‘Government takeover of schools biggest mistake in Nigeria’
Even when he retired as the chairman of Spectrum Books, in 2008, at the age of 78, he found it difficult to quit his love for publishing, and by 1991, he started Safari Books Limited. He remains active in the operation of the firm.
For a man, who has lived in Nigeria for 54 years, Berkhout had planned to roll out the drums to celebrate his 90th birthday on April 19, and a committee already set up to facilitate it, but COVID-19 pandemic cancelled all that.
Speaking to The Guardian on the telephone, he said, “I understand that the virus targets people above 70 years more and all my friends are over 70. I have cancelled the celebration. Indeed, I have gone on self-isolation now to protect myself and my people.”
The man, who has contributed immensely to the education development of Nigeria, was awarded a national honour, Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON). He is the immediate past Pro-Chancellor and Chairman, Governing Council, Michael and Cecilia Ibru University, Agbarha-Otor, Delta State.
Berkhout, who is also the Okun Borede of Ile Ife, spoke to The Guardian’s MUYIWA ADEYEMI (Head South West Bureau) and ROTIMI AGBOLUAJE, in his Ibadan home, what attracted him to Nigeria in 1966, the problem with Nigeria and also described books on Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu as best sellers in Nigeria, just as he condemned military government take over of schools as the beginning of falling standard of education in Nigeria.
How do you feel being 90 years?
IT’S nothing special. Still, the same, 90 is just a number. I just came from the office. I go to office every day. I am still working.
What are you missing now at old age?
I used to play golf and travel a lot. I used to publish books. Publishing books is a hobby for me. It is the hobby I’m enjoying.
Do you still play games?
No! No! No! I used to play golf. But I don’t do it any more.
You were from Amsterdam and came to Nigeria. What attracted you to the country?
I came to Nigeria from The Gambia. I was working for Oxford University, and my time was over and they wanted to transfer me to Europe. On the same day, they asked whether I was interested in going to Nigeria. The only thing I remembered about Nigeria was that the people were great readers. It was just a new country. I was posted here to start Evans (Publishing firm). Then Evans transferred me again to London. I was there for three months. I came back to Nigeria and started publishing books. Since then I’ve been in Nigeria. You could say it is destiny. It could be any reason. I like to stay in Nigeria because there is never a dull moment. You don’t know what will happen next year. It’s never boring.
You said when you were to be transferred; you had the options of either going back to Europe or coming to Nigeria?
The first transfer was to Nigeria in the morning. Later that day, I got another letter of employment from Evans to Nigeria. So, I had two letters sending me to Nigeria. That was in 1966.
Coming to Nigeria then, what were those unique things that fascinated you?
First of all, Nigeria was about 40 or 45 million people at that time. Nigeria was known specifically in the East, the Igbo would go outside in the evening and be reading under the lamp. They were great readers. I knew there was a market for anyone who is in book business. So, our market was 80 per cent in the East. For every publishing company, though based here Ibadan, East was the big market. Then the war started and the whole thing collapsed. So, we were to look at other alternatives. I concentrated on the West. Also, I went to the North. No publisher was in the North. I toiled a lot in the North, day and night for business, you remember Lacombe? It was interesting; every school had books in Mathematics, Arithmetic, English and all the books then. Not any more. So, we printed 300,000 for middle standard; major standard, 500,000 each for a market that is far smaller than today. No publisher prints those quantities of books any more. All the Igbo used to come to my warehouse on Saturdays. It was a big market. Now that we have a huge population of 200 million people, the book market has reduced.
So, in those days, Nigeria was a goldmine for anybody. Few population and large opportunities. All secondary schools were in the hand of voluntary agencies. There were only a few schools owned by the government. Taking over schools was the biggest mistake made in the country by the military. The problems are still with us today. Before the takeover, every school was independent. Christ School, Ado-Ekiti was famous for a high standard. The All Saints School, the International School, Ibadan; they were all independent everywhere they were. Teachers from all over the world, expatriates were teaching. They knew what was necessary. Moral standard was high. Now, the number of schools has increased but no standard.
