from the part of the government. Apart from infrastructural development, the book festival is the most progressive thing that has happened to this city, more than the carnival jamboree. It’s a shame; we must ask organisers why they couldn’t hold it just after one year after the patronising government left.

“In the years of abundance, they didn’t see the years of scarcity ahead. Holding programmes on the patronage of government is usually on a slippery ground; they should have looked at Lagos Book and Arts Festival (LABAF) that holds without government support. They should understand that flamboyance is not the same as content; there are simple ways of doing things without the flamboyance.”

Another Port Harcourt city poet and critic, Mr. Uzo Nwamara laments the festival’s absence thus, “Port Harcourt has been known for this festival. The world looks forward to coming to Port Harcourt. It’s a big blow for our reputation. It’s an experience people are now used to. We know that it’s just politics. My worry is that, will this administration buy into it? What is going on is politics; you don’t continue what your predecessor started. There’s a strained relationship between Amaechi and Wike.

“The truth is for government to look at its implications in the world of literature and culture. It was this festival that brought us UNESCO Port Harcourt World Book Capital. Whatever the issues, government shouldn’t allow it to die. Continuing it would portray Wike as a friendly governor to the arts.”

Poet, photographer and cultural expert, Mr. Lindsay Barrett, who was a regular feature at the festival, said discontinuing the festival would be a disservice to the cultural soul of the state, adding, “It will be a very unfortunate decision if government doesn’t continue the festival. It’s a good tradition that should be continued.”

No matter how strong these sentiments are, coming from these literary stars and stakeholders as they do, Mr. Wike appears unmoved. Unlike Lagos State that had a series of symposia around certain historical books that focus on the city in the run-up to its 50th anniversary, Rivers State Government appears not to have a place or respect for the book beyond a theatre performance for its 50th celebration in May. For lovers and promoters of book festivals, Port Harcourt appears a lost cause although there are indications that Rainbow Book Club has plans to start something, although details are yet sketchy.

The other state that made efforts to promote the book and writing was Niger State under its past governor, Dr. Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu, who initiated the Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu Colloquium or MBA Colloquium. He also established Niger State Book and Other Intellectual Resources Development Agency, with Mr. Baba Muhammad Dzukogi as Director. Although the agency still has the backing of legislative Act, since Babangida’s exit, the colloquium has not held again nor the other lofty activities of the agency.

While still basking in the euphoria of the legal backing the agency has in continuing the colloquium and other literary engagements, its former director, also a former secretary of ANA, enthused, “The coming of the law has taken care of such fears (that Aliyu exiting office might affect book programming in the state). We are now living legitimately and legally. Meaning, it is no longer about the governor nor is it about any other stakeholder but about Nigerian artists living in Niger State. It is about Niger State. Good leaders do things that will live forever. This is one. I wish all states in Nigeria could do something like this.

“Meanwhile, on the schedule of the functions of the Agency is an item that says we shall organise an annual international literary colloquium. The law is the saviour in the matter. In fact, many more activities have been added, things like establishing a publishing house to publish young writers, including primary and secondary students. We are now a legal entity recognised by the state and government and her people. Isn’t this glorious?”

Well, not exactly so glorious anymore since the current administration of Mr. Abubakar Sanni Bello has yet to release funds both for the agency and a new literary project that replaces MBA Colloquium. According Dzukogu, “The Niger State Book and Other Intellectual Resource Development Agency is still in operation. The government of Abubakar Sani Bello has retained it. Activities have come to a standstill there due to non-release of budgeted funds. So, it is only serving as a rest house for writers in the state and where ANA meets weekly. The MBA International Literary Colloquium, which is now Niger State International Literary Colloquium, has not been held since 2015. It is also about lack of funds.”

Another important book festival that has been quietly making its yearly appearances and keeping the book promise alive across the River Niger has been the Coal City Book Convention, Enugu, Enugu State. Organised by Dillibe Onyeama-led Delta Publications Ltd, it also recently held its ninth convention. Coal City Book Convention had women-oriented theme this year, to draw attention to issues around the female sex, according to organisers.

An important component of the convention is that Mr. Onyeama honours writers and educationists east of the Niger, who have distinguished themselves in the course of their careers. Last year, Prof. Anezi Okoro, the almost forgotten scientist and writer for teen readers, famous for One Week, One Trouble; The Village Headmaster; The Village School; Double Trouble, and Flying Tortoise was honoured at the convention. The event drew a well of emotions.

The theme for this year’s convention was ‘Women Empowerment: The Richness of the Female Character in Storytelling.’ The focus, according to Onyeama, “is predicated on the fact that most of the past celebrants of ‘The Olaudah Equiano Life-Award’ (recognition for accomplished literary and educational personalities) have been males, the keynote address male-centred, and the feature write-ups in magazine Pen Pushers have focused on male characters and the affairs of men. This year, two women will be celebrated and focus will be on female creative artists.

Dr. Dorothy Schmidt Obi, 84, was conferred with the DAME of our award. She is the U.S. wife of late Chief Fidelis Obi, a revered Enugu-based retired librarian and a representative of American Library of Congress. The second one is Dr. (Mrs.) Veronica Mogboh, a retired civil service administrator, philanthropist and wife of celebrated legal luminary, Chief Anthony Mogboh.”

Another important aspect of Delta Publications’ intervention in the book scene is ‘The Gimba Book Legacy’ in honour of the best-known novelist from the north, Abubakar Gimba, who died a few years ago. It will hold in Abuja in December, according to Onyeama.

Ake Book and Arts Festival also just ended its fourth edition last week. The festival gained the reputation of being an international festival from inception. Organised by Lola Shoneyin-led Book Buzz Foundation (BBF), the festival takes its name from a section of the famous ancient city of Abeokuta, inhabited by a monarch, Alake of Egbaland. Ake’s special appeal is its fine mix of local and international writers, who enrich the varied programming that ranges from booklogues, book chats, panel discussions, a film show, from musical and poetry performances to stage performance and fine art exhibition.

The one-week long festival animates the city of Abeokuta as writers and booklovers look forward to it in the country’s haphazard cultural calendar. It is also a stop for the famous Yoruba adire cloth market for visitors.

Also, a new poetry feast joined the festival log two years ago. Organised by Efe Paul Azino, Lagos International Poetry Festival (LIPF) is poetry-focused and assemble some of Africa’s finest poets from within and outside the continent and elsewhere in a three-day feast of performances, master classes and panel discussions. It is a festival still finding its feet. Given the right sponsorship, LIPF will help to harness and throw up the amazing energy of young poets, especially in the vogue genre of spoken word performance poetry.

Theatre is not left out of the festival fray, as theatre has found a potent outlet for its multi-layered performances in a yearly festival inspired by the British Council, Lagos, three years ago. It effectively took the place of Festival of Nigerian Arts (FESTINA) that was dedicated solely to theatre. With the duo of Kenneth and Brenda Uphopho as director and producer respectively, Lagos Theatre Festival is the second festival in existence dedicated to theatre after the Patrick Otteh-led 10 years old Jos Repertoire Theatre Festival also held yearly in Plateau State. Jos and Lagos are the lucky recipients of these extravagant theatre festivals. Master classes, panel discussions, and performances pepper these festivals to make them veritable outlets for stage.

One of the aims of Lagos Theatre Festival is to motivate young playwrights to step into the scene and continue the socio-political and cultural narrative through the instrumentality of theatre.

The latest addition to Nigeria’s book festival heritage is the Gabriel Okara Literary Festival, which held its maiden edition last April at the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Held in honour of Africa’s oldest poet, pa Gabriel Okara, Gabriel Okara Literary Festival had too much of an academic outlook to it, with lecturers presenting papers as though it was a seminar or conference. Organisers would do well to recast its outlook so it becomes a true literary festival where books and writers are discussed rather than academic papers being presented to secure promotion.

However, one inescapable question is in the area of measurement and evaluation of the results of these festivals. Specifically, who have book festivals helped? Do book feasts do what they claim to do – deepen book-reading culture, assist writers and writing and educate the public? Can Nigerian book festivals be said to have done any of these?

Also, for Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo, “It is almost impossible, it would seem, to say in what precise way book festivals help readers and writ​ers. That is like asking how a market helps buyers and sellers or the use of fairs, other perhaps than a fun fair! In 1996, I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair for the first time — I would do so again in 1998 — justly reputed to be the greatest gathering known to the world of books and people in the book business. Both times, I was struck by the unforgettable lament on placards outside the venue: “So many books but so little time!” I guess what I mean to say is that a precise answer would come from personal testimonies. But that lament may be heard from all who have to keep a hundred balls in the air trying to eke out a living in a​n​ increasingly difficult world, leaving little or no time for leisure.

“Still, the fact that book festivals are events where books, and so authors, take the centrestage, means that they are of an unquantifiable benefit to all human societies, the culture and knowledge industry, and to human civilisation in general. For sure, a lot of books get sold. Then there are all the readings, discussions, interviews, meetings with publishers and magazine editors (together with all the possibilities they offer). I think that in general, book festivals are quite useful for the simple reason that they help focus attention on books and writers, and so intellectual labour, the producers and the mode of production of knowledge in our society — which, in a world where knowledge is paradoxically more easily attainable while also devaluing intellectual rigour and erudition, is no small thing!”

Minna, Niger State-based Founder, Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation, Mr. BM Dzukogi, is affirmative in the efficacy of book festivals in successfully midwifing a book culture.

According to him, “Book festivals have helped young writers and teen authors to further their literary art skills and access to books. At the Hill-Top Arts Centre, it is part of our strategy to take teen authors to such events as a form of mentoring. Book festivals are part of the sustaining factors of the book development tradition in Nigeria. It also brings awareness to book and documentation in the community. It has helped our mentees, tremendously.

“Such festivals are firing up book development in Northern Nigeria. In fact, we are deliberate about it in the north. I mean, a few of us have long planned to initiate more of the festivals in the North to ensure that Nigerian writers come here frequently. This year, we inaugurated the Nigerian Festival of Teen Authors (NIFESTEENA) in Minna, as part of our efforts to achieve the elements you have mentioned. We need more of book festivals in Nigeria.

“The MBA International Literary Colloquium brought to Niger State great literary icons like Odia Ofeimun, Wole Soyinka, Pius Adesanmi, Ayindiho, Atukei Okai, Charles Nnolim, Zaynab Alkali, Karen King-Aribisala, Tanimu Abubakar and hundreds of more writers. I am not even mentioning the new vibrant ones. You cannot say this has not impacted on our young writers or our society. Books were floating in from across the country. The greatest achievement we got from the colloquium was the establishment of the Niger State Book Development Agency. It is the first and the only of its kind in Nigeria. The influx of writers to Minna also afforded our teen authors the opportunity to meet them at our Art Centre. What more development activity could have been more than this in mentoring teen authors?”

Also, Secretary of CORA, Mr. Toyin Akinosho, lent his voice, when he said, “I like the fact that book festivals are growing in number across the country. It can only be a good thing if such a worthy intellectual practice spreads nationwide in the face of all the unwholesome things happening everywhere. A speck of light is always an assuring presence in the face of darkness.

“Your question is valid. Has the growing number of book fests translated to a surge in book reading? There’s the Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF), there’s Ake Festival, and there was Port Harcourt Book Festival. There is Anambra Book and Cultural Festival and most recently, the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival has joined. I wish I had a straightforward answer. The easiest response that comes to me is that book festivals beget book festivals. The Lagos Book and Art Festival which, at 18 years, is the oldest of all the extant book fests, helped to motivate the Port Harcourt Book Festival, which was the second oldest before it rested, and so on.”

Akinosho is not emphatic what the outcome has been, adding, “It is a little difficult to determine if these festivals, in spite of the growth, have deepened book reading. We have not done the research to find out. Plus, book festivals were conceived, in the West, as places for literary types to converge. So the predominant audience will be writers and literary scholars and critics and their fellow intellectual travellers.

“But at LABAF, we have always strived to be much more than an assembly of bookaholics. We have often said we don’t want to just preach to the converted. That’s why we have a robust kiddies programme, which is now in its 12th year, run by the Children and The Environment (CATE) foundation, and the target is to improve the reading habit among young Nigerians aged between 12 and 18.
The growth in the population of kids registering in that programme suggests to us that we may be into something. We have always targeted 5,000 kids to be part of the series of workshops that are largely about the ‘Joy of Reading.’ We were able to reach the 1,000 mark last year and we can only grow.

“We plan to go farther upstream this year and take the programme from source. In the main programme, we deliberately encourage outsiders (non writers; that is, engineers, accountants, regular folks, who do not profess to be artsy- fartsy) to read the books of the festival and sit in panels to discuss them. Jahman Anikulapo, who is the Programme Chairman of CORA, likes to emphasise that at LABAF, the Book and not the Writer, is the King. We have insisted that we are more about literacy than literary.

“I believe that organisers of book festivals in general, tend to tilt towards book development and literacy. Note that Lola Shoneyin, novelist and poet, who is the founder and kick-starter of the Ake Festival, promoted a mobile library for primary school children in the deep north of Nigeria. She is also the instigator of the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival. It was (Port Harcourt Book Festival founder) Koko Kalango’s effort, majorly, that won Nigeria the honour of getting Port Harcourt to be World Book Capital City three years ago. But we need to consciously evaluate the impact that we have made; that’s what your question is asking…”

A professor of English at Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo, Ebonyi State, Akachi Ezeigbo, also joined in articulating the place of festivals in a nation’s knowledge quest. As she put it, “Book festivals are beneficial to writers, publishers, students and lovers of books. Writers gain a lot from book festivals. Their books are given publicity and reach a wider audience, especially when the book festivals are organised in a large scale and when they happen outside the writer’s country. The writer becomes known to readers outside her location. I recall that was exactly what happened to me when, in 2002, I was invited to The Time of the Writer Festival, a very well-organised book festival in Durban, South Africa. Writers are often financially empowered too at book festivals, for they are given cash rewards, etc, when they are invited to speak or read at book festivals.

“Publishers gain too by selling their books and expanding their markets. Students are not left out, as they acquire knowledge about creative writing, and other related knowledge through the workshops and other activities, which are regular features of book festivals.

“I believe book festival do what they claim to do. From my response to the first question, the veracity of this claim is obvious. For example, when young people, especially students, attend book festivals, they become conscious of the power of books, of literature, in a way that is more profound than when they read in class or visit bookshops. They are able to interact with writers and they develop interest in some of the works of the writers that speak to them or anchor creative writing workshops. Their love of reading grows and they read more books; some of them could even develop interest in writing and may become successful writers in future. I recall attending the famous Edinburgh International Book Fair in Scotland in 2007. It was a great experience; I met many writers from different parts of the world and listened to them talk and read from their works. I was educated. The public definitely can be educated about books, about the countries the writers come from and about the happenings in those countries, when they attend book festivals.

“I would like more book festivals to be organised in different parts of Nigeria so that our people, wherever they reside, can gain more knowledge, buy books for their families, get to know their writers. And so that our writers can have their books read and make money from the writing profession.”

Award-winning poet, Tade Ipadeola, also made interesting intervention, when he said, “Book festivals help publishers and keen readers. They help a few writers too. There seems to be a gap between what most book festivals aspire to and what they actually deliver. Great book festivals work on reducing that gap as much as is humanly possible.
Thank you for this important question. A number of things can be done, in the time being and long term.

“There has to be a calendar of book festivals around the country, which readers and other stakeholders can key into. I believe the Lagos Book and Arts Festival is leading the way in this regard. The broad agenda is published a year in advance and readers know what to look forward to. The NLNG/CORA Book Party is a fixture on the calendar, for example, but by its nature, it’s a magic barrel kind of event and that has its appeal.

“Also, the design of book festivals has to be more immersive. Most book festivals tend to be about the organizers rather than about the readers and this doesn’t advance the book calendar in any significant way. Let’s imagine there is a new book of musical scores. In which book festivals held in Nigeria in the last 10 years could a reader sit down by an electronic keyboard with earplugs to play a few bars for herself? The answer is none. Are there corners cordoned off with quiet desks and chairs to read books purchased? Again, none! So, more can be done through design.

“A last point I want to mention here has to do with the larger culture of book reviews. There was a time in the 1980s and 1990s, when solid book reviews used to be part of the newspaper experience in Nigeria, but it didn’t last. NEXT newspapers revived the culture briefly, but it didn’t last either. Now independent online platforms have taken it up, but it’s clear that some atrophy has occurred in the newspaper culture. A book festival should be a moveable feast, with the weekly highlights in newspapers and then a denouement at the book festival.”

In what he headlined ‘The Essence of Book Festivals: The Coal City Book Convention’ example, Mr. Onyeama observed as follows, “The woes of the Nigerian book industry, triggered initially by the collapse of the middle-class and the subsequent brain-drain crisis of the early 1980s, have multiplied inexorably over the years by a worsening economy that has witnessed the collapse of our currency, the Naira.

“Ostensibly, the only real saving grace for the book industry is mandatory text-books, which attract cut-throat ‘rugby-scrums’ for patronage, with book pirates cutting deeply into profits.

“The romantic days of ‘books for leisure’ have become almost sidelined by the web, social network and the computer phenomenon. As a result, books nowadays gather more dust in bookshops than sales, and the negligible quantities sold often translate into bad debts for publishers. Book launchings see more empty seats than Naira notes. Libraries have become increasingly cash-trapped and dilapidated in a society with no maintenance culture.

“Most of the leading indigenous publishers of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80’ and ‘90s have closed shop, leaving millions of copies of dust-covered books that nobody has time to read. As loudly proclaimed by ‘the fast lane’, which has now attracted all fields of human endeavour, ours is no longer a verbally-oriented society.

“The few remaining die-hard publishers, who refuse to recite a poetic ‘Requiem for the Book’ have only creative flair with which to keep their heads above water. The decisive answer has been to bypass the bookshops, bypass the libraries, bypass the schools, and go directly to the people through book festivals and seek to woo their patronage with creative excellence. The rich variety of entertainment that should be on offer as incentive will, hopefully, impress, inspire and encourage the 500-odd guests to dip their hands into their pockets, as they inspect the book stand after an unforgettable plunge into the depths of wit, humour, music, and classical recitals from beautiful literature – all reflecting the niceties of story-telling. That strategy should, hopefully, attract handsome returns for the publisher and promote the cause of literature. Like every endeavour of private enterprise, it all amounts to a gamble.

“It requires painstaking and imaginative organisation, such as would be expected of a seasoned stakeholder in the creative discipline, to serve the guests with a literary feast that effectively kills sundry birds with one stone – deepen the book-reading and writing culture, and educate the public (not to say, entertain them as well). Writers, on their part, must make their own invaluable contribution by ensuring that they pen stories that are aesthetic and outstanding. It is a joint responsibility between the publisher and the author.”

A statement from Port Harcourt-based Rainbow Book Club, organisers of Port Harcourt Book Festival and Project Managers of UNESCO World Book Capital City 2014, noted, “Speaking from our experience of organising book festivals for almost a decade, the benefits are both tangible and intangible. How do you quantify attitudinal change, for instance? An appreciable number of youth in the Niger Delta, from where we work, have found a channel through which to express their talent, dissipate energy and creatively engage with like minds. There is also change in value system. When a society gives attention to the arts, it is developing the mind and this is invaluable. We have been able to use books to promote and communicate values that will build people as individuals and develop society at large. When we began the festival, militancy was at a high in Port Harcourt but over time, the city has grown to become synonymous with book-related activity to the point that we were the UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 and this has had a positive effect on perception of the city. So today, Port Harcourt is on the world map, not just as an oil city but a book city, as well. How do we quantify this?

“Then, of course, there is intellectual tourism. There are a band of literary enthusiasts, who plan to attend book festivals annually and Port Harcourt remains a necessary stop for them. There are also foreign visitors, who have come to the city just to attend the festival. In 2009, for instance, an American university student specialising in African literature, came all the way from California to meet Ngugu wa Thiong’o (our keynote speaker). An Ethiopian author accompanied Prof. Wole Soyinka to Port Harcourt in 2014 because of the World Book Capital ceremonies. At the book festival in 2014 we had 22 of the Africa 39 writers from about 10 countries in attendance.

‘Africa 39’ is a project we worked on in collaboration with the U.K.-based Hay Festival, which comprised of the selection and celebration of 39 writers under the age of 40 from Africa.

“At our festivals, we have also hosted world figures like Emeka Anyaoku, Jesse Jackson and had keynote speakers like Chinua Achebe. So the book festival has helped establish Port Harcourt as a destination of choice for those who appreciate literary arts.

“Our festivals are a melting point for players in the book chain industry. It provides them a forum for interaction, networking and business. When we began in 2008, the festival was a 3-day affair but we grew it gradually to a week-long one, expanding to meet the needs of the participants. Our book fair offers booksellers a platform to market their products and the proceeds of their sales accrue to participants in the industry (writers, editors, proof readers, illustrators, book designers, marketers, readers, etc.). At our book readings, authors get to discuss their books before readers and answer questions from them. Our book presentations help to promote writers, by bringing readers and writers together; this enables deeper appreciation for the book and enhances sales.

“The workshops for aspiring writers, facilitated by established writers, are a platform for mentoring and skills enhancement. Our spoken word sessions have given an opportunity for writers to read their works and get life feedback while entertaining their audience. The drama presentations afford theatre artists and theatre lovers room for expression. The children’s session, which consist of drama, arts and writing exercises, engage the children in creative endeavours. Many participants have gone ahead to become published writers.

“At our various discussion fora, readers and writers exchange ideas and share thoughts with a view to proffering solutions to social challenges. An example is the tariff on importation of books that was introduced by the Goodluck Jonathan administration. At the opening ceremony week of the World Book Capital 2014 year, major players in the book chain spoke out against the tariff. Soyinka added his voice to this cause; eventually the tariff was dropped. The rippling effect of the stoppage of this tax may not be quantifiable. Again, it was at the Port Harcourt World Book Capital main opening ceremony, on April 23, 2014, that the case of the Chibok Girls was brought to prominence by Soyinka in his keynote address, and the Bring Back Our Girls campaign was literarily kicked off by Dr. Oby Ezekwesili on that occasion, where she made a public call for those present to stand and demand for the release of the girls.”

On whether book festivals deepen book reading and writing culture and educate the public, it stated, “Until the emergence of book festivals, reading and writing was not a culture that was deeply celebrated in Nigeria. But these literary events are changing the narrative. From our works over the years, from the feedbacks we’ve gotten as the project managers of the Port Harcourt World Book Capital programme, we are experiencing a rise in the interest in books among Nigerians, her youths in particular. More corporate bodies are also taking up book-related causes as their Corporate Social Responsibility and many more people are paying attention to book. The exposure to the literary world, the provision of an environment, where readers can meet their favourite authors and other booklovers has contributed immensely to deepening their interest in reading and subsequently education. Book festivals create an atmosphere for booklovers to flourish while making books attractive to those who may otherwise not have been interested.

“From our experience at the Port Harcourt Book Festival, we can say that the literati and indeed the general public have come to appreciate this outing and to look forward to and prepare yearly for it. Book festivals compliment education efforts, while providing an alternative form of entertainment and relaxation.

“In conclusion, we would like to say that Nigeria needs more book festivals.”

To situate the centrality of book festivals in promoting reading culture and enlightenment for the public, Rainbow Book Club provided some feedback from some of its participants, who enthused about the festival thus: “The Garden City Literary Festival (GCLF) is truly unique… Conversations with participants are peppered with poetry, story ideas and potential book deals. I even had a 10-year old give me a copy of his short novel! I defy anyone who attends not to be inspired by the festival’s potent creative energy!” so said a former CNN Correspondent, workshop facilitator and moderator at the 2011 festival edition, Femi Oke.

“GCLF is a gathering of a different kind, not only because of its location, Port Harcourt in Nigeria, but also because of its objectives – to promote in a city which is more known for its oil production and its tragedies than for its artistic manifestations. This kind of positive initiative to reverse the trend should be replicated on the continent. It offers writers and artists an opportunity to meet a local public eager to listen and exchange ideas… It is fitting that Port Harcourt was recently declared UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 in recognition for the work done. May the festival grow from strength to strength!” so submitted keynote speaker, GCLF 2012, Veronique Tadjo.

“…The now six-year tradition of hosting the Port Harcourt Book Festival (PHBF) is differentiating your city in the eyes of the young, restless and creative. It will be a matter of time that as the political economy, issues of governance settle and Port Harcourt becomes yet again a stable environment, many will move to a city that incentives their creativity, allowing them to be globally competitive,” argued keynote speaker at the opening ceremony and symposium, PHBF 2013, and former education minister, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili

“Every year, I must confess, and as many of you here present would agree, more value is added by the organisers, to the extent that well–informed members of the literati and the general public look forward to the next edition. Indeed, the number of eminent persons present today, and others we expect before the end of the programme is not less impressive than that of last year, an indicator of the increasing interest, which this event is generating both within and beyond the confines of Rivers State,” stated keynote speaker at a symposium, PHBF 2013, Prof. Chinyere Nwahunanya.

“The books were exciting and inspiring. I felt enthusiastic and reconnected to the love of reading…. I severally shared this renewed experience with the students. We recognised that open dialogue was more intellectually gratifying. It improved our performance in vocabulary and spellings. The students also learnt how to be careful with their books. We appreciate Rainbow Book Club for their efforts,” confessed a teacher, ISTAN Comprehensive Primary School, 2014, Loveth Ezikel Ijeoma.

“I greatly appreciate the organisers of this festival. Enlightenment is one of the biggest things we need in Africa currently. It’s all about our mind set. Thanks to Rainbow Book Club. God Bless you all, so enthused a participant at a blogging workshop in PHBF 2014.

Book fairs, which have also become part of the book heritage in Nigeria, still play their fair share of promoting books generally. It is largely a book market, a meeting point for book dealers, buyers and publishers. However, some literary activities take place, especially at the Nigerian International Book Fair, usually held in collaboration with ANA. Prominent in this regard are the Nigerian International Book Fair (NIBF), organied by the Nigerian Book Fair Trust (NBFT), a collective of publishers, printers, booksellers and writers. It is usually held in Lagos in May. Enugu also plays host to an arm of the book fair.

No doubt, the book festival heritage is virile in the country. What is lacks is appropriate financial support from governments and corporate Nigeria, which continue to treat books as with levity. This is against the backdrop of recognition that the book is the bedrock of modern civilization. With a poorly managed and funded educational system, book festivals attempt to bridge the gap left wide open by official lapses. This is one reason why book festivals always attract a large turn out of audiences eager for the book latest offering.