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 BPN Newsletter Issue No 31, November 2002 


The Missing Link*

Views on the Nigerian International Book Fair held in Abuja, May 2002

Niyi Osundare
Niyi Osundare is a poet and Professor of English at the University of New Orleans, LA70148, USA. Email:

When Mary Jay of African Books Collective told me last year that an international book fair was to take place in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2002, my reaction was that of surprise and disbelief. In the first place, so long after the last major one at Ile Ife, after so many years of brutal military dictatorship coupled with the resurgence of illiteracy, the idea of an international book fair in Nigeria had begun to sound so strange, even quixotic. The second puzzle was the proposed venue of the fair: Abuja. Abuja and the book have never collocated in the Nigerian mind, for Abuja and culture sound very much like unlike terms.

In the thinking of most people, Abuja is the city of contractors, businessmen and women, federal bureaucrats, and pugilistic, prodigal politicians. It is the city of Julius Berger and gold-digging foreign construction companies. What space is left for culture in a formerly stunningly beautiful landscape now defaced with ill-executed tabernacles and hurriedly assembled assortments of structures, where the brotherhood of rocks gazes helplessly as bulldozers tear through the belly of tender mountains and the steam shovel scoops the innards of green valleys? Abuja looks very much like a city with little rhyme and littler reason. A book fair there would be like a flower show in a desert, I thought.

When I voiced this scepticism to some of the organizers of the fair, all kinds of rationalization assailed my doubt: it had to be Abuja so as to get the fair closer to the seat of the federal government, whose gracious donation had aided its financing: Abuja it must be so as to enlist the participation of the top brass of Nigeria’s political leadership, who would attend in all their majesty and dazzle the guests with the panoply of Nigerian power. The president of Nigeria, the president of Senate, and the speaker of the House of Representatives were all being invited, I was told.

Ah, how the ground would shake under the cavalry of Nigerian power! To as many people as gave me this line, I registered a warning: if you want your function to go well and as planned, don’t invite the Nigerian politician because he/she will almost surely dampen your enthusiasm with his/her absence, or disrupt your programme by coming majestically late. Perhaps the fair planners never thought about this; perhaps they thought that the immensity of an international gathering of this kind would get Nigeria’s political leopards to change their spots.

Well, that never happened. None of the invited powers showed up. None sent any apologies. Only the minister of education sent a representative in the person of Peter Okabukola, executive secretary, National Universities Commission, whose presence brightened up two of the sessions.

So, for a whole week, an international book fair took place in Nigeria’s capital city, but those in the ‘Three Arms Zone’ betrayed not the slightest awareness of that important event. Absolutely in character. To the grabbers of political power in Nigeria, the book is still very much a foreign object, strange, mute, and uncannily hostile.

This pervasive bibliphobia notwithstanding, Nigeria’s first really international book fair in many years did take place in Abuja in mid-May 2002. Never to be overlooked or underestimated is the dogged courage and tenacity of the organizers who made it happen in spite of Nigeria’s daunting infrastructural problems. We saw a fair sense of organization and commitment, a heroic striving to succeed. However, although the fair organizers demonstrated a staunch commitment to the book, alas, they displayed no such virtue towards the writer. If the truth be told, in the book chain of the Abuja fair, the writer was the missing link.

All the foreign (and most of the local) participants I spoke with wondered why there were so few Nigerian writers at the fair. They had come not only to see books but also to have the rare chance of interacting with those who wrote the books, ask them questions, obtain their autographs, exchange ideas and addresses with them. Unfortunately this was not to be. The Abuja fair was unfairly dominated by publishers and booksellers in the fervent belief that the books which formed the centre of their business must have dropped from heaven in effortless circumstances.

This is painfully at variance with the spirit of the book fair in other parts of the world where publishers ensure the presence of their authors (especially old, established figures and new ones making a remarkable debut), take care of their welfare, organize autograph and meet-the-author sessions for them, promote them and their works in all kinds of ways. At such book fairs, the most looked-forward to, most heavily-attended sessions are those in which authors read from their works and take feed-back questions and comments from the audience – a mutually enriching process for both sides.

There are also author-author dialogues for which the audience serves as both listeners and umpires. I remember with delight one such dialogue between Derek Walcott and the late Joseph Brodsky at the 1993 Gothenburg book fair in Sweden. Both Nobel laureates, poets and writers with remarkable reputations (who also happened to be good friends), these unusual public interlocutors talked about themselves and each other, each about his works and the works of the other, other writers, spicing it all up with crisp humour and literary panache. Two poets, two friends, but also two different personalities: one belletrist, voluble, somewhat aristocratic in his literary idiolect, the other elliptical and somewhat self-effacing. The audience lost no chance in picking up the fallouts from this intriguing battle between friends. Needless to say, the event went beyond the venue.