What were those natural things you enjoyed in Nigeria in the 60s and 70s?
There were opportunities. It was a country of milk and honey. Anything you wanted to, you do it well and succeeded, because Nigerians were opened to new ideas. Be your own, don’t discriminate. I’m privileged because I do what I love, a lot of people go to work everyday and they are miserable, even in the US. They keep looking at five O’clock to reach home. For me, to be in the book business is a hobby. If your job is not your hobby, my advice is don’t do it; you can’t succeed. But all over the world, it is not everybody that can do what he or she likes most. They sit there in order to get salaries every month to feed their families. The important thing in life is whatever you do, you must enjoy it and be able to make a contribution to wherever you are. Just like what I have been able to do over 54 years.
I remember that in those days you kept the gate opened; you kept the door opened. Nobody would bother you. Fresh milk was brought to the door in the morning from Apata Farm. Everything was here. A very good social life. My children were all educated in Nigeria, All Saints School. Bishop Lambo was a master there. They also went to International School and later went to England for more education. Our population was small. Now, if you go to Lagos, it can take you six hours, two hours, three hours. Of course, everywhere in the world is changing, no doubt, about it. As long as you go along with the change, I don’t have a problem with it. No problem with security.
The other time, you talked about bringing fresh milk from Apata. Were you farming then?
No, I didn’t have a farm. Fresh milk was available in Nigeria. I want to admit that things changed everywhere in the world, but we can do much better. Overpopulation has become a problem. But still, Nigerians are very optimistic people. We don’t live anymore in the country. We live in the world. In those days, there was a controlled population and everything was working. The school was first class and top. Loyola College in Ibadan was top. The principal was Anglican, the Vice-Principal was Catholic. All those problems in education started with the takeover of the schools by the military government. Of course, things have changed; we have private schools now, many private universities. I can still remember top schools like Baptist College, Igbobi College and King’s College, Lagos.
At what moment did you begin to notice things going down in Nigeria?
I remember one of my late colleagues came to my office dancing, saying no problem again, that Nigeria has found oil and we would be rich forever. Today, our oil is our undoing. Less than $30 per barrel, our budget is based on $57 per barrel. We are living in a different world. Computer and technology are expanding, but is standard of living improving? I think it has become complicated because we have overpopulation.
Where did you marry?
I married a Dutch. She died a few years ago. She was here with the children and me. She loved Nigeria, she couldn’t do without Nigeria. The whole world has changed. In Italy, nobody can go out. The whole country is locked down because of Coronavirus. Even the Pope is locked down in a special room, no contact with anybody. The world has become small and complex. We have many Nigerians in China and many Chinese are here. There is a problem.
You were given a chieftaincy title, Okun Borede of Ile-Ife. How did it happen?
I knew Ooni Okunade Sijuade very well. He gave me chieftaincy title in 1992.
Let’s go into the publishing industry. In Nigeria now, are we short of writers or readers?
I think what is very exciting is that the number of Nigerians who are writers has greatly increased and they are very good writers. We had Chinua Achebe. We have young people, the new generation coming up.
The quality of our writing has greatly improved. You don’t need many writers because there are many imported authors in this country with an international audience. The book is not only written for your own country but other nations as well.
The aspiration of younger writers is increasing. More people want to write. Oyinkan Braithwaite was nominated for Booker Prize. Of course, we’ve got other interesting developments. A lot of qualified Nigerians are living overseas. We have many Nigerian doctors in the US, England and all over the world. When you see a black person in a foreign hospital, you can be sure he is a Nigerian. I did operation a few years ago and the person was a lady from the teaching hospital in Ibadan here. Nigerians are found all over the world. All the people you see are in a very serious position abroad.
If we had the quality and an increasing number of writers, what about the readers?
That is a problem because not many people are reading. I don’t know why. Is it a time or they watch television or something too much? To me, what is interesting about us is that if a person doesn’t read, you can know by the way he or she talks. Reading is the power of living, like eating. Reading is for the mind and eating is for your stomach. That is my philosophy. If you hear people talk, you will know that people don’t read. To me, reading is very important.
Will you say books are now expensive and costly out of the reach of many Nigerians?
No, they are busy making money; busy about life. No time to read because of many constraints. Sometimes, how do you read without electricity? In my younger days here in Nigeria, before the electricity corporation switched off the light, they advertised in the newspapers. The same with water supply so that we could fill up our buckets. Now, they don’t tell you anything. I don’t think there is any water from the government. They don’t bring water here anymore but they keep sending the bills. I have a borehole. I just laughed because I never used government water in this house.
I think Nigeria can be much better. Overpopulation is the problem. Where are the teaching colleges? People in schools who are not being trained to teach and they teach. Let me give you an example, we advertised for a post, there was a lady who was Head of Department of English of a school and she did a test and she failed. They can’t even write English. I received a call saying why can’t you employ my wife? He said my wife was Head of Department of English. I said I’m sorry about the school. There are a lot of people who are in jobs they should not be there. It is a big country in size, a big country in population. There is too much poverty and poverty is not good.
In your publishing career, which book is your bestseller?
It is Emeka Ojukwu written by a foreign author, Frederick Forsyth. It is a story about Ojukwu. We sold a lot of copies. Also, Because I’m Involved, written by Ojukwu. It was published when I was in Spectrum. About 500,000 copies sold, when it was published, Ojukwu liked it very much. I got to know Ojukwu when he came back from exile. I was a very good friend of Ojukwu before he passed on. I was his best man at his church wedding, and 10 years later, it was a traditional wedding. He was one of my best friends in Nigeria.
Was it the war that brought you together?
I never knew him during the war. I knew him when he returned from exile through Forsyth. Ojukwu was almost broke when he came back. He demanded £25,000 payment. I went with Cyprian Ekwensi to his house in Nnewi to meet Ojukwu for the first time. He gave the cheque to Ojukwu as advance payment to write the book on him.
Some people do say publishers don’t pay commensurate royalty to the authors. Is this so?
If you have an agreement with an author, you have to pay a royalty. It’s illegal not to pay a royalty. We pay a royalty.
How are you coping with plagiarism and piracy of books?
Plagiarism happens sometimes. Piracy is dead. If your book is pirated, it means it is a good book and it is in the market. Piracy is negative and also it could be positive because the book is in the market. Of course, it’s illegal and criminal. The publishing firm is losing and the author is losing. In those days, piracy was done in India and China. In those days, they printed the Bible in China.
Newspaper industry complains of losing the readership to the online and social media. Is the same thing not happening between e-books and hardcopies?
E-book is controlled and not many people read e-books in Nigeria here.
You have spent about 54 years in Nigeria if you are to proffer solutions to our problems, what are those things you will suggest?
I came on October 31, 1966. General Gowon was in power already. I don’t have the solutions to Nigeria’s problems, they are beyond me. We lack discipline often. We do things we shouldn’t have done. This is a country of milk and honey; I think the oil is good and also negative. When we didn’t have oil, the Western Region was the largest cocoa exporter in the world. Every November, the Dutch and European cocoa producers would come in to buy cocoa. The Western Region lived on cocoa. Kano lived on groundnut. There was cotton. There was palm oil. We should go back to cocoa. Malaysia picked the seeds of palm oil from Nigeria. Now, Malaysia is exporting oil to Nigeria. Today, the price of crude oil has crashed. Our budget is based on $57 per barrel, and the cost now is about $30 per barrel. In the 60s, the country was rich in natural resources. We were cotton exporters. People came from the US, Europe to do business and go to school. We tried to improve. Now, we have a population explosion. We have times five more people. One thing about Nigeria is that there is never a dull moment. You don’t know what happens. There is excitement. Some weeks ago, we were in Kano, come and listen to the beautiful speech by the deposed Emir of Kano. He talked about education; Sanusi is a man of great intellect. He spoke extremely well. Kaduna State Governor, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai made him the Chancellor of a university, what happened thereafter.
When are you going to retire?
Until I’m tired. Age is just a number. I’m lucky that I’m healthy.