Why couldn’t the organizers of the Abuja book fair think about such author-centred events? Why did the publishers come with a retinue of salesmen and women but not a single author? The answer is as Nigerian as the ‘Nigerian Factor’ itself. Author-sourcing, author-cultivation, author-promotion, and author-welfare have never had a place in the priority list of most Nigerian publishers, many of whom think they have done the author a lofty favour by publishing his/her work.

As a matter of fact, the majority of Nigerian publishers are in gross violation of the salient aspects of author-publisher relations: they never tell the author how many copies of his/her works they have printed, how many they have sold, and what royalties are due, or when they will be paid. Strange but true: there are publishers in Nigeria who have not issued royalty statements nor paid their authors one kobo for ten years, though their books have been consistently on sale! If this is not criminal, I do not know what else is. The recently published The African Writers’ Handbook grappled comprehensively with these issues, but even many of the Nigerian publishers who participated in the making of that historic document have flouted every letter of it.

No hyperbole intended, but there is every reason to believe that many Nigerian publishers enjoy seeing their authors in rags.

Without a doubt, our publishers have been acting in tune with the spirit of their age. For, frankly speaking, this is still Nigeria’s age of resurgent illiteracy. We live in a country which slams taxes on books and book-related materials, a country that puts every conceivable obstacle in the way of literary creativity, and yet has the immoral effrontery of extorting hefty ‘withholding taxes’ from authors’ royalties (in the unlikely event they are paid!). Surely, a country that can put the National Theatre up for sale in the name of some fuzzily defined ‘privatization’ can hardly lay any credible claim to genuine culture. How many of our rulers read one good book in a year, two years, five years, and ten years? How many of them are literate and knowledgeable enough to personally write the speeches they try to impress us with on every important (or unimportant) occasion? What do they know about culture, genuine culture, not atavistic recrudescences of raffia-clad dancers titillating ogling guests at state banquets? What do they know about the book beyond those ghosted hagiographies which haul in millions of naira at public launches, then vanish into dusty oblivion soon after?

Nigeria has never cared about creativity and the creative person. Consider the billions being squandered on the mindlessly sited Abuja stadium, and ask how many theatres are being built in this unreal city, how many museums, how many studies, how many libraries? Consider the billions spent on soccer jamborees, and ask how much is being spent on the overhaul of crumbling sporting facilities in our educational institutions all over the country?

When Darego Agbani (this is without prejudice to her well-deserved recognition) came back to us as ‘Miss World’, the National Assembly stood to attention; she was a distinguished guest at the State House where top political rulers jumped over one another to shake her hand. Then ask: when Helon Habila recently came home with the Caine Prize, how many of our rulers spared one moment for that achievement? And yet this is the country of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and other literary ambassadors whose works and reputations have gone a long way in repairing the damage done to Nigeria’s international image by criminal dictators and politicians, 419 scam experts, and drug pushers?

No, Nigeria is not yet a country for the creative person. Nor is it a country that is in a hurry to encourage creativity and benefit from its virtues. We are too busy consuming the products of the creative efforts of other peoples in our proverbial role as ‘importers, forwarders and manufacturers’ representatives’. Afflicted with a chronic tokunbo pathology, we are too content with squandering our resources on the second-hand, fifth-hand products straight from Europe’s technological scrap yard. Those who call Nigeria an ‘independent country’ have invented the most audacious oxymoron of the 21st century.

And so, for the better part of one week, we were camped in the Berger-built, Babangida-commissioned international conference centre (a futuristic leviathan with its failing power supply and erratic air-conditioning). But there were silver linings in the cloud.

Abosede Emanuel’s tremendous book, Odun Ifa, and its publisher received the prestigious Noma Award; Heinemann UK marked 40 years of the African Writers Series with Okey Ndibe reading from his new novel; there were wonderful reminiscences by Aig Higo, Cyprian Ekwensi, and Henry Chakava. And every day of the fair, students trooped in from Abuja high schools for writing workshops and other intellectual activities.

I directed five sessions of this workshop, and was struck by the enthusiasm, intelligence, and imaginative faculty of many of the participants. The Book Fair Trust, Wale Okediran, workshop co-ordinator and rallying force, and others in the children’s programme committee deserve our gratitude for this initiative, which was for me the most meaningful engagement at the Abuja book fair. By their promise and abundant talent, those young workshop participants left me with the sanguine impression that in the book fair of the future the writer will not be the missing link.

*Reprinted with permission from Newswatch, Lagos, 29 July 2002 [end] [BPN, no 31, 2002, p. 6.]

